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I’ve been doing a lot of gravel riding the last couple of seasons. During that time, I’ve also tested gravel tires, wheels, shoes, and shorts and written about my experience with how a roadie goes groadie.

Don’t worry, I haven’t gone totally to seed. I’m still a roadie who happens to really enjoy gravel riding as a great change of pace and for pure fun of it.

Meanwhile, and for all of you roadies who are trying or have come to riding gravel for similar reasons, here are a few things I’ve learned about riding it that I wanted to share with you. These can make a real difference in how well and safely you ride those unpaved roads.

1. Keep your butt down when going up – Roadies often get out of the saddle going up steep grades. We also lift up and shift our weight from the saddle to the pedals and use our legs rather than our butts as shock absorbers when we go over rough pavement or shallow potholes.

Don’t do that going up hills and steeper grades on dirt and gravel roads. If you want your tire tread and knobs to give you the traction they were intended for, you’ve got to have them in contact under load with the road surface. Keeping your weight on the saddle is the only way to do that.

Without it there, you can spin out going uphill and your bike can bounce around out of control.

2. Pedal through the rough stuff – Another roadie habit is to ease up when going over a rough section of paved road. I get it. Pedaling through on hard tires can cause you to bounce around so we try to coast through while focussing on keeping our bike under control.

On rough dirt and gravel surfaces, do the opposite. Your tires are your cushions. Your pedals are your power. If you stop pedaling, you hand over control of your bike to the rough road beneath you. If you pedal through it, you keep the tension in your drive train and transfer your power to your wheels.

You control the road by putting the amount of force into your machine needed to power through the rough stuff.

3. Be Zen with your gears – Whether powering through the rough stuff or going up steep dirt and gravel sections, you need to move through your gears with the calm attentiveness of smooth shifting.

Quickly dropping or adding two or three cogs at once on an unpaved surface as you might on paved roads when hitting the base of a climb or after getting over the top can change the traction between your tire and the dirt or gravel beneath you in a way that can cause you to spin out.

The same goes for suddenly altering your cadence while in the same gear.

While you may need to quickly change your power or cadence, do so in a more linear, progressive way. It might take 3 seconds or clicks versus 1, but being more intuitive rather than abrupt about it will keep you better connected to the road.

4. Gradually turn your bars – Smooth, hard, consistently paved roads allow for quick turns, even rocking side to side on your road bike. Loose, soft, consistently changing unpaved dirt and gravel surfaces call for calm, gradual changes in direction and keeping your gravel bike underneath you.

If you quickly turn left or right on soft dirt or loose gravel you’re bound to break your bike’s momentum and hit the ground. Not good. While you may feel the urge to suddenly change direction seeing the sand or rut or rock or other surface change immediately in front of you, don’t.

Look further out in front of you than you normally might on your road bike. Plan your turns or direction changes earlier and gradually move through them.

5. Choose your line – When we’re cruising along on road bikes, we mostly need to worry about what’s happening in front and behind of us and to either side.

Riding uneven dirt and gravel surfaces adds a third dimension, what’s happening below us, that we seldom think about on paved roads. It changes the game in important and exciting ways and, for me anyway, makes for a heck of a lot of new fun.

To pull this off, you need to constantly be looking ahead and picking the best lines to ride. You’ll want the ones with the smoothest, most compacted, and most consistent surface.

When cornering, you’ll want to keep your line options open. While on a road bike where we’ll always want to take an outside line through the apex of a turn, you may need to consider cutting an inside line when riding gravel if the outside line looks too rough or loose to allow you to complete your turn without sliding off the road.

And while the center of the road may look more inviting and less roughed up than the more worn down sections where there are a lot of tire tracks, there also may be some hidden rocks or other obstacles and a crowned curvature there that you want to avoid. I’d stay away from the center line.

6. Hands in the drops when descending – Going downhill on rough surfaces will bounce you around a bit. With your hands in the drops, they’ll tend to stay more secure and give you better leverage on your front wheel. The flared bars you’ll see on most gravel bikes will also tend to spread your arms out a bit for a more stable descent.

