How To

Plan Your First Gravel Ride

Plan Your First Gravel Ride

Gravel riding has become extremely popular in recent years and the good news is that it’s also extremely accessible. Which is probably why you’re reading this article.

But do you know where you can ride a gravel bike to get the best out of it, and how to plan a route? In this article, we’ll take you through the necessary steps to plan your very first gravel ride, from how to easily plot a route and how to explore the abundance of lanes, byways and bridleways on your very doorstep.

Where can I ride my gravel bike?

When you think gravel your mind might fill with visions of endless smooth gravel roads in wide-open prairies of the Midwest US where gravel bikes largely originated, with long-distance events and races. Here in the UK, well it’s a little different. It pays to know where you can and can’t legally ride and what sort of trails you want to look out for when planning a route.

The UK is crisscrossed with a vast network of public rights of ways. Which include:

  • Bridleways – these are also footpaths so used by walkers and horse riders
  • Restricted Byway – open to all non-motorised vehicles
  • BOAT (Byway open to all traffic) – unsurfaced roads open to motorised traffic usually of the 4X4 variety
  • Freedom to roam – Some areas provide access to roam without paths only if the landowner permits it, like moorland, mountains, heaths and downs, or if a bridleway or byway crosses it

Bridleways and byways are the most common paths sought out by UK gravel cyclists and mixed with country lanes to create compelling off-road focused routes.

Gravel riders off road (Image by Komoot)

The terrain can vary hugely from one part of the country to another. From the rocky Peak District to the wilderness of Kielder Forest to the sun-kissed South Downs Way, and many other popular riding spots around the country.

The trails can vary hugely as well, from one area to another and even within one locale. Smooth and fine gravel fire roads to loose rocks to soft sand. And then mud, something which the British winter can serve up in spectacular style. All these terrain differences can impact the route you can create and it can depend on the time of the year, with some trails being only really rideable during the summer.

You might not think you can plan a gravel route from your doorstep, but you would be surprised. The beauty of a gravel bike is their speed and comfort on the road which can often get you to the woods or moorland where off-road trails await. Depending on where you live you might have more or less essential road linking sections to bring all the best bits of off-road in your area together.

Plan Your First Gravel Ride Guide

Planning my first gravel bike route

If you want to plan your own gravel route you’ll need a map and a routing app. There are many tried and tested methods here, from the old fashioned paper Ordnance Survey map on which you can explore roads and bridleways to a digital mapping service like Google Maps or Bing.

The advantage of a digital map is the ability to easily zoom in and out and look at different layers, including satellite and bird’s eye view which can be immensely useful in scouting out trails and tracks that you might not notice when you’re on the ground.

A rider using Strava (Image by Strava)

If you want to plot a route to follow when you’re riding, there are many options.  Strava, Komoot, Ride With GPS and others. There are pros and cons to each but it’s worth trying a few to see which you find works for you and your area best. Most are free with some providing paid add-ons to unlock extra maps or functionality.

An advantage of Strava is the community aspect, with searchable routes and popular segments highlighted which can take the guesswork out of where it’s okay to ride and also where the good stuff is. The heatmap is invaluable is knowing where is good to ride,  and the darker the colour, the more that road or path has been ridden. That should help avoid any nasty surprises during your ride, like coming to an unrideable trail or dead-end! The disadvantage of Strava is that it doesn’t distinguish between road and by-ways and bridleways so well.

Komoot being used on a gravel ride (Image by Komoot)

An increasingly popular routing option is newcomer Komoot. It allows you to choose from a variety of terrain options, including gravel and aims to tailor its route suggestions to the off-road mixed-terrain riding beloved of gravel riding. The app also lets you customise the routes by your fitness level, and you can easily enter a starting and endpoint and choose a round trip or one way. 

It also has a growing number of curated routes from members that you can download straight to your smartphone. You can get an idea of the route expectations with distance, elevation and ride time, along with a few photos to whet your appetite and help you pick the best route for your ride. If you want to remove the planning phase and just use someone’s route, this is a really good option.

Plan Your First Gravel Ride Guide

Once you’ve got your route planned, you can either download it to your smartphone and use the app to follow the route, with the phone in your pocket easily accessible, or mounted to the handlebars for easy at a glance feedback.

Topeak Ridecase Handlebar & Stem Mount

A scratch resistant, dual density, non-slip, high-grade engineering polymer/rubber exoskeleton for shock and impact protection that holds your phone securely while on the go. Its unique and full angle adjustable mount allows viewing in landscape or portrait orientation and lets you mount or remove the RideCase® in seconds. An integrated flip stand allows for easy viewing off your bike and is compatible with wireless charging.

More robust cycling computers will offer long battery run-time and survive the elements such as rain and the potential knocks and scrapes of off-road riding, saving your smartphone for emergencies and Instagram.

Garmin Edge cycling computers

Hopefully, these tips will show you how easy it is to start planning your own gravel adventure this year, from local micro-adventures to longer epics in new parts of the country with a bikepacking bag full of supplies and snacks.

Lauren Moore

A keen extreme sports adventurer with a real love for all things mountain biking. From hardtail to full suspension and the odd e-bike, Lauren is currently rocking a Vitus Mythique in which she loves hitting some of the UK’s favourite trails, including Glentress. A recent convert to gravel riding, the idea of bikepacking across the picture perfect countryside of Ireland and further a field is next up for Lauren.

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