When competitive trail runner Elisa Laverty, of Bainbridge Island, found herself sidelined due to an injury in the summer of 2019, she turned to road cycling as a way to stay in shape.
Disillusioned with having to share the road with cars and exercise away from nature, she started looking into cycling options that would take her back to the trails. Her boyfriend, Sam, had recently started gravel riding, so she decided to give that a try.
She quickly took to the sport after finding a group to ride with regularly.
“I definitely missed running while injured, but still felt close to nature,” she said. “It helped keep my cup full while being injured.”
Gravel riding is a bit of a hybrid between road cycling and mountain biking that typically follows routes along Forest Service roads or logging roads. The laid-back culture of riding on the dirt contrasts against the ultracompetitive, high-tech world of road cycling and the technical skills required for mountain biking, while still offering a challenge for those seeking Type-2 fun.
“Part of why it’s become extremely popular is because you don’t have to worry about getting run over,” said Deanna Duke, a gravel rider from Roslyn, Kittitas County. “You don’t have to worry about cars or traffic, just wild animals.”
Both Duke and Laverty also find the gravel-riding culture to be more inclusive, compared to road cycling or mountain biking, especially for women and other minority participants.
Duke says that women constitute comsome 60-70% of the participants in the group rides that she organizes. “There’s just not that same level of intimidation factor with the technical skills or gear. It’s a much more open and friendly culture,” she says.
This inclusion transfers over to organized races, as well.
According to Duke, several races leave registration spots open for women after closing to men to encourage participation.
As with many professional and amateur sports, men earn exponentially higher wages and prize money compared to women, and cycling is no different. Some gravel-riding race directors, however, are making an effort to close that gap and make the sport more equitable.
The Belgian Waffle race series pays men and women the same amount in prize money. In Carson City, Nevada, Paydirt race director Peter Steton believes that “equal payout doesn’t make up for ground lost” and therefore the female winners will be the only recipients of prize money.
Some races, like Rebecca’s Private Idaho, include winner categories for para-cyclists and trans/nonbinary riders.
Equipment and gear
If you’re just starting out, there’s no need to get a gravel-specific bike. The bike you already own may work just fine, as long as you can fit a medium-width tire. Most road frames won’t accommodate this, but many touring, cross or mountain bikes will have the capacity.
Duke recommends a 32-millimeter tire and says the average width ranges between 38 and 42 millimeters. For those rotating between road and gravel, look for tires with a streamlined middle and tread on the sides.
That way, she says, road cyclists “can ride off the shoulders without having to worry about popping a tire or slowing down much.”
The remaining gear is more or less the same as what one would need for any other kind of biking. This includes clipless pedals, a helmet, padded shorts, and a handlebar bag for snacks and food.
“If you’re coming from another bike sport, you don’t need anything new,” said Duke.
Those totally new to cycling can often find necessary gear from their local riding community.
“Once you start to develop a network of friends, you can get great secondhand gear,” said Laverty, who acquired a lot of her initial gear from new friends. “It’s intimidating being a total noob and not knowing anything about gearing or different-sized tires. I’m grateful for the group I got into here in Kitsap County.”
Finding mentors and groups
According to Duke, the biggest resource in the local gravel-riding community is a Facebook group called Northwest Gravel Riders.
“Everybody in Oregon and Washington posts their routes with GPS coordinates and photos,” she said.
Laverty loves using Strava to find new routes and riding partners. “Just ask!” she says. “Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone you’ve been following for a while and want to ride with.”
She adds that the Breakfast Cycling Club in Seattle has been doing a phenomenal job for trans, femme and people who identify as women. The cycling club and racing team welcomes novice cyclists and provides support to those new to racing in a variety of cycling events.
Gravelmap.com is another great user-generated resource where cyclists can find routes posted by other gravel riders.
As you gain experience, Duke recommends looking into the Gran Fondo race series hosted by Vicious Cycle. The organization runs five gravel races throughout Washington between March and September, each with two different distances.
“A lot of people that come from road biking like them,” said Duke. “If you want a taste of gravel, this is a great crossover event.”
Route recommendations for new gravel riders
Washington state features some 20,000 miles of unpaved roads begging to be explored on two wheels, with accessibility for all levels.
A great beginner ride is the Snoqualmie Valley Trail to the Palouse to Cascades Trail, which connects at Rattlesnake Lake. Both are rails to trails with gentle grades and no car traffic. Duke suggests starting in North Bend and riding to the tunnel at Snoqualmie Pass.
The Methow Valley is another iconic gravel-riding destination with hundreds of miles of gravel roads suitable for all abilities. The 12-mile Bear Creek Road Pearrygin Loop is a 50/50 mix of pavement and gravel that starts in Winthrop and travels through Pearrygin Lake State Park.
In the Skagit Valley, the 22.5-mile Cascade Trail is another beginner-friendly rails-to-trail route that starts in Sedro-Woolley and ends in Concrete.