Gravel Riding

Gravel Riding

Gravel Grinding is the new “hot” trend in cycling. I am very excited about this. Riding on gravel is great fun. A friend who was a telemark skier had a T-shirt: “Free your heel and your mind will follow.” I get a similar feeling when my tires are freed to slip a little on gravel.
Gravel roads usually see only little traffic, and they often traverse very scenic landscapes. This makes for a relaxing and beautiful cycling experience. And the bikes that are suitable for gravel also make wonderfully versatile road bikes, since they have clearances for wider tires (and fenders).
Riding on gravel isn’t new, of course. Until the 1950s, cycling in the mountains usually meant riding on gravel. At Bicycle Quarterly, we’ve been exploring gravel roads for more than a decade. Back then, we rode a 1952 Jo Routens on gravel roads in the Cascades (above). It’s fun to think back on it: That year we even organized an “off-pavement brevet”. About a dozen people showed up, and we had a great time. Most of the riders were cyclocross racers, probably because most randonneurs didn’t have bikes yet that could be ridden long distances on gravel.
Maybe the bikes were the limiting factor and the reason why “off-pavement brevets” didn’t really catch on then. The Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnée (D2R2) in Massachusetts was an exception (although it’s not an official brevet), and it contributed a lot toward popularizing riding on unpaved roads. Now that gravel riding is becoming more popular, there is talk about organizing more official off-pavement brevets.
In the decade since that first article, we’ve taken more and more trips and rides on unpaved roads. Many of our bike tests now include rides on gravel, if the bikes are suitable for it. Of course, the bulk of our test riding is on pavement, but we simply enjoy riding on those remote roads so much that we take every opportunity to get a little gravel under our wheels. Even on shorter rides, we often include an unpaved section along the way.
One of the most exciting things we have found is that the same bikes that work so well on pavement also are ideally suited to unpaved roads. My René Herse has excelled on the paved roads of Paris-Brest-Paris, yet the same bike has performed wonderfully on many gravel rides (above). The wide tires that offer such great cornering on pavement also float over hardpack and gravel with amazing grace and pace.
If there is one thing that I don’t like about “gravel grinding,” it’s that particular name. “Grinding” seems to imply that it’s hard and slow, yet with the right bike, riding on gravel comes with the same effortless speed as riding on pavement. For me, it’s about experiencing the ride more than about the road surface: the breeze, the fleeting light on the trees, the feedback from the bike underneath me, and the “taste of the effort,” as the French called it. It just happens that gravel roads have expanded our universe where we can experience these joyous feelings.

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Comments (91)

  • AndrewGills

    I love riding on gravel – that’s why I just bought a steel touring bike that runs 700x35s to replace my old carbon fiber road racing bike that can’t run anything more than 700x25s. I can’t wait for my first gravel exploration on it this weekend (I only got the bike yesterday). I totally agree with you about gravel roads traversing pretty areas

    January 24, 2014 at 2:45 am
  • cbratina

    Great commentary! Yes D2R2 has turned us on and we have found fabulous similar routes in northwest CT, Vermont, Western Mass and Eastern NY. One of our club members figured out how to color code the routes,,with red being paved and green dirt. We prefer to call it Dirt Road Riding. Mike DeSalvo is building me a new Ti frame to improve upon my old Litespeed Blue Ridge. I have found the Continental Cyclocross Speed 700x35c to be a fantastic tire with over 2000 miles between flats.

    January 24, 2014 at 2:52 am
  • TimJ

    I too enjoy riding on what you call gravel paths, there are many thousands of kilometers of these paths in Germany.. But in my experience, it isn’t really loose gravel, rather it is often quite hard packed as shown in the bottom picture. There must be another name for such a surface?

    January 24, 2014 at 5:20 am
    • Frank

      Hi Tim,
      I think what you mean might be a so called “Wassergebundene Decke”, see this Wikipedia entry in German. Unfortunatly it’s not available translated to English. The article mentions some of the environmental disadvantages of this kind of hardpacked gravel roads, like them being an impervious surface similar to regular pavement, while at the same time being prone to erosion. I must admit that currently in winter I avoid this kind of gravel road here in Germany and I prefer to ride on asphalt, mostly because the gravel roads are wet and muddy at the moment. But I’m looking forward to them again for spring.
      All the best, Frank

      January 24, 2014 at 9:25 am
      • TimJ

        Yes, that’s exactly the surface I’m thinking of. The German word is great, but there must be some English word for these surfaces. The environmental downsides don’t seem to be worse than asphalt and I really enjoy riding on them – often unpredictable and they seem to fit better into scenic areas like open fields and forests. As Jan notes, fenders are a must. Thanks so much for the link Frank!

        January 24, 2014 at 12:16 pm
      • Matthew J

        Tim: I’ve heard such roads described as hard pack. There perhaps are other names across the U.S. as these roads are in rural areas where colloquialisms have a beeter chance of surviving.
        Except for the local mixed use trails, Northern Illinois where I live does not have a lot gravel roads of any type. Quite a few ill-maintained pot hole strewn messes that would have been better off staying gravel.

