Top Eight Ways to Improve Your Gravel Riding

Rasputitsa is the hallmark event of spring gravel cycling. Considering the numbers of people who pilgrimaged to the ride this past weekend, it’s obvious whatever weather and conditions, people are excited to join their friends, face a challenging course, and put their bodies and bikes to the test.

We were pleased to see so many of our riders out there conquering the course and the day. We enjoy hearing your stories and experiences.

Something else we saw the day after Rasputitsa were a number of bikes that were distinctly “wrong” for the day. We’re here to make your cycling life better, and the first, most obvious way to make your riding more fun and more enjoyable is to get a new bike. Here is why you might need a new, more capable bike for gravel cycling:

1. "The climbs were hard at Rasputitsa, but I was frightened on the descents."

There are a lot of reasons why you might not feel great descending. Here are things on a bike that are critical to descending:

  • Brake type

  • Brake pad composition

  • Caliper strength and stiffness properties

  • Ability to grab the brake levers and hands fitting correctly on the brifters

  • Frame geometry of the bike, weight distribution of rider between the wheels, handling characteristics of the bike

  • Tire selection and air pressure

If your tires are too narrow, you’re likely bouncing off of rocks and not getting the traction needed. Part of the fix: wider tires. 40mm tires are the go-to for gravel cyclists with more and more people switching to 650B wheels and tires up to 50mm in width. Couple nice, wide tires with a frame that allows your tires to stay on the ground (by way of not being overly stiff) and you’ll be significantly happier, and safer when descending.

Cyclocross race bikes are unstable and “twitchy” in their handling since they are designed for one thing: racing for short periods of time on a closed course of all-dirt with short, punchy climbs. If you have a cross bike, it’s time to get a gravel bike as they have two very different purposes in life. Cyclocross race bikes rarely fit wider than 33mm tires.

2. "My back hurt during the ride and reminded me of the ride well after it was over."

There are a lot of possible causes of this including:

  • Tire pressure

  • Wheel stiffness

  • Frame stiffness

  • Brake hood placement

  • Brake lever throw

  • Handlebar width

  • Fork choice

  • Pedal system

When you’re hurting on your bike due to these kinds of aches and pains, it means you are likely in the wrong position. You should NOT hurt anywhere when you ride with the exception of muscle soreness. When you purchase a stock bike that’s offered in one of 5 sizes, that bike has been made for someone who isn’t you. It’s like purchasing a custom bike built for someone else. What are the chances it’s not right for you? High.

Looking at one gravel bike website, for example, they state the size “L” bike fits riders 5'10" - 6'3". Do you really think one frame will fit a 5’ 10” rider just as well as a 6’ 3” rider of any gender? Of course not. This is a false statement from a bike company who just wants to sell a bike and is not interested in the happiness of the rider.

3. "I was beaten up so badly, I didn't want to ride the next day."

A bike can feel too stiff for many reasons:

  • A stock bike isn't built for the average rider, it's built for the heaviest rider

  • Fork design

  • Wheel build. Number of spokes, spoke design, spoke material, lacing, hub design.

  •  Rim design: Material, width, depth.

  • Tire and inflation

  • Contact point tailoring: saddle, shoes, bar shape, bar material, hood shape and feel.

Why were you beaten up? Because the bike jarred you all day on the rough dirt roads. What if you rode a plush, smooth bike that made bumps more pleasant? You’d love your bike a lot more at the end of the ride. And you’d feel significantly better!

The material your frame is made out of is important, as is the geometry of your bike. Aluminum and carbon frames leave the rider feeling beaten by the end of the day. So do improperly manufacutured titanium bikes. It doesn’t have to be this way. You can love your bike and wish Rasputitsa were a much longer route at the finish line!

Not everyone wants a smooth ride. The tubeset chosen makes all of the difference on how that bike rides. For those who want a super stiff ride, we offer carbon bikes. You have excellent choices available to you that all result in the ride qualities you desire.

4. "I was jealous of those spinning uphill."

There are a number of causes of this jealousy:

  • Improperly designed frame

  • Wrong tire choice

  • Heavy wheels

  • Inappropriate bearing systems

  • Heavy bike

While riding uphill is never easy, it can be A LOT easier than your bike is making it for you. Did you know that you can have MUCH lower than a 1:1 ratio between your crankset and cassette? For many rides and events now (think D2R2), a 1:1 ratio is still too high. We deliver bikes all of the time with lower than 1:1 ratios to riders with a lot of strength. There are no industry standards to it, but through the years, we have figured out how to pair cranksets, cassettes, and derailleurs to offer riders high enough gearing with low enough gearing without sacrificing on either end. We have a number of ways to make the gearing right for each person, all which result in excellent shifting performance and the ability to climb nearly anything sitting in the saddle without excessive leg fatigue.

