How to ride your road bike on gravel

Six must-know tips and tricks for keeping in control when taking your bike off-road.

Clock11:00, Monday 3rd July 2023

Modern road bikes borrow so much technology from the mountain bike world: disc brakes; tubeless tyres; threadless headsets. With all that mountain bike tech, they’re more than capable of handling a bit of gravel.

The thing is, though, that unlike a mountain bike or gravel bike, your road bike isn’t designed to be steady and stable off-road. To stay in control on the rough stuff, you need to adjust your technique. Here’s how.

Read more:

  • Should you ride your road bike on gravel?
  • What should I buy? A road bike or a gravel bike?
Sharp cornering will break any traction you have with the trail

Avoid sharp turns and braking

Gravel hates surprises. Try any sharp turns or quick manoeuvres and you’ll find that any grip your tyres had with the ground magically disappears. Likewise, grabbing the brakes can easily cause the wheels to lock up or slip out.

Gradual, consistent changes are best on gravel. Pull the brakes gently to maintain traction, and try not to change direction too quickly. Ride steadily and consistently on the straights, and take it easy around the corners. When you’re riding gravel on a road bike, slow and steady is the way to go.

Keep your weight back to stop your front wheel from sliding out

Keep your weight back when descending

On a gravel bike or a mountain bike, most of the rider's weight is positioned over the rear wheel. On a road bike however, your bodyweight is distributed pretty evenly between your front and rear wheel. When riding off-road, that weight on the front wheel makes it tricky to keep control of the bike.

On loose surfaces, the extra weight on the front wheel makes it increasingly likely that your front wheel will slip out when turning. When descending, especially on steep descents, it might feel like you’re perilously close to toppling over the bars.

The solution is to keep your weight back as much as possible. When pedalling, you can do this by sliding back in the saddle and either putting your hands on the hoods or the tops of the bars. When tackling rougher sections, especially tricky descents, standing out of the saddle and moving your hips back over the saddle is the best way to go.

Too much front brake will cause the front wheel to slide out

Less front brake

You’ve probably noticed that your front brake is more powerful than your rear brake. That’s because when you pull the front brake, your weight is thrown onto the front wheel, giving extra traction and allowing you to brake harder without sliding.

That’s how it works on tarmac, anyway. On gravel, that rapid weight transfer to the front wheel has the opposite effect: too much front brake will compromise the traction your front wheel has with the ground, leading to your front wheel sliding out.

When riding your road bike on gravel, be careful with the front brake. Try using both brakes evenly, or pull a little harder with the rear brake than the front, always testing and paying attention to how much traction your tyres have.

The smoothest line is usually the most well-worn one

Pick the smoothest line

To avoid puncturing those skinny road bike tyres, you need to always be looking for the best line choice. That means that as you ride, you need to be scanning the path ahead and identifying the smoothest path through.

As you get more and more comfortable riding on gravel, try to look further and further ahead. Mountain bikers call this skill ‘vision’ – the ability to look as far down the trail as possible while riding whatever is under your wheels. Having good vision gives you more time to set yourself up for obstacles that are approaching. It’ll make you safer, and it’ll allow you to ride faster off-road.

Stand up on the pedals, let your arms bend, and let the bike move under you

Suspend your weight and let the bike move

If you plonk yourself on the saddle over rough sections, or lock up your hands and arms, a couple of things will happen. Firstly, you’re going to have a really uncomfortable ride, and secondly, you’re not going to get as much grip. Instead, get out of the saddle, bend your arms and legs, and let your bike move underneath you. Your knees and elbows will absorb any shocks from the road. Get this right and you’ll be more comfortable, safer and faster.

When climbing, stay seated to maximise grip to the rear wheel

Stay seated on the climbs

When climbing on gravel, front wheel grip isn’t an issue. Back wheel grip on the other hand, is. To stop your rear wheel spinning as you power up the climbs, keep your bum on the saddle, and shift as much as your weight back as possible by bringing your hands onto the tops of your bars.

Keep your pedalling smooth and consistent rather than chopping at the pedals or ‘pedalling squares’, as people say. If your power comes in short, sharp bursts, the rear wheel will lose traction.

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