Gravel Grinders – How to get started

We’re now well into fall and winter is starting to arrive.  For many, this means setting up the trainer or signing up for a spin class and riding indoors.  For others (like me), it means getting out the warm clothing layers and getting out on the gravel roads!

I’ve recently blogged about the pleasures of gravel grinding so I won’t repeat all the benefits here.  However, I know some people who would like to put their road or mountain bikes away in the fall and start riding gravel.  Here are some of my tips:

The Bike

In the past few years, bike companies have been introducing a new type of bike. Referred to as “adventure” or “gravel” bikes, these aren’t the same as cyclocross bikes (the gearing and geometry are different).  That said, you don’t need a gravel-specific bike to ride gravel roads. When I started riding gravel roads, I took an old mountain bike hardtail frame, some old components and adaptors (so I could put on 700c wheels and cyclocross tires), and morphed it into a gravel bike.  I rode this for a couple of years until I finally decided to bite the bullet and buy a cyclocross bike for gravel rides.  I found a great used bike from a fellow club member (Kona Jake) and I put a lot of kilometres onto this bike until last year when I sold it to upgrade to a Cannondale cyclocross bike.

Online buy and sell sites like pinkbike.com often have good deals on used cyclocross bikes, and anyone who’s looking to get started with these kinds of rides should be able to find something decent for under $1000.

If buying a new bike is not in your current budget, you can ride a mountain bike on these rides (not ideal, but certainly possible).  You can also get away with a road bike on most gravel roads in Waterloo Region.  I’d highly recommend changing your slick road tires for something a bit wider and with some tread if you’re planning to do this.

The Roads

The Region of Waterloo has developed a cycling map that shows regional roads with bike lanes or shoulders (Here’s the rural cycling map).  One of the issues, however, is that gravel roads are not included as cycling roads.  Also, with the cities of Kitchener and Waterloo, most trails are city trails, so they’re not shown on the regional map. But these issues won’t stop you from exploring.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m working on a Google Maps gravel road link.  It’s still in progress so I don’t want to put it out there yet, but here’s a screen capture:

I haven’t included a lot of the paths in the cities yet, but some of the nice gravel roads are shown.

I’ve also created a few routes in Strava that include some of these gravel roads and paths:

  1. 47 km gravel ride from St. Jacobs
  2. 47 km Grand River Trail and K-W city trails
  3. 44 km gravel ride north of KW

Note that these routes include some paved roads.

Another highly recommended route for gravel beginners is the G2G trail.  It’s currently in good condition from just nort of Guelph all the way to Millbank (here’s a Strave route).  There are different places to park along the trail (Wallenstein, Elmira, Middlebrook Road, Linwood, Millbank), so you can make your journey as long or as short as you like.  There’s a group that’s working on extending the trail all the way to Goderich (127 km in total: website here).  I’m not sure of the condition of the trail (I’ve only ridden as far as Millbank).

The Gear

Here’s (an incomplete) list of gear I use:

  • Crank brothers pedals (same as mountain bike pedals)
  • Road or mountain bike clothing in warm weather (shorts, jersey)
  • Layers in winter, including merino wool (more winter tips here)
  • Helmet cover on really cold winter days
  • Buff for keeping my neck and chin and cheeks covered on really cold winter days
  • Fenders optional but advised
  • Lights – to see and to be seen (red in the back, white in the front)
  • Bell – very important if you’re riding on community/city trails where you’ll see a lot of pedestrians
  • Cell phone (keep it close to your body for warmth in winter because some phones can’t take the cold!)
  • Cash for coffee, donuts, pie, buttertarts, muffins…..

That’s all I can think of for now.  If you want to get started and have any questions let me know in the comments sections.  Or if you have any other tips, do the same!

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