Why gravel cycling is the next big biking trend

A cross between road biking and mountain biking, gravel cycling is now enabling two-wheelers to explore new and ancient routes across the UK.

Simon Usborne, the writer, leading his group up a hill on The Ridgeway.

Photograph by Tom Gibbs/Komoot
By Simon Usborne
Published 20 Feb 2023, 11:00 GMT

The stone circles of Avebury are bathed in golden light early on a crisp autumn morning. The Neolithic monuments, which are rooted in and around a sleepy Wiltshire village, 17 miles north of Stonehenge, were once a major stop on a now largely lost network of roads established by drovers and traders.

Several thousand years later, a small band of travellers with rather different intentions are gathered beside the stones. We wear tastefully muted shades of Lycra and merino wool as we make the final checks on our bikes before a modern adventure with historic foundations.

I’m here to ride a wave that’s swept the cycling industry in the past few years. It’s called ‘gravel cycling’. And, like cargo trousers and bucket hats, it has the strange quality of being both a hot trend and a total throwback.

In the age before asphalt, everything was ‘gravel’, a word now used to describe pretty much any unpaved surface. But with the invention of Tarmac, leisure cycling eventually split into three tribes: road cyclists, mountain bikers and cycle tourers with their panniers and Thermos flasks.

Now cyclists of all stripes are reuniting, on tracks, bridleways and forestry roads — anything that offers a sense of escape. The bike I’m riding symbolises this cultural melding. Gravel bikes tend to have drop handlebars, often splayed out for more stability on rougher ground. Frames are a bit longer and higher than road bikes for added stability, while being stiffer and faster than mountain bikes.

These new hybrids first emerged in the US around 2012. By then, interest was growing in organised off-road rides such as Dirty Kanza, now known as Unbound Gravel. The 200-mile route through the Flint Hills in central Kansas attracted 34 riders in 2006, its first year. Nowadays it draws nearly 4,000.

As gravel events and races fill the cycling calendar all over the world, many cyclists are going further — much further. ‘Bikepacking’ has emerged as a kind of gravel sub-trend. Grizzled proponents strap lightweight camping gear to their bikes in cleverly mounted bags and set off on gruelling, self-supported rides or endurance races across mountain ranges in remotest Morocco or Kyrgyzstan.

Natt Williams, who has joined me in Avebury, noticed the scene really begin to flourish around 2019. He found himself becoming an accidental adventure influencer, collecting sponsors desperate to push their gear in a buzzing new market. But when the pandemic put the brakes on travel and events, it compelled the curious and recently converted to seek out adventure closer to home. “I remember thinking: I can’t experience high altitudes or deep forests, so where am I going to go?” says Williams, who is 32 and works in advertising from his home in East London.

Byways and bridleways

I bought my gravel bike in 2020. The search for accessible routes not far from my house in Southeast London has acquainted me with byways and bridleways I never knew existed. After almost 15 years as a dedicated roadie, getting off the beaten track has been a revelation. I can still cover long distances at a fair lick but also spring free from the confines of the asphalt and the supremacy of the car.

The challenge for me, too, has been knowing where to go, which is what leads me to Avebury. I’m trying out a new route created in 2021 by a pair of like-minded gravel hounds. The Old Chalk Way follows the Greater Ridgeway, a necklace of footpaths draped across southern England. It takes in ancient trails that were established on high, drier ground from Lyme Regis in Dorset to Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk.

Walkers have long followed the 362-mile route, which links up four well-used long-distance footpaths: The Wessex Ridgeway, The Ridgeway, The Icknield Way and The Peddars Way. The slightly adapted, 357-mile Old Chalk Way avoids stretches that are for walking only, and divides the whole thing into five stages.

With only a day to spare, I make a beeline for stage three, which is perhaps the easiest to do from London. It starts inauspiciously just outside Swindon, but Avebury, which comes towards the end of the previous stage, seems like a more inspiring place to begin.

My destination is the market town of Tring, on the northern edge of the Chiltern hills in Hertfordshire. My deadline is dusk. As well as Williams, I’m joined by Rob Marshall, who works for Komoot, a navigation app that serves the burgeoning adventure cycling market, and Tom Gibbs, a cyclist and photographer. Between us and Tring lie 82 miles of almost all off-road trails, about 5,000ft in elevation gain — and a lot of looming clouds.

The climbing begins as soon as I leave Avebury and rise up on to The Ridgeway, a chalk spine established as a national trail in 1973 along part of the ancient route from Overton Hill, along the North Wessex Downs and into the Chilterns. The ascent readies my heart and legs for the lumpy miles to follow. The reward is one of the best views of the day as rolling fields unfold towards distant towns and rumbling roads.

Recent rain has restored some green to the English countryside after a summer drought. The chalk tracks that make up most of today’s riding have been compacted and then slightly softened, making the going fast and smooth. During a long day in the saddle, I’ll take in almost every conceivable surface, from winding forest paths to short sections of asphalt. 

Soon we’re sailing past Iron Age hill forts and over gentle downland, unzipping puddles with our tyres and kicking up conkers and acorns like tiddlywinks. It’s easy to forget that major towns such as Swindon, Newbury and Didcot are barely more than a few miles away. 