        January 25, 2014 at 4:21 am
  • cyclosomatic

    I am with you, Jan, ‘gravel grinding’ sounds far more harsh that what’s actually going on most of the time. Coincidentally, the gateway to gravel riding around Ottawa, Ontario, is also an area we refer to as Cascades. There is a small ski hill, called Mont Cascades, which is approached via Rue de Mont Cascades. It’s paved, and features an 18% descent we have hit 100kph on, followed by a grinding clmb, then a turn into our favourite dirt road/gravel neighborhood, which we call ‘Chamonix,’ after the name of the road we take it. Winding, dropping and rising, the route we take through the ‘hood is massively fun. From there, we keep riding north, and all the best roads are gravel. In the winter they are not salted, but sanded, so when it’s not too far below freezing (unlike today, -25C), we head up and enjoy the scenery and time riding off the trainer. The ‘gravel grinding’ trend is one I certainly hope settles into a mainstay of cycling culture, with many different kinds of events for riders of all abilities and perspective. I can’t think of a better way to get to know one’s region, not to mention the fun!

    January 24, 2014 at 6:32 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I have fond memories of riding on gravel in Ontario, both on a tour many years ago, and later on a 300 km brevet. You have some wonderful gravel roads!

      January 24, 2014 at 7:13 am
      • cory b

        No way! What were you doing riding a brevet in Ontario ? I was hoping to have joined the Onatrio randonneurs this year, however I am now living in Scotland for 2 years. I will have to get involved in the local Audax club.

        January 24, 2014 at 10:48 am
      • cyclosomatic

        Counter intuitively, perhaps, almost all of the gravel riding we do from Ottawa is in Quebec. That’s the odd thing about our scene: the majority of riding we do is in another province! Our provinces are separated by the Gatineau River, about a stone’s throw from my office. My wife works on the Quebec side. As you go south, the terrain flattens right away, right until you hit the Adirondacks. But, when you go north, the terrain gets bumpy immediately, and we’ve got an amazing 40k parkway loop right on the other side, and all the hilly roads and gravel kick in about 10k from the rider. Amazing. So, we’re ‘Ontario’ riders, but we really are all about Quebec. Here’s a cool hat map that depicts this:

        January 24, 2014 at 11:46 am
      • Heather

        Ah the blue hills of Gatineau!

        January 25, 2014 at 9:02 pm
  • Edwin Williamson

    Could you talk a little about your experience with fenders and dirt roads? Anything you do differently in fender setup? Do you or any of your buddies prefer to take off fenders for gravel? Put them on for gravel?
    Thanks, Edwin

    January 24, 2014 at 6:45 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The fenders are integrated parts of the bikes, so we never take them off. On my bike, the lighting wires run in the front fender… You need to have correct clearances to ride safely with fenders, and this is even more true on gravel.

      January 24, 2014 at 7:14 am
  • Vik

    I never understood the grinding part either. We call it Gravel Pimping just to emphasize that it’s not boring. 😉
    safe riding,

    January 24, 2014 at 6:45 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I really don’t care how it’s called. It’s great fun, and whatever gets more people to enjoy riding off the beaten path is a good thing.

      January 24, 2014 at 7:26 am
  • Phil Haswell

    Jan, What tires are best for gravel and a mix of gravel and pavement?

    January 24, 2014 at 7:02 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You want a wide tire with supple sidewalls. No need for knobbies or special tread on most surfaces. I ride the Grand Bois Hetre Extra Leger 650B x 42 mm tires both on gravel and on pavement. You can read more about these tires here.

      January 24, 2014 at 7:15 am
    • Chris

      Here in Nebraska we have thousands of miles of gravel roads. The tire choices of the riders around here vary greatly. Many guys are running 29er mountain bikes with light weight and low tread 700×40 or bigger tires. The super fast guys run cx tires around 700×30-35. I personally run Jack Brown Greens (700×33). Riding gravel is all about picking a good line and staying away from the deep stuff. For reference. I weigh 185-190lbs and run my JB’s at 50 psi.

      January 24, 2014 at 11:06 am
  • Junji

    It looks like the headlight has rotated out of position though – perhaps one downside to gravel riding? I do enjoy it as well when I can, although that is rare these days. Here in Montreal at the moment it is more a question of ice riding.

    January 24, 2014 at 7:03 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The bike was a test bike, and the bag tended to bump the headlight as it bounced. We mentioned this in the test report. One reason we like to ride test bikes on gravel is that it stresses the bike more, so we can find flaws that otherwise would not become apparent until you have ridden thousands of miles.
      When you look at my own bike in the photo at the bottom, you can see that the headlight is mounted underneath the front rack, where it’s well-protected. It’s also hanging from its mounting tab, so there is less torque on the light, and it’s unlikely to come loose. (I also modified it with a forked mount, so that I can adjust it without loosening the bolt…) We are fortunate that we now have bikes that incorporate not only a decade of our own experience of riding on all types of roads, but also the experience of decades of research by the bike builders of the era when riding on gravel was commonplace.