7. Practice your descents – Unless you come from a mountain biking background, descending a 10% or even 5% pitch on a washboard dirt road or a technical gravel section can be scary for a new groadie.

You may feel the need to brake a lot on tougher sections or the whole way down on steeper ones. That can lead to sliding and loss of control. When you do brake, you want it to be on a straight section rather than in a corner to avoid washing out and going down.

Over time, you’ll want to practice riding downhill out of the saddle with your weight further back than you would on your road bike to maintain good traction with the gravel surface.

Like any other skill you want to develop, you need to practice descending to build your experience and comfort level. Knowing which lines to pick, when you can let it go, and when you need to slow down takes reps. Do hill repeats on dirt and gravel for the skill-building of the downhills, not just the conditioning of the uphills.

8. Keep your hands and arms light – Keeping a loose grip on your handlebars will keep your front wheel from jumping off the ground as much as it would with a tight grip and tensioned arms. It will also prevent you from draining the energy from your upper body after even a couple of hours on a gravel ride or tiring what little arm and upper body muscles we roadies bring to off-road riding.

9. Ease up at the unpaved-paved junctions – Government road crews spend millions fixing and repairing asphalt roads every year. Every jot or tittle, be it leveling utility covers with the road surface, joining the seams between concrete bridges and asphalt roads, or painting uniform lines down the road seem to be looked after.

There seems to be little attention paid or budget allocated when it comes to the transition between unpaved and paved roads. Perhaps it’s just where I ride, but I’ve found that where the dirt ends and the pavement begins usually includes a rut at best or a washed-out section at worst. Whatever it is, it’s never seamless and often is a downright rude transition.

*    *    *

That’s my short but essential list of gravel riding tips through the eyes of a roadie.

What about you? I’d love to read a tip you’ve learned that has been key to your success going from road to gravel. Share it with me and your fellow enthusiasts in the comments section below.

Since I first published this post, two experienced coaches did a great job podcasting on this topic. I encourage you to listen to their advice at the links below.

Thanks for reading and supporting In The Know Cycling. Enjoy your rides safely, both on the road and gravel!

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  • Nice article and information that is useful to me. I have a Specialized gravel road bike on order, having borrowed a friends bike a few times. The narrow tires and handling is sure different from my MTB that I’ve been riding a long while.

  • I have just found your site and was perusing some articles. I have been riding bikes off and on road since 1975 and was interested in what you had to say on this subject. I found its pretty spot-on. I would like to add something about point #8 – Keep your hands and arm light. I love bombing downhill gravel roads and I always keep a tight grip on the hoods ( I almost never ride in the drops). Keeping a grip on the hoods prevents that unseen rock or pothole from ripping your hands off the bars at speed. Not a comforting feeling! Do keep your wrists, elbows, and shoulders somewhat loose for a shock absorbing effect, but grip those bars!

  • You may be a Cat III roadie, so try not to act and ride like a Cat V. Gravel rides are attracting bigger and bigger crowds each year. You’re not gonna win, so back off on the throttle and enjoy the experience. I’ve been crashed out more doing gravel events than racing MTBs at the expert level for 9 years.

  • I miss one tip: breaking. I was on MTB’s first, and climbing in the seat, and shifting weight on descents s great (they even have a GT Grade with a dropper post as a standard, something that didn’t even exist back in the (my) days). But donwhil breaking on gravel, loose ground, slippery stuff or big gradients: stay away from the front brake! Your frontwheel will probably go wild or you might be launched over your bars. Only use (moderate) rear brake. Might give you some skidding, but that won’t drop you.

  • Good article. IMO, descending on gravel requires the highest priority in skill acquisition. Plan ahead! Weight back, use legs to stay light on the saddle, choose line well in advance, use mostly rear brake, feather front brake very lightly to maintain front tire control.

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