5. "I've been riding through muddy conditions for so long, I found out that I've been doing damage to my frame."

When your bike wants to be outside less than you do, you need a new gravel riding partner. The creaking from a bottom bracket doesn’t need to be tolerated. Pressfit bottom brackets commonly found on carbon bikes are notorious for their creakiness and you shouldn’t have to worry about how much you’re destroying your bottom bracket or frame on a dirty, weather-filled ride. Gravel bikes need to be tough and give you peace of mind in terms of durability as well as their literal noises.

It is important to bear in mind that on a carbon bike, a creaking bottom bracket is wearing away the frame and replacing the bottom bracket or removing the creak is not necessarily trivial.

On a titanium bike, a creak is almost always a lubrication issue and extremely rarely found at the bottom bracket.

6. You worry about your bike.

Every component on a bike is important. If you don't know which components were used on your bike, or if your bike was pulled out of a box, it is likely equipped with components that don't meet your quality standards. Here are a few examples:

  • Wrong brake pad type wears faster

  • Chain will wear or break

  • brake cables and housing

  • House brand components

The organizers of Rasputitsa were kind enough to have shuttle vans to get people off the course and to safety when bikes or bodies stopped working. However, there are very few other gravel events this season that offer a bailout option. If your carbon frame breaks or your derailleur hanger snaps off on a gravel ride far from the finish line, what are you going to do? If you have friends, we guarantee either you or someone you know have had a broken carbon bike or derailleur hanger situation. Why worry if your bike is going to make it back to the start? Get a bike with integrated titanium dropouts and derailleur hangers and never replace a derailleur hanger again.

Something that puts us in a unique position in the bike world is that we don't sell bikes that come to us in a box. We source the cables, housing, bar tape, headset, and EVERY part that goes on your bike. We know how bikes come together which means we can assure you that your bike will work well and be trustworthy for a very, very long time. Few shops are this up-close and personal with each of the bikes they sell.

7. "I wish my bike were faster."

Many factors go into making you wish your bike were faster. Here are a few:

  • Fit of the bike

  • Frame design

  • Wheel choice

  • Overall weight of the system

We have a long list of tricks to save grams off the weight of the bike without compromising performance or breaking the bank. The lightest bike is, by definition, not appropriate for gravel riding. Save weight where appropriate.

There are a lot of things one can employ to trim a few grams off of a bike. Wheelset is the single best upgrade to most any bike as most stock bikes are sold with heavy, bomb-proof wheels. Being "bomb-proof" is a good quality of wheels, but in New England, constant accelerations and constant hills mean rotating weight on the rims of wheels is tiring by the end of the day. However, when you feel like you’re lugging more than just wheel weight up hills, this means you need a lighter frame. The lightest, stiffest frames are not appropriate for gravel riding and "lightest" and "stiffest" doesn’t translate to speed, either. There is a “light enough” place to be offering you a quick-feeling, light-riding bike that doesn’t feel like it’s eating your power when you push on the pedals.

Essentially, if you wish your bike were lighter, it should not just be lighter, but built with better power transfer in mind. Expertly-designed frames do both of these together, extremely effectively to leave you wanting nothing more.

Would you want a 16 lb gravel bike? It exists and here it is:


8. "My hands were exhausted from braking."

Braking effectively is a safety issue. Being unable to brake well can result in an accident. It's not worth compromising here as the results of bad choices are worse than just discomfort.

It’s hard enough to keep your hands comfortable when it’s cold and wet. If your hands are cramping and hurting from needing to apply the brakes, it is likely time to think about new brakes. Disc brakes are useful in terms of gravel cycling. We don’t always recommend them and they aren’t a must-have on road bikes. However, gravel riding is a super application of (good) cable-actuated or hydraulic disc brakes. The brifter size and shape and amount of brake power you need determines which disc brakes you should have. There are a lot more bad disc brake caliper options on the market than good ones. Getting a bike with great brakes helps your hands stay fresh and cramp-free. Considerations of brake power:

  • Brake pad choice

  • Hydraulic oil type

  • Choice of cables and housing

  • Caliper selection

  • Brifter shape and size in relation to rider's hand size

  • Ability to make adjustments on the fly

There are a lot of things you can do to have the best riding you've ever experienced when riding on gravel roads, trails, and pavement with your gravel bike. Gravel cycling is the "hot" thing to do right now so a lot of bike companies are claiming they know gravel. Before you buy a gravel bike, be certain you've taken the bike out on a hard demo ride to see how the bike feels and performs. Just because a bike fits a bigger tire doesn't make it something that will give you what you need to be a wildly happy gravel cyclist as a bike is a system made up of a lot of very important parts put together in a very exacting way -- usually different for every single rider.