Gravel Riding: So Much Terrain To Cover On Just One Bike
Gravel riding, mixed terrain riding, dirt road riding, adventure riding, cyclocross. There are as many names for this kind of riding as there are places to ride. Whatever you call it, it's lots of fun!
We're devotees of this expansive category of bikes and all the ways to ride dirt. Read on to find out how much so. We hope you'll become an enthusiast, too. If you already are living the dirt, visit us and share your stories, good routes, and plans for your next big adventure! We might have ways to make your rides even better.
Why Read This Lengthy Page?
We promise you'll learn something. If we're wrong we'll buy you a cappuccino. It's not that we're smart, it's that we've been riding road bikes on dirt for more than 30-years. That may sound a bit odd but that's where gravel riding evolved from. It feels like it's all we do.
We are gravel and dirt. We eat gravel, drink mud, and dream in dirt. So, we've collected a few of our experiences with progressive dedicated gravel bikes on this page. And we have a lot more to share if you're interested.
We've built bikes for riders all over the country -- and even a few across the pond. We're sought after for our dedication to building purpose built-bikes that excel in the gravel space. Bikes we've designed have been ridden in the harshest and best rides around. From Dirty Kanza to Kazakhstan. From Paris-Brest-Paris to the Paris Roubaix Challenge. If there's gravel, dirt, or cobbles involved, count us in.
Types of riding included under the "gravel grinding" umbrella
This may seem like an odd place to start, but clarifying what you mean and how you'll use the bike are the first step in determining the best setup.
The term "Gravel Riding" and "Gravel Grinding" covers so much territory that it's almost meaningless. In a broad sense, it means not riding on pavement but this, in itself, does not necessarily mean gravel.
In our area, we don't have much of any gravel to grind. Sure, there are a few hundred yards here and there -- we're happy to show you some secret spots -- but we don't really have gravel like you'll find in some Midwestern areas. We've ridden gravel for a hundred miles and we're not very excited about doing it again.
Mixed terrain riding: In eastern Massachusetts we don't have true gravel, so true gravel bikes aren't actually all that great for the majority of our dirt riding.
Dirt road riding: Dirt roads were created with the intention of cars traveling on them. These are typically packed and not too rough sine they are meant for cars. The joy of these is that they often offer nice scenery, shade from trees, and little traffic since cars will prefer to take the paved nearby roads.
Endurance riding: If you ride long enough, you'll get to dirt roads. Head north and you'll find some beautiful, well-groomed dirt roads in New Hampshire. Head west, and you can find some hidden rough roads. Head south and you'll find a bit of everything. And this is just dirt roads. Put singletrack and doubletrack into the mix and you can ride forever from sector to sector. Our point is that endurance riding often becomes mixed terrain or dirt road riding if you do it right.
Class IV roads, access roads, and fire roads: These offer much more challenge, rougher terrain, and can be harder to find. The range of riding varies from what you could handle on a 28c tire all the way up to needing a fat bike to traverse the terrain. Sometimes mixed terrain riding means walking the bike through tricky sections.
Easy singletrack and doubletrack: This is the most common terrain you'll find in eastern Mass. There are countless miles of these trails woven through our communities. They are perfect for gravel bikes: fast, fun, not that technical, and when they're connected together with paved roads, one can ride all day long hardly seeing traffic or anything very familiar.
Harsh weather riding: It may seem odd to include weather conditions in a conversation about gravel but once you have a gravel bike you'll want to riding ALL the time. So, harsh weather, we're ready.
Bikepacking: A gravel bike is often ideal for a bikepacking trip. Bikepacking is, literally, just like backpacking - bringing your stuff for at least one night of sleeping under the stars - and taking trails to get to wherever you want to go.
Cyclocross Racing: We put this at the bottom of the list because it's really not like gravel riding at all. However, lots of companies offer their cyclocross race bike as a gravel bike. Don't fall for this. A gravel bike can make a decent cyclocross race bike but a true cross bike makes a poor gravel or mixed terrain bike. Ask us why. We're happy to explain.
What defines a bike great for gravel?
As you can see, there are many ways to define a gravel bike. Oddly, in Eastern Massachusetts, we don't really want to ride a classic gravel bike because we don't have any gravel. So, stripping it down to its simplest form, here are the qualities of a gravel bike.
