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How to start gravel biking

With iconic athlete and gravel lover Rachel McBride

It is the decade of gravel biking. If you aren’t already doing it, your friends are, and you’ve invariably staked your claim on a new gravel bike or two to add to your quiver. You pass by gravel roads making mental notes of condition and elevation. One day. Well, now is the time. And to help get things moving, Get Out There chatted with legendary triathlete and lover of gravel racing Rachel McBride

“I started riding my road bike on gravel around 2011,” McBride says.  “Some of the more remote places I'd go to train had some unpaved sections. So I'd toss on some heavy 28mm tires and blast around. At some point, I got a cyclocross bike that made things a bit more comfortable. I didn't get an actual gravel bike until about 2016.”

McBride took to gravel biking because of where they were riding. 

“I loved exploring beautiful and more remote parts of BC. It just felt like an adventure!” they say. “And riding more challenging and varied terrain was more exciting to me than pavement.”

Of course, with McBride, any kind of athletics invariably leads to competition. And, in 2013, she entered and won her first gravel race. The Oregon Coast Grave Epic. 
 
“This beautiful, challenge course of 73 miles with 10,000ft of climbing was probably the hardest thing I'd ever done at the time,” they say. “Combined with the fact that I won the race, I was hooked!”

McBride says that gravel biking and racing is still pretty grassroots, but it is growing quickly and the community feels quite welcoming. 

“Most of the gravel roads people are riding don't have a lot of vehicle traffic as well, so I think it feels a whole lot safer in many ways for people who may not be comfortable in traffic,” McBride says. “It's also generally a lot less technical than mountain biking, so it's a lot more accessible to folks of all ages and abilities. It's a great way to get out into nature, away from the city buzz.”

They also say the increase in popularity of bike-packing is adding to the allure of gravel biking as the perfect all-around bicycle. 

“Gravel is the new gold! It’s exploding. Now every bike manufacturer is coming out with gravel rigs,” McBride explains. “I think during the pandemic as well, an increased interest in bike-packing has gone hand-in-hand with more gravel love. So there are lots more options for gear for anything from short rides and races to multi-day adventures.”

One new event this year is the Gravel Explorer (pictured below), a unique multi-day gravel biking adventure from the team behind the venerable BC Bike Race. 

According to them, the biggest thing for getting comfortable on gravel is tire choice. 

“Although bigger tires with tread will be heavier, it'll provide a lot more comfort and security for folks who may be new to going off-road (and hands down, tubeless is the way to go to avoid flats!),” McBride says. “It's important to be smart and prepared when going into the wild as well. You will likely not be as accessible for rescue if something goes wrong — whether that’s your bike or your body.”

Gravel bikes, well, let’s be honest, any bike right now is hard to come by with the ongoing bike boom, but fear not. McBride says when starting it might not even be a necessity to get a gravel-specific ride. 

“I think a lot of less technical trails can be conquered on a road, cyclocross, hybrid, or mountain bike. Just stick on some chunky tires and try it out!” they say. “As I said, I started on a road bike and then graduated to a cyclocross bike, because gravel bikes were yet to be a thing! Now I ride a gravel-specific bike, the Diamondback Haanjo, which I absolutely love. I must say having hydraulic disc brakes makes a huge difference in safety and comfort on steep descents and wet conditions.”

McBride says, their favourite spots for gravel include the BC interior, Rocky Mountains, and western Oregon. Although they haven’t hit the gravel majors as of yet, it might happen at some point. Be warned. 

Until then, they are looking forward to some sort of restart to triathlon season, but no racing in Canada has taken its toll. 

“It's really tricky and quite frustrating! With no racing happening in Canada, crossing a border means having an expensive quarantine upon my return home,” McBride says. “So it's challenging to figure out when it's "worth it" being cooped up for 14 days in the middle of race season is not ideal! I'm hoping to head to the US in June for some racing before Challenge Roth and Kona in the fall.”

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