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If you haven’t seen the new species of spandex-clad cyclist on a dirt road near you, well, you must not live anywhere near a dirt road. Gravel biking is the newest arrival to the already dizzying field of off-road cycling disciplines, and it’s taking the industry by storm.
First, let’s define gravel biking. Essentially, it’s much like it sounds, riding on dirt and gravel roads. And what’s so great about dirt roads? “A big part of it is safety,” said Nate Miller, owner of the Ridgway Wrench bike shop, just outside of Wagner’s hometown of Telluride, Colo.
Every road biker has had bad experiences and close calls with drivers who aren’t paying attention or, worse, who are paying attention and want to take their road rage out on every cyclist they pass. (The danger is even leading some roadies to ride with a Go-Pro on the front of their bikes so they can capture the license plate of offensive drivers.) Dirt roads, on the other hand, see far less traffic, and the cars they do see are traveling at a much slower speed.
“In Ouray County,” Miller says, “there’s not one ‘share the road’ sign. The shoulders are crappy, so everyone is taking to the gravel.”
Another major factor fueling the gravel trend is that getting into nature is appealing, but a lot of folks are put off by mountain biking’s steep (and very rocky) learning curve. Using the network of dirt roads that crisscross mountainous and rural areas, riders can get into some of the same beautiful and remote terrain, but without ever going over the handlebars or falling the wrong way (always the wrong way) down a steep switchback. (It’s also gaining popularity among bikepackers, because many mountain bike trails are unrideable with heavy panniers.)
Technology has enabled the sport’s progression, too, because the evolution of off-road bikes makes it possible to build a ride that’s comfortable going long distances over rough terrain. And while the range of what the industry considers to be a “gravel bike” is huge—everything from a hardtail mountain bike to traditional cyclocross bike—Miller says there are a few important factors to keep in mind.
Gravel bikes have wider tires than road bikes, so you can run them at lower pressure to help with shock absorption on washboard roads. (Most true gravel bikes don’t have suspension, though some of the more adventure-oriented ones can.) Running a tubeless setup is key, too, Miller says, so you don’t have to spend your day changing flats. Gravel bikes also have more relaxed geometry than cross or road bikes, and they have gearing that’s closer to a modern mountain bike for a wider range of terrain and speed.
As for places to go, essentially any dirt road or fire road is fair game, but hot spots are generally mountainous places that attract active people and lots of traffic. And, because of the increase in popularity of gravel bike races (called “gravel grinders” or “gravel fondos”), the sport is putting places not previously associated with cycling—like Kansas, Michigan, Arizona, Oklahoma, Michigan, and Arkansas—on the map.
Essentially, gravel biking is like road biking with a huge dollop of adventure—and it’s not going to go away anytime soon.
“I would rather breathe dust than exhaust,” Miller said. Seems like sound enough logic to us.
Interview by Kimberly Beekman
Kimberly Beekman is the former editor-in-chief of the late, great Skiing Magazine (RIP), and a longtime editor of SKI Magazine before that. She currently uses the title of “freelancer” as a beard to ski powder all over the world. She lives in Denver, Colorado, with her wonderful daughter and terrible cat.