Gravel Riding Basics

The worst fall I ever experienced took place on a gravel-covered fire road back in the early 80s. It was during a mountain bike race, and I came into a turn going way too fast. I grabbed the brake levers, and promptly locked up both wheels. The bike slid out from under me, and then yours truly met the aforementioned gravel up close and personal. Twenty five years later, I still get a little sketched-out when riding deep gravel, and judging from this article on, I’m not the only one who finds riding on gravel to be a bit challenging.

The key to successfully navigating gravel is to ride relaxed and loose. When you hit a patch of deep gravel, try not to tense up. Don’t panic and grab both brakes or over-steer to correct any drift. Instead, try to let the bike take its natural course, and fight the urge to make sudden or extreme changes in direction or speed. Stay calm, and concentrate on riding as light as possible (no death-grip on the ‘bars, either). Moving in the straightest line possible will usually keep you upright. When cornering, stay off the front brake, and keep your weight balanced between both wheels.

Climbing on gravel often presents two different challenges. The first is rear-wheel traction.  If you climb out of the saddle on paved roads, you can be in for a rude awakening when you attempt the same method on gravel. Instead of standing, remain in the saddle and gear down, concentrating on maintaining a smooth cadence. The other challenge is front-wheel traction. Some riders will naturally move forward on their saddle when climbing, and this places more weight on the front wheel. A front wheel that’s heavily weighted can have a tendency to wash out on gravel (or even soft dirt). As with cornering, try to spread your weight evenly between the front and rear wheels when climbing on gravel or loose dirt.

Before you attempt an all-day epic on unfamiliar gravel roads or trails, take the time to practice braking, steering, and climbing on more familiar terrain. Learn how your bike–and you–will react by riding a few different sections at various speeds, trying different lines. It may feel overwhelming at first, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly you adapt and develop the necessary skills to ride with confidence.