Off the Beaten Path: Why You Should Try Gravel Grinding

Ready to grind?

Born on the rutted farm roads of the Midwest, riding gravel is less technical than mountain biking, but still allows you to get far away from the cars and crowds that dominate smooth paved roads.

And it’s growing in popularity.

The mother of all gravel grinders is Unbound Gravel, a race where cyclists cover 200 miles of Kansas gravel nonstop and unsupported (you carry your own tubes, food, water, etc.). Launched in 2006 with only 38 riders, the race this year is expected to draw more than 1,400 participants.

Event organizer LeLan Dain believes that along with the beautiful scenery gravel grinding has to offer, cyclists appreciate the camaraderie inherent in the ride. “There is a great community vibe to gravel grinding. These events are almost 100% grassroots, unsanctioned ‘races,’” he said. “And I use the term ‘races’ loosely, because the point of these events is usually to finish above all else and then have a great time at the after-party afterwards.”

But you don’t have to ride 200, 100 or even 50 miles to enjoy this emerging sport. You just need the right gear, some basic bike-maintenance skills, and an adventurous soul.

Personally, I jumped right into grinding (before ever having ridden a proper road bike) while training for the first annual Rebecca’s Private Idaho last year, a new timed ride on the winding, washboard roads of Sun Valley, Idaho.

I am by no means an endurance athlete or an expert cyclist, but I’ve grown to love the exciting and unpredictable nature of gravel.

Here are some tips to get started.

Get the Gear

So, let’s start with the bike. What do you need to be comfortable?

If you plan on riding relatively short distances, you could be very comfortable on a full-suspension or hardtail mountain bike. But, seasoned grinders typically ride cyclo-cross bikes, which pair the lightweight frame, 700c wheels, and drop handlebars of a road bike with the higher clearance and fatter tires needed to ride rough. Some companies have even introduced gravel-specific bikes designed for adventure.

Rebecca Rusch, two-time female winner of the Unbound Gravel race and founder of “Rebecca’s Private Idaho,” asserts that tire selection and pressure are key. “Get tires with some good tread and a beefed up sidewall to prevent punctures. Also, run a much lower tire pressure than on a road bike—I ride about 45 psi on my gravel bike compared to 100 psi on my road bike. If your tires are too hard you’ll be in for a very rough ride and decrease your traction on the road.”

After getting two flat tires during one 50-mile gravel ride, I understand firsthand the importance of a lower psi.

Since you will encounter much more vibration when riding gravel, you’ll definitely want padded shorts and gloves. Adding mountain bike pedals and shoes will help you keep pace during climbs. For long rides, you’ll definitely need a hydration pack, water bottles and cages; you might be too far away from civilization to replenish your water supply on the road.

Fuel and Hydration

Riding gravel is a more grueling workout than road riding, because of simple resistance, and if you add climbs to the mix, you’ll definitely feel the burn. To avoid bonking, you should eat both before and during your ride.

“Aim to consume about 300 calories per hour using a combination of a sports drink and food” says Mitzi Dulan, RD, a nationally recognized nutrition expert. “Drink about 24 ounces per hour and make up the additional calories with energy gels or a banana.”

Fixing a Flat

Finally, carry some extra tubes, tire levers, and either a pump or a C02 cartridge and make sure you know how to use them. I took a free bike maintenance class at REI before we embarked on long rides.

When you’re rolling down a quiet country road, listening to the crunch of rock and dirt under your wheels, you just might feel a new connection to your bike and to nature.

So, grab a friend. Get dusty. And grind!

Photo credit by Tal Roberts of Rebecca Rusch.