Eastern Massachusetts mixed terrain bike:
Points to consider in order of what we find to be most important. Some of this is obvious and some of it may be counter-intuitive.
Tire size and wheel size. These are clearly two points mashed into one, but we see them as closely linked. For gravel, you can't talk tire size and tread pattern without including wheel size. There are two primary wheel sizes and dozens of tire patterns and approaches. Then there's the dilemma of tubes or tubeless. Don't believe the hype. Read below some of the ways we approach tire choice and the never-ending wheel size conundrum to ensure you are riding the best possible bike for all conditions.
Handling. The most common bike used for gravel riding is a re-purposed cyclocross bike. While this type of bike can work fine for some situations, you'll find a purpose-built bike will excel in almost every way over a 'cross bike. The easiest way to describe the ideal gravel bike is to counterpoint it to a 'cross bike. Here are a few of the ways they differ:
2+ hour rides: This may be the biggest factor. A well designed 'cross bike is designed for 50 minutes of all-out riding. A mixed terrain or gravel bike should be designed for multiple hours in the saddle. This means a bike that will take the edge off fatigue-inducing factors. These include everything from the effort required to keep the bike riding in a straight line to how much jarring is translated to the rider's body from the roughness of the terrain.
Climbing: Real world gravel riding means short, steep grades in New England. Low gearing is important. A bike that allows traction on loose terrain in steep climbs offers a much more pleasant riding experience. It's also faster when the tires stay connected to the earth, thus allowing the rider's power to propel the bike up.
Descending: Descending on various terrain can be terrifying if the bike wasn't designed to be stable descending. Having a sure-footed bike while navigating a steep, loose descent is worth the cost of the bike alone. A descent gone wrong can translate to injuries or fear that didn't need to be experienced. Descend with confidence and the game changes. Your joy of riding is so much more without worry of the next descent.
Cornering: You probably want a bike that doesn't jack knife or dig into a corner too fast. You probably also benefit from a bike that doesn't fight you as you try to get into a tight switchback. Frame and fork geometry, rider fit and position, tire choice, and even tire pressure all factor into the way a bike behaves as you push it to its limit. We specialize in bike fitting that optimizes rider position while ensuring the bike is perfectly balanced under you. If you haven't experienced this yet you're in for a treat. We can accomplish this because we partner with the most experienced custom frame builder in the world: Seven Cycles. They understand fit and how it impacts the handling of the bike in ways that many rider term, "magical." Come talk with us and we'll explain how this is possible.
Overall: Your position will be slightly farther back.
Carrying equipment for longer rides: The balance of the bike allows you to carry equipment and you'll hardly notice the weight of the equipment. This is one of the surprises of loading a well-balanced, properly designed bike: it feels stable, and the pleasant ride of the bike remains.
Gear ratios. There are so many ways to achieve perfect gearing on your gravel or mixed terrain bike. Accepting the standard off the shelf gear ratios pushed by the big stock bike companies is a pale offering of what is possible. Read the details below of our approach and why it's worth functional exploration in trade for years of on trail exploration.
Brake type. At this point nearly every off-road bike has disc brakes. That's a good start. However, are 140 rotors, 160, 160/140 or even 180 the right setup? Is hydraulic the best answer? Not always. We'll explain why.
Durability: Your components need to be durable like your frame is. Your bike is going to be riding in a variety of conditions, and you’ll be riding it harder, testing each of its components much more than on a road bike. It’s a drag to have a component fail on your ride. It’s almost as equally painful to have a part making noise or not operating as you expect it to. Using your full gear range is especially important in mixed terrain riding as well as having perfectly operating brakes.
Equipment carrying. When going off-road or further off the beaten path, you’ll want to carry more with you. Having a bike that is designed for bags, and one that properly distributes the weight of things you may add to the bike is important to your experience. Don’t underestimate the amount of stuff that you’ll want on your bike and the real estate for where you’d like to put it.
More than most kinds of riding, a gravel bike has many different uses and there are many different ways to approach a gravel bike project. Most people have a different definition of what he/she wants to do with a gravel bike. Requirements from rider-to-rider vary widely and this is what makes gravel bikes all the more fun to put together and ride.
