Gravel Grinders

One of the great things about two of the areas I cover most in my books, Northern Virginia and Montgomery County in Maryland, is that there are plenty of opportunities for riders to hit gravel roads and ride one of several gravel grinders and escape from the perils of traffic. Gravel Grinders or Gravel grinding, is a type of riding that has gained tremendous popularity over the past few years Gravel Grinders are defined as rides that takes place mostly on gravel roads. The ride itself can contain pavement and sections of single track, but it’s majority – more than 50% – 60%, must take place on dirt and gravel roads – hence the name.

Riding gravel roads presents a completely new challenge for cyclists. These are not quite “mountain bike” rides and are not really “road rides” either, despite being mostly on roads. The primary challenge, and the one which I will address here, is what type of bike you would use for one of these outings.

The advent of 29er mountain bikes (mountain bikes with larger diameter wheels) has several people advocating that a good mountain bike is all you need. Others, on the other hand, argue that a comfortable road bike outfitted with wider and stronger tires will do just the trick. Then, there are those (myself included) who prefer cross bikes, a type of bike that borrows from both the road and mountain world.

At first sight a cross bike could be easily mistaken for a road bike but key differences in geometry and componentry make it more suited for the type of riding one would find on a gravel grinder. Cross bikes are more relaxed than road bikes – their geometry places riders in a position that permits them to use their body to absorb more of the types of shocks one would find off-road. Their wheelbase is also greater than a road bike’s and more akin to a mountain bike, which allows for greater control over rough terrain. Slacker head tube angles also offer riders more controlled and predictable steering, providing a more “predictable” and mellow experience. They still, however, retain some of the more aggressive geometry features of their road cousins allowing riders to benefit from some of the performance aspects of a road bike which are not found in their off-raod siblings.

Cross clearances are also greater than road bikes. This allows riders to choose and use larger tires. Encountering mud on a road bike would bring you to a halt and clog up your fancy caliper brakes whereas a cross bike would do just fine. Finally cross bikes are often fitted with a combination of off-road and road components making them less susceptible to damage during off-road outings. Cross bikes are generally fitted with cantilever brakes, and in same cases even disc brakes, providing more stopping power in “cruddy” conditions. Coupled with lover wheelbases, cross bikes often have lower bottom bracket nights, adding to better handling.

Ultimately you can ride any bike you want on a gravel grinder, but you’ll get the most performance (as of today) from a quality cross bike outfitted with the right components. You’ll not only be able to squeeze out the miles you would on a road bike, but the bike will take some of the abuse that a mountain bike would in similar circumstances.

For those reasons I chose to grind out my gravel miles on my 333fab, a custom cross bike from my good friend Max Kullway in Seattle Washington. For more info, you should visit your local bike shop, there are plenty of quality cross bikes and gravel specific models out in the market available in various price ranges. Several big name manufacturers have developed time and resources to put out gravel grinding specific models, some of these are listed below:

If you’re like me, and prefer to go the “custom” route, there are a myriad of small builders who’ll build you the perfect ride, for a price…

If your interest has been peaked, and you are ready to embark on a gravel grinder of your very own, I recommend you check out friend of Best Rides DC David Kegley’s Gravel Grinding Blog for info on some really cool area rides.

In the future, when the new edition of my other book: Mountain Bike Washington/Baltimore, hits the stands I will include half a dozen or so gravel grinders to get you started.

Once you do hit the gravel roads, here’s some tips to keep you upright and having fun:

Come prepared:

  • I always bring two extra tubes and a patch kit. It’s not uncommon to get more than one flat. To mitigate that, I recommend running the max pressure your tires allow, this will prevent you from getting pinch flats.
  • Carry the essentials: a pump or C02 cartridges, a chain tool and tire levers; Andy and Steve Hampsten introduced me to these awesome tool rolls from EH-Works. They’re super stylish and extremely functional.
  • Bring cash! A few extra dollars in your pocket always helps, especially in rural communities.

When Riding:

  • Stay loose; don’t “death grip” your bars, instead, hold them loosely, but securely and use your body to absorb the bumps in the road; lightly bent elbows and knees and a properly positioned torso will provide you with the natural suspension you’ll need to ride for miles and miles.
  • Don’t over steer, especially on loose gravel section. Doing so will cause your front end slide out and possibly crash. As stated above, use your body to help you maneuver the bike. Slight changes and twists in your hips will help you navigate through road bumps and obstacles and help you negotiate turns easily.
  • Stay seated on climbs, don;t be afraid to spin. Keeping your butt on the saddle will ensure you have traction when you need it most, especially  in steep loose and washed out sections of gravel.

UPDATE – 9/16/2013

Just came across “How To: Gravel Grinding – Taming the Road Less Paved” from Roadbike Review. Good read and more info about Gravel Grinding…

Popular Gravel Rides