Apps such as Strava, along with GPS-enabled smartphones and satnav devices, have long done away with the need to stuff paper maps into sweaty pockets. They’re now adapting to the off-road market, but it’s still easy to come a cropper, especially on lesser-used bridleways that can disappear under farmers’ ploughs or inside spiky hedgerows. It can also be tough to get to grips with the fragmented network of bridleways, byways and ‘permissive’ paths that make up England’s green and sometimes contested land.

Komoot uses clever algorithms to snap routes between given points so they follow suitable surfaces — a boon to riders who don’t have the wayfinding instincts of a latter-day Marco Polo. “We’re trying to remove some of those barriers to get to the outdoors,” says Rob. The app recently added a trail-view function that automatically plants user photos of routes onto its maps, highlighting hazards, obstacles or the effects of recent bad weather.

In Wiltshire, the clouds open intermittently and I’m constantly stowing away and redeploying my rain jacket. Two small bags attached to my handlebars and top tube are enough to contain my gear, which also includes spare inner tubes and a stash of energy bars. I’ve uploaded the Old Chalk Way route file to my bike computer, which works like a satnav, so I can focus on the trail.

On one descent of a chalk track, my front wheel flicks into a deep rut, throwing me off at speed. I dust myself off and continue, grateful not to have come down on Tarmac. Although adventure riding requires more concentration than cruising along a B-road, accessibility is a big part of the gravel boom. You can go as far and as hard as you like, but the priority isn’t to find steep, technical descents or indulge the ‘suffering’ fetish that’s so prevalent on the road. It’s about rolling at a brisk yet comfortable pace through glorious countryside, perhaps in good company, stopping often to take it all in.

Cyclist Natt Williams on The Ridgeway in southern England.

Cyclist Natt Williams on The Ridgeway in southern England.

Photograph by Tom Gibbs/Komoot

Surging interest

Before the ride I speak to Tom Farrell, who’s at the forefront of the boom. He opened Woods Cyclery shop in the New Forest village of Lyndhurst in 2016. The woodland is a hub for easy gravel riding yet, initially, demand was slow. “It was a bit of a niche in the UK and it was quite rare that we had a customer walk in and ask about gravel bikes,” says Tom. “Now it happens about 10 times a day.”

Tom has been struck by the diversity of his customers. Bike manufacturers have recognised this. Although you can spend more than £10,000 on a high-spec gravel bike, the bottom end of the market is flooded with alternatives below £1,000. “We get mountain bikers, road riders, touring cyclists, young people, old people, commuters — everyone’s here,” says Tom.

Surging interest across the spectrum is also triggering demand for ready-made routes. Today’s ride takes in a section of King Alfred’s Way, a 220-mile loop through the Home Counties that the Cycling UK charity launched in 2020. In 2022, it also created the Cantii Way, a 145-mile circuit in east Kent that includes plenty of off-road trails. The Old Chalk Way overlaps with the King Alfred’s Way for a long stretch of The Ridgeway. 

At one point, we come across Kevin and Graham, two road cyclists in their fifties who are converts to gravel cycling. They’ve strapped new bikepacking bags to their frames and have been bedding down in bivvy bags each night — wild camping isn’t permitted in England, except in Dartmoor National Park, but responsible bikepackers, espousing a ‘leave no trace’ ethos, are pausing overnight as demand grows for multi-day domestic adventures.

It’s lunchtime as we roll across the Thames into the upmarket town of Goring. I slightly lower the tone as I sit on a bench in mud-splattered cycling gear, with a big graze on my face, to scoff some expensive quiche from The Goring Grocer. I try to keep moving so that my left knee, which also took a big bash in the crash, doesn’t start to seize up. 

We’re soon climbing through woodland into the Chilterns, where I’m slightly disheartened to discover the route takes in Whiteleaf Hill, an infamous climb outside Princes Risborough. Perhaps mercifully, it comes during one of the short stretches on the road. So while my energy reserves are low, I find a rhythm and slightly zone out for the thankless grind to the top.

As the light begins to fade, the route hits the Grand Union Canal for a pleasant stretch of towpath towards Tring station and the return journey to London. I’ve rarely been more pleased to get off my bike, but it’s also been a long time since I’ve had so much fun on it. And while an out-of-town commuter station makes for a dreary end to the day’s journey, it also serves as a reminder that even here, about half an hour away from Euston station, adventure is never far away.

Botallack tin mine near St Just, Cornwall, on the West Kernow Way — a 150-mile circular ...

Botallack tin mine near St Just, Cornwall, on the West Kernow Way — a 150-mile circular bikepacking route.

Photograph by Alamy

Five great rides: gravel adventures

Silk Road
The Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan are the site of the annual Silk Road Mountain Race. Pannier runs a slightly more gentle eight-night, 217-mile adventure through big skies and bigger peaks.

New Forest
Hampshire’s largely flat New Forest National Park is a haven of smooth gravel. It’s an ideal location for newbies and families to hone their craft.

Hardy cyclists gather annually for perhaps the wildest bikepacking challenge in Europe — a 500-mile route through southern Spain, taking in the otherworldly Gorafe desert and Pico Veleta (11,140ft), the continent’s highest col. 

The far tip of Cornwall is the site of one of Cycling UK’s new, mostly off-road routes. The figure of eight, which covers 140 hilly miles, can be completed as one bikepacking adventure or in sections.

The gravel trend arguably began in the Flint Hills, west of Emporia. The annual Unbound Gravel race sells out fast, but there are plenty of other events and the hills are alive with potential year-round.

More info

Published in the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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