Gravel Grinders

One of my club’s more enthusiastic race-oriented members posted a link to a nearby gravel grinder race. “This looks like fun!” she said. The 100km and 50 Km races would be run on mostly gravel roads near the hamlet of Castell, Texas, near where I had an enjoyable ride about a year and a half ago.

A gravel grinder ride.
A gravel grinder ride.

Problem was, the race was limited to only 100 entrants for both the 100 and 50. And both are now full. But it got me thinking — wouldn’t a ride over mostly gravel roads be fun, if you had the right equipment?

And what would be the right equipment? It turns out, gravel grinders have a devoted following. Even though I’d never heard of one, I soon found plenty of references on the internets. And the right equipment turns out to be pretty simple.

It’s not necessarily a mountain bike, although they would do fine in this kind of venue. Some companies make bikes for the express intention of riding or racing on gravel. They’re essentially cross bikes. Wider tires, with aggressive treads, disc brakes. The frame can be aluminum, or steel, but probably not carbon fiber.

This steed, by Niner bikes, is the RLT 9 (Road Less Traveled). Aluminum frame, carbon fork, two build options. (Click all pics to enlarge.)
This steed, by Niner bikes, is the RLT 9 (Road Less Traveled). Aluminum frame, carbon fork, two build options. (Click all pics to enlarge.)

Other gravel grinder bikes are built up at home. They’re referred to as “gravel mutts,” and might start life in a number of different ways.

One build that seems to have its adherents is to start with a steel road bike, perhaps an old 10-speed, and fit it with wide tires and a redone drive train — maybe a triple chain ring and bar end shifters. Another would be to equip a mountain bike with drop bars. Or, for the budget-minded, take a hybrid and fit it with drops.

Here's an old 10-speed converted for gravel.
Here’s an old 10-speed converted for gravel.

I think this would be a lot of fun. I know I hate to ride my skinny tires on gravel — I don’t even like gritty shoulders on paved roads. And just because my friend was thinking of entering a race (she’s funny that way) doesn’t mean you must race on gravel. Just bombing around on a weekend day would admirably fill the bill.

Have you ever done any gravel riding? Do you have a special bike for the purpose?


  1. says

    Yes, and yes. Here in the Rio Grande Valley, there is kind-of-a-secret 56-mile ride called “Hell of the South” put together by one of the local bicycle shops. I say kinda-secret because if you ask the right folks, you can get one of the coveted spots to ride in it. The ride takes place on dirt, gravel, caliche, sand, and everything in between. There is only one rule: you must use a road bike!

    Here is a photo album of the latest one:

  2. says

    Why yes, that is indeed the in-famous border fence between the U.S and Mexico. Although, in our area the fence (or the wall) has been integrated with the levee system that provides flooding relief for the Rio Grande. Good observation there :)

  3. says

    I expressly changed the tires on my commuter to make it a better compatible with gravel. Been a couple of times this fall, and I’ve gotta say it was pretty fun after I got over my initial trepidation.

  4. Jay says

    Here in the Midwest, Gravel Grinders are king. Many people around here have special bike set up just for it and many of the local bike companies have been putting out Gravel Bikes for years (Salsa). The big differences between Cross bikes and Gravel bikes is the geometry (more relaxed for [many] more hours on the bike), better gearing ratios for all the climbing (up to 10000ft+ in some races), non exposed cables for weather, wide tire clearance, and the list goes on. There are a few Carbon Gravel bikes out there (Foundry and Specialized) but Titanium, Aluminum, and Steel still rule. There are plenty of people on Cross bikes, Mtn bikes, Monster Cross, and even road bikes with aggressive 28c tires. I prefer gravel riding to road biking because of the less traffic and the go where ever I want mentality.

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