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Five Things I’ve Learnt About Gravel

Gravel bikes are all the rage at the moment so in order to keep things trendy I’ve been getting hands on with the Ribble CGR and having an attempt at riding ‘off the beaten track’. I’m not going to lie, I’m a bit like Bambi on ice when it comes to leaving the tarmac but I’m steadily getting to grips with things. Over the last few months I’ve learnt a few things about gravel riding.

1. It’s hard work

When I first picked up my gravel bike I naïvely assumed that riding off the beaten track would be no harder than riding out on the road. I was wrong. Fundamentally you can only push the same amount of power through your legs as you would on the road, but you’re constantly forced to engage your core and arms far more than on the road as you adjust across the varied terrain. It’s also far more mentally engaging and you constantly look ahead, trying to pick up the right lines, avoid the biggest holes or bunny hop over obstacles.  

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2. You’re going to feel slow

This one doesn’t come as too much of a surprise but the speed differential is greater than I expected. You’re never going to get the speeds achieved on a ‘smooth’ tarmac road, but I had expected to be a couple of miles per hour slower at most. So far, most of my rides have averaged about 13mph over technical terrain compared to a comfortable 20mph out on the road. When route planning it’s worth knocking a few miles off the plan if you’re on a deadline. 

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3. Route planning is hard

I’ve found it quite difficult to pick up true gravel routes and link sections together to make a good distance ride. Most ride planning apps still lack any good off-road overlay so planning a good route takes patience. Komoot is a handy tool and one I’m new to using but quite often the best resource is a good old fashioned map with bridleways and other accesses labelled. The second option is to follow riders on Strava locally that ride off-road regularly; chances are they ride a lot of routes that have been passed down over the years. All of this helps avoid being chased by angry farmers.

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4. You’re better waiting for the dry days

It might be significantly more gnarly to go off road when it’s wet and winter but you soon live to regret it. Pad wear on brakes increases exponentially and you end up spending more time cleaning the bike and yourself that you do riding it. If you can hang on a few days for the trails to dry out slightly you can save a lot of cleaning time and everything just rolls that little bit quicker.

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5. Tyre pressure chat

On a road bike nobody really talks about tyre pressures and people seem to think higher is better. Off-road it seems is quite the opposite. Initially I had my tyres pumped hard and as a result probably ended any chances of having children. I’ve learnt that even when you think you’ve got the pressures low enough, you can probably lose a few more PSI without too much concern. If you’re lucky enough to own tubeless wheels you can start to dabble into some really low tyre pressures for the muddier of adventures, though so far, I’ve had no issues running tubed either.

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Riding off-road has been a refreshing experience so far and one that I’ll continue to explore as we move into summer. It’s slower and harder but you get to explore a much wider range of landscapes in an often peaceful environment. I need to work on my route planning but bit by bit, I’m working out where I can ride without being chased by an angry farmer or falling down a badger den. Hopefully I can work on my tyre pressure chat too before I meet some decent gravel riders!