Welcome to the Basics of Gravel Series (B.O.G.)! In this series I will attempt to bring a very foundational knowledge of gravel and back road riding to anyone reading that may be curious or a beginner in riding off-pavement, but not wanting to be mountain biking. There will be a new entry every Wednesday until the series is complete. To see the schedule, click this LINK. Thanks!
Today I'm going to talk a bit about how you should ride on gravel. Yes.....just pedal. I get it. That works, but there are certain nuances, that if you are aware of them ahead of time, they may make your riding easier and more enjoyable. I will make a special note here that this post will not include certain 'rules' and suggestions for safe riding on gravel. That will come near the end of the series. No- this will be a bit more skills oriented.
|Having your bike in good, working order and correct air pressure is important.
There are certain things you can do before you even turn a pedal to make gravel riding more enjoyable and easier. Number one- Is your bike in good working order? You need to answer with a simple, unqualified 'Yes!' to this and no 'buts'! If you are not adept at doing mechanical repairs and adjustments, now is the time to head to the local bicycle mechanic to get a 'tune up'. Now, if you have answered 'yes' to that question, or if you've gotten that tune up, the next thing is.....
Setting Air Pressure: "But I just got a tune up!". Yes, I hear you, but gravel riding is a bit different than your average riding on pavement. And- you really should know about how to set air pressures on a bicycle tire. It's something that is part of riding a bike that makes life much easier with a bike. Okay, first- Look at your tire's sidewall and find the air pressure ratings. They will be in a range, listed as 'psi' or 'Bar' which are units of measure for air pressure. We are concerned with 'psi' here in the USA. You Europeans and elsewhere in the world may be used to "Bar" pressure measurements. Now, you need a gauge, or a pump with a gauge. Next, you need an air source, if you don't have a floor pump for bicycles. If you go to a gas station, or are using the garage air compressor, be very careful. Those push a LOT of air in VERY quickly. Go in short, little bursts of air in that case. Now, you should have seen a range of pressures when you inspected your tires, and for this example I will arbitrarily use a range form 40psi-80psi.
The temptation is to pump up the tires to maximum allowable air pressure rating. THIS IS WRONG! It's been proven scientifically in several studies and experts agree- DO NOT PUMP UP THE TIRES TO MAX PRESSURE. Not unless you are a very heavy person or are carrying a very heavy load. MOST people should go on the lower end of the range. In my 40psi-80psi example, I, weighing at 250lbs, would use 40psi everyday. In fact, I usually do not pay any attention to the recommendations and use lower than recommended. But that's me, and I've been riding gravel for 15 years or so. Beginners? Use the lower end of whatever range you find on the tire. Remember- There is no RIGHT air pressure, but there are a lot of WRONG air pressures. Experiment with air pressures a bit and experiences will guide you. Just do not default to MAX pressure.
|Ride The Good Line- Note the smoother area here?
This will give you the best ride quality, the best stability, and actually, it will end up being faster. I know, I know.... 'Uncle Johnny' says he's been on RAGBRAI, done five sprint triathlons and "knows" max pressure is best, but don't believe him. He's been disproved by several studies.
Two Complications: First, there are two popular types of valves used most for bicycle tires. The "Presta Valve" and the "Schrader Valve" (Yes- there are others, but we're focusing on these two most used types.) Click the links and compare the images to what your bicycle has. MOST pumps from a bike shop will work on either type. Gas station air pumps only work on Schrader style valves in the U.S. You can get adapters for Presta>>Schrader, which will convert the Presta Valve to be able to accept a Schrader Valve compatible air source, from most bike shops. Make sure you understand which type you have! (The rest of the techy stuff isn't necessary, but geek out if you want to)
Second Complication: You need to constantly check air pressures on bicycle tires. It is the way that it is, (again- I could bore you with techy details), so just know that it is a 'best practice' to check air pressures before any ride.
I'm sorry if all that seems nit-picky, but tire pressure is paramount to your having a good experience as it is the only component of the bike that touches the ground and is responsible for much of what makes a bicycle work. It only makes sense then that this is a focus point.
NOW we can get on to the riding! Phew! Okay- so you see a gravel road, and you may wonder which part of this you should be riding on. First off- STAY RIGHT at all times. This will come up later and I'll delve into more details. Secondly- Ride The Good Line. What does that mean? Well, look at the image to the left here. Can you discern where the car and truck tires have pushed aside the looser gravel? That is "The Good Line". It's the smoothest line. It's the fastest line. Secondly, you need to understand something about your bicycle....
