Top Tips For Your First Big Gravel Ride

Planning your first - or your next - big gravel ride? Stepping up to bigger rides can be an intimidating prospect, but we've got your back with some top tips on getting started.

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Gravel Dreamin'

Are you dreaming of a dirty great big gravel ride?

We asked Marin rider, Youtuber and big-ride expert Dave Noakes to give us a few of his top tips for planning your first big gravel ride and some advice on how to find gravel routes, how to plan a big gravel ride and the answer to what 'gravel' actually means.

Take it away Dave!

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What the Heck is Gravel Anyway?!

Let’s start with the basics, what the heck is a gravel ride and what even is gravel riding?

Generally, it’s accepted that ‘gravel’ lives somewhere between mountain biking and road cycling and involves riding on unpaved surfaces, gravel tracks, fire roads and mellow trails.

For many years, gravel looked a lot like either cyclocross or bike packing but 'modern' gravel has developed to become a much broader thing. Developments in bikes, kit and rider attitudes means that you'll now find gravel riders enjoying everything from technical off-road rides to ultra-distance races to leisurely spins on the cycle path.

There’s no clear answer to 'what is gravel cycling?' these days and you’ll find some gravel riders in skinny-fit kit on drop bar bikes pounding out the miles and others in baggy off-road gear on flat-bar bikes shredding singletrack. And, of course, everything in between.

Dave told us “Gravel is great because there's no real definition. It's all about just getting out on your bike onto whatever terrain you want to ride. The bikes aren’t as fast or serious as road bikes or mountain bikes which just makes them fun and super versatile. They’ll go almost anywhere and do almost anything. I love them.” No arguments from us.

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Even Gravel Rides Need a Plan

They say ‘not everyone that wanders is lost’ but it’s a good idea to plan your route in advance so you can work out how far you're going, total trip time, any overnight stops and work in some destinations from the bucket list.

Dave told us “Use one of the many websites that exist to plan where you’re going, they can help you with suggested routes from local experts or assist in making up your own ride”.

Pre-packaged routes have the benefit of being well ridden and often come with plenty of advice on what to expect and things to know (great coffee stops are essential!). The DIY option can be much more satisfying, according to Dave, but obviously needs a lot more research and adds that element of the unknown (more on that a minute!).

Once you’ve chosen your route, Dave’s advice is to download it onto a handlebar-mounted device that you can use to navigate as you ride. “It’s a much smoother experience if you can keep riding and not have to stop and dig a map out constantly!”

Tune Up, Fix Up

“Don’t be scared of mechanicals, but you’re going to want to learn some basic maintenance” says Dave.

It’s likely you’ll run into minor mechanical troubles at some point. Knowing how to fix a puncture, plug a tubeless hole, repair a broken chain, readjust your gears or replace a broken spoke will save a call home for rescue. It’s always a good idea to give your bike a tune-up before a big gravel ride and to replace any components that risk letting you down. There's a list of Marin dealers here, if you need them.

And, as Dave also adds, it’s good to have a bail-out plan if you really need it. Let a friend know where you’re going and when you’ll be back and consider having a buddy on hand for a rescue if you end up stranded.

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Pick The Right Ride For Your Ride.

A quick look at those hardy old Rough Stuff Fellowship riders will show that you don’t need the best bike to go on your first big gravel ride. That said, Dave’s advice is to pick a bike that suits your ride to maximize enjoyment, safety and chances of success!

If you’re planning a big ride on asphalt, Dave uses his Marin Nicasio. For a mix of surfaces, hopping between surfaced and gravel, Dave reaches for his Marin DSX. When things get rougher and the route leads further off-road and into the mountains, he’ll grab his Marin Gestalt.

Wondering what tires to run for big gravel rides? Whatever you ride, Dave says “don’t forget the tires”. If you’re sticking to the roads, run tires that’ll roll fast and smooth. If you’re taking on more aggressive terrain, you’ll want something with a bit of grip that can take some abuse. Either way, run something that's got a bit of puncture protection and won't let you down.

Your local Marin bike shop can advise on something that’ll match your bike and terrain perfectly.

Tubeless Is A No Brainer

The trick to getting those big gravel rides done is to keep moving - and nothing holds you back like a puncture.

Dave’s advice? “Go tubeless. You won’t regret it”. Tubeless replaces your inner tubes with sticky ‘sealant’ which seals up punctures as they happen, keeping you riding without even knowing anything has happened. Tubeless also allows you to run lower tire pressures, which means more grip and more comfort, particularly on rough and uneven surfaces.

Almost all of Marin’s bikes are tubeless compatible and our website can advise which are and aren’t. Once again, give your friendly local Marin dealer a call for help.

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Pack a Few Spares

And going hand in hand with Dave’s tips about tubeless and basic mechanical skills, is his advice to pack a few spares for when trouble strikes. "Pack this lot and you'll turn ride-ending disasters into minor bumps in the road."

Dave’s ‘don’t leave home with it’ list:
  • Bike-specific multitool with chain-tool
  • 2 x Spare inner tubes
  • A pump
  • Puncture repair kit
  • Tire boot
  • Cable ties
  • Electrical Tape
  • Co2 cartridges + inflator
  • A quick link for your chain
For bigger, multi-day gravel rides and anything in the wilderness, you might want to expand that list to include spare brake pads, a spare gear cable, tubeless sealant and a first-aid kit.

Eat Right, Drink Right.

Wondering what to eat and drink for long-distance gravel rides?

There’s a lot of science behind eating and drinking for gravel riding and cycling in general but - as Dave points out - just keep it simple.

When it comes to food, his tip is to keep eating little and often. Rather than stopping for big meals, graze throughout your ride and keep your food in a frame bag or pocket that's easy to access without stopping. TimeOutdoors recommend eating Cereal bars, bananas, fruit loaf, sandwiches and scones and advise that you should aim to eat the equivalent of 1 or 2 cereal bars or 1 or 2 large bananas an hour.

When Dave is feeling low energy and needs a boost, he’ll reach for Haribo (other gummy candies are available!) or a dedicated energy gel. Be wary of the sugar crash that these can cause though!

Not sure how much water to drink on a long-distance gravel bike ride? Dave’s advice is to carry as much as you can and work in some stops into your route to refill. Keep a bottle handy and sip water constantly, even if you’re not thirsty. Dedicated cycling bottles allow you to drink whilst keeping a hand on your handlebars and all of Marin's bikes have room for at least one bottle cage.

For rides up to an hour, Dave drinks plain, no-frills water but for long-distance gravel rides or in hotter-than-usual conditions he’ll add electrolyte tablets to ensure he stays properly hydrated.

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Don't Rush It and Remember To Have Fun!

Unless you’re racing, why rush it? Dave’s last bit of advice? “Take your time and make the most of the time on two wheels”.

“Long rides are about enjoying the scenery, getting away from daily life and seeing some new places”. Take the long route, bypass the busy-but-direct roads, take a detour past that bar or cafe you’ve always wanted to visit, stop for a coffee or three!

“Part of the fun of big rides is having no idea what’s going to happen” Dave told us. “The weather might change, your route might be closed, you might have to take a detour to find a bike shop or simply because the route looks better in the other direction. Be safe but just roll with it. Enjoy the twists and turns, and have fun with being outside of your comfort zone and on an adventure.”

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