Potholes, sand, mud, and loose gravel. Baby head boulders, tire-slashing rocks, ruts, and roots. If these lists seem random, think again. Gravel riding is full of challenges and gravel race organizers like to think out of the box, so it’s likely that you will face a combination of any or all of these surfaces in any gravel event you enter. Developing a solid foundation of gravel cycling skills that will help you pilot your bike smoothly through a wide variety of terrain is essential for success.
A well-developed gravel cycling skills arsenal is the difference between feeling confident or fearful of any obstacles you may face. Additionally, honing your bike-handling skills can help you stay upright, avoid crashes, and gain free speed. In this article I will walk you through the basic gravel cycling skills that you need to master so that you will be bombing down descents with a smile on your face in no time.
Last season I rode with an athlete who had never done a gravel ride before (Hi, Stan!), and body position was the thing we worked on most. How you position your body over the bike and where you distribute your weight are fundamentals for handling your bike, especially when the ground is constantly changing and shifting beneath you. These gravel cycling skills are important for climbing and descending, as well as navigating rough sections of road and trail that may be full of potholes, washboard brake bumps, roots, rocks, and deep ruts.
The most important body position to get right for gravel descending is the “ready” body position. This is the position you should default to on most fast descents (the ones where you stop pedaling), as it gives you maximum stability and maneuverability if you need to suddenly change positions. If you’ve ever ridden a mountain bike, you are likely somewhat familiar with this position.
To achieve the ready position:
- You should be standing with your feet at equal height on the pedals (3 o’clock and 9 o’clock if you picture the crank arms on a clock face), and whichever foot feels most comfortable should be in front.
- Your knees should be slightly bent, and drop your heels slightly so your calves can relax and soak up vibrations.
- Keep your hips hovering over the saddle, your elbows will be bent, and your eyes will be focusing on the road ahead of you.
- Your hands should be in the drops or on the hoods. I prefer descending in the drops, and I will speak more about this later on.
- The photo below is a good demonstration of the ready position on a steep descent: knees and elbows bent, hands in the drops, eyes looking forward, hips above the saddle, feet level, and heels down.
Benefits of the Ready Position
In the ready position, your grip on the bars should be firm, but the rest of your body should be relaxed to help absorb as much impact as possible. The better primed your body is to absorb impact, the more stable the bike will be over rough terrain. If you are too rigid on the bike, then the handling will be very skittish and you will bounce off your line whenever you hit an obstacle, making you feel a lot less stable. You can think of your arms and legs as your suspension or shock absorbers to keep the ride comfortable for you, and smooth and predictable for your bike. This will reduce fatigue and help maintain traction.
From a gravel cycling skills perspective, the ready position is best utilized for curvy, steep, or rough surfaces. I prefer to tackle rough and/or steep descents with my hands in the drops, because I can use fewer fingers to grab the brakes, leaving more of my hand to hold onto the bars. I find that this causes a lot less hand fatigue over the duration of a ride versus descending on the hoods. Bottom line: I’ve tried descending both ways, and when I tackle steep, rough descents on the hoods, I feel a lot more likely to lose my grip and get bucked off my bike.
Bombing downhill in a straight line is one thing, but when you get to a sharp turn with loose gravel in it, you have to have some skill to be able to get through it quickly and safely. There is no one-size-fits-all formula for navigating gravel curves with ease, but there are some things to keep in mind that will help to set you up for success:
- As you approach the turn, analyze the terrain and choose your line. Typically, there are 2 well-worn tracks from vehicle traffic that are going to offer more traction and less loose gravel, but this is not always the case. Look for the spot with the greatest possible traction and adjust your speed if necessary before you start the turn.
- If you have plenty of traction, then you can approach the turn similar to a sharp turn on a road bike, with your outside foot weighted down and your inside arm pushing into the turn.
- If you don’t have a lot of traction (loose gravel, sand, or slippery mud), then you want to avoid leaning through the turn. Try to keep your body more upright and steer your bike through the line of choice. If you need to keep braking through the turn, try to use mostly your rear brake.
- Always remember to look where you want to go and your bike will follow. Don’t fixate on the obstacles that you don’t want to hit or you will end up steering your bike right into them.
