Intro to Cycling Blog #5 – Get into Gravel

By: Justin Lethbridge, Communication and Event Coordinator

November 10th, 2020

In our last blog we spoke with Nutritionist Anne Guzman about the role nutrition plays in preparing for a ride and what optimal training nutrition would look like on longer rides. This week we spoke to Dan Marshall from Substance Projects and Brendan Gorman the organizer of the Eastern Canada Gravel Cup about gravel cycling.

What is gravel riding? In essence, gravel riding is taking your bike off the road and onto dirt lanes, gravel paths or sandy trails where you can enjoy the world around you during your ride. Director of Substance Projects and gravel event organizer, Dan Marshall said that to him gravel is the perfect combination of road racing and mountain biking.

“You’re really getting the best of road riding but without the traffic, and on more interesting roads. You’re also getting the best of mountain biking but without obstacles or sketchy downhill sections. It’s actually really great for fitness as well, tons of fun and you’re not worrying about the traffic or obstacles…. I’ve also never heard anyone complain about overcrowding on a gravel route.”

Photo Courtesy of Brendan Gorman

While gravel does pull in aspects from other disciplines, the terrain you’re on dictates how fast you go and the slower speeds allow you to take in the scenery. You don’t have to worry about your technique, your speed or your time, all you have to worry about is finding a new trail to go out and enjoy.

“The best part about gravel cycling, for me,” Organizer of the Eastern Canada Gravel Cup Brendan Gorman said, “is looking for and riding on new roads; the sport is all about exploration.”

Getting started with a new sport, even a different discipline than what your used to, can be a real challenge. Dan Marshall said that for gravel cycling, one of the best parts is how easy it is to get started.

“As long as you have a functioning bike, brakes and a helmet you can go out and ride. Just find areas with interesting features or look up good gravel trails online, we’re lucky in Ontario that we have a lot of rail trials that make for excellent gravel routes, so all you really need to do is start riding.”

Brendan Gorman added that there are many different ways one can start getting into gravel, but he advises getting in touch with someone who has experience.

Photo Courtesy of Brendan Gorman

“One place someone could start is by joining a Facebook group dedicated to gravel riding. I’m a member of the Ontario Gravel and Adventure group as well as the Gravel and Adventure group. There’s always plenty of people seeking and giving information, opinions and assistance.”

As for what type of bike you need, there’s tons of variety to choose from. Dan Marshall said that during events he’s seen people riding everything from road bikes with thick tires to fat bikes and mountain bikes. While you can spend over $5,000 on a high-end gravel bike, he said that it’s simple enough to convert your road bike to handle off-road.

“If you ask 50 people what a gravel bike is, you’ll get 51 answers. My advice would be to get the widest tires you can fit on your frame; you want to have at least 31mm or 32mm tires. That’s the biggest thing is having wide tires because without those you’ll have floatation issues.”

Brendan Gorman agrees that you need wide tires but added a few other pieces of equipment that will make your ride more enjoyable.

“Wide tires for sure but also bug repellent, mountain bike shoes, cold weather clothing, bicycle bags (at least a saddle bag), spare socks and a computer (or phone app) that can navigate.”

Photo Courtesy of Dan Marshall

In terms of technique, the main change is the mindset. The terrain isn’t as smooth as the road meaning you won’t be going as fast but that’s ok, you’ll get as much of a workout thanks to the terrain.

“It’s about patience,” Dan said, “ride at your own comfort level and pace. Take it slow and bring up your speed as your skill and experience increase.”

One of the benefits to gravel can also be one of the dangers in that the routes you take are more remote and less well-travelled. If you run into any issues you have to be prepared to handle them yourself. That means being self-sufficient with the tools you bring and making sure you have extra water to compensate for the increased distance you’ll have to go for a rest stop. While this does mean bringing more gear, you can turn the rides into a longer event, even an overnight camping excursion.

Another benefit is the casual atmosphere, you’re not just riding at a more relaxed pace but you don’t have to worry about what your wearing. Dan Marshall said that’s another aspect that he really enjoys about gravel riding.

“You don’t have to worry how high your socks are or anything, everyone is really relaxed. There’s such a variation in attire, you can see a large cohort that looks like they’re going to a road race or a group of riders all wearing cut-offs and flannel. You can ride any way you want, wearing whatever you feel comfortable in.”

Photo Courtesy of Dan Marshall

As for how to decide on a route to ride on, Brendan Gorman said that there a few things that make a gravel route enjoyable.

“Good company and a willingness to travel a little distance to start a route. It depends on what you have available in your area in terms of possible routes, but generally the roads with the least traffic make the best routes.”

Whether you are looking for a change of pace, some scenic routes or a new challenge, gravel riding can offer all that and more. In addition, there are many gravel events held throughout the year including the Eastern Canada Gravel Cup Series.

“Go off the beaten track and explore,” Dan Marshall said about getting started, “there’s so much beauty to be found in Ontario and gravel let’s you see it all from your bike.”