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The Grit of Riding Gravel

For every street rider, there's a gravel drive, road or campground in your future. From experienced riders to the beginner, gravel invokes formidable dread and big challenges.

We can practice on gravel – find a swath and give it a try, but gravel comes in different sizes. . .gravel beds are of differing depths. . .one man’s gravel drive is probably not yours. Unless you ride the same gravel over and over -- your own driveway or a road leading to your business, continuity is a problem.

Here are a few tips to think about and some practice routines as well:
  • Always approach the entry to gravel by heading straight into it; entering from a turn is a good way to have a bad gravel experience. Give yourself every opportunity to succeed, which begins with the wheel heading straight ahead.
  • Focus on the center of gravity, which is at your hips and the center of your bike. Your center of gravity should be stable but not rigid, on-balance but not unyielding.
  • Clutch your knees around the tank as you enter – not in a “hang-on and ride” clutch but as a mechanism for stability. Let your knees work to keep your hips centered. Gradually release and extend your legs and lower your feet to a position just skimming the surface of the gravel, or capable of skimming, if needed. “Skimming” adds a measure of confidence -- you will be ready “just in case” you drop. An alternative is to lower your center of gravity by pushing down on the pegs and adding weight.
  • Keep a light but firm grasp on the handlebars. If you can’t get away from a vice-like grip, try to keep your arms loose and flexible. The front wheel must have some play – not too much, but some – and if you don’t give it up, the wheel will take it anyway. The front wheel should do the negotiating, and it will “shimmy” just a bit, whether you like or not. Let it shimmy.
  • “Speed” on gravel sparks controversy. Some experienced riders like a bit more speed. For most of us, too slow doesn’t work and too fast doesn’t work, either. Assume that “somewhat slow,” in first gear is better.
  • Jittery braking techniques are the cause of most drops. Don’t use the front brake, in fact, don’t brake at all unless you must. Use the clutch to slow down and add a light touch of rear brake, only if you must. In first gear, with no braking, there’s a much better chance of traversing the gravel, upright and healthy.
  • Look where you want to go. Keep your head and eyes up - always. Looking down will take you down. Looking anywhere but where you want to go is a mistake.
Prepping for gravel is a good idea. Practice in an empty parking lot and get your mind around the techniques. One practice session is better than none when -- Surprise! gravel lies ahead, but perseverance will pay-off. Practice often.
  • The goal is to get comfortable with the clutch and throttle, and learn to maintain a forward momentum without appreciably increasing speed. Work on the sequence: from first gear, back-off the throttle slightly; when you must throttle-up, do it nice and easy. Work the clutch to find the right blend of the two. The goal is, on gravel, working the clutch-throttle will be basic instinct.
  • Don’t use the front brake. Practice feathering the back brake.
  • Focus on your center of gravity. Note how it feels. Tuck your knees around the tank, then release and lower your feet, and practice skimming. Try putting weight on the pegs to determine which works best for you. Imagine the feel of the vibration, from the gravel, under your hips and in your arms.
  • Think about the wheel on gravel. Imagine the “shimmy” sensation and the light touch needed to let the wheel negotiate its course. Loosen your arms and your grip on the handlebars.
TIPS: If you find car tracks, try riding them; the gravel may be harder packed. Take a curve as wide as possible. Avoid a curve, if at all possible. Scout-out a campground. Look for the shallowest gravel and plan your route in and out. Park where you don’t have to back-up, and when practicing on actual gravel, take another biker with you.

Written by A. Adams


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