      January 24, 2014 at 7:17 am
  • Ty

    Great Post Jan!
    The San Francisco Randonneurs use the term “Mixed Terrain” for their off-road brevets. I think that sounds a lot more appealing than “Gravel Grinding.” I hear that term, and I immediatly think of road rash!
    The next 200K mixed terrain brevet is called “La Ruta Loca Randonnee.”
    It’s through some beautifull country in Northern California, and I am looking forward to trying it myself if I can be ready. Due to the majority of the route being on dirt roads, fire trails, etc., finishing under the time limit is not a foregone conclusion, to say the least!
    But It really is fun riding on that type of terrain, so I do hope it does catch on.

    January 24, 2014 at 7:16 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I hope to make it out to one of your mixed terrain brevets. I like the term and the idea, and I know that the scenery in your part of the world is spectacular.

      January 24, 2014 at 7:22 am
      • ol'grumpy

        Like Ty said, SFR has a whole series of Mixed Terrain brevets, starting in late June with the 600k and tapering back to the 200k in the fall, plus LRLR and a populaire. Also all the series brevets plus LRLR are individual permanents, so one can ride them whenever for credit. Check out SFR’s website for more details. They are some of the most beautiful, fun and challenging routes we have down here.

        January 24, 2014 at 3:53 pm
  • Barry

    In the KCMO area we can get to gravel pretty quickly. It’s pretty much exclusively what we do now. I grew up in a rual area so I always rode gravel but started racing 2 years ago.
    I ride a Surly LHT, Foundry Auger, and a Salsa Mukluk. All 3 are great and fun. Schwalabe Mondial Marathons are bullet proof. I’ve put several thousand miles on a set without flats. On my carbon bike I run Clement E’xplor MSO’s tubeless. They are 40mm and super comfortable and light. I also run fenders if it’s dry or just a little wet, but most the time if it’s too wet they get packed full of mud.
    I hope my experiences help some of you to get out and enjoy the serenity of gravel grinding.

    January 24, 2014 at 8:24 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Schwalbe Mondial Marathons are bullet proof.

      I find that I have very few (actually, zero so far) punctures when riding on gravel. The softer surface means that even if there is glass or sharp rocks, they get pushed into the gravel rather than into the tire…

      January 24, 2014 at 8:30 am
      • rory

        this just made a connection for me. at construction sites, the entrance/exits for trucks use large cobbles to flex the tires and break off dirt to prevent soil from getting tracked out of the site and enter the public stormwater system. I wonder if riding on gravel flexes the tire to allow whatever embedded glass to exit the rubber…

        January 24, 2014 at 8:53 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          That is an interesting hypothesis. Most of all, I think the low-pressure tires just roll over the debris. (Even on the road, wide tires run at low pressures have remarkably few flats.) On gravel, sidewall cuts are probably a greater problem, but we haven’t had trouble with that, either. But then, cyclocross racers use hand-made tubulars with very thin sidewalls without many problems, either.

          January 24, 2014 at 9:03 am
      • marcpfister

        Out in the corn belt you get a lot of goatheads, and the farm trucks and tractors distribute them on to the roads. I’ve found that a sealant system is the only thing that consistently works. Even with belted tires the occasional goathead would make its way around the kevlar strip.

        January 24, 2014 at 9:44 am
    • Jayme Frye

      I’m in Omaha NE and we have a very healthy gravel riding community with several races err “rides with friends” in the area (Gravel Worlds, GONG Ride, Omaha Jackrabbit). I’ve run Soma Bside,Soma Xpress 650b, and Pari-Motos all with great success. Pinch flats, sidewall cuts, and thorns have never been an issue. I do suggest using good tubes i.e. Schwalbe.

      January 24, 2014 at 11:34 am
  • Ty

    I think you would really love it, judging by the way you describe scenic routes on your ride reports, and and I’ve had the same thought about the scenery where the SIR have their Brevets as well. I would love to come up there and ride some day.
    Of course, your great articles and pictures over the years (now in Color!) might have something to do with that… 😉

    January 24, 2014 at 8:26 am
  • Colleen Welch

    Our race team in Olympia, WA has just started adding a gravel ride each week to our ride calendar. I have done two of them and am loving it! Because our group is new to this, we are showing up on all manner of bikes. Last weekend we had 20 people on everything from a fat bike to two road bikes with skinny tires. I’ve been riding my Cannondale t2 touring bike. I put 40mm Kenda Happy Medium tires on it and they have worked well. I think this, besides being fun, is good for improving bike handling skills in crits and road races.

    January 24, 2014 at 9:37 am
  • Mark Schneider

    More on fenders and gravel/fire roads. I have had incidents with small branches getting caught in the front wheel between the tire and the brake and it seems fenders can only make that more likely. How do you prevent that? That said I love riding off the pavement whenever possible and there are some great fire roads near where I live. The difference may be that these don’t allow any public traffic but are roads within public parks open to horses and hikers as well. They are also in redwood forest which drop a lot more debris that gets caught by tires.

