Put in that context, riding gravel is cycling in its purest form—it’s where it all began. And luckily for us, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that nearly 1.4 million of the country’s 4 million miles of public roads are unpaved.
So what are you waiting for? It’s time to throw some wide tires on and hit the (unpaved) road.
N+11 of 8
You were looking for an excuse to get a new bike and voila! Here comes gravel to give you a good reason. Sure, some road bikes can handle a 28 mm tire with a knobbier tread, but what a waste when there are so many cool new gravel-specific bikes on the market from your favorite manufacturers.
We got our hands on the Specialized S-Works Diverge (pictured above and retailing for a cool $9,000) and fell in love with the possibilities of this new breed of bikes that promise to "shred singletrack and crush road miles with equal expertise." This particular model boasts plenty of tire clearance, the ultra-indulgent (read: unnecessary) option of an electronic groupset and an entirely new geometry featuring a slacked-out head tube angle, short chainstays and a short wheelbase. Did we mention it is also one of the lightest on the market? All the bells and whistles make for a ride that's downright playful on the dirt and predictable through mid-corner drifts, while still remaining entirely capable on the road.
It's way more chill than road riding.2 of 8
Like, seriously chill. Gravel rides are known for their laidback atmosphere, self-policing of rules and post-ride campouts that bring an easygoing vibe desperately missing from the road scene. For example, Dirty Kanza—one of the most well-known gravel rides in the world—has exactly 25 rules in its rulebook. Meanwhile, the UCI's is over 250 pages long.
No distracted drivers to scare the spandex off you.3 of 8
Part of the initial allure for many is simply the desire to get off the road and out of traffic. Once you take the right-hand turn onto that farm road you've been eyeing curiously, it's goodbye to texting while driving and hello to no cell signal whatsoever. And with the sobering rise in bicycle traffic fatalities, it's no wonder cyclists are seeking refuge on country roads.
Cool events you've never heard of.4 of 8
Dirty Kanza. Almanzo 100. Land Run. Gravel's premiere events take place in mostly small towns on no one's bucket list—towns like Emporia, Kansas, Spring Valley, Minnesota, and Stillwater, Oklahoma to be exact. But add several hundred cyclists, unpredictable weather conditions and miles and miles of beautifully brutal, rugged road and you get one hell of a party in a place you never expected to visit. Some events, like Rebecca's Private Idaho, in Ketchum, Idaho, have even turned into epic multi-day festivals with a few hundred of your closest friends.
You'll see some really weird s***.5 of 8
We're not talking horses and cows here. We've personally encountered everything from a renegade peacock, to a camel, to a pack of wild llamas and even a curious marmot while out on gravel rides. When you're in the middle of unbridled countryside, there's no telling what you'll come across—hidden caves, slithering snakes, historic bridges, interesting insects—asphalt and stoplights will quickly become a distant memory.
You'll finally learn how to really handle your bike.6 of 8
Sure, you handle your bike capably on the Saturday morning shop ride. But are you really, truly a great bike handler? Unless you're the guy who easily goes over the curb without dismounting, never goes down from a wheel touch and successfully jumped that suicidal squirrel scampering across the road last week, the answer is likely no. Riding gravel will quickly make you comfortable where you were uncomfortable—think fast descents over loose shale, rear end fishtails and unexpected obstacles (where did that creaky bridge come from?!). Conquer these to the point of being routine, and you'll discover newfound confidence no matter which bike you're on and what evasive maneuver that squirrel decides to take.
Everyone is doing it.7 of 8
Well, maybe not everyone—but certainly everyone who matters. Take Dirty Kanza, for example. Seventeen intrepid riders finished the inaugural 2006 edition. This year? 1,700. Meanwhile, road racing numbers continue to dwindle. If the best part of cycling is the people you're surrounded by (and we promise it is), best get you to the nearest farm road and start pedaling.