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    A Beginner’s Guide to Gravel Biking

    By Helen Tatlow
    More by Helen

    Gravel Biking for Beginners

    If you’re into cycling, you’ve probably heard of gravel biking, but what exactly is it? At its simplest, you might describe it as the middle ground between a road bike and a mountain bike. Not just a Gen-Z trend or a marketing fad, gravel bikes are ideal for someone who wants to do a bit of everything, besides steep technical mountain biking.

    What’s a Gravel Bike?

    Gravel bike frames are similar to a road bike but are sturdier. They have drop bars or flared handlebars (unlike the wide flat bars of a mountain bike), lovely safe disc brakes, wider and chunkier tyres than a road bike, and they don’t have suspension like a mountain bike. They tend to have lower gear ratios, making it easier to pedal, and are stable and confident, inspiring to ride. As well as specifically gravel, these bikes are amazing for riding pretty much any surface. They can be loaded with bikepacking gear for overnight adventures. They open up journeys through the gravel mecca of the Galloway Forest Park, along glittering tarns of the English Lake District, through the heather-tinted wilderness of Scottish estate tracks and ancient charming cobbled streets.

    We’re going to run through the 101 of gravel biking for beginners here to fuel your daydreams of your next off-road gravel adventure on two wheels.

    Gravel Biking Versus Road Cycling and Mountain Biking

    We may be biased, but we’d argue that gravel biking is the best form of biking for exploring the best Scotland has to offer. For a start, you can cycle completely off the road, meaning you don’t need to worry about cars, traffic, or pollution. It opens up so many parts of the country that aren’t accessible by car or road bike and can get you there way quicker than on foot.

    Within 30 minutes, you can be in a wild, mountainous location, taking a dip in a sparkling crystal blue swim spot with no one else around. Gravel riding is a bit more accessible than mountain biking for example; you don’t need technical mountain bike skills, and that makes it much safer, too. In Scotland, the network of rideable trails for gravel bikes is phenomenal. The law in Scotland (known as the Outdoor Access Code) permits offroad cycling pretty much everywhere, including on private roads, tracks, and paths (though, of course, people must act responsibly).

    Benefits of Gravel Biking

    gravel biking in scotland

    Gravel biking is a great way to experience Scotland’s wilderness, natural places, and wildlife. It’s a sustainable way to travel, reducing your carbon footprint. Without needing to think about traffic or technical singletrack, it’s the most mindful form of biking, opening up space for you to connect with the landscape and switch off from the daily grind.

    It’s easier to socialise and chat with your riding group while cycling side by side on wide open paths, making it the most sociable way to ride, too. Biking is a great low-impact exercise and full-body workout that you can do as easily or as hard as you want. For those seeking multi-day camping or bothy adventures, bikepacking bags can easily be attached to gravel bikes. This means that you can roam further than you could on foot without having to carry anything on your back.

    Choosing a Gravel Bike

    Gravel bike leaning against gate

    There are so many gravel bikes to choose from. We’d recommend taking a few different demo bikes for a spin from your local bike shop to see how they feel. The second-hand market is also a great way to find a good quality bike at a lower price.

    Start off by thinking about the kind of terrain you’ll want to take your bike on; smoother trails versus chunkier off-road routes will determine the different features you’ll want. At the end of the day, there is no ‘perfect bike.’ Ultimately, just need something that is safe, comfortable, and, most importantly, enables you to go out and ride. Once you’ve got your bike, it’s worth getting a professional bike fit to ensure the bike is set up perfectly for you, to prevent injury, and to maximise comfort.

    Things to consider when looking for a bike include:

    • Wheel size: Wheels come in either 700c or 650b sizes. The 700c are bigger, so will roll quicker. 650bs are smaller, so can be fitted with a wider and more knobbly tyre.
    • Gear ratios: The lower the gear ratio, the easier it will be to ride over chunkier terrain and save your knees the strain.
    • Handlebars: This tends to be personal preference. Some handlebars have road bike style drop bars, and others have more flared drop bars, which offer more control and stability (more akin to a mountain bike handlebar).
    • Frame material: The main materials on offer are carbon, titanium, aluminium, and steel. These have different costs, shock absorption, weights, and some are easier to repair than others. Check out this article for a rundown comparing the four materials.
    • Frame options: If bikepacking is your cup of tea, look for frames that have mounts for racks, bike backs, and water bottles that make it easy to attach luggage.
    • Brakes: You’ll need to go for disc brakes for your gravel bike. The choice is then between mechanical or hydraulic. Hydraulic brakes are slightly easier to use but cost more. However, both are great super safe options for brakes.