    January 24, 2014 at 10:05 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      We sometimes do get small branches caught in the fender when we are riding on trails that aren’t maintained. I usually reach down and pull them out. If that doesn’t work, I stop and get them out.
      A bigger concern is the fender crumpling against the fork crown if something gets stuck inside. This happens especially with plastic fenders, but can happen with metal fenders as well. It appears that the best insurance against this is to have enough clearance that small objects can just make it through. Larger objects are too heavy to be pulled along the wheel with great speed, so they just bounce against the fender and fall back down. A stiff fender is a big plus – the wider the fender, the stiffer it is. The problems I have seen occurred with insufficient fender clearances. Small objects getting pulled along the wheel and instead of going through the fender, get stuck and the fender then crumples…

      January 24, 2014 at 10:12 am
      • Michael

        Do front fender quick releases help, like on SKS Longboards, to reduce crumpling/jamming/face planting?
        Any metal fenders come with QR?

        January 29, 2014 at 12:06 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Metal fenders do not come with quick releases, but the eyebolts will release the stay if they aren’t overtightened. We have thought about this quite a lot, and we aren’t sure whether a quick release that releases with lower forces would help or hurt. Generally, with wide fenders, properly mounted and with adequate clearances, it doesn’t seem much of a problem.

          January 29, 2014 at 5:30 am
  • rothrockcyrcle

    I too really enjoy mixed surface courses, as they make for a much more peaceful ride than even the quietest paved roads. I feel they are can also be more difficult, regardless of tire selection (although that is clearly a very important variable). I am curious to know if anyone has established about how many RUSA brevet and permanent routes incorporate significant portions of gravel. It might be difficult to do so since the RUSA database doesn’t have a field for entering this kind of information. A free route permanent has very recently been established in my area, and having done a pre-ride this past fall of the near-final route, I can attest to both its beauty and physical challenges. Here is the recommened route:

    January 24, 2014 at 10:08 am
    • Cris

      I suspect the reason why there are not too many gravel brevets (esp. over 200 Km.) is due to the time limits set by the Audax Club Parisien (ACP), agency that rules all the brevets around the world, including RUSA’s. Whether you participate in a road or gravel brevet, the time limits and all the various regulations (i.e., safety standards, controls, etc.) are exactly the same. We know speeds on road vs. gravel vary significantly. Should the ACP make a few changes for gravel brevets (i.e., increasing time limits), I believe it would encourage more organizers to promote (as well as beginner randonneurs to enter) more ACP/RUSA-sanctioned gravel brevets. For the time being, the vast majority of gravel events remain as non ACP/RUSA regulated.

      January 27, 2014 at 1:17 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        The time limits are a factor, but for most riders, they are generous enough that even on gravel, they are attainable. With the right equipment, you don’t go that much slower on gravel…
        Finding good roads is another issue, since it would be hard to put together 200, 300, 400 or 600 consecutive kilometers of gravel roads. However, if you want to organize a “mixed surface” brevet, there are many possibilities. The ACP-approved Volcano High Pass 600 km Super Randonée (which you can ride whenever you want) includes more than 110 km of gravel roads.
        The beauty of this is that even the paved roads on brevets like that see only little traffic, since they don’t lead anywhere, but instead the pavement ends. If you didn’t include gravel, you could ride these roads only as “out-and-back” courses, which randonneuring discourages for good reason.
        Many riders come to randonneuring seeking a challenge as well as scenic rides, and gravel roads can provide both. I hope that the gravel brevets are a growing trend.

        January 27, 2014 at 3:20 pm
        • Ty

          In reading more of the comments, It looks like the time it takes to finish one of these has to be different depending on your area.
          Our “Mixed Terrain” brevets and permanentsthat the San Francisco Randonneurs (SFR) are organizing are significantly more time consuming due to the signficiant amount of climbing and off-road time. One good rule of thumb for these Brevets is that it will take a rider 35% longer to compete than a normal 200K. For a guy like me that on a good day can finish a typical SFR 200K in 12 hours, that means the tail-wind gods would definitely have to be behind me a lot of the time… well, all of the time!
          I still want to give it a go, and I’m going to have the mindset that though I do want to finish and get credit, the experience itself is truly going to be my goal. I know it’s going to be gorgeous, I know it’s going to be tough. I know I’ll be surrounded (ok,PASSED) by great people.
          Heck, It’s one more challenge to take on. Isn’t that what randonneuring is all about? Just doing it!
          But maybe someone can design special “Not-Medal” for simply getting to the finish of a Mixed-Terrain 200K?
          If not, I’ll take a tshirt.

          January 28, 2014 at 7:44 am
      • rothrockcyrcle

        Indeed – time limits can be more of an issue. I find the kind of gravel roads we have around here (often 1/2″ wide chunks of limestone ‘ballast’ layered a couple inches thick) produce a very noticible slowdown. In the context of a 200K, and with equal amounts of climbing, my moving averages will go from about 14 on pavement to about 9 or 10 on the gravel sections of a mixed surface ride. On a 40% gravel 200K, the non-pavement is going to add a couple hours compared to an all pavement 200K. I should point out that I ride 44mm tires at around 40-45 psi, so tires aren’t a complete cure all if the surface is rough enough. However, some gravel roads are hard packed dirt with small, thinly layered gravel. I agree that with the right tires, these are almost as fast as pavement. “Gravel road” is a very generic term!

