Gravel riding is sexy these days – so says an old roadie who was a teenager in Central Africa. He said, “Gravel wasn’t so fashionable in the Fifties. It was all we had to ride on. We complained because the blacktop ended five miles out of town. So we learned the skills, from scratch, using a road bike with beefy so-called ‘high pressure’ tires. Those were the days when most Italians used to ride on the ‘white roads’ – the gravel strade bianchi.”
But now, as roadies take to secondary roads in droves, there is blood on the gravel. A confident road man who relies on muscle memory and road holding skills well suited to smooth modern surfaces may be cruising for a bruising. Unless he studies how Eroica riders tackle loose surfaces, using cycling skills that date back to the nineteenth century. Here’s a checklist for the newbie – the Ten Commandments of gravel riding.
Don’t tense up, especially on the bars. A tiny twitch on the steering is all you need to change direction on the road. The response on a loose surface is not immediate. Gravel is not ice, but it can be almost as slippery. Tense up, and you could go sliding sideways. That’s one of the easiest ways to pick up a painful doze of gravel rash. So slow down and go with the flow. Try to create a bike and rider combination that behaves as a single unit – and not a panicky person mounted on a runaway two-wheel contraption.
2 STAY ALERT
Look ahead and pick your line. On the road, it is often easier to sit someone else’s wheel, for aerodynamic reasons. But following the rear wheel ahead of you may hide dangers that lie ahead on a winding gravel road. Body steering and patience will give you the leeway you need to skirt an upcoming obstacle in good time, with a gentle and confident steering input.
3 DONT LEAN TOO FAR
On the road there are fewer nasty surprises such as potholes and fallen branches on the road. You can fearlessly lean both the speeding bike and yourself through a corner, on the assumption that no hidden obstacles lie in your way. On gravel you won’t be traveling so fast. It’s safer to lean the bike under you, which keeps your body more upright and stable. This lessens the likelihood of a painful side slip.
4 GET DOWN ON THE HOOKS
Riding on the brake hoods is comfortable, especially on a long mountain pass with a good paved surface under you. But in a situation where the rubber meets the rubble, getting down on the drops gives you more stability and lowers your center of gravity. Especially when the road is heading downhill.
5.NO SUDDEN MOVEMENTS
Twitch – and you’ll end up in the ditch! Keep it smooth and steady with steering input and gear changes that are based on what you can see up ahead. Sudden changes in gear ratio and cadence performed in a last-second panic move – that behavior may come off on the road. But on the gravel, it’s you, the rider, who will come off – in a dive over the bars.
6.LOWER THE PRESSURE
This one’s easy to forget. But with a tire that’s normally used on smooth surfaces, the contact patch can be tiny, to cut rolling resistance. But out on the gravel, you need a bigger contact patch for more grip. So remember to let a few PSI out of the rubber before you start down a gravel road on your road machine.
7.THE SEVEN CONTACT POINTS
Left and right hands on the bars, feet on the pedals, butt on the saddle – and the two tire contact patches front and rear. Everything should be in a state of equilibrium. Which is why you should keep your butt firmly planted on a gravel climb. Rising out of the saddle is a tactic that’s fine on the Mortirolo, but can leave you in a dangerously front-heavy position on a steep gravel climb. The rear wheel might even spin, meaning you’ve lost one of the seven hold-fasts that keep you stable and glued to the Earth’s surface.
These are your knees, elbows and ankles. Rise off the saddle and keep them bent at an angle. They can take the sting out of downhill obstacles such as rocks and potholes. If you stay in the saddle, you’re at risk of a shock which travels all the way up your spine to rattle your head. If you’re a Peter Sagan fan, and a bit of an expert bike handler, the bunny hop is a good way to avoid a nasty jolt. Just jump over whatever’s in your way.
A roadie need not keep his or her pedals turning all day, especially downhill. That’s why the freewheel was invented. But on gravel you should never freewheel, unless you’re jumping an obstacle. Keep turning those pedals at a comfortable cadence so that the tires bite into the gravel surface, adding to your stability with a forward urge. You stay in control – not the bike. Remember that a cycle saddle is not something you can sit on all day in comfort. It is actually a device intended to create the most efficient pedal stroke. Your pedaling action actually decreases the pressure on your ischial tuberosities – more widely known as “the sit bones” of the pelvis.
There comes a time when it’s best to let the bike go where it wants to, particularly when you hit a deep patch of sand or gravel that sucks at the front wheel. Keep pedaling to maintain momentum and don’t fight the bars. Sir Isaac Newton said that a force applied to an object will make it move in a straight line. And some cycle philosophers agree with him, believing that a bike stays upright because it started upright and has a force acting upon it. There’s an opposing school of thinkers who theorize that a cycle stays upright because the rider constantly steers “into the fall”.
There’s no place for that debate in this gravel road article – but here’s the thing: It’s sometimes easier to let the bike find its own way out of a sticky patch. Because when you try to turn the bars, the deep gravel tends to grab your front wheel and twist it sideways. So use a light touch and keep turning the pedals – and the bike will blast through for you.