Gearing Up For Gravel
It’s a new year, so why not try something new? The world of gravel is constantly expanding and there are a multitude of events through the calendar for you to sink your teeth into. However, choosing the right kit can be quite the task when the options are endless. With that in mind, we’ve created a guide that should help you through the decision-making process, explaining what you might need and why.
Though gravel bikes may appear fairly similar to a road bike at first glance, in reality they are different beasts. Gravel bikes will typically feature a more upright position than your traditional roadie, keeping you comfy on harsher ground by putting less strain through your body. Combining a shorter stem with a slightly longer top tube improves control when the trails start to get technical.
Though clearances on road bikes are increasing thanks to the use of disc brakes, gravel bikes will typically come with clearance for at least 700x40c and can often accommodate up to 700x45c. Here are some of our top picks when it comes to gravel bikes in 2022:
Gearing – 1x or 2x?
1x setups have taken the industry by storm over the last few years, but 2x is still just as popular as ever – so which should you choose?
When it comes to 1x, all of your gears are accessed sequentially. Simply put, there’s no need to switch chainrings at the bottom of a steep climb, making those unexpected inclines a bit more easy to deal with! 1x chainrings feature narrow wide teeth, improving chain retention over bumpy surfaces and despite the single ring, a similar range of gears is maintained by using a larger cassette.
Whilst removing the front derailleur and big chainring will reduce weight, this is largely offset by the introduction of a wider range, heavier cassette – it’s the simplicity that is the real benefit.
2x setups are still the easiest way to achieve a wide range of gears with minimal jumps between cogs, allowing you to find your perfect cadence. Bigger chainring options also mean that should there be lengthy sections of tarmac between gravel, your speed won’t be held back by your gearing. If you’re likely to put your gravel bike into service as a winter road bike too, then 2x gearing is a sensible choice.
Wheel Size – 700c or 650b?
Most gravel bikes you come across will be compatible with both 700c and 650b wheels, so your choice generally comes down to your intended use.
700c reigns king on the road, demonstrating faster rolling resistance thanks to the larger wheel diameter – this is also applicable to tightly packed gravel where speeds are high and technical trails are few and far between. If there’s plenty of road riding between gravel sections, rolling on 700c wheels won’t hinder your speed.
Is your intention to explore the rough and tough trails on your gravel bike? 650b could be the right choice. With the ability to run a wider tyre in a given frame size over 700c, the larger volume and lower pressure comes in handy for increased comfort and grip on loose, chunky gravel.
Not every gravel ride is made equal. Oftentimes gravel riders will own a set of each wheel size so they have the option to switch depending on the route and location.
In terms of tyres, there are two main things to consider: width and tread.
As a rule of thumb, wider tyres with a more aggressive tread lend themselves to off-road grip and stability at lower pressures, sacrificing some straight line speed in the name of comfort and confidence. Narrower and slicker tyres are ideal for mixed rides where most of your time is spent on tight packed gravel or on tarmac where speed is king.
Choosing the right tread can be influenced by the conditions you expect to ride in. In the dry, you’ll be able to get away with a pair of semi-slicks, where a low profile centre tread maintains speed on the road, whilst larger side lugs keep things under control on looser ground.
In the wet, knobbly tread patterns offer all-round grip to maximise traction on the rough stuff. Wider tread patterns suit these conditions, largely due to the bigger lugs having space to find a footing and their ability to shed mud, whilst a tighter tread will roll faster but runs the risk of retaining mud.
Whilst it may be tempting to use your current road shoes, it’s worth considering a new pair if you’re planning to venture onto the gravel.
The beauty of off-road riding is that you don’t always know what’s around the corner, but when that’s a loose rocky 20% incline, you might find yourself going for a stroll! That’s easier said than done with road shoes and cleats, however MTB shoes with recessed cleats and grippy soles are significantly easier and comfier to walk in. Double-sided MTB pedals are also much easier to clip into, especially when mud is involved.
Riding off road presents new challenges, with terrain being extremely varied and often unpredictable – one minute you might be working up a sweat on a steep climb, the next flying along a bridleway or crawling your way through a technical trail.
Constantly changing effort will result in fluctuations in body temperature, so it’s important to layer right. Wearing easily removed extras (arm/leg warmers, gilets, gloves and baselayers) allows you to regulate that temperature to avoid overheating, or underheating.
The UK weather isn’t exactly tropical, so you’re probably used to carrying around a waterproof jacket with you, and the importance of this is even more apparent when heading off the beaten path. It doesn’t even have to be raining for you to get wet – groundwater from prior days will get you sufficiently soggy, which is a surefire recipe for getting cold quickly.
For the same distance and time, chances are you will use up a bit more energy on the off-road than you would on tarmac, so it’s important to stay on top of your fuelling. That means you’ll need more snacks, and somewhere to put them!
On-bike storage is ideal for ride fuel and spares, and will come in all shapes and sizes from compact saddle bags, to bar bags, to full size frame bags. Unless you’re heading out on an overnight trip, you shouldn’t need too much. Bar bags and smaller frame bags are a popular choice, as they’re easily accessed on the move and keep additional weight relatively low.
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