Climbing Ready Position
Luckily, climbing on gravel is a lot more straightforward than descending. Many gravel climbs can be ridden similar to how you would ride a standard road climb. However, as terrain gets steeper and/or looser, maintaining traction becomes an issue. To avoid the dreaded feeling of a wheel slipping or having your front wheel lift up off the ground, you can utilize a seated ready position that is helpful for navigating all sorts of tough uphill terrain. Here’s how to do it:
- Hinge at your hips to lower your upper body. If it helps, you can conceptualize it by thinking about leaning forward to eat your stem. Drop you elbows to bring your shoulders down; don’t just hang your head. You can go from upright to very low depending on the gradient.
- You may find it helpful to also slide forward slightly on the saddle. Doing this will keep the front wheel planted, while also keeping body weight over the rear wheel for good power transfer.
- The photo below is a good demonstration of hinging low to get up a steep rock slab.
Getting out of the saddle is also an option on gravel climbs, but should be used with discretion. I advocate for staying seated over loose or steep inclines, and getting out of the saddle when you have more traction. If you must get out of the saddle on steep or loose climbs, the best position to maintain is basically a standing version of the climbing ready position: upper body crouched low over the bars, and rear hovering over the saddle. This helps to evenly distribute your body weight over the front and rear wheel so that your wheels don’t slip.
In addition to maintaining a good body position, another technique that will keep you motoring up a gravel climb is focusing on pedal smoothness. On a road climb, you can pedal haphazardly without losing traction, but gravel riding is a different animal. If you are a “stomper,” and find yourself pushing down hard and then stalling at the top and bottom of the pedal stroke, you will definitely need to work on smoothing out your pedal stroke to maintain traction on gravel climbs. You can develop this technique by performing MuscleTension workouts, OneLeggedPedaling drills, and FastPedal efforts and then practicing these drills on gravel.
Similar to steep climbs and descents, braking on uneven gravel surfaces is a matter of traction. Pretty much every modern gravel bike out there is equipped with disc brakes, so being familiar with how they work is essential to avoiding any accidents. Disc brakes are very powerful, so you want to avoid grabbing the brakes with too much force or you could end up sailing over the bars or locking up your rear wheel and sliding (but some people do that on purpose because they think it’s cool… shout out to my husband).
If you are new to cycling, a good way to remember which brake is which is to memorize the saying “right is rear.” The best way to get a feel for how disc brakes operate is to practice stopping on a variety of surfaces (gravel, pavement, grass, etc.). Try stopping by grabbing both brakes equally, and then try stopping by only grabbing your front or rear brake. Note how long it takes you to stop for each circumstance.
Try to find the limits of your brakes, and make note of how hard you can grab your brakes before your wheels start to lock up. Additionally, try braking on the hoods and in the drops, and note how many fingers you have to use for each position. Once you practice enough, knowing which brake lever to grab when becomes a lot more intuitive and you likely won’t have to think about it.
Advanced Braking Skills
Once you are comfortable with operating your brakes in practice, you can shift your focus to some more advanced techniques on gravel. If you memorize these general rules, you’ll be in good shape:
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- Keep your weight between the wheels when braking. Body position is important for braking. If your weight is too far forward, then you may lose control of the bike. Hopefully, you will already be braking from the ready position, so your weight will already be shifted back somewhat. The inertia of braking will cause the body to want to lurch forward, but you can counteract this by shifting your body further back as you apply more pressure to the brakes.
- Do your hardest braking on the surfaces with the most traction. For example, if there is a long, hard-packed straightaway before a sharp turn, use it to your advantage to slow down quickly before you get to the turn. If you need to brake on loose surfaces you will need to use brake less force, meaning more distance to slow down. On loose surfaces and in turns, use mostly the rear brake and keep the brake pressure fairly light to avoid locking up the rear wheel.
If you can get a feel for how your brakes work and know how and when to use them, you’ll be on your way to feeling more confident on any surface that gravel race promoters throw at you.
