When competitive runner Elisa Laverty of Bainbridge Island found herself sidelined with an injury in the summer of 2019, she turned to road cycling to stay in shape.
Disappointed with having to share the road with cars and exercising away from nature, she began researching cycling options that would bring her back to the trails. Her boyfriend, Sam, had recently started graveling so she decided to give it a try.
She quickly took to the sport after finding a group to ride with regularly.
“I really missed running when I was injured, but I still felt close to nature,” she said. “It helped me keep my cup full while being injured.”
Gravel riding is a bit of a hybrid between road cycling and mountain biking which typically follows routes along forest service roads or forest paths. The laid back culture of dirt riding contrasts with the ultra-competitive, high-tech world of road cycling and the technical skills required for mountain biking, while providing a challenge for those seeking Type 2 fun.
“One of the reasons it’s become extremely popular is that you don’t have to worry about getting run over,” said Deanna Duke, a gravel rider from Roslyn, Kittitas County. “You don’t have to worry about cars or traffic, just wild animals.”
Duke and Laverty also find gravel farming to be more inclusive than road cycling or mountain biking, especially for women and other minority participants.
Duke says women make up about 60 to 70 percent of the participants in the group hikes she organizes. “There just isn’t the same level of intimidation factor with technical skills or equipment. It’s a much more open and friendly culture, ”she says.
This inclusion is also transferred to organized races.
According to Duke, several races are leaving entry spaces open for women after closing for men to encourage participation.
As with many professional and amateur sports, men earn exponentially higher wages and bonuses than women, and cycling is no different. However, some gravel race directors are working to close this gap and make the sport fairer.
The Belgian waffle racing series pays men and women the same amount in money. In Carson City, Nevada, Paydirt Race Director Peter Steton believes that “equal payout does not make up for lost ground” and therefore the winners will be the sole recipients of the cash prizes.
Some races, like Rebecca’s Private Idaho, include winning categories for para-cyclists and trans / non-binary runners.
Equipment and equipment
If you are just starting out, you don’t need to get a bike designed specifically for gravel. The bike you already own can work just fine, as long as you can fit a medium width tire. Most road frames won’t fit this, but many touring, cross country, or mountain bikes will.
Duke recommends a 32 millimeter tire and says the average width is between 38 and 42 millimeters. For those who alternate between road and gravel, look for tires with a contoured middle and side tread.
That way, she says, road cyclists “can ride on their shoulders without having to worry about blowing a tire or slowing down a lot.”
The remaining material is more or less the same as what one would need for any other type of bike. This includes clipless pedals, a helmet, padded shorts, and a handlebar bag for snacks and food.
“If you’re from another cycling sport, you don’t need anything new,” said Duke.
Those who are completely new to cycling can often find the necessary equipment from their local equestrian community.
“Once you start to develop a network of friends, you can get great second-hand equipment,” said Laverty, who acquired much of his initial equipment from new friends. “It’s intimidating to be a total noob and not know anything about different sized gears or tires. I am grateful to the group I joined here in Kitsap County.
Find mentors and groups
According to Duke, the biggest resource for the local gravel community is a Facebook group called Northwest Gravel Riders.
“Everyone in Oregon and Washington is posting their routes with GPS coordinates and photos,” she said.
Laverty loves using Strava to find new routes and riding partners. “You just have to ask!” she says. “Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone you’ve been following for a while and want to roll with.”
She adds that the Breakfast Cycling Club in Seattle has done a phenomenal job for trans, women and people who identify as women. The cycling club and racing team welcome novice cyclists and offer support to those new to racing in a variety of cycling events.
Gravelmap.com is another great user-generated resource where riders can find routes posted by other gravel racers.
As you gain more experience, Duke recommends that you take a look at the Gran Fondo racing series hosted by Vicious Cycle. The organization runs five gravel races across Washington between March and September, each with two different distances.
“A lot of people who come from road biking like them,” said Duke. “If you want a taste of the gravel, this is a great crossover event.”
Route recommendations for new gravel cyclists
Washington State has some 20,000 miles of unpaved roads that beg to be explored on two wheels, with accessibility for all skill levels.
The Snoqualmie Valley Trail to the Palouse and Cascades Trail, which connects to Rattlesnake Lake, is a great hike for beginners. Both are rails leading to trails with gentle slopes and free of vehicular traffic. Duke suggests starting at North Bend and going to the Snoqualmie Pass tunnel.
Methow Valley is another iconic gravel destination with hundreds of miles of gravel roads suitable for all skill levels. Bear Creek Road’s 12 mile Pearrygin Loop is a 50/50 mix of pavement and gravel that begins at Winthrop and passes through Pearrygin Lake State Park.
In Skagit Valley, the 22.5-mile Cascade Trail is another beginner-friendly rail-trail route that begins in Sedro-Woolley and ends in Concrete.