You’ve bought a shiny new gravel bike and you’re all raring to go on an adventure. But there are a few essential things you should consider before you head out the front door into the wilderness, and a few top setup tips to ensure you get the very most out of your new gravel bike.
In this article we’re going to take you through:
- The benefits of tubeless tyres
- Bike bags
- Flared handlebars
- Safety measures
We’ll presume you’ve covered the very basics like adding your favourite pedals, setting your saddle height and adjusting your handlebars, so we can focus on setup details specific to your gravel bike.
Going tubeless on your gravel bike
The first, and it’s something we consider absolutely essential for gravel riding, is to go tubeless.
The benefits of tubeless tyres make a lot of sense riding off-road. By removing the inner tube and replacing with a liquid sealant, you greatly reduce your risk of puncturing. Riding off-road with low-pressure tyres increases the potential for puncturing compared to high-pressure road tyres, and there are more hazards riding off-road from thorns to rocks and over obstacles you just won’t encounter on the road.
Going tubeless is much easier these days. Most modern gravel bikes come with tubeless rims and many tubeless tyres as well. Some bikes are supplied with the tubeless kit – valves, rim strip if needed and tubeless sealant – and most of the time it’s a fairly simple task to undertake. If you’re buying a new bike from a shop they might even do the conversion for you, saving the hassle of getting your hands dirty.
Whilst avoiding punctures is good, tubeless also lets you run tyres at low pressures to maximise comfort and traction when riding over gravel, rocks and roots. The bigger the tyre the lower the pressure as a general rule. And if you’re worried about low-pressure tyres slowing you down, don’t. They’re surprisingly fast on and off-road with lots of studies showing the rolling resistance benefits of wide tyres. If you want to find the ideal pressure for your exact bike set up, there are good apps and online guides that will give you a recommend starting pressure. But don’t be afraid to experiment.
Tubeless Tyre Recommendations
This lightweight, fast-spinning cyclo-cross tyre has been optimised to give a fast-rolling, stable performance on gravel, letting you blaze ahead on even the loosest terrain. This tyre has been designed tubeless-ready for increased traction and smooth rolling, plus the casing has been reinforced to prevent punctures as you ride.
Building on the success of WTB’s Riddler tyre, this model uses the efficiency of the Riddler’s narrow tread pattern but now features more tread knobs for greater traction. Features TCS, WTB’s standardised tubeless rim/tyre system.
Designed to tackle gravel roads and tough terrains, this tyre from Panaracer features an aggressive tread to help you power through. Thanks to the AX-a casing these tyres offer a low rolling resistance no matter how bumpy the route gets and come tubeless ready.
This tyre rolls incredibly fast and yet it still grips very well in the corners. The large high profile teeth on the tyre shoulders give it a very high level of traction when turning on off-camber turns and loose sections.
Highly versatile and designed for optimal performance across the widest range of terrains and conditions, the Venture can do it all. With its high-volume casing providing plenty of smooth-rolling comfort, as well as the high-traction Dual DNA compound.
If you’re riding tubeless you’ll need a suitable repair kit. The way tubeless works is the sealant gushing through a hole caused by a foreign object and reacting with the air to solidify. Sometimes however the hole might be too large for the sealant to prevent the loss of air. In this instance, you’ll want a dedicated tubeless repair kit. Many are available but they commonly involve a small strip of rubber called a worm or plug that you push into the hole using a special tool. This plugs the hole and lets the sealant do its work.
Even with tubeless we would still recommend carrying a spare inner tube in the very rare instance the tubeless repair doesn’t work. Better to be prepared for every eventuality, especially if going bikepacking.
Which leads us onto our next topic, bikepacking. Gravel bikes are about adventure, big and small. From local to Himalayan. Whatever the size of your adventure, there is now a vast array of bags that you can attach to your gravel bike designed for everything from carrying a few snacks to everything you need for a self-supplied week-long epic.
And these bikes are jolly useful. It’s better to put spares, essentials and food in bags on the bike than stuff it in jersey and jacket pockets, where it can easily eject when riding over bumpy ground. You can take the mountain bike approach and use a backpack, but they can be bully and uncomfortable especially on long rides. No, better to put your supplies in bags purpose-designed to be attached to the bicycle.
They come in all sizes from small to large and there’s an abundance of choice. Most use simple Velcro straps so they’re easy and quick to attach to the frame or handlebars and come in sizes suited for big and small bikes and capacities to suit your needs. For many shorter gravel rides, a handlebar bag or top tube bag is a brilliant way to carry a few snacks, camera, waterproof jacket and other ride essentials. They’re relatively affordable, don’t weigh much and are a cinch to fit and remove.
FrontLoader is perfect for carrying light yet bulky items like sleeping bags, camping gear and spare clothing. Featuring a tough outer support harness and constructed of durable abrasion and water resistant materials, it’s easily installed or removed with two straps, special spacer mounts and quick release buckles.
Stepping up to frame bags which fit underneath the top tube. These greatly increase your luggage capacity but also come in a range of sizes from small to those so big they fill the entire front triangle. These are good for carrying a decent amount of spare clothing and food and the benefit is they are aerodynamic (if that matters to you), use up vacant space and don’t move about when riding.
MidLoader carries the heaviest items for your bike adventure. Constructed of lightweight, highly water resistant and durable materials, it mounts and removes quickly with hook and loop fasteners. Two water resistant zippered openings provide easy access to all your gear from either side.
For overnight stops when you’ll want to carry sleeping essentials like sleeping mats, sleeping bags and camping equipment, the common setup is a large bag attached to the saddle and seat post and a large handlebar bag. Put the sleeping bag and mat in the handlebar bag because the low weight won’t impact the steering and heavier items in the saddlebag. These bags come in small and large sizes to suit your demands so you can choose the right one for your requirements.
BackLoader is a large capacity seat bag specially designed for bikepackers providing a streamlined way to carry gear without the need for a rear rack. The upgraded saddle mount system, in conjunction with compression straps, reduces the pendulum effect associated with large rear payloads, providing a comfortable ride for those long miles.
Riding off-road is great fun and modern gravel bikes are highly capable. One change that can greatly improve their capability off-road is a flared handlebar. Many gravel bikes are now specced with such a flared handlebar, but it’s a common upgrade item.
A flared handlebar involves the dropped section of the handlebar flaring out from the higher hood secretion of the handlebar. The simple idea is to increase the effective width of the handlebar for improved control when riding rough trails and descending. The amount of flare varies greatly and some people have preferences for extreme flares to mild flares, so it’s worth trying a few to see what works best for you.
A few other things to consider on the essential list would be some small LED lights. Even the best-planned adventure can go awry, you get your timings wrong and end up riding the last few miles home or your campsite in the dark. So consider packing or fitting some emergency LED lights just in case. They’re cheap, lightweight and the run-time is more than adequate.
First Aid Kit
For bigger adventures especially into the wilderness, you might want to consider packing a first aid kit, survival blanket and whistle. It might seem overkill, but it’s always best to plan for the worst and not have to use it.