Gravel Riding (“Mixed Surface Riding” is probably a better term) is the hottest trend in cycling today. Outside of urban areas, the vast majority of roads in our region are unpaved. They are much quieter and the few motor vehicles you do encounter on unpaved roads tend to be polite and considerate. Getting off the pavement opens up some stunning scenery and vast new areas around the National Capital to explore.
“Gravel” can mean a wide range of road surfaces and conditions, from easy-to-ride “hardpack” surfaces to unmaintained single-track in remote areas with no vehicle access.
The OBC offers a wide range of gravel rides, while leaning towards rides that are accessible for those new to gravel. Each ride description will contain information on the style of the ride, including a minimum tire size recommendation, and noting any particularly remote areas or unmaintained roads. While the style of the ride will vary, OBC gravel rides tend to encourage “stopping to see the sights, take photos, and enjoy the scenery”.
On more advanced rides, you may need to walk your bike in places, and possibly get wet crossing streams or riding muddy roads, even when the weather is dry.
Given the remote nature of gravel riding, it’s even more important to be self-sufficient. Carrying a pump, two tubes, a patch kit, and “tire boots” to repair tears in a tire is prudent. The availability of food and water tends to be more limited on these rides, so be sure to be well-provisioned!
The OBC’s “no drop” policy is strictly followed for its gravel rides. Therefore, it’s important you don’t leave a group without telling the group leader…. the group will search for you otherwise!
Bicycles – A gravel bike is ideal, but “endurance” road bikes and cyclocross bikes work well too, and an “old-style” touring bike works great. Generally, tire width should be at least 32mm, and 38-40mm is ideal, but 28mm tires with some tread are good on many rides. Gravel roads tend to have steeper hills than paved, so smaller gears are really useful.
Mountain bike cleats (I.e., Shimano SPD cleats) or no cleats at all are good choices when riding rougher unmaintained roads, so you have the ability to easily unclip where you may need to frequently put a foot down, and to walk on rough surfaces if needed.
Group Speeds – Given the nature of the road surfaces, average speeds are significantly slower than road riding. Groups always go at the speed of the slowest rider (or faster riders stop frequently to allow slower riders to catch up). Currently, the OBC does not have defined speed groups for gravel riding. The nature/speed of the ride will be in the ride’s description. However, the regular OBC gravel rides will lean towards being accessible to newer and recreational gravel riders.
There are a few other significant differences from group road riding:
- Group sizes are smaller, with a maximum of 6-8 riders;
- Riders generally do not ride in a pack (to allow for maneuvering on rough surfaces);
- Since many roads are very isolated and there is usually very little traffic, the group will often use the whole lane (or the whole road, on single-lane roads!). When sight lines are limited on curves and hills, stay to the right to avoid coming face-to-face with a tractor or 4×4!
- Groups tend to break up more frequently due to differences in bike handling skills and in hill-climbing, so groups make frequent stops to re-group; and
- Since many riders are nervous about drinking or eating while riding on gravel, more frequent short water stops are common. Often these are at an interesting sight or to chat with someone on the road.