19-11-2021 | Frank Jansen

10 questions about gravel riding

The popularity of gravel riding is unmatched. Hype? Not anymore: gravel has now become a serious discipline in cycling. We answer 10 questions.

Do I necessarily have to have a gravel bike to ride gravel?

No. You can also take a CX or MTB just fine, or even a hybrid bike. Some gravel routes are even doable on a road bike with 28 mm tires, especially in dry weather. Of course, a gravel bike is the best possible solution.

Read: how to convert a road bike to a gravel bike

What makes a gravel bike different from a CX bike?

The main differences are that a gravel bike has different, less aggressive (and thus comfort-oriented) geometry and usually fits wider tires.

Can you also ride MTB trails on a gravel bike?

On easy and relatively flat MTB trails, in principle it is possible in most cases, but it does require some of your steering skills. You have to ride pretty neatly and steer around all obstacles like roots. It will never be very comfortable. The easier the MTB route, the better it goes, of course. On very easy courses you are even faster. In the hills and mountains it is a different story. On an unpaved col like the Parpaillon, an MTB is really the better choice.

Read: Col de Parpaillon, the adventure of a lifetime

Which tires should I choose?

This depends in advance on how much asphalt you ride and what kind of gravel. The more adventurous the trails, the wider the tires and the more tread. The widest possible tires are also used for the beach (but without profile). Most gravel riders chose tires between 35-50 mm.

MTB pedals or road pedals?

Both are possible. However, most gravel riders choose MTB pedals, because you can also walk in the mud with them.

What tire pressure should I ride with?

That depends on quite a few things:

  • The width of your tire (the wider the tire, the lower the pressure)
  • Whether you ride tubeless or not (tubeless = lower pressure)
  • Weight of rider+bike (the higher, the more pressure)
  • The type of surface (the harder, the higher the pressure)
  • The conditions, wet or dry (wetter = lower pressure)

For a 35-40 mm tire, most tubeless riders are somewhere between 2 and 3 bar in dry weather. The rear is often half a bar more than the front. On the beach, much lower pressures of around 1 bar are used. Tire pressure is mainly a matter of testing. Silca and Enve have tools on their site to calculate the correct tire pressure.

Can I use a gravel bike for bike packing?

Most gravel bikes are ideally suited for this, as they have lugs for carriers and a geometry geared towards long distances and comfort. Gravel frames are also often quite strong.

Should I choose a setup with 1 ring (1 by) or 2 (2 by)?

Both setups come with their own pro's and cons, there is no "best choice".

Advantages of 1 by:

  • Looks clean
  • Lighter
  • Easier to clean
  • Easier to setup and maintain
  • No chain suck
  • Fewer parts, so smaller chance of equipment failures

Disadvantages of 1 by:

  • You will need a narrow-wide chainring and a clutch in order to prevent the chain from dropping from the chainring.
  • Only 11, 12 or 13 gears, so you'll have to live with larger gaps between the gears (or swap cassettes).

Advantages of 2 by:

  • Largest reach, nice small steps between the gears
  • No need to change cassettes
  • No clutch or narrow wide chainring needed, large choice in parts

Disadvantages of 2 by

  • Heavier
  • Harder to clean
  • Esthetics
  • More parts means more chance of failures
  • Risk of chainsuck
  • Requires more thinking when shifting

What kinds of gravel are there?

"Gravel" is a catch-all term when it comes to the surface. All kinds of unpaved roads fall under it. Some examples

  • Hard pack gravel. The most "classic" form of gravel. Known from American gravel grinders and the Strade Bianche. Consists of fine rocks or shells. Generally a fairly fast surface, does not necessarily require wide tyres.
  • Sand roads. Very common in forests. Heavy and sticky when it rains a lot and dusty when it doesn't. Slightly damp at best. 
  • Single tracks. Narrow one-way paths, often found on MTB trails. Often meant for MTB, but can sometimes also be ridden on a gravel bike.
  • Duo or triple tracks. Often found in forests, used by foresters. Sometimes used as a firebreak. Often illegal!
  • Old postal roads. Often contain remnants of old roads, usually clinkers. Involes quote a lot of bumping and shaking, so wide tires run a low pressures are advisable.
  • Rough gravel / unpaved. Unpaved roads with very large loose stones. Not found in flat parts of Europe, but can be found abroad in the Alps for example. Terrain where MTBs often have an advantage.
  • Beaches. The beach is also a great place to ride a gravel bike. Tyres should be as wide as possible, with as little tread as possible and a pressure of around 1 bar.
  • Grass / meadow. Occasionally encountered on a sportive. Often muddy and hard.
  • Mud. It is unavoidable, especially in autumn. The only surface where wider tyres will put you at a clear disadvantage.
  • Forest roads. Usually packed with roots. Ride carefully and wider tyres with lower pressure (tubeless!) will be at a distinct advantage.

Where do I find gravel sportives, stage races and gran fondos?

Obviously, in our calendar!

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