All Bikes Want To Stay Upright: That's right. Once the wheels are spinning, a bicycle wants to naturally keep the bicycle upright and stable. So, if you find that the County has just laid fresh gravel out that goes from ditch to ditch? Don't worry. Take your time, shift to an easier gear, and pedal. Now for a couple of tips here.
Don't Grip The Bars Tightly- Don't Tense Up! - Stay loose and don't get tense. The bike wants to stay upright, remember? Let it do its thing and don't fight it. Of course, you'll need to correct the steering with some light handlebar inputs, but tensing up will amplify trouble and increase your fatigue exponentially. Those are not fun things. We like fun. Keep it fun! If that means going slower, so be it.
|Going down? Image by Celeste Mathias.
When Going Downhill, Use The Hover Technique - Going down hill on gravel can be a somewhat harrowing experience, and a dangerous one, unless you know a few techniques which will render down hills something you'll look forward to instead of fearing. You mountain bikers already know this technique, but 'hovering' over your bike with your weight firmly planted into the pedals stabilizes your bike tremendously. Here's how it works:
First, I suggest practicing this on level ground in a safe environment, like an empty parking lot, or in a grassy field. Don't wait until you face your first gravel down hill!
Now, as you get up some speed, coast, level your pedals out (Think Three O'clock-Nine O'clock) and lean forward a bit so your chin comes up over your stem a bit. Now, press down on your feet, lifting your butt about two to three inches off the saddle, but no more than that. Keep your knees bent and legs loose. This is the basic position you want to use on gravel down hills. Keep elbows bent slightly, and stay loose- don't tense up on me now! Look where you want to go- waaay ahead! Do not stare at your front tire, or even just in front of it. Keep your head up, and look where you want to go. It's key.
Now even if you hit loose gravel on a descent you'll be okay. As long as you don't tense up, as long as you keep your body hovering above the bike, pedals at the level, and do not grab a handful of brake at any time! With that said, here is how you moderate your speed.
Drag baby, drag! You want to let that brake allow the wheel to keep spinning, but you want to have those brakes dragging on the rim or disc rotor juuussst enough that you begin to feel the speed decrease. Gravel and loose dirt can be tricky to brake on, so using a drag technique is best, because it can be really easy to lock up the wheel, and then you are in BIG trouble. Don't like speed? Start dragging the brakes early. As you get a feel for this you'll be able to 'modulate' the power, and even let off the brakes in intervals. Practice this in the same place you practice your down hill techniques first. Just remember- squeeze those levers gently, and don't panic. Use BOTH brake levers. Don't be scared of the front brake!
An Advance Technique: This is not paramount to starting, but eventually you can add these ideas to further stabilize your down hill experiences. I like to bend my legs in as I hover until my knees squeeze the top tube of my bike and my inner thighs might even squeeze the saddle. This lends a bit more of a feeling of stability, and you may find that comforting on looser down hill descents. Just don't sit on the saddle. Keep your weight firmly on the pedals.
So, here's the tip. I see a hill, I DO NOT WAIT TO SHIFT UNTIL I AM CLIMBING. Bicycles do not like to shift when you have tremendous pressure on the pedals and shifting when your legs are making slow revolutions is also hard on drive trains. "Spin To Win", or in other words, get your revolutions up in speed and try to keep them there at all times on a hill. Shifting just before a climb to keep legs freely spinning is good- but spinning like a whirling dervish? Bad. Find a happy medium. Keep your legs at THAT speed. When you sense that the gradient is forcing you to put more pressure on the pedals and that your leg speed is starting to drop? SHIFT! Do that as often as need be until you find a rhythm. In other words, a pace you can maintain with relative ease. If you are out of shape, or if the hill is too steep, too long, or too rough, you may end up walking. That's cool. I walk a LOT up hills every year and I've been cycling for decades. It's not a sign of weakness. And by the way- these tips go for electrified bikes as well. Doesn't matter.
Try to keep your breathing from running away on you as well. Heavy panting and slow leg speed is a sure sign that (a) you are out of shape possibly or (b) you did not shift enough or early enough. Now I get it- There are other things that could cause these issues, but if you are a healthy individual with a decent working bike with a wide range of gearing? These principals apply.
Single speeding it? Well, momentum is your friend, and learning the specific single speed techniques you would need to be a successful climber is beyond the scope of this particular article. But suffice it to say that 'walking should be considered an integral part of your cycling experience', especially if you are just starting out on gravel.
Next: How To Be Self-Supported While Riding Gravel and Why.