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Gravel Biking 101: 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. The same goes for the gravel community and events. But this is not an article about why gravel biking is cool. Today, I am here to share a few starter pointers and then some tips on how to hone your basic gravel skills and improve your technique, assuming that you already love this way of cycling.

I am a bike guide who has ridden with many people. This has allowed me to observe common mistakes made by road riders and even mountain bikers. My tips could make your off road or gravel rides ten times safer and more fun through your bike setup, technique, and by managing body weight shifts as you are challenged on different terrain that can be very unpredictable. But that’s the fun!

First things first

One major difference between a gravel, a road and a cyclocross bike is the amount of fork clearance for tyre width. Tyres somewhere between 32 and 40mm wide with an aggressive tread are optimal for stability on gravel roads. The wider the tyres, the easier it is maintaining traction and control on steep climbs, or as you are riding along the trail. To get you started in the right direction, pay attention as not all forks widths are the same. Make sure the tyres you want to run fit.

Let’s talk gearing. Does your bike have a 1x drivetrain (only one ring up front), or a double chain ring crank? Both work fine, but newer bikes are coming out with a 1x groupset because it essentially replicates the amount of speeds a double ring crank offers, but with less weight. This is accomplished through a larger and more varied number of teeth on the rear cassette. This setup typically offer a greater number of smaller gears, which is perfect for most gravel courses and rides. Momentum is your friend when tackling obstacles and climbs on a gravel ride.

Now, let’s get to it!

Cornering on your gravel bike

A rider on a gravel bike in the woods going through a corner.
There’s nothing more thrilling then leaning into a corner, changing direction, and flying away from the apex.

Both in mountain biking and road cycling, the general rule for cornering is to essentially try to ride a straight line through the corner. This is perfect on a normal road surface and mountain bike trails, but it could be dangerous when riding gravel. The reason is that the inside part of the berm is usually made of rough stuff, so you want to try to avoid it. To do that, you need to control your pace. Practice riding the smoothest line possible.

Understand that gravel riding is accepted as a slower form in the cycling world and that going at a moderate pace is OK. Get the idea out of your head that riding at a higher speed does not necessarily make you a better gravel rider. It’s only important if you are interested in getting into gravel racing, but you need to improve your bike handling skills, particularly over loose surfaces, before you can ride faster.

Once you adjust your pace, it is time to set up the corner. Resist the temptation to play with the handlebars too much as it could cause you to lose traction and then lose control. Instead, take a good hold of your bars, but not a death grip, and prepare your body weight by putting it into a correct cornering position. Let’s say you are turning right. Think about your pedals and bars. Apply pressure on the left pedal (outside foot) and on the right hand (inside bar). The principle is the same for road bikes in corners, the two forces (one outside, one inside) negate each other to keep your weight centered. And generally speaking, you should always be looking forward where you want to go, not down.

Last but not least, taking is slow doesn’t mean too slow. You need to find the right velocity that will allow you to roll over smaller obstacles. If you are interested in learning a list of common gravel bike terms, click here.

Braking on gravel bikes

A gravel rider going through a rough section which requires braking skills.
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 stuff

Whether you planned it or not, it is common for a gravel road to turn rougher in some sections. I always welcome that because it is a part of the enjoyment. Having to deal with so many different conditions in the same ride is why I love gravel riding. The best way to enjoy this kind of terrain is simply to pedal over it in a smaller gear.

With each pedal stroke, you transfer weight to your feet and release some from your saddle. Sitting lightly on the saddle means you can use your legs as shock absorbers to dampen the ride. I also shift my body position slightly back, over the rear wheel, so I can relieve the strain off my arms. Keeping your elbows bent will also help absorb shocks.

When I started in the sport with other gravel riders, I was hitting rock gardens and rough terrain 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 technique to improve my skill level.

Climbing steep gravel

A gravel riding climbing steep gravel path.
Master that steep climb.

If you come from road biking, forget standing during a climb while on gravel. Try staying seated as much as possible to maintain traction (especially on the back wheel) and concentrate on using your leg muscles. Rough surface climbs are not linear. Sometimes, instead of a higher cadence, you need to grind more to roll over some obstacle, fine gravel, dirt or sandy sections. So, once again, seated climbing is crucial for more 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 peppered among loose gravel on rough descents disappear.

Stay relaxed when descending. Most gravel specific bikes don’t have a front suspension fork, so remember to keep your elbows slightly bent, or they will transfer all the shocks from the bumpy terrain directly to your body. Also, just as we discussed when pedalling over rough surfaces, stand slightly on the pedals and leave about 1 cm between the saddle and your bum. This way, your legs will absorb the biggest shocks. Always look ahead; don’t focus on your front wheel.

Try to pick the cleanest line possible. Get low in the drops of your handlebars and keep a firm grip. I personally struggle with that because my gravel bike has a very aggressive geometry so I can also use it for road biking. Therefore, when I’m in the drops, my upper body and neck get sore after a while from continually scanning ahead. So, I tend to use the top of my bars a lot. Maintain a firm grip, not a loose one, if you do the same! It’s easy for hands to slip with unexpected terrain changes.

I hope you enjoyed my tips and found them useful. This See you out there in your local gravel ride soon!