Do you come from a road bike or mountain bike background? This will very likely influence what you’re looking for on your gravel bike.
You may think that these are details and not likely to influence your enjoyment or performance. Well, sorry to be the bearer of bad news but each of these elements influences the ride and when you stack them all together you get a multiplying affect that is the difference between smiles and groans.
Gear Ratio Recommendations
Why aren't stock gears best?
If stock gravel bikes come with this gearing why wouldn't it be best? There's a number of reason stock bike gears may not be ideal for you. Some of the important reasons include:
The vast majority of stock bikes are designed for west coast riding -- fast fire roads and long steady climbs or Midwest riding -- long dirt roads with slow rolling hills. Shimano North America and Specialized are located in California. Trek and SRAM are in the Midwest. It's no wonder that the industry's offerings are heavily influenced by these two locals and terrains. The gear ratios for this kind of riding are sub-optimal for our east coast MA riding where we have punchy short climbs with rocky, rooty trails and roads and tight technical singletrack that requires endless low-speed accelerations. Did we mention the weather? Totally different. We have mud, slush, rain, and ice. All of these factors influence gearing and component optimization. Do you ride like you're on the west coast? Then your off the shelf gears might be fine.
Stock bikes focus on price points. Believe it or not, cassette pricing varies widely by size and length. The more teeth, the higher the price. Longer cage derailleurs are also more expensive as are longer chains. Big bike companies focus on price points over component optimization. The price can easily exceed $100. Don't skimp on the things that matter.
Big component companies don't make smart progressive parts kits. You can see this in nearly every part they make. Sometimes there are options and sometimes there aren't. When there are better options, we offer them.
Stock bikes buy parts kits in bulk in order to receive preferred pricing.
In order to get preferred pricing they purchase full sets of what the big component brands offer. Big brands are heavily incented to buy complete drivetrains from a single source rather than choosing the optimal part for a specific bike job.
What gearing do we recommend and why?
Our recommendations are tailored to your riding style, preferences, your major riding plans for the season, etc. A few minutes of assessment of your riding will provide us everything we need to make the right recommendation.
How do we achieve the ideal gear range?
Simply putting a bigger cassette on your stock bike won't work. If you change the cassette size you also have to change the rear derailleur and chain, at the very least. It's a lot more complicated than it sounds. There are a dozen ways to get the ideal gear range for your preferred riding style. Visit us to find out what we'd recommend and why.
There are three elements of determining gear range and gear inches:
Rear cassette range
Front chain ring size or sizes
Gearing is very specific to the requirements of each rider. What is important in shifting performance? Will you be thrilled to no longer have a front derailleur?
There are now such things as Adventure cranksets - which means sub-compact gearing is available for lower gearing, but without giving up the more nuanced shifting available with double cranksets.
See us for much more information on gearing. We’ll do the math for you and show you the options you have and explain how the options will translate to your cycling experience on dirt roads, dirt trails and everything in between.
Wheel Size and Tire Type Recommendations
Why not just ride what comes with the bike? Aren't stock tires and wheels best?
Well, not so much. As with anything, the right choice of hoops depends on how, where, and how much you ride gravel. The vast majority of stock bikes come with 700c wheels. But, you'll notice a lot of riders preferring 650b wheels recently. So which is better? Probably even more important than wheel diameter, is tire size and tread. There are literally dozens of gravel tires that companies want to sell you. Which width, tread, air containment system, and tire pressure is best?
Big companies choose wheels and tires just like everything else they decide. Usually it's some combination of price, discount opportunity, and trying to persuade you that whatever you bought last week is no longer any good. You don't see anything about targeting certain kinds of riding or focusing on your interests.
Most big bike companies offer one gravel specific bike with a couple kit levels. Some big brands are still re-purposing their cyclocross bikes and hoping no one will notice.
Don't take a bikepacking Swiss army knife solution either. That might be the right bike for you, but if you're looking for a bike that will make you love gravel and dirt, a jack of all trades bike will not be it. At best it will be mediocre at everything. By the way, if you do want best in class jack of all trades utility bike, we think Seven and Honey do have the best in class.