        January 28, 2014 at 10:15 am
  • Nathan

    I started experimenting with gravel riding last year, and it has been an absolute blast. I ride in NW Iowa, where about 80% of the roads are gravel, and arranged in a grid that yields endless variations in getting from A to B. I find the extra work of riding on gravel makes up a bit for the lack of proper hills to train against.
    I have struggled with pinch flats. As a heavier rider, if I don’t keep my tire pressure in my 32mm paselas near 85 I’ll start blowing tubes like crazy. For that reason alone I’m hunting for a bike that can manage a wider tire. If nothing else, gravel riding being the current “it” thing has really increased options for riders looking for fast, wide-tire compatible bikes.

    January 24, 2014 at 10:23 am
  • David T.

    One of the best things about riding on gravel roads is that it gets you away from cars. And roadies.

    January 24, 2014 at 10:59 am
  • Taylor

    I’ve ridden my Boulder Bicycles All-Road in a few gravel or “ultra-cross” races. But, I remove the fenders before the races. The extra wear, vibration, and noise just isn’t worth it. But, Hetres are GREAT for these kind of races and rides. I will frequently have more grip in the gravel areas than others with cross tires, and then have no knobby tire squirm to deal with on the pavement sections.

    January 24, 2014 at 11:00 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I don’t get any wear, vibration or noise from my fenders on gravel roads… but if the fenders came off easily, I might be tempted to remove them, too. It’s often a trade-off between having parts that are easy to remove, but don’t work optimally, or parts that are integrated and hard to remove, but there also isn’t a need to do so.

      January 24, 2014 at 11:05 am
  • Cris

    It’s interesting to read that a decade ago only about a dozen people (mostly cyclocross racers) showed up to the off-pavement brevets. Almost no road cyclists or mountain bikers to be seen.
    Fast forward a decade later, I suspect that now that we are seeing more people “sharing the road” by bike commuting in urban environments, roads in not so good conditions, more traffic, etc., there might be a need to get away on weekends to explore rural, quieter and more scenic environments. On the other hand, the risk-taker mountain bikers from a decade or two ago now have families and more responsibilities. Mountain biking might be seen/perceived as too much risk injury-wise.
    Gravel grinding sits sweetly in the middle. It seems to be pulling equally from both the road and mountain bike crowds. Traditionally, roadies and MTBers didn’t mix. Now with gravel grinding, each group brings their own recipes for fun/success to the table, both shaking hands. It’s interesting and exciting to see the convergence of these two forms of cycling in a way that we have never seen before: road-style bikes with altered geometries, clearance for fatter tires (anything over >32mm used to be considered “weird” or flat out not possible), 650b which combines the best aspects of 700c and 26″, drop bars (not flat bars) for multiple hand positions, tweaking road/MTB drivetrains to make them compatible with each other, disc brakes, small racks/bags for self-sufficiency in the middle of nowhere — well, the list goes on.
    Cyclocross was a good start, but I guess it was still a bit on the extreme side: getting off the bike to piggyback it while running on mud on a short loop a couple of months in the fall is not the idea of fun for quite a few of us. The nice thing is that cyclocross bikes (along with the traditional randonneuse) have become great platforms for gravel grinding.
    Very cool to see this hot new trend in cycling!

    January 24, 2014 at 11:14 am
  • Chris

    I love the view point of this article.
    The word Grinder may not be perfect for the general idea of riding on unpaved roads but here in the midwest of Oklahoma and Kansas the word grind is absolutely appropriate. The type of gravel they use here widely varies, from hard pack (as fast as asphalt) to soupy 2-3″ limestone (very loose) that literally “grinds” as your trying to riding through it. The result of the gravel grinding is gravel dust. A dry summer and some good winds make it something you have to contend with.
    I think grinder is also appropriate with the level of difficulty. The Flint Hills of the Dirty Kanza 200 will prove that riding on those roads with no trees to block the wind and sharp flint rocks to slash your tires make gravel a significant challenge on any distance.

    January 24, 2014 at 11:38 am
  • robertkerner

    Gravel Grinding, as far as I’m concerned, is a marketing term to sell events and bicycles. I did my first D2R2 without knowing the term on a heavy Co-Motion road bike with rack and fenders and 32c tires. And people cruised past me on the hills atop far less sophisticated rigs, proving that you don’t need a special bike to ride mixed terrain (a great term for this type of riding, akin to mixed terrain climbing). I wish the GG term would end its 15 minutes of fame and go away because not everyone has the bike handling skills to go down hill fast on unpaved surfaces. It does require a little more technical skill than riding on pavement, particularly knowing how to balance out of the saddle and control skidding. I find “it,” whatever we call it, to be a perfect blend of mountain biking and road biking; there is nothing like being amongst trees and fields on your ride. For an interesting video, check out “Critical Dirt” on Vimeo which shows the european method.

    January 24, 2014 at 2:03 pm
  • lynnedaniels

    I suspect that mountain bikers, used to the roller coaster-like experience of technical singletrack are the originators of the term “gravel grinding.” Or maybe it was the really fast roadies, who leaving behind their 30mph adrenalin-soaked packs, felt the slower solo ride on a dirt road to be a “grind.” For this touring-speed rider, the unpaved roads are a delighful way to avoid cars and be immersed in nature.

