Give Gravel a GO
Gravel riding is one of the fastest-growing styles of cycling, and for good reason: less traffic, more scenery, a change from the norm and it’s SUPER FUN! Here are tips for riding your road bike on dirt and gravel provided by Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach and 2x Dirty Kanza 200 Finisher.
Tip #1: RELAX
When you are tense you can’t absorb the bumps and vibrations from a rougher surface. You want to use your elbows and knees and back to soak up those vibrations rather than fight them. This will make riding the gravel a lot more comfortable and help you maintain both traction and steering. If there’s a gravel bike path or dirt road near your home, practice riding it on your road bike to get comfortable over the bumps. Riding with your hands on the tops of the bars can help you absorb more road shock, but if you’re riding in a group it will be safer to have your hands on the hoods or in the drops so you’re closer to the brakes.
Tip #2: RIDE A BIGGER GEAR
You don’t have to mash the biggest, hardest gear you have, but maintaining traction on a rough surface is easier when you are pedaling a larger gear at a slightly lower cadence compared with a lighter gear at a higher cadence. With more torque you maintain momentum over bumps and you’ll feel like you’re riding “though” them or over them rather than like you’re bouncing off every single bump you encounter. This is especially important in softer gravel and/or rockier areas. Speed and momentum are your friends; the slower you go the more you’ll feel every nook and cranny in the road.
Tip #3: STAY IN THE SADDLE ON STEEP CLIMBS
You have less traction on gravel and when you stand up out of the saddle the dramatic increase in power to the rear wheel can cause it to lose traction and spin. This doesn’t happen as much on flat ground or slight inclines, but it is common on steeper gravel and dirt climbs… which is exactly where you’ll be tempted to stand up. Weight over the back wheel is essential for traction, which is why seated climbing is best in this environment. If you need or want to stand, shift into a harder gear as you stand up and keep your hips above your saddle as you pedal. If you shift your weight too far forward as you stand up you’ll unweight the rear wheel and it will spin.
Tip #4: HOW TO HANDLE WASHBOARD
A section of washboard or braking bumps is one of the least comfortable parts of riding a gravel road. It’s unlikely you’ll experience one because the gravel road in question will be graded and packed down in the weeks prior to the event, but nevertheless here’s how to get through a washboard more comfortably and in control:
- Keep your hands on the tops of your handlebars. This will enable you to maintain more bend in your elbows and move your weight back.
- Get off the saddle. Stand up so the bike can move underneath you rather than your body having to follow every contour of the washboard.
- Get your weight back. Not way back, just a bit so you’re unweighting the front wheel to let it track over the crests of the washboard. This reduces the shock to your arms and allows you to keep the bike headed in the right direction.
- Loosen up! You obviously need a secure grip on the bars, but white-knuckling your way through a washboard section will make the ride harsher. The same is true with tension anywhere in your body. Loosen up, be a shock absorber, and look for the smoothest (smallest washboard ridges) line through it.
Tip #5: BRAKE MOST WHEN YOU’RE GOING STRAIGHT
Just like on a paved road, you don’t want to grab a handful of brakes in the middle of a turn. Most of your speed adjustment should be done before a turn while you are still going straight. When you are turning, keep the bike more upright than you might on a similar paved turn, but still focus your weight on the outside foot.
Tip #6: STAY ENGAGED AND FOCUSED
Gravel roads present an ever-changing surface so you have to keep your eyes open. Scan the road ahead and look for the smoother line. Sometimes this will be where car and truck tires have packed down the gravel, and sometimes it might be between those tire tracks. Watch riders ahead of you for clues, too.
WHAT ABOUT TIRE PRESSURE?
If you were doing an entire day of gravel riding, a larger volume tire at a lower pressure would be ideal. That’s not a practical or necessary option in this case. The gravel section in RTR will likely take 45-60 minutes to ride and is only 13 miles of a much longer day and much longer event. As such, you’ll most likely be riding the same 700×23-28c road tire you ride every day. If you are riding tubed tires, letting air out of the tire may increas comfort but also increases the chance for a pinch flat. You may also struggle to refill a tire to its previous high pressure with a hand pump or CO2 after the gravel section. The safest bet is to just ride the gravel with the same tire pressure you started the day with. We’re only talking about 13 miles, and the road in question is a maintained gravel road, not the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix.
Riding gravel roads on a road bike is a lot of fun and it keeps you on your toes. The keys to being comfortable, confident, and in control are to stay calm, loose, and positive. Have fun getting dusty!
Jim Rutberg is a Pro Coach with CTS and the co-author of 8 books on training and sports nutrition, including “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”. He is also a 10-time finisher of the Leadville 100 and 2-time finisher of the Dirty Kanza 200 gravel race.