What wheel systems do we recommend and why?
There are many wheels, wheel sizes, tires, and tire setups available. The fun part of gravel bikes is that you can use as many or as few as you like. You and your bike can grow together as your riding changes and evolves. The wheels and tires on the market allow for a lot of experimentation. Wheels and tires make a very significant difference in the ride quality of the bike and your experience. Come in to see the wheel and tire options, along with discussing which ones are best for you. As a base line and starting point: lightweight wheels that are durable will yield the most enjoyable ride. Strike a balance of weight versus air volume in the tires and you have a winning combination.
Rides That Define the Gravel Category
Here are a dozen of the most popular gravel style rides. There are hundreds and more all the time!
These rides all benefit from purpose specific bikes. We can help you design the optimal bike for each event. It's worth the time.
Our Hosted Mixed Terrain & Gravel Rides
We lead more gravel and mixed terrain rides than any other store or club in the area, maybe even the country. On any given week we'll be hosting six or more rides on all types of dirt.
Weekly and event rides.
W have a lot of gravel and mixed terrain rides. Multiple each week. They change a lot so visit this page to see what's happening this week.
Our Favorite Gravel & Mixed Terrain Bikes
We offer a lot of amazing gravel bikes. It's nearly impossible to choose just two favorites. But if we had to pick our two favorites for the most popular kind of eastern Massachusetts riding we'd go with:
Honey Bike Allroads Titanium
Complete titanium bikes start at $4,995. Amazing!
Smooth ride. Titanium is the best material for any gravel bike. It absorbs the shock of the terrain and protects the rider from the roughness. The smoothness is a benefit without compromising on responsiveness of ride.
Much better fit than any stock bike on the market. 12 sizes for Honey bikes. 5-8 sizes for any other popular bike. Simple math.
A true gravel and mixed terrain bike designed for eastern Massachusetts riding. Built in eastern Massachusetts. The frame geometry, tube set selection, and every single curated part
Amazing value. We'll put this bike up against any popular gravel bike on the market. Carefully look at the parts pick, the fit of the bike, the warranty, and the service you'll receive. Dollar for dollar there is no better value on the market.
Super durable. Titanium is incredibly durable offering peace of mind to the rider. Never worry about your bike failing on you and supporting you riding over anything...there are often surprises on any gravel ride, and you can just roll with the terrain and circumstances worry-free.
Available today. We stock this rare bike so you can be riding the fantastic trails today on your new Allroads!
Seven Cycles Evergreen SL Custom Titanium
Full custom design so you truly get everything you want: Handling, performance, fit, gearing, wheel and tire sizes, any everything else. Don't focus on custom as a rider fitting thing. Focus on custom as a way to get precisely what you want in a bike. No stock bike can match what a Seven can offer you. And, it's a lot easier than you think. You don't have to be a bike designer to get a perfect bike.
Titanium is the best material for any gravel bike because it protects the rider. It takes the shock of the terrain while keeping the tires on the ground and it protects the rider.
Light weight and nimble. It's a fun-to-ride bike and offers you control, stability, fun, ease-of-tracking. It usually feels like the bike is doing the navigating for you.
Versatile. Most people design their Evergreen for a specific event or ride that they are excited to participate in. Over time, most people expand their riding since the Evergreen is so encouraging of it. Many Evergreens that were meant to "just" be a mixed terrain fun bike have since bikepacked for days on end and have taken on very challenging rides - since the bike grows with the rider and vice versa.
If you've it this far on the page, congratulations! You must be interested in gravel and mixed terrain riding. So, let's get you on a bike!
Here's a special offer: Fill out the form below, set up a time to demo ride one of our bikes and, if you order a bike from this, you'll receive:
Our exclusive "Four Wheel" offer. This is a second set of wheels at half off! This can a set of any value from $400 to $4,000. We'll setup the wheels -- including tires, rotors, and cassette -- so they're ready to swap onto your new bike at any time.
We'll cover the cost of your entry fee for any domestic single event ride this year -- from Dirty Kanza to D2R2 or any other event on your ride list.
To take advantage of this offer fill out this form, tell us when you'd like to ride some bikes, and we'll set you up to have a great ride.