    January 24, 2014 at 7:43 pm
  • Evan Baird

    There’s a lot of fun gravel in the bay, much of which allows you to access super fun single track. It’s interesting to see the convergence and subsequent divergence of randonneuring, touring and klunker mentalities especially among the offroad rivendell scene. There’s quite a lot of overlap, but I’m also seeing a trend towards more trail oriented fat tire bikes with upright or moustache bars. They typically run much heavier tires, and are designed more for back country camping but also frequently get ridden long distances. I’m excited to see how my self built low trail “all rounder” fares on the back roads. I don’t know if I’ll feel confident enough to run fenders on single track though.

    January 24, 2014 at 10:55 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I don’t know if I’ll feel confident enough to run fenders on single track though.

      I think it depends on the singletrack and on the fenders.

      January 25, 2014 at 5:54 am
  • Ezio

    The original telemark t-shirt was “freak your mind and the heel will follow you” we made years ago in Livigno… Gravel biking is very nice riding, I live in a nice place where we can have 300km tour gravel only. In Europe isn’t so easy to find a place like this.

    January 25, 2014 at 2:28 am
  • GravelDoc

    I followed the link to this posting from Guitar Teds blog. I am enjoying this exchange of thoughts on gravel grinding. I suppose I have an entirely different impression of the term “Gravel Grinding”. I live in rural Southwest Missouri. I, literally, grew up riding on gravel roads (our black top roads were far too dangerous to ride on). The gravel used on our roads is, largely, limestone which is dug up from open limestone quarries and run through a grinder to make the gravel. The phrase “gravel grinding” to me, speaks of an almost kinship with the process of making the gravel upon which I ride. I can relate to what my “neighbor” Chris speaks of when he refers to “the result of the gravel grinding is gravel dust”.

    January 25, 2014 at 5:32 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Thank you for explaining that! That makes a lot of sense – and it explains why the term gravel grinding seems to have originated in your part of the country, rather than on either coast.
      As I said before, I don’t like cyclists to get worked up about semantics when we share the same love for cycling and the same enthusiasm for exploring new types of roads. There is no need to throw up barriers between people who share the same passions.

      January 25, 2014 at 5:44 am
      • rothrockcyrcle

        Well said! After all, it’s the riding experience and spirit that counts, not what we call it, or exactly what kind of bike each of us chooses to do it on.

        January 25, 2014 at 6:53 am
  • Garth

    My wife’s first language is not English. She sometimes called them “gravy roads” on accident!

    January 25, 2014 at 6:43 am
  • Roberto

    When I got a Raleigh Grand Prix in 1959, complete with fenders, hub dyno and a rack I was all set for exploring the back roads around south Denver. A friend with a 3 spd Hercules and I would ride the dirt roads south of Denver up into the Rampart Range. My great grandfather was know for his riding from Denver over Corona Pass to Steamboat Springs to visit my grandmother in the summer. That’s real gravel riding.

    January 25, 2014 at 7:58 am
  • kevinmayne

    I suspect that that this trend mirrors what is happening in Europe following the burst onto the racing and sportif scene of L’eroica (the heroes) and the Strada Bianchi (White Roads) in Italy which have become almost overnight classics on the white dirt roads of Tuscany.
    They have in turn encouraged the organisers of the Giro to include dirt roads in classic stages. Given that a few years back there was only the Paris Roubaix this has been a surprising turn in both pro and amateur bike racing. Personally I love it, I was riding dirt roads and old railroad tracks nearly 30 years ago in the UK before mountain bikes and I think they are a great asset.
    However they can be foul on wet days!

    January 25, 2014 at 8:24 am
  • Jason

    What is the brand/model of the bag you are using in the pictures above? It looks like a nice one.

    January 25, 2014 at 8:44 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Gilles Berthoud GB 28. It is very nice and extremely functional and durable. I wrote about these bags here.

      January 25, 2014 at 5:06 pm
      • marmotte27

        There are two different bags up there. One’s the Berthoud, the other is the green one on the test bike pushing forward the light.

        January 29, 2014 at 3:26 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          The green one was on a test bike. I think it was an Ostrich. Definitely not as nice as the Berthoud, but it survived the test (500+ miles) fine.

          January 29, 2014 at 5:31 am
  • Alex

    This is a rare case of a trend being awesome, and one I can get behind 100%

    January 25, 2014 at 2:21 pm
  • Alex

    Also worth noting that the “Strade Bianche” road race is probably the fast-growing event on the UCI calendar, in terms of popularity. Though not technically gravel, it’s the same idea. I live in rural Maine and in all of New England the small dirt roads offer the most amazing scenery (oh, the old farms!), and the least amount of traffic. These are the roads that take you back in time.

    January 25, 2014 at 3:56 pm
  • thebvo

    I went over the handlebars two years ago because of too much clearance. Riding at less than 10 mph I picked up a stick about thumb width in my honjo fenders. The fender stays bent, the fender dented and my shoulder and wrist were sore for a week or two. It’s not a thing I want to relive and I’m glad I wasn’t going fast. SKS fenders have a quick release that has popped open for me in the past. I just stop and reattach the fender stay and keep riding. SKS fenders aren’t perfect, but until I can think up a quick release DIY for metal fenders I’ll make due with the safest option.

