Updated: Apr 21, 2022
You’ve probably heard rumblings about the meteoric rise of gravel cycling in recent years!
Since I finished the Rift 100K last month and I’m heading into the Overland Gravel Race next weekend, I figured it’s a great time to talk about gravel cycling!
You’ve probably heard about the meteoric rise of this new type of cycling in recent years. While it’s not really a new sport, it’s definitely enjoying a lot more popularity. Everyone from pro triathletes like Angela Naeth to amateur cycling enthusiasts are jumping on the bandwagon. But is it really a fad or temporary craze? We don’t think so!
What Is A Gravel Bike?
A gravel bike is actually more of an all-terrain bike or “adventure bike.” They’re designed to tackle a wide variety of terrains--including paved roads (though they’re not usually great at the bigger obstacles that mountain bikes can navigate). The geometry is slightly different than road bikes for more stability, durability, and comfort. They typically look like a road bike with wider tires and more tread, so you’ll have better traction on different surfaces.
Gravel bikes tend to offer greater speed benefits and more comfortable body positions for endurance riding than mountain bikes. Many gravel bikes can easily carry extra gear for ultra-events or bike-packing excursions.
Top 5 Reasons Endurance Athletes Should Get Into Gravel Riding
While this is not an exhaustive list, here are five reasons I think endurance athletes should consider adding gravel riding to their training and adventure opportunities.
1. Enjoy year-round cycling adventures
One option might be to have a different bike for every season. (N+1, right?) That might be a good approach for many, but it’s not always feasible. A gravel bike can be an excellent all-around bike for a wide variety of cycling, from commuting around town to grinding out long miles in the backcountry.
Gravel bikes are versatile enough that they open up a whole new world of route options! Whether you’re hoping to link road sections together, avoid busy thoroughfares, or even explore the countryside, you’ll enjoy the freedom and sense of adventure.
2. Boost your cycling-specific strength
Gravel cycling will undoubtedly make you a stronger rider as it helps you boost cycling fitness and muscular endurance. This is especially true for road cyclists and triathletes.
Many “gravel grinder” events cover challenging terrain that will test your endurance and strength in ways that road and triathlon races don’t. You’ll need to put out bursts of power to get over small hills and rocks and navigate the ever-changing terrain.
Additionally, bikes don’t roll over gravel and unpaved terrain easily or smoothly, so there’s added energy cost to hold the same speed or go the same distance compared to paved roads. So, you’ll gain strength, endurance, and overall fitness that translates well to other types of cycling.
3. Improve your bike handling skills
While this benefit might not apply quite as much to mountain bikers, road cyclists and triathletes will benefit from the opportunity to improve their bike handling skills. Riding on gravel or dirt roads requires more attention and skill as you navigate potholes, rocks, sand, and loads of other challenges. This will help you better handle unexpected turns, speedbumps, other wayward riders, and other obstacles when you’re cruising through a road ride or triathlon!
4. Reduce the pressure to push yourself or “perform” on the bike
Road cyclists and triathletes likely feel the pressure to push themselves or work hard whenever they go out for a ride. Gravel riding offers the opportunity to ride with a different mentality while getting the same training and fitness benefits!
5. Add some gravel grinders to your racing calendar
When you’re feeling confident on your gravel bike (and you’ve caught the gravel bug), the natural next step is to add some “gravel grinders” to your racing calendar. Whether you go straight for the Belgian Waffle Rides or the UNBOUND Gravel event, or you prefer smaller events, there are countless gravel rides for cyclists of all abilities.
These gravel events open up a whole new list of opportunities beyond the traditional cycling, mountain biking, and triathlon seasons, and they’ll help diversify your training and racing calendar.
A Few Things To Expect For Your First Gravel Riding Experience
As you’ve probably gathered, gravel cycling is different than riding on roads or mountain bike trails. Especially for the roadies among us, there are a few things you’ll want to know or be aware of before you head out for your first gravel ride.
Expect to go slower than on your road or triathlon bike
Unless you find unusually smooth gravel conditions, even some of the fastest gravel grinders only average 10 to 16 miles per hour on many routes. This might not shock mountain bikers, but roadies and triathletes might need a bit of time to get used to these new expectations.
Know the gravel conditions to choose the right tires and gear
Roadies and triathletes typically don’t change tires often (relying more on PSI to adjust tire pressure and traction). There are various gravel tire options for different conditions, so make sure you have an idea of the conditions you’ll face on your route. Savvy gravel cyclists will load their intended route onto a bike computer and bring a cue sheet along as well.
Some gravel routes can get pretty technical. If you’ve spent most of your cycling hours on a triathlon bike, you may want to ease into the more challenging courses as you gain experience and confidence.
Expect some vibrations, jolts, and a rougher ride
Pro tip: invest in the extra padded cycling shorts and padded gloves! Gravel riding comes with incredible scenery, lots of new areas to explore, and a lot of jolting, bumping, and vibrations, too. You’ll appreciate extra padding in the chamois and in your cycling gloves to help absorb some of those vibrations and give you a more comfortable ride.
Overall, gravel cycling can be a great way to stay active, explore new areas, and add variety to your training and racing! Though triathletes may need to be strategic about the amount of time spent on the gravel bike, there are many benefits to adding gravel cycling adventures to your life!
Have you started gravel riding recently? If so, we’d love to know what you love about it! If you’re interested in learning more about gravel riding or training for a “gravel grinder” event, contact us to learn about our coaching options!
Gregg Edelstein is a certified USA Triathlon Level 1 Coach, an IRONMAN University Certified Coach and a USA Cycling Level 3 Coach based in the greater Boston area. Gregg offers his athletes insight on the principles of exercise, nutrition, sports psychology, and injury prevention, working to make them well-rounded and engaged athletes that share his passion for sport. Gregg can be reached at Greg@TeamMPI.com