How To: Gravel Grinding – Taming the Road Less Paved

How To
Our tips for gravel grinding help you keep it smooth on rough roads.

Free of traffic and full of adventure, the road not taken is often times the best road.

The “gravel grinder” revolution is in full swing, but you don’t need a cyclocross bike or fancy randonneur rig to jump on the bandwagon. In competent hands, even a race-geometry road bike can handle most fire roads. But different surfaces require different riding techniques, so we put together some tips to help ensure your road bike foray in the dirt doesn’t hit a rut.

Wider is Better

If you normally ride 23c-wide tires, now is the time to swap them out for 25s, or even 28s if your frame will accommodate them. The slightly wider width will give you a larger contact patch and better traction on those looser dirt surfaces. Once you get the tire choice dialed, make sure you run the pressure at a slightly lower PSI than if you were on the pavement. The more balloon-like volume will not only give you better grip, but also smooth out some of the harder bumps.

Take Your Time

On pavement, it’s easy to make quick adjustments when the need arises, but on gravel, you need to plan ahead and make your movements smooth and slow. Look down the road and anticipate when you will need to accelerate and brake, rather than waiting until the last minute. When turning, take slower, more gradual lines, and turn earlier than you would on tarmac, as you tend to drift outwards on a road with poor traction.

Grind the Gears

Though you might prefer spinning low gears like Alberto Contador on the Alpe D’Huez, on gravel, you’re better off making like Fabian Cancellara in Paris-Roubaix and pushing a higher gear. The increased pressure on the pedals lifts you off the saddle slightly so you can absorb impacts while maintaining a smooth cadence. It also increases your traction and lessens the chance of momentum-sapping rear wheel spin. This technique also works great on cobbles and rough roads.

Get Out of a Rut

One of the fun challenges of fire road riding is figuring out how to navigate the bumps coming your way. Avoiding them and staying on the smoothest line is the obvious strategy, but sometimes there’s no way around a large dip or rocky patch. When encountering large ruts, first try to lift or unweight your front wheel up and over them as on a mountain bike. Stand up and keep loose, using your arms and legs as shock absorbers while you roll through. When you’re clear, sit down and slowly start to pick your cadence back up to maintain momentum.

Look far down the road and anticipate your next move well in advance on a road without pavement to keep you rubber side down.

Trust the Bike

Though your bike was designed for the road, it’s capable on multiple surfaces if you trust it and stay relaxed. Just as with mountain biking, tensing up is counterproductive and leads to mistakes. If you get nervous, try distracting yourself a bit¬–hum a song, or try a difficult math problem, or recite the Gettysburg Address–anything to take your mind away from obsessing over the dirt and gravel underneath you. Still intimidated by something? Just walk. It’s always ok to exercise better judgment.

Lean the bike, not the Body

On pavement, where traction is plentiful, one can lean the bike through a corner and follow that same lean with the body. On gravel however, this is almost a sure recipe for disaster. Read the dirt surface and the angle of the surface. When the the corner has a firm surface one can lean the bike and the body a little more . But in general, when it’s loose, lean the bike to initiate the turn but keep your body perpendicular to the ground. Keep your weight on the outside down pedal and feel your tires’ traction with the ground. The looser the surface, the more you have to keep your bike and your body more upright and turn more slowly.

Hand Placement

On a typical road ride, you should be on the hoods of the handlebars about 90% of the time and on the drops 10% of the time. On a gravel or unpaved road ride however, the brake lever hoods is not always the ideal place since it offers no cushioning from road ruts and imperfections and it leaves you in a stretched-out position as well. The ideal position here is the tops of your bars. When you are in a fairly level terrain grinding out the miles and encountering lots of potholes and stutter bumps, the tops of the bars will provide you with shock absorption for your hands and a fairly upright position for your back. When you have to brake or modulate your speed, the hoods is a good place for your hands. When you are descending steeper or rougher terrain, the drops is the most secure position. And change hand positions frequently to relieve pressure points on your hands and your upper body.

Placing the hands at the top of the bars provides comfort.

Prepared to Have Fun

Because gravel grinding leaves a little more to chance, your need to prepare differently than you would for a garden-variety road ride. First, adjust your expectations. Because of its unpredictable nature, things may be a little slower and more exploratory than you’re used to. Embrace it–in the unpaved world, serendipity trumps the routine. Second, bring an extra spare tube. Punctures are slightly more common on rough roads, so carry two tubes and something to inflate them with. Third, armor up. While your primo carbon road bike should have no difficulty with the unpavement, rocks do occasionally kick up and nick the downtube paint. A near-weightless strip of wide, clear packing tape keeps the chips away–not a bad idea for metal bikes either.

For less than $5 a strip of packing tape will keep your downtube chip-free. This 1.88-inch wide roll of 3M/Scotch Heavy Duty Packing Tape fits most downtubes nicely and leaves no residue.

Photos provided by S-Cape Europe Cycling Tours and Niner Bikes. Visit the S-Cape website for info on hiking or cycling tours around the Tuscany area and the rest of Europe.

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