Basic Gear for Your First Gravel Ride
I’m making my way into gravel biking after 8-years of primarily riding a triathlon bike. Although the foundational equipment is the same (a bike, shoes, helmet), I’m finding lots of little differences that make your gravel experience more comfortable.
This one seems obvious right? But lots of people ask what kind of bike you need for a gravel ride or assume that you need to go drop a lot of money on a new bike. That’s not the case. Find a way to try out gravel cycling without spending a lot of money and then invest once you know it’s for you.
A Gravel Bike. You’ll also hear this referred to as an off road bike or all-terrain bike. I was at the point where I was either going to get a new road bike or a gravel bike. The gravel bike was appealing because I could ride it on gravel roads, single track, for cyclocross, or on the road. A gravel bike looks like a road bike but has some adjustments that make it better equipped to ride off road. The only noticeable adjustment to most people is the bigger tires. If you want to know a lot more about the technical components of a gravel bike, check out this article from Outside Magazine.
A Mountain Bike. If you’re wanting to try out gravel riding but aren’t ready to invest, a mountain bike is usually a good choice. They tend to be easier to rent or to find one laying around in someone’s garage. A mountain bike will typically be heavier than a gravel bike and not as comfortable for longer rides, so you’ll want to keep that in mind when choosing your first route.
A Road Bike with Bigger Tires. Some road bikes can be adjusted to be ‘gravel bikes’. I have slightly thicker tires on my road bike because I kept picking up glass in the road tires when riding around the city. I could technically take it off road but as an entry level road bike, it’s not going to be very comfortable when hitting bumps and potholes.
A Hybrid Bike with Knobby Tires. I’ve seen a few people ride these bikes on super short gravel trails, like the Atlanta Beltline (a flat, 4-mile trail). It’s a good way to try out gravel with no investment but only on the right kind of trail.
The Right Kit
On my triathlon bike, I almost always wore tri shorts. I didn’t like the way the chammy (the pad in the bike shorts) felt when I was in the aero position. On one of my early gravel rides I threw on my favorite tri shorts and felt some major regret halfway through the ride. I really wasn’t sure that parts of me were ever going to be the same. There’s a lot of change in terrain so you’re going to want shorts with a good chammy.
And speaking of shorts, don’t skimp here. I learned this lesson the hard way on a long ride on Blue Ridge Parkway in my early years of cycling. I won’t go into the details but let’s just say there was chaffing in places you never want to be chaffed. I had worn a pair of bargain bike shorts and never had that problem again once I upgraded to a better short.
In the past I’ve rarely worn gloves when I ride. I don’t love the way they feel on my hands and they just make me hot.
After my first gravel ride I changed my mind about gloves. There’s a lot more jostling when riding gravel and my hands tend to get sweaty so I constantly felt like they were slipping off the handlebars. Once I started wearing gloves I felt more stable.
On my road and tri bike, I’ve always used Look Keo cleats and I even considered moving my cleats from my tri bike to my gravel bike because they are PowerTap P1 pedals and I thought it would be interesting to know my power output. I’m really glad I didn’t because I’ve found myself getting off the bike for a variety of reasons in the middle of dirt or gravel. Keo cleats are horrible about getting mud and dirt caked inside of them and are not very durable if you walk around on them. SPD cleats, on the other hand, tuck up into your shoe a bit more and make your shoes more like regular shoes - well really stiff and awkward regular shoes but I can verify the fact that you can walk up some major hills in the dirt in them and then hop back on the bike to ride.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about when I mention cleats, don’t go out and buy them for your first few rides. You can navigate gravel just fine on flat pedals and if you’re new to the sport, you may feel a little more comfortable when you aren’t clipped in.
So in the triathlon world, we aren’t all that into tall socks. Call us vain, we dislike weird tans likes (for real that’s part of it) but most of it is because putting on tall socks when your foot is wet from a swim is a similar experience to putting on your sports bra right out of the shower. It’s requires an awkward little dance.
What I’ve discovered with gravel cycling is it’s nice to have your ankles to mid-calves protected. Lots of little rocks, dust, and dirt are kicking up as your ride. Sometimes you cut through a grassy field or ride down a narrow path with weeds right on the edge. Plus, there are lots of very cute designs for socks these days.
As you’re on the gravel bike, there is a lot of dust coming at you. I was surprised when we were just 3 miles in and I grabbed my water bottle for a chug only to find the mouth of it covered with dust. Anything you put in your jersey pockets is also likely going to be coated with a layer of dust. When riding my tri bike, I’d just throw some bars into my back pocket and just fold the top over them after I took a few bites. Unless you want to be eating a lot more dust during your ride, you’re going to want to put anything that you don’t want covered in dust into plastic bags.