Written by Don King
Thinking about the equipment you need for gravel riding?
While riding off the pavement on your rim-brake road bike with 25c or 28c tires is possible, I do not recommended it. Taking your road bike on some of the local dirt trails is a perfectly reasonable thing to do if you are on a decomposed granite pathway (like the Del Mar Trail) that ends up being smoother than the Via De La Valle pavement parallel to it. However, don’t take that blissful experience and extend it to the hundreds of miles of off road trails, connectors, double track and even the few gravel paths we have in San Diego County. You might point to some historic racing photo prior to the 1950’s and say, “People used to ride road bikes on the dirt 70+ years ago, I don’t need a gravel bike!” You are technically not wrong, but your decision is not a very wise one if you also think you can keep up with someone on a gravel bike with disc brakes, 42c tires and wider gearing.
Here are some of my recommendations in order of least to most important:
- GPS navigation allows you to follow bread crumbs to keep yourself on track if you are off the front or have lost the group for any reason. Hey, flats happen even with tubeless! The ability for these handy devices to navigate you to home or water can prevent a ton of frustration. It also means if you are losing contact with the group, you don’t have to take any chances to stay in touch. Keep calm, wait for a smooth section where you can better use your effort to re-establish contact with the group on the route. Also, if you can see a shortcut, it might make sense to take it and wait for the group to come by on the route. Many gravel routes make this possible.
- Gearing, the easier your gearing the more fun you will have. The pinnacle of this right now is the SRAM Mullet setup capable of a 520% gear range. Everyone who doesn’t have this on their bike is envious for good reason. The ability to sit on steep climbs with less effort and then be able to stay with road bikes without spinning out of gears is a game changer. Some people don’t like the somewhat larger jumps between gears, but that’s a small price to pay vs being dropped from the group because of a gearing disadvantage!
- Tires, 38c to 42c tires are the favorites of our locals. Larger, heavier tires are exactly that, larger and heavier, which also means better puncture protection, traction, and most are not as slow as you believe they are on the road. Tire choice is a very personal thing, and I leave that up to you and the limits of what your bike can fit. Generally, a 42c or larger tire will have more traction in corners and increased stopping power and puncture protection than a 38c tire of the same make and model. The reason is lower tire pressure distributes the weight of your bike across a larger area. If something is trying to puncture through tire casing, it doesn’t easily go through a larger tire because the larger tire is pushing on that point with less force.
- Disc brakes, especially hydraulic disc brakes, increase breaking power and modulation control of those larger tires. The combination of a larger contact patch on the road and dirt mean more control and stopping power resulting in a safer experience.
In summary, you might not want to take some or all my advice, and that’s perfectly fine! It is the responsibility of each of us to make our equipment choices. My choices mean my setup is slower than a road bike on the road, and slower than a mountain bike on the trail. But I can enjoy the ride no matter where I am going, and the possibilities for how I am going to get there are endless.
One last thing, if you don’t feel in control, or nervous about where and how you are riding, that’s a clear sign you need to slow down! It also might mean dismounting. Have a look at my gravel shoes and you will be able to tell I have done my fair share of hiking!