Being mainly a road / gravel rider nowadays, but having experience on a mountain and cyclocross bikes, I pulled together several years of experience to produce these tips that will help you with the daunting thought of riding gravel at speed.
Gravel Riding Tips
1) Slow Down – it’s all too easy to think the same road skill transfers to gravel, well sort of, but the speed you attained on the road can wipe you out for newbies in gravel. A symptom of too much speed can obviously be the loss of bike control but also many flat tyres. Flats can be caused by the rear wheel impacting a big rock or hole too hard, causing a pinch flat. At lower speeds this is much less likely as your weight is more forward and better centered on the bike. Higher speeds in gravel cause you to move backward giving the front end some more virtual trail, but leaving you exposed to harder impacts on the rear wheel. After experience with balance, handling, and weight skills you can gradually bring your speed back up.
2) Brake gently – slamming on the brakes is going to cause disaster from a loss of traction, watch your speed and brake with both front and rear in a smooth progressive manner. Listen to your wheels and get comfortable with the controlled sliding feeling.
3) Loosen up – don’t lock your arms, stay loose and let the bike do the work of tracking the front wheel, a little bit of slip and slide is required but death gripping the bars will cause high fatigue and possibly a crash. Stay loose and let the geometry of the bike do it’s work and find the right lines in the gravel.
4) Improve your balance – people often complain about getting frequent flats on gravel, improving your balance and weight distribution can help greatly. Try to distribute your weight over the cranks, this can be difficult to do while climbing since you will need to be seated to get traction on the rear wheel, but all other occasions you should be able to stand or scootch forward on the saddle to take some load off the rear wheel and better distribute your weight. This also keeps the weight lower, a lower center of gravity is a more stable ride.
5) Washboard Lookout -When cornering on vehicle gravel roads look ahead for washboard on the inside and far outside caused by trucks and vehicles, then pick the smooth line, or scrub speed before going in and ride out the washboards.
6) Camber Alert – Pay close attention to camber, even slightest downward camber on gravel can make you feel unsafe if you have negative corner camber try and plan your turn so you are riding upward in the gravel as turning. This can make a huge difference between wiping out and easily navigating through an off camber turn.
Bike and tyre types
Riding a mountain bike is by far the easiest due to the low pressure, high volume tyres, but on a more road, touring, cyclocross or even gravel (of late) oriented bike you can ride road and gravel for mixed routes, which are more of the normality when exploring.
I have ridden 23c, 25, 28c road, cyclocross 34c, file tread 34c and 40c tyres. They can all handle gravel, the 23’s will require more skill and experience to go the same speed. a 34 or 40 is more comfortable and safe. the limiting factor is normally the max width tyre your frame can accommodate and in some case the brake calliper clearance, with rim brakes. Put the largest tyre on you can get, and get the most durable puncture resistant kind.
I have had best of luck with Continental Gatorskins, Panasonic Gravel Kings and Specialized Trigger Pro’s.
Make sure your tyres are good condition. Pack a boot kit, like Park tools for sidewall rips, and several tubes.
Good Luck, Stay loose.