Many riders, especially those who are new to cycling, have a misconception that road bikes should only be ridden on pavement. But the truth is, road bikes can be safely ridden on all kinds of road surfaces, including cobblestone, dirt and gravel.
Plus…riding on dirt fun! You'll not only encounter a whole lot less car traffic, but you'll be exposed to a whole new world of sights and sounds. Plus, the experience will enhance your overall bike handling skills.
However, before venturing off-road there are a few considerations to take into consideration. For example, tire width. I've done a fair share of off-road rides on tires as narrow as 20mm, but that was years ago and I was young and fearless. Today, I wouldn't even recommend riding anything that narrow on the pavement, let alone gravel. The good news is wider tires on road bikes are not only perfectly acceptable, they're actually possible with modern frame designs that allow for clearance. And, there really isn't the mythical drawback of excessive rolling resistance with a wider tire (read Myths in Cycling (1): Wider Tires Are Slower). So, if you haven't switched already to something like 700x28c, I highly recommend doing so, if they'll work with your bike. You'll feel far more confident on your bike, on pavement and gravel alike.
Another consideration is, be prepared to flat. I'm not saying you will flat out every time you head off the pavement, but there is a higher probability due to pinch flats and thorns or just sharp rocks. And, while it doesn't make that much sense to run tubeless on a road bike, strictly ridden on pavement, it makes perfect sense to go tubeless on a gravel bike for all the aforementioned threats. So, pack an extra tube and CO2 cartridge for your day in the dirt.
Now, here's a few tips to help you build skills and confidence when taking your road bike off pavement:
1. Relax – The most important technique is the simplest. When riding on gravel or dirt you’ll likely experience some lateral movement, and feel your front wheel wander slightly from side to side. This is completely normal. The easiest way to control lateral flow is to relax and ride with it. Make sure to keep your shoulders, arms and hands loose and maintain a normal grip on your bars.
2. Maintain Momentum – Keep pedaling and maintain enough speed and forward momentum to allow your front wheel to glide over the gravel and bumps in the road. A little speed makes it much easier to keep a two-wheeled vehicle upright, because the wheels act as gyroscopes. Similarly, pushing a bigger gear in rough terrain can keep you from bouncing around and help with overall control.
3. Moderate Speed – Avoid excessive speed, particularly when descending. Gravel roads offer less traction than pavement. Brake early and often enough to maintain control. And don't lean through corners like you typically would. Try to imagine going through corners in an almost upright position, so your weight is directly over the wheels. That's the key throughout any of these tips...keep your weight over the wheels.
4. Stay in the Saddle – Avoid the temptation to climb out of the saddle. On a road bike the geometry is such that your weight will shift forward and you will lose rear wheel traction. Stay seated when climbing so you can keep power to the rear wheel.
5. Brake Carefully – Brake gently to prevent your wheels from skidding. Be especially gentle with your front brake. If you feel your front wheel begin to skid, release your front brake immediately.
6. Choose Your Line – Look for the spots where cars or other bikes have packed the gravel or dirt more tightly. It’s typically much easier to ride in those areas. However, if other riders or oncoming traffic make that impractical, don’t hesitate to head for the loose stuff—just keep you wheels straight and pedal through it.
7. Be Considerate – Even if you are completely comfortable riding on gravel, be aware that other riders might not feel the same. When passing, give others plenty of room (even if it means slowing down).
8. Keep Your Butt Happy – If you’re planning a day ahead on dirt or gravel, you’ll want to wear bibs or shorts with a premium pad. Riding on dirt is very different in that you will probably spend the entire time in the saddle. Remaining seated makes it easier to maintain a more upright and stable center of gravity. But,it also means your rear end will take some additional punishment. Choosing bibs or shorts with an endurance chamois will make a huge difference when it comes to comfort. We recommend our Summit Stratos 12-Hour Bibs with the triple density CyTech Endurance Anatomic Carbonium chamois. They were specifically designed for gravel events like the Dirty Kanza and will provide all-day comfort over rough terrain.
Tony Kelsey has nearly 20 years marketing experience, previously serving as global vice president of creative for an international, $1B IT solutions consultancy. Although a self-proclaimed “mediocre” racer in high school, his intense passion for cycling and bicycles in general has never waned. Today he is marketing director at Pactimo and frequently writes about cycling as a sport and hobby. @tonykelsey
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