Gravel Biking 101: What Are the Basic Skills?

By Filippo Mari

Gravel biking is becoming more and more popular. Some people think it is just another marketing move from the bike industry but I truly believe that it is here to stay. But this is not an article about why gravel biking is cool. Today, I am here to share some tips about how to improve your gravel-riding skills, assuming that you already love this way of cycling.

I am a bike guide who has ridden with many people so I could observe that there are some common mistakes that could make your ride ten times safer and more fun when tackled. So, let’s go for it!

Cornering on your gravel bike

There’s nothing more thrilling than leaning into a corner, changing direction, and flying away from the apex.

Both in MTB and road cycling, the general rule for cornering is to essentially ride as straight as possible through the turn. This is perfect for paved roads and MTB trails but it could be dangerous for gravel riders. The reason is that the inside part of the berm is usually rougher, so you want to try to avoid it. To achieve that, you should control your speed. You need to understand that gravel riding is a slower form of riding and that going slower is OK.

Once you adjust your speed, it is time to send the turn. You should resist the temptation to turn the handlebar too much as it could result in losing traction. Instead, you need to assume a correct cornering position. Let’s say you are turning right. Apply pressure on the left pedal (outside foot) and on the right hand (inside bar). Always watch the direction where you want to go.

Last but not least, don’t go too slow. You need to find the right speed that will allow you to ride over smaller obstacles.

Braking when gravel riding

Take it easy on the brakes.

In the previous section, I mentioned adjusting the speed. But how to do that properly? The golden rule is to take it easy on the brakes. Brutal panic braking will only result in the loss of traction. Instead, you should brake gently and gradually until the bike slows down. In the case of turns, it is better to do that while you are riding straight sections. Let the brake go just before approaching the turn so your front wheel can roll without losing grip.

Pedalling over rough flat stuff

Whether you planned it or not, it will always happen that a gravel road will turn rougher in some sections. I always welcome that because it is a part of the fun. Having to deal with so many different conditions in the same ride is why I love gravel riding. The better way to enjoy this kind of terrain is simply to pedal over it. As you pedal, you will transfer weight to your feet and release some from your seat, allowing you to absorb the shocks by sitting lightly. I also shift my body slightly back, over the rear wheel, so I can relieve the pressure off my arms. When I started gravel riding, I was hitting rock gardens too hard which resulted in a lot of pain in my shoulders and elbows. I am very careful now and always try to focus on my riding skills.

Climbing steep gravel

Climbing steep gravel
Master that steep climb.

If you come from road biking, forget standing during a climb while on gravel. You need to stay seated as much as you can so to maintain traction (especially on the rear tyre) and to use as much leg muscle as you can. Climbing rough surfaces is not linear. Sometimes you need to grind more to roll over some obstacle or fine gravel or sand. So, once again, seated climbing is crucial for traction and power.

Overcome obstacles while descending

A steep climb means a steep descent later. Be ready. As for the cornering, you need to moderate your speed by braking properly. But that alone will not make all the potential potholes and rocks you might find on your way disappear.

Stay relaxed. Most probably, you don’t have a front fork so if your arms are rigid, they will transfer all the shocks to your body. Also, stand slightly on the pedals and leave about 1 cm between the seat and your butt. This way, your legs will absorb the biggest shocks. Always watch ahead, don’t focus on your front wheel. Try to pick the cleanest lines. Get low on the drops so you can keep a strong grip on the bar. I have a problem with that because my gravel bike has a very aggressive geometry so I can also use it for road biking. Therefore, when I reach for the drops, my neck gets sore after a while from continually scanning ahead. So, I tend to use the top bar a lot. Pay extra attention not to lose the grip if you do the same!

I hope you enjoyed my tips and found them useful. See you out there!