Eating and Drinking
Two more gravel riding skills that require a shift in body position are eating and drinking on the bike. Some people are extremely comfortable riding one-handed (or no-handed) on gravel and rifling around in their jersey pockets and grabbing water bottles from bottle cages, but it can be anxiety-provoking for a lot of people. The last thing you want is to lose time because you have to slow down or stop every time you need to eat or drink during an event. If you struggle riding one-handed on gravel, it is imperative that you practice riding one-handed on unstable surfaces. Practice on grass or a smooth gravel road at first by taking one hand off the bars for ten to fifteen seconds, and increase the amount of time as you get more comfortable.
If you have tried practicing and are still struggling to make yourself ride one-handed on gravel, then make sure to study your event’s route ahead of time and identify any places with pavement sections, and plan to eat and drink in those sections. Additionally, if you are comfortable fueling on gravel roads, make sure to time your fueling properly. It may sound obvious, but eating and drinking on a flat, relatively benign section of gravel is a lot safer than trying to take a swig in the middle of a bumpy descent. Climbs – particularly as you approach the summit – are usually good places to take in some food and fluids, because speed is slower, so you can generally react to obstacles easier when you are riding one-handed.
As I’ve mentioned, gravel is a catch-all term that comprises a ton of different surfaces. The successful gravel rider is one who is adept in a broad range of terrain. Some of the key surfaces you may encounter when riding gravel are as follows:
You can ride this surface almost like you would ride on pavement, but stopping distance is slightly greater and turning speed should be slightly slower. There are few limitations for riding in a straight line on hard-packed surfaces, so rip it!
Loose over hard:
This is loose rock or dirt over a hard surface. This is less predictable, so you’ll want to increase your braking distance, turn a little slower, and turn by leaning a little less and steering a little more.
Sand and mud:
This is a lot to bundle into one, but they have similarities. In both sand and mud, the surface will have a tendency to steer the bike for you, forcing you off your line. You will want to let the front wheel wander a little. Don’t fight the handlebars too much, and correct by steering with your hips. You can achieve this by pointing your head and hips in the direction you want to go. You won’t want to turn by leaning the bike, so it is best to keep the bike more upright to maintain traction. Note that your stopping distance will increase (though you probably won’t be going as fast to begin with), and your turning speed will be slower.
Brake bumps and potholes:
Both of these are best avoided, but sometimes hitting them is inevitable, or it may actually be faster or safer to hit the obstacle instead of swerving around it. If you know you are going to hit a pothole (and can’t hop it), make sure to hit it as straight as possible. Assume your ready position, turn your arms and legs into shock absorbers to separate the bike and body, and push the bike away from you and into the pothole. The bike will track through the pothole with ease as long as you let your body really absorb the impact.
For brake bumps, make sure you have a firm grip on the bars and keep your upper body as relaxed and level as possible while letting the bike glide up and down over the bumps. Once you are through it, go back to your regularly scheduled pedaling!
Practice, practice, practice
The most successful gravel riders have experience with all of these surfaces and understand all these skills. There is no way to fast-track your way to proficiency in any of these skills; you need to practice. Be sure to research your key events to get an idea of what types of surfaces you may encounter, and figure out a way to simulate these surfaces in your own training. If you don’t have gravel nearby, try to think of what surfaces may be available to you. A beach or an empty beach volleyball court can be awesome places to practice your sand riding, and venturing out on some gravel roads in the rain or snow can be great practice for mud riding.
Similarly, riding your gravel bike on nearby singletrack trails can be a great way to practice riding on rougher surfaces and mastering steep climbs and descents. A grass field can be another key tool to practice skills such as braking, cornering, and shifting between different body positions. Think outside the box and you’re likely to come up with something that works well for you.
Two skills I didn’t mention that also require some practice is taking care of your bike and choosing the best possible gear for your event. If all the talk about gravel tires, bikes, and aero bars makes your head spin, tune in next month for an in-depth article on equipment choice for gravel events. As always, if you have a specific skill that you have questions about, please leave a comment below and I will do my best to help you out.
Nina Laughlin is a CTS Pro Coach with an extensive history in road, mountain, and gravel racing. Following two years away from competition, she returned to win the 2019 Land Run 100 and place 5th in the 2019 SBT GRVL race. Nina lives and coaches in Brevard, North Carolina. For information on coaching and camps, visit trainright.com.
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