    January 25, 2014 at 9:06 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      There is a lot to fender safety, and I wish I could say I understand it all. I know people who went over the bars after their SKS fender quick release released… I hate to tout the advantages of wide tires again, but a wider fender is a lot stiffer, and less likely to crumple. Some of the old-style Lefol fenders were made of thicker aluminum and really, really stiff. Maybe we should ask Honjo to make some with thicker material, too. The weight difference wouldn’t be very large, since the weight of the fender is mostly in the stays and hardware, not the fender itself.

      January 26, 2014 at 6:26 am
      • Bob T.

        I know of a few riding friends who have picked up a small/thick twig in their front wheel spokes and they also flipped over. No fenders their their racing bikes!

        January 26, 2014 at 4:29 pm
      • msrw

        This seems like a great idea. A thicker aluminum fender would still likely be a lot lighter than stainless fenders.

        January 28, 2014 at 10:09 am
  • Heather

    There are many kinds of gravel roads. I live on one and can barely ride it without fear and peril. I live in the PNW, so there are many logging roads going up into the mountains, and they are gravel, but a very heavy grade of gravel. I prefer dirt roads with clay that have been packed down, or decommisioned gravel roads that have become packed down. I used to ride on prairie gravel roads years ago without a care, but I have developed a troublesome issue with vibration and getting itchy arms and legs to the point of tears. Somehow histamines get triggered and hives develop. So not fun. If anyone knows what that is about and how to deal with it, please share! I more or less gave up mountain biking because I couldn’t get down the long gravel road descents without. I’m not sure if it is just that none of my bikes have very good frames, or need some extra dorky padding, gloves?
    I do dream about riding on wild back roads though…

    January 25, 2014 at 9:11 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      In mountain biking, the vibrations were a problem for me, too. The best way to combat vibrations is with supple, wide tires, first, and flexible fork blades second. Padding is too far removed from the source of the vibration to be effective. Once you have the entire front of the bike vibrating, there is too much inertia, and you no longer can absorb it effectively. You need to keep the unsprung masses as low as possible, which is why tires are so effective in reducing vibrations.

      January 26, 2014 at 6:28 am
      • Heather

        Thanks! Supple wide tires of course would help, hadn’t thought about the fork, a flexible fork. Could the frame size/weight to rider weight be an issue? I’m pretty small and seem to run into this over and over. I had a surly for a few years which I loathed, but it handled dirt and gravel roads well. My old steel specialized hard rock was never a problem, I was all over different terrain with no problem, hours and hours of gravel road riding. Then I had a few aluminium bikes, shudder! anti vibration gloves would have been amazing.
        My steep road is currently the texture of cookie crumbs, with loose gravel strewn all over it.

        January 27, 2014 at 11:31 pm
    • Mark Schneider

      I agree, large 1 1/2 inch drain rock and washboard surfaces are challenging and uncomfortable. Using the largest tires your bike can fit like Jan implied is the best thing you can do. I’ve also used anti-vibration gloves for rough roads and it helped me. Some terrain however requires more hardware. Full suspension mountain bikes have their place. There are also some very good 29er sized steel frames that combines with tubeless large volume tires that are very comfortable. Running tubeless tires in the 25-28 PSI soaks up a lot of vibration.

      January 26, 2014 at 11:19 am
  • Michael Arciero

    I’ve enjoyed this post and comments. Thanks to those who posted links to rides, etc; especially cbratina for the western mass ride and Ty for links to San Francisco-area mixed-terrain rides. (I am planning a Northern Cal cycling trip for March).
    I’ve only been seeking out dirt roads to ride on in the last year or so, and have done a number of organized rides like D2R2, as well as lots of solo rides and rides with my girlfriend. In the Northeast where I live there are lots of very old, beautiful roads to explore in VT, Mass, NH, Maine. I really enjoy dirt roads for all the reasons others have cited-challenge, lack of traffic, scenery, etc. Another thing is that, because they are often much older, and built without the constraints of paved roads, dirt roads can embody the character of a particular place in a special way.

    January 26, 2014 at 8:10 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I agree that the old roads are much more beautiful and fun to ride. I wrote an article about “Collecting Roads,” which is available among the sample articles on the Bicycle Quarterly web site.

      January 26, 2014 at 9:41 am
    • Rob

      Berkshire County in Mass, particularly southern Berkshire County, has some of the best rides on dirt one can find….particularly around Southfield Ma, Sheffield Ma, and also over into Columbia County NY. If you enjoy the D2R2 you’ll find it ideal.

      January 27, 2014 at 11:14 am
      • Bob T.

        Don’t forget the Vermont Fall Classic 114/200k run by the New England Randonneurs. I rode their 200k this past September and it was a blast! This ride consist of 65 miles of dirt roads and enough hills to keep you honest. I rode with 32mm Pasela tires but there were sections that I wished I was using 35’s. Beautiful route, bring your camera and “A” game for climbing.

