Gravel Riding Techniques
There are riding techniques associated with gravel roads, that will differ from what you may be used to, especially if you’ve spent hours of your life astride a road bike.
Frankie Says Relax
If you missed the 1980’s musical reference there, take this simple advice. Keep a relaxed grip on the handlebars, preferably with hands securely wrapped around the bar top, or in the drops. Keep elbows bent and relaxed.
Some people are advocates of aero bars and such for the longer gravel races. In my opinion, aero bars have no place on gravel roads, regardless if you’re riding solo or with others.
Sure, the additional hand positions are nice, but the lack of control, especially when you’re tucked on the bars and away from the brakes, is less than optimal on a gravel road. Additionally, it just looks silly on a gravel bike!
Don’t make the mistake of turning your handlebar sharply entering turns. This can cause the front wheel to slide and lose traction. Shift your weight, turn your hips into the direction you want to go, and gently lean.
If the road allows it, take a wide berth leading into the corner, ride through the apex (or close to it), and exit in the same manner to which you entered. This is the preferred line.
Remember – Riding the apex ISN’T always the safest or best technique. Often, the insides of corners are heavily rutted, and there is always vehicular traffic to consider. Never ride the apex of a blind corner. Safety first!
Keep it Planted
Remaining seated in the saddle keeps your weight centered over the bike, which is essential for maintaining traction for the rear wheel. This is particularly important when climbing on loose surfaces.
Descending across Washout or Washboard
Avoid braking, allow the bike to float over the rough stuff. While counter-intuitive, this is even more important while taking a corner. Braking over the rough stuff causes the bike to skip off the ground and lose traction. If you must touch the brakes, gently feather the rear brake only.
Gearing and Sand
Generally, I like to turn a slower cadence over really bad roads. Maintaining a higher speed is always desirable, while the slower cadence helps with “floating” over the worst of it. Note how European road professionals tackle the cobbles of Paris Roubaix.
Riding through really loose stuff, including sand, is best handled with a smaller gear and higher cadence. Momentum is key. Keep turning the pedals fast and avoid getting bogged down. Keeping loose and relaxed is doubly important here. Allow the bike to float, do not fight the handlebars.
Stick to the Correct Side of the Road
In the USA, ride towards the right side of the road. In Australia, ride towards the left side of the road. In other words, just because dirt and gravel roads are often devoid of traffic, doesn’t mean you should wander all over the road. Stick to the side of the road appropriate with the country you’re riding in.
In particular, this is most important while ascending. A vehicle cannot see over or through a hill, and they cannot see you until they crest the hill, at which point it may be too late.
Rule of thumb, safety first!