The Art of Gravel Riding

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Not so long ago most cyclists made a U turn when they arrived at a gravel road. Nowadays, the internet is searched for ‘undiscovered’ gravel paths and a gravel bike is part of the standard equipment of the average cyclist. With the ultimate gravel race just around the corner, Strade Bianche, we zoom in on the ‘key elements’ for riding on gravel.
Strade Bianche, which literally translates ‘white roads’, is a very young classic with only the 13 editions to its name, and 2020’s will represent number 14. Yet on this short list of winners you’ll see some of the repeated names. Riders of the likes of Cancellara won it three times and Kwiatkowski did so twice. It’s also striking that relatively many cyclo-cross riders have been on the podium in the past, such as Wout van Aert. That a cyclo-cross rider like Van Aert or a cobble specialist like Cancellara excel on the gravel paths around Siena is not surprising. For both cobblestone and cyclo-cross riding as well as on gravel, there are a number of diffrent factors from racing on asphalt.

the effect of ROLLING RESISTANCE

First of all, the gravel surface provides greater rolling resistance. This means that at a constant power output, the amount of rolling resistance in the total resistance is higher on gravel than on asphalt. Assuming that the slope resistance remains the same, this means that the remaining resistance, the aerodynamic one, plays a less important role. This means that the so-called ‘draft effect’ (the effect of reduced resistance when you ride in the wheel of the rider in front of you) also gets lowered. In other words, every cyclist is more dependent on the gravel and you can hide less than in a large peloton on asphalt. Additionally, because of the increased rolling resistance, the speed tends to be also lower, which makes the air resistance even less and therefore the ‘draft effect’ even smaller.
In addition on a gravel road there are often only one or two tracks that are possible to ride. That’s why a peloton on a gravel road often stretches out in a long ribbon and when you’re too far from the back it’s difficult to get back in the race. Good classic riders therefore understand the art of starting from the front on an important section whether or not helped by their team mates.
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Afbeelding met gras, buiten, veld, water Automatisch gegenereerde beschrijving

How to avoid SNAKEBITEs

Once you’ve started the gravel section reasonably from the front, you can’t sit too tight on the wheel of the one in front of you. If he makes a mistake, then you have a problem as well. Another reason to start from the front and keep the overview. A gravel section is also usually filled with holes in the road. If you ride flat out through these holes, with a bit of bad luck you will have a snakebite both in front and behind. If you still ride through a hole, it is important to lift your butt just in time and distribute your weight, so that your body absorbs the shock.
It is also important on gravel to start at a high speed and keep the momentum as long as possible. You will be keeping grip but at the same time, the one on your handle bards will be slowly getting loose. If you hold the handlebar too tightly, you will have all the blisters on your hands after a few kilometres of gravel. The weight should not be too much on the front wheel, so that the front wheel itself can find the best way and absorbe potholes with your arms.
So on gravel every cyclist is more dependent on himself and can benefit less from the one in front of you. Therefore everyone wants to start from the front to choose their own track and keeping the speed as high as possible to take that kinetic energy with them. This is an ideal cocktail to expect on every gravel section war and that’s exactly what makes Strade Bianche an instant classic from the first edition.

the difference of a GRAVEL BIKE

Finally, a word about the gravel bike. It looks like everyone needs a gravel bike. Pro’s, for example, don’t ride gravel bikes at all. And if they do, it’s more of a publicity stunt by the bicycle brand than of their own free will.
Compared to a normal road bike, a gravel bike has a somewhat lazy geometry. This means that the head tube is less steep and therefore steers a little less aggressively. Also the rear fork is often a bit longer for the same effect and more comfort. The material of a gravel bike is also usually designed to provide a little more comfort on a rough surface. That often makes them too heavy and not stiff enough to serve as a weapon of choice for the pro’s. Finally, a gravel bike obviously has a lot more clearance, so much wider tires can be fitted than on a road bike. The wider the tyre, the lower the pressure and the more comfort. But also the more weight and more loss on the asphalt. That’s why the pros often choose a slightly wider tube/tubeless tire between 26-28 tires.
So if you don’t ride the most extreme gravel roads, you can use a 28mm tubeless tyre at 85 kilos and between 5 and 6 bar on a normal race bike to tackle a gravel roads yourself. Maybe don’t take your Zipps 808 right away, but go for a slightly less stiff rim with a few more spokes and you should be all right. Don’t start sprinting at the first gravel section either, but try it out first.
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