Nothing beats a road bike when it comes to speed, agility, and handling tight curves. On the other hand, you might find more adventure on gravel roads. Some paths can give you that feeling of freedom that comes with being off the beaten path.
Can a road bike go on gravel? In general, yes. There’s no need to feel limited on where you can take your road bike. Whether you’re new to road cycling or an experienced racer, gravel riding is something you shouldn’t necessarily avoid.
You might have doubts about whether your road bike can handle gravel roads. Don’t trade in your road bike just yet. Gravel roads are often less-traveled, which can make for a safer ride in many cases.
Which gravel roads are safe for road bikes? These are usually roads with small- to medium-sized pebbles that are well packed and minimally loose. The main concern for road bikes is their tires, which don’t do quite as well on loose gravel.
Tips for Taking a Road Bike on Gravel
Plan your route. Know where you’re going and have an idea of the nature of the roads you’ll be riding. Will there be extremely loose gravel in some spots? Consider driving the route before you tackle it on a bike. On your ride, be sure to bring a map or a phone with GPS capability.
Look for “rails-to-trails.”
Many bike-safe gravel roads include “rails to trails” paths where gravel trails replace old railroad lines. Most of these paths are very bike-friendly and well maintained.
Look for smooth tracks
As you ride the gravel road, look for surfaces worn down by vehicular traffic. Some of these tracks will seem as smooth as asphalt. Follow these lines as much as possible.
Keep your eyes on the road
Use extra care because your road bike won’t handle gravel as well as a mountain or cyclocross bike. In addition to loose gravel, watch for potholes and larger rocks. Don’t forget to scan the road up ahead for smooth tracks, traffic, or potential hazards.
Heck your speed
If you’re inexperienced with gravel roads, slow down. Take time to decide how fast you can go on gravel. Once you’re comfortable with your pace, keep a constant speed. If the pebbles get as wide as your tires, it’s time to slow down.
Watch out for curves
Even on well-traveled roads with lots of smooth tracks, gravel will be looser and piled up around turns. When approaching a curve, slow down, follow a smooth surface, is possible, and don’t lean into the curve as you would on a paved road.
Slow down for intersections
You should always stop for a stop sign or red light. Also, it’s a good idea to slow down for intersections because loose gravel can accumulate from cross-traffic.
Watch your descents
When going down a steep hill, do your best to lower your center of gravity. Lift your weight off the saddle slightly and center it over your back tire. Lowering your heels will also help.
Know how to brake
When you feel the need to slow down, avoid locking your brakes. You’ll keep some of your traction if you let your tires roll. If you’re riding through a curve, brake before you hit the curve, and then resume braking when you straighten out.
Stay in your saddle
While it’s common to shift from sitting to standing on a road bike, gravel roads make standing less safe. Maintaining traction is key, which is why it’s safer to stay seated, even on climbs, and to keep your weight over the back wheel to keep it from spinning.
Relax your upper body
If you start to slide on gravel, it’s natural to want to tighten your arms and your handlebar grip. However, this will increase your chances of spilling. Instead, loosen your grip on the handlebars and relax your arms and shoulders to conserve energy and avoid crashing.
Watch for traffic.
Don’t be so preoccupied with watching the road that you forget about vehicles. When a car or truck is trying to pass, try to give them enough room, but don’t move too far to the edge of the road where loose gravel often accumulates.
Mind the washboard gravel
Some roads have ripples of gravel that make a ride bumpy and decrease traction. The worst sections are often the inside corners of steeper roads. Keep your arms and legs relaxed to absorb the vibrations, and try to reduce the weight on your saddle.
Expect the unexpected
Just when you think you’ve accounted for traffic, your speed, and road conditions, you could hit an unforeseen change in the terrain. A common hazard is an abrupt transition from gravel to asphalt, and back to gravel. Keep watching the road and adjust your speed accordingly.
You might drop your chain
Since gravel and dirt roads are not as smooth as paved ones, your chain might slip off if you hit a bump. This isn’t a big deal. When you’re completely stopped, loop the chain back on your drivetrain by hand. Turn your crank to make sure it’ll stay on before you resume riding.
Finally, have fun! Gravel riding, even on a road bike, can give you the kind of adventure not often found on paved, high-traffic roads. The key is practice. The more time you spend on gravel, the more confident and skilled you’ll be as a cyclist!
What To Do Before and After Riding on Gravel
Before you take your road bike on gravel, check the tires. As always, keep your tires properly inflated. Although road tires take about 100-110 pounds per square inch (psi), consider letting out a few pounds so the tires “grip” the road better. Take items such as a hand pump or other tools to fix flats. Always bring an extra tube or two.
Make sure you have the proper cycling clothes, such as a good pair of cycling gloves. Because road bikes don’t have the suspension systems of mountain bikes, fingerless gloves absorb much more of the road vibrations. Consider wearing a pair of cycling shorts with padding.
Don’t forget hydration and nutrition. Your bike should have at least one water bottle cage. Consider taking two water bottles for longer rides. Energy gels and bars are excellent sources of energy to keep you going on rough terrain.
Bring your phone. If your planned route is at least a little off-grid, you’ll need a way to call someone in case your emergency tools aren’t enough to fix your mechanical issues. Having your phone with you is also crucial in case of medical emergencies.
Let someone know where you are. Give a friend or family member a copy of your route map or a set of directions so they can find you in an emergency. This is always a good idea, but especially important if the route you’re taking will be new to you. If possible, also let them know when you expect to return from your ride.
When you’re done with your ride, clean your bike. Riding on gravel causes more dirt to fly up and get into your chain and other parts. When cleaning, pay special attention to your drivetrain, which can get damaged from lack of cleaning.
Even before cleaning the bike, take care of yourself. Stretching is always an excellent post-ride practice, but it’s helpful after riding rougher terrain. Your body probably will have taken extra abuse, and stretching your muscles will reduce soreness later on.
Can I put different tires on my road bike?
Yes, as long as your tires can fit your bike’s frame and brakes. An appropriate tire for gravel is 25mm wide, as opposed to a 23mm road tire. Tires that are 28-32mm wide are even better, as long as they clear your brakes when you install them.
What other changes can I make to my road bike?
Consider using thicker handlebar tape to absorb more of the road vibration and to decrease fatigue while riding. Also, think about installing disc brakes. They don’t clog with dirt the way rim brakes do. They also allow for more tire clearance, allowing you to install wider tires.
Why would I want to take my road bike on gravel anyway?
Many road cyclists occasionally take the gravel roads because they claim it improves their concentration. Other riders crave the way gravel riding forces them to engage more with the road, as opposed to riding on smooth, paved roads.
What if I don’t want to take my road bike on gravel?
If you don’t have or want to buy a mountain bike, an alternative is a hybrid, gravel bike or a cyclocross bike. The tires on these bikes are thicker and can go on grass or mud. Their frames are also built for gravel and other rough roads.