Unlike other cycling disciplines, gravel riding is very accessible in the sense that it is not required to have an extremely specific bike. Gravel rides are usually on wide jeep track, and although it may get bumpy at times, the routes are never very technical. In fact, you could hop on almost any bike and start enjoying the amazing experience of gravel riding. However, even though it is possible, riding up the Lebanon climb on your childhood tricycle, is far from ideal. So, we decided to write a guide on what to do, and what to avoid when choosing a bike.
I think it is important to first discuss how you could take a bike you already own and transform it into a gravel machine.
Even though road bikes look most like gravel bikes, they are probably the least suitable bikes out of this list due to their stiff build and often lack of both disc brakes and wide tire clearance. However, it is possible to tweak your road bike and make it more suitable for gravel adventures.
Upgrade to wider tires
Wider tires result in more grip, more stability in turns, and crucially: less vibrations. It is generally recommended to run the widest tires that your frame and brakes can take. This is absolutely the most important upgrade you can make so it is worth investing in gravel-specific tires.
Although now common on newer road bikes, many older models will not support disc brakes. If your bike is compatible with them, we would highly recommend installing disc brakes as this will result in far superior braking and will allow you to run wider tires which has many advantages.
There are a couple things which could be optimised in the drivetrain. Getting a derailleur with a clutch as seen on mountain bikes, will dramatically reduce the amount that the chain moves and falls off with the increased impacts of gravel roads. If you are investing in a new derailleur to achieve this, getting a longer cage derailleur would be preferable. This will allow you to install a cassette with larger cogs to ensure a lighter gear for climbing. If getting a longer cage derailleur is not an option, you would be limited in how large a cassette you could run. Alternatively, you could buy a “road link” from wolf tooth components which allows you to run a wider range cassette.
If you are willing to invest in a whole new drivetrain, getting a “one-by” mountain bike drive train is also a great option, however this would cost more.
A small upgrade which can make a big difference is getting a more comfortable saddle. Road bike saddles are generally very hard and aggressive, and this can make them uncomfortable when riding on bumpy roads. Getting a more cushioned saddle will improve your comfort on long rides.
Getting thicker bar tape will not only improve comfort, but it can also reduce fatigue. Road bikes, obviously, do not have suspension, so when descending on gravel your hands and arms take a beating. Thicker bar tape will help reduce this and allow you to ride for longer.
Mountain bike pedals and shoes
Mountain biking shoes are generally far more durable than road biking shoes, and this makes them a better long-term investment regardless of what bike you are using. They are also far more appropriate for walking if this is ever required. However, this does require you to use different pedals which is a downside if you are looking to save money.
Getting a cheaper set of wheels
This is not a necessary upgrade and is only worth it if you are going to switch between riding road and gravel often. Getting a cheaper set of wheels will prevent your expensive road-rims from getting damaged. You could also keep your wider tires and larger cassette on this set of wheels which makes switching between road and gravel bike extra easy.
It should be noted that these modifications and upgrades are not a necessity, however, they will make your gravel rides far more comfortable and enjoyable.
Mountain bikes are probably the easiest to adapt to gravel riding, so if you have one it should be your first choice. However, the type of mountain bike that you decide to use should be considered. Cross-country and marathon bikes are far preferable over long-travel trail and enduro bikes because their geometry is already far more climbing-focused.
Once you have decided on a bike, there are a few modifications that would help you along the way.
Lower profile tires
Having harder compound, lower profile and thinner tires will reduce rolling resistance and weight which makes for better power transfer. Soft compound grippy tires are great for trail riding but are a waste for gravel riding as their large profile will only slow you down. The hard compound will ensure that they last long.
Running higher pressure
Running higher pressure will decrease the risk of punctures and increase your riding speed.
A gravel bike is, obviously, the most optimised bike for gravel riding, but what sets it apart?
Gravel bikes are designed to be slacker and have a more relaxed geometry than a road bike. They have a longer wheelbase and lower bottom bracket which provides stability through rougher sections and at speed. A longer headtube and slacker headtube angle make steering far less twitchy than on a road bike.
All gravel bikes are designed with disc brakes as they provide more powerful braking and are more resilient when used in wet or muddy conditions. They provide more braking control which inspires confidence on gravel roads.
Due to the lack of rim brakes, frame designers can incorporate large amounts of tire clearance into their frames. This allows you to run tires upwards of 40mm in width, which provides the crucial grip and comfort that gravel bikes enjoy.
The drivetrain on a gravel bike is exposed to far harsher conditions than on a road bike. This means that gravel bikes have derailleurs with clutches that prevent the chain from coming off. Some even opt for “one-by” drivetrains like those seen on mountain bikes.
Although not originally incorporated, suspension on gravel bikes is becoming more and more common, with some brands even releasing dual suspension bikes. There are many suspension systems out there for gravel bikes, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. The best solution for you will obviously depend on your local terrain and your personal preference. A friend of ours bought a Lauf fork for his otherwise hardtail gravel bike and he swears by it, however, we have never felt the need to invest in suspension.
Gravel riding is definitely not about the bike, but we hope this article has shed some light on the different options out there. Our best advice would be to get out there as soon as possible and see what your preferred riding style is, before getting caught up on which bike to choose.
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11 on Karkloof
11 Karkloof is a rustic old Mushroom Farm in the beautiful KZN Midlands, only 6.5km from Howick, set in prime farmland of the Karkloof valley. Surrounded by the best single track in Southern Africa, the farm is the ideal starting point for mountain biking.11karkloof.co.za
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The Shaw family have been on this farm since 1852. The Karkloof range is one of the largest privately owned indigenous forests. It has been the pride and joy of all the five generations who’ve lived here. Hikers, birders and lovers of flora and fauna, have over the years enjoyed disappearing among the “giants” for a day, far from the bustle of everyday life.bushwillowcaravanpark.co.za
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