    Essential Kit for Gravel Biking

    Bike Specific

    • Front and rear lights for any road sections
    • Bike repair kit (and know how to use it)
    • Full waterproofs (top and bottom)
    • Spare layers
    • Gloves
    • Glasses/eyewear

    There are loads of options for storing your kit on the bike, ranging from backpacks and bum bags to frame bags and panniers.

    Mountain Specific

    When travelling to more remote locations by bike, you may end up far from a road, or away from phone signal. If an incident occurs, you’ll need to look after yourself and call for help. The Scottish Mountain Rescue Association recommend taking the following items of equipment as essential items:

    • First aid kit
    • Map and compass
    • Battery pack
    • Head torch and spare batteries
    • Survival bag/group shelter
    • Mobile phone
    • Personal locator beacon (if on your own)
    • Sun protection
    • Food and emergency rations
    • Sufficient water

    How To Plan a Gravel Bike Ride

    gravel riding in the cairngorms

    We recommend the following apps to get started with finding routes, mapping your own routes, and navigating during your ride. In addition, a bike computer can be really helpful for navigation if you really get into your gravel riding. This is like a mini-sat nav which you can load your route onto, making it smooth to follow when you’re out on the trail.

    Map Apps

    • Komoot – Extra good as it details the surface type, providing sat-nav style navigation on the bike, and great for finding published route ideas from fellow cyclists.
    • OS Maps – All the UK Ordnance Survey maps on your phone, and displays elevation profile for planning those steep climbs.
    • Outdoor Active – Similar to OS Maps, extra good for travelling abroad for local area maps.
    • Ride with GPS – Similar to Komoot, best for finding routes in your local area and for plotting your own routes on a map.

    Nutrition & Hydration

    Proper fuelling on a bike is essential. You’ll need to keep your energy levels sustained during the ride to avoid the infamous ‘bonk’. There’s such a range of nutrition options out there, and trial and error is a good way to find what works best for you. Take a look at our blog post here for our favourite cycling snacks, including gluten free protein rich energy bars, organic oat bars, and homemade date energy balls.

    In the summer months, when it’s warmer and you’re sweating more, you’ll also need to keep your electrolytes topped up. This is essential for warding off heat exhaustion and cramps. Electrolyte tablets and drinks are great for this and don’t take up much room.

    Making your snacks easily accessible on the bike can help ensure it’s easy for you to grab a bite without needing to get off the bike. Check out this range of snack pouches (‘feedbags’), or this range of top tube bags (‘gas tanks’), for adding those snacks within arms reach.

    Final Thoughts

    In sum, gravel bikes get you off the road into quiet tracks immersed in nature without the technical or scary element of mountain biking. They open up access to a huge range of environments, from mountain passes, ancient pine forests, and winding countryside tracks. Gravel biking is great for your physical and mental health and is a joyful way to spend time with friends on an adventure to your favourite swim spot, local cafe, or viewpoint. You’ll need to carry a bit more kit than road riding to ensure you can look after yourself in more remote spots, which is all part of the adventure experience and becoming more self-sufficient in the outdoors as a rider.

    There are loads of delicious routes out there to dive into and great mapping software and apps to help you plan your trip.

    As a beginner, gravel biking is a safe and fun way to explore Scotland off the road and get yourself to some of the coolest spots. You can start with a short route, or set your sights on a multi day camping adventure, it’s totally up to you. So grab a map and your diary, and start planning your next ride now!

    Go Gravel Biking With Us

    Meet the Author: Helen Tatlow

    “Originally from the Cotswolds, I moved to the Scottish Highlands in 2020. I spend my time running in the forests and mountains near home, sea and whitewater kayaking, and planning impromptu multi-day bike trips. I firmly believe that the outdoors is a space for everyone and that most importantly, it should be fun!”

    View profileMore by Helen

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