        January 27, 2014 at 12:20 pm
  • mountainbikeradio

    I dig it. I ride, organize rides and races of different distances, and love to see that people are realizing that they don’t need Lance Armstrong race bikes to ride everyday. I started a dedicated forum ( for it too alongside the events I organize and it’s been fun and informative.

    January 27, 2014 at 8:09 pm
  • alliwant

    In Wisconsin, we have gravel trails all over the state; I can travel well over half the way from Madison to Milwaukee going east by gravel, or down to the state line going south. We also have a huge network of low-traffic secondary roads. Thank dairy farms for that, they need good roads to get the milk out.

    January 27, 2014 at 8:57 pm
  • David Pearce

    Don’t think you allow reader photos in these comments. Suffice it to say Green Hornet did admirably on the Lierres over gravel & snow & iciness & puddles & mud on a beautiful day outside of Charlottesville, Va., before the return to the deep freeze today. The only “gravel grinding” before me is to clean the grit off of the chain & chainrings. The fenders kept me clean, but I still need to make a front mudflap.

    January 28, 2014 at 7:14 am
  • anthonyrussell2000

    Great article on riding gravel roads, Jan! I recently acquired a Surly CrossCheck for commuting and put on some wide (42) tires. Your article has inspired me to try out “gravel grinding”. Is there a list of gravel rides around the Seattle area that you are aware of? Also, are there groups that do this type of riding on a regular basis that post upcoming rides? Thanks again!

    January 28, 2014 at 8:55 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Most of us just ride with a few friends. Somebody maps a route, then we go and explore. Maybe some readers can point you to organized rides?

      January 28, 2014 at 9:20 am
    • Doug

      I don’t think there is as much of a “gravel scene” here like there is in, say, Portland. If there is they don’t publicize their rides. However, there are some good options nearby. To start, try:
      Marckworth State Forest
      Snoqualmie Valley Trail
      Iron Horse State Park
      North Fork Snoqualmie River (sadly much of the best riding here is now off limits without an expensive permit, as the private landowner has decide to restrict access)
      The “Three Volcanos” region of the Gifford Pinchot NF
      Hood Canal region of Olympic National Forest

      January 29, 2014 at 9:22 pm
  • Mike Thompson

    I toured in New Zealand 1979, remember the sign “Metal Road Ahead” I’m thinking, “what’s a Metal Road” another name for gravel road. We could really confuse this by saying, “Metal Grinding”

    January 28, 2014 at 1:48 pm
  • Rafal

    Hi Jan,
    I can not post on “Wide and Fast Tires” or “Tires: How Wide is too Wide?” so I leave post here. Moreover posting here on “Gravel Riding” would be even better.
    If you really enjoy Gravel Grinding, you should also enjoy probably the best tire on that surface: Schwalbe Super Moto 60-622. Please test is, but TUBELESS with Stan’s NoTube or other sealant. Riding Schwalbe Super Moto without a tube is like flying.
    There are some interesting data from the tire 60-559, but with tube:
    and 29” version (60-622) without tube would be even more interesting.
    I know it require some 29” capable bicycle, but it worth trying. Just give it a try and say what do you think. I would be even more glad if you make professional rolling resistance tests. It would be best of the best. Tubeless is the future even on road bikes and on gravel Super Moto with sealant is perfect.

    January 29, 2014 at 4:42 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I am glad you enjoy your tires so much. Based on our testing, there is no difference in speed or resistance between a 26″ or a 29″ (700C) tire. (We tested Schwalbe Marathons in 26″, 650B and 700C on smooth pavement and on rumble strips with a power meter.)
      Thank you for the link on the rolling resistance tests. Unfortunately, they didn’t include suspension losses, so they show once more that higher pressures have less resistance… It’s as if we tested aero wheels stationary, rather than spinning them, and then decide which ones are more aero.

      January 29, 2014 at 7:17 am
      • Michael

        Where did the Marathon (HS420?) 650b’s rank on speed, if that was the same rolling test of tires you did before where you found Nifty Swiftys 20% slower than the fastest tire?

        January 29, 2014 at 9:44 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          In addition to the rumble strip tests for wheel size, we also tested the Marathons on the track. I don’t have the results in front of me – we reported them in Bicycle Quarterly (Vol. 11, No. 3).

          January 29, 2014 at 11:21 am
  • Mr. Cranky

    If you want to do any distance (and not end up riding the same routes all the time) here in the Southwest you invariably hit gravel and end up in the “backcountry” which is what we always called it: “hittin’ the backcountry”. Mostly this was camptouring up on the Fort Apache Reservation or the White Mountains or the Sky Islands of Southeast AZ. I started out in the late 70’s/early 80’s on a Trek 614 with 27×1 1/4 Michelin World Tours ala Ian Hibbel. Pure fun/easily doable. Gravitated to MTB’s which I found sluggish and boring; then back onto 26″ Road bike in the late 90’s. Recently converted that bike to 650B and had a custom low trail fork made for it. Unfortunately all three permutations suffer the same fate on AZ roads: sidewall cuts. Hardpack substrate covered with angular scree eats sidewalls alive if you’re not “watchful”. I can live with it. Too much fun.

    January 29, 2014 at 8:33 pm

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