Gravel Grinding is the new “hot” trend in cycling. I am very excited about this. Riding on gravel is great fun. A friend who was a telemark skier had a T-shirt: “Free your heel and your mind will follow.” I get a similar feeling when my tires are freed to slip a little on gravel.
Gravel roads usually see only little traffic, and they often traverse very scenic landscapes. This makes for a relaxing and beautiful cycling experience. And the bikes that are suitable for gravel also make wonderfully versatile road bikes, since they have clearances for wider tires (and fenders).
Riding on gravel isn’t new, of course. Until the 1950s, cycling in the mountains usually meant riding on gravel. At Bicycle Quarterly, we’ve been exploring gravel roads for more than a decade. Back then, we rode a 1952 Jo Routens on gravel roads in the Cascades (above). It’s fun to think back on it: That year we even organized an “off-pavement brevet”. About a dozen people showed up, and we had a great time. Most of the riders were cyclocross racers, probably because most randonneurs didn’t have bikes yet that could be ridden long distances on gravel.
Maybe the bikes were the limiting factor and the reason why “off-pavement brevets” didn’t really catch on then. The Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnée (D2R2) in Massachusetts was an exception (although it’s not an official brevet), and it contributed a lot toward popularizing riding on unpaved roads. Now that gravel riding is becoming more popular, there is talk about organizing more official off-pavement brevets.
In the decade since that first article, we’ve taken more and more trips and rides on unpaved roads. Many of our bike tests now include rides on gravel, if the bikes are suitable for it. Of course, the bulk of our test riding is on pavement, but we simply enjoy riding on those remote roads so much that we take every opportunity to get a little gravel under our wheels. Even on shorter rides, we often include an unpaved section along the way.
One of the most exciting things we have found is that the same bikes that work so well on pavement also are ideally suited to unpaved roads. My René Herse has excelled on the paved roads of Paris-Brest-Paris, yet the same bike has performed wonderfully on many gravel rides (above). The wide tires that offer such great cornering on pavement also float over hardpack and gravel with amazing grace and pace.
If there is one thing that I don’t like about “gravel grinding,” it’s that particular name. “Grinding” seems to imply that it’s hard and slow, yet with the right bike, riding on gravel comes with the same effortless speed as riding on pavement. For me, it’s about experiencing the ride more than about the road surface: the breeze, the fleeting light on the trees, the feedback from the bike underneath me, and the “taste of the effort,” as the French called it. It just happens that gravel roads have expanded our universe where we can experience these joyous feelings.