Off-Road Cycling: An Introduction to the Down and Dirty World of Gravel Grinding

For years, “roadies” have been finding dirt alternatives to asphalt with nothing more than tougher tires and a sense of discovery, otherwise known as off-road cycling. Even in the early days of cycling’s biggest races—The Tour De France and Giro d’Italia—many of the stages traversed high mountain passes with “unimproved” roads. It was a gritty yet romantic time—riders wore goggles, carried spare tires around their necks, and filled water bottles in local streams.

Just like the pioneers of the sport, just about anyone with a road bike can create their own off-road adventure. And there are plenty of reasons to leave the tarmac, including safety.

The idea that riding on loose, gravely roads can be safer than cycling on asphalt might seem counterintuitive, but the fact is that while rocks and ruts abound, one hazard is definitely absent: Cars. In 2014 (the most recent year for which data is available), there were no less than 50,000 cycling injuries and 726 deaths resulting from accidents with motor vehicles in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And in light of such statistics, it’s no surprise that fear of cars is increasingly becoming an impediment for road riders, or that fire roads and dirt paths, which are refreshingly free road rage and texting teens, are becoming increasingly attractive.

 

What Kind of Bike Do You Need for Off-Road Cycling?

Which brings us to one of the cycling industry’s latest equipment trends: Gravel grinders—bikes designed specifically to perform on and off road. They look like road bikes, but generally come with sturdier components, disc brakes, tougher tires (often “knobbies”), and unique frame geometries (low center of gravity, long wheelbase, tight steering, etc.) that make them behave more predictably in loose conditions.

These machines are so new that the industry has yet to settle on an official name for them. Indeed, gravel grinders are also called adventure bikes, multi-surface bikes, and ‘cross bikes, depending on whom you ask.

If you’re an early adopter, the thought of such bikes likely stirs excitement deep inside you. After all, it’s not every day (or year, or decade) that cycling evolves a new segment. But if you’re just getting started, the machine you currently have in your stable is likely capable of doing the job—with a few key modifications—until you decide that you want to go all in.

 

Off-Road Cycling Equipment

Tires

Tires are the most important components to address in off-road cycling. Ditch the thin, race models for tougher, wider rubber. Put in tougher tubes, too. Most road frames can accommodate a 25mm tire, which is the minimum width recommended for ventures into dirt, but go with the widest tires your frame can handle. The goal here is enhanced grip and durability, which is why you should also keep your tire pressure 10 to 20 psi below normal.

Shoes and Pedals

Mountain bike shoes and pedals are also “nice to have” items, especially when you have to unclip and walk. Ditto for padded gloves, which will help dampen the vibrations traveling through the frame, and a backpack, in which you can stash extra tubes (carry two), tools, a cellphone, and lunch. Two water bottles will cover most hydration needs, but a hydration bladder (stored conveniently the aforementioned backpack) will allow you to carry hours’ worth of fluid (up to 100 ounces).

Where to Ride

For route planning, lean on technology. Strava.com, mapmyride.com, and ridewithgps.com are just a few of the sites where you can find adventures that others have discovered and shared. Look for routes with wide dirt roads or fire roads, and beware of anything labeled “singletrack.” That’s a keyword for technically challenging terrain and is no place for a road bike with off-road dreams.

The path you are traveling will likely not be marked (because it’s called off-road cycling for a reason), so download your route to a GPS device, but keep a folding map on hand to cross-reference your GPS data, which is notoriously not error-proof.

Off-Road Cycling Riding Style

Regardless of whether you buy a new bike or modify your existing one, you’ll need to adjust your riding style to avoid taking a trip over your handlebars. When things get sketchy, get into an attack position: Lift your butt off the saddle, position your pedals at 9 and 3 o’clock, lower your chest, put your hands in the drops, and relax your elbows.

If you’re a skier, the strategy is similar to what you’d use for tackling moguls and ungroomed slopes—you want to get your center of gravity low to enhance both your stability and to absorb bumps with your legs. Also stay low in turns—especially off-camber ones where the path slopes outward—changing your pedal position to 12 and 6 o’clock with the outside pedal in the latter position. Transfer your weight to that outside pedal as you make the turn.

Most important of all, have fun. Gravel grinder rides and races are growing in popularity and cropping up all over the United States, so there is no shortage of opportunities to get your tires dirty with off-road cycling. As one Los Angeles bike ship puts it, don’t be afraid to “unpredict your journey.” We couldn’t agree more.