Gravel Culture: Gravelling Skills Part 1
Gravel Union On
14 June 2021
Gravel riding is accessible to virtually everybody. The bike is a one-bike-does all and in principle it does not require specialist skills beyond the ability to actually ride a bike! It does, however, involve riding off-road, which can mean anything that isn’t tarmac or concrete – even then it may in disrepair! Bike handling skills required for gravelling are universal to all cycling disciplines, despite it being largely off-road. Thankfully there is rarely a need to possess the big mountain gnarlyness of the gravity-oriented cycling disciplines. Developing your craft of gravelling (if there is such a thing) involves a mix of physical and mental improvements - working on your aerobic fitness and power, building up tolerance to spending long hours in the saddle, understanding your nutritional needs, developing navigation and route planning skills, finessing your bike set up and last, but not least, developing the skill of simply just riding along, being in the moment.
A good skill base will influence all of the above by improving efficiency, saving energy, avoiding crashes and reducing the need to get off and walk. It just feels great to be able to ride stuff, not to mention confidence inspiring, which as we all know, is the golden ticket to speed and success. In this article, I will discuss some simple but fundamental approaches to skill improvement, suggesting pragmatic ideas to practice on a weekly/fortnightly basis.
Let’s start at the bottom… our feet.
Pushing on the Pedals.
It’s quite common to see poor pedaling technique, particularly on the road where the tarmac (with its low rolling resistance and good traction), can be forgiving of human inefficiencies. You may have spent hours fine tuning your engine, training your body’s ability to efficiently transport more oxygen around and expel more carbon dioxide, but poor application of power through the pedals will mean some of those hard-earned Watts maybe lost unnecessarily. We are talking efficiency of your pedal stroke through the alignment of the lower limbs - back, hip, knee, ankle, foot. Without getting too scientific or into bike fit territory here, we are simply looking at ourselves and how our joints position themselves relative to the pedal.
If you want to check out (and hopefully improve) your current set up, an easy place to start would be on the cycle trainer.
- Set up your trainer with a mirror in front of you:
- Start by looking at your knees and feet as you pedal - most people can tell if their knees run straight or not.
- Do either of your knees bob inwards at the top of the stroke when you start to push down?
- Do either of your knees swing outwards?
- Do your knee caps point in the same direction as your toes?
- Look down at your knees, asking the same questions as above.
- Is there anything obvious you can change? Like your saddle position, cleats, or just practicing keeping the knee straight?
- Set up your phone camera behind you:
- Does your pelvis rock from side to side in the saddle?
- Does your leg/knee over-reach at the bottom of the stroke?
- If so, try dropping your saddle height by a few millimetres
- Out on the road, glance down (very briefly) at your knees:
- Do they maintain a forward position or still bob inwards at the top?
- Do they do some other funny arch movement?
- What happens when you go uphill, pushing harder?
- When you are fatigued towards the end of the ride, are your knees starting to drift in or out?
- Look too at the posture of your cycling buddies when sitting behind them on the road. Ask the same questions as above.
Get in to the habit of always looking at hips, knees and ankles, if you look enough at yourself and others around you, you will become an expert at what patterns people (including you) typically do.
There may be various reasons why your hips, knees and ankles may not be inline throughout a ride (decreased body awareness, saddle position, cleat position, fatigue, poor hip muscle strength, saddle sores and also on). It is, however, easy to learn to observe, to become conscious of it. When does it tend to happen? Uphill, high gear work etc? Is it correctable during the ride itself? Can you simply focus on keeping them straight for the session? It is absolutely worth working on it continually on a ride, particularly when you’re using a static trainer. I know this is the antithesis of gravelling, but it does serve a purpose if you don’t have quiet open roads/tracks easily available to you. You can of course get some professional guidance too. Get your positioning and posture right and we can start to play around with how to apply pedal power in more demanding scenarios.
An appropriate cadence is super important - we don’t typically drive a car in 5th/6th gear along tiny, undulating country lanes or speed along the motorway in second gear. Unless you are riding single speed, then you have gears on your bike to help towards some kind of biomechanical efficiency of the body. It is generally considered that a higher brisk cadence is optimal for managing fatigue, but riding off-road presents us with some problems - the terrain and elevation changes can be drastically varied, add in some luggage to the equation and we simply cannot always skim along with our preferred rate of high cadence.
If you already tend to push a big gear, then great, you will already be quite good at grinding up hills. Riding happily at a low cadence is a good tool to pull out when you are faced with a steep climb and you’re already in your easiest gear. You may find your cadence dropping right down to 40-50 RPM, but with a whole truck load of torque applied through each pedal stroke. This is strength on a bike, an important aspect of bike riding. If you don’t have this ability, buy yourself a cadence monitor to attach to your pedal cranks, then practice by tackling hills over-geared, sitting down and ideally while using a cadence monitor. For example:
- Find a hill, ideally at least 5-6 mins long,
- Aim for cadence of 55-75 RPM
- Recovery is spent rolling down to the bottom again, ideally for around 2-3 minutes.
- Or, mix it up on a hilly ride, ensuring you remain seated, pushing a bigger gear than you would perhaps want to, again aiming for a cadence of 55-65 RPM.
- Or, on a bike trainer – practice sets of 3mins through to 15mins of slow cadence work 55-75 RPM
Be warned these efforts are extremely fatiguing on the legs and so only train in this way once a week at the most.
If you ride most of the time in too big a gear, you will undoubtedly fatigue early on long days out, particularly on hilly routes. “Spin to win” is a well-known phrase in cycle racing, triathletes do this well too, preserving their leg strength in preparation for the running stage. Save your monster quads for when they are needed, avoid going into pedal mashing mode until absolutely required or else you will induce a local muscle or mechanical fatigue in your muscles that cannot be rectified by anything but rest. It’s not even a question of getting your nutrition ‘on point’ - this is mechanical. Of course, good nutrition is very important in managing fatigue, which is why hilly routes are so difficult to gauge - you will burn through fuel as well as blow your quads. When riding with a bike fully laden and riding a long or multiday event it is impossible to avoid incurring such fatigue.
Hopefully, you will have already experienced blowing your quads (slightly different to “bonking”) from a day in the mountains. From this you should learn what your body can tolerate, which will evolve as your fitness improves and you can then pitch your efforts perfectly for that final effort to the glorious finish!
To help manage this mechanical fatigue (and to help delay its onset during longer rides), start by:
- Practicing spinning:
- Riding in a slightly lower gear than preferred on your rides.
- A smooth, brisk cadence, aiming for well over 90 RPM for the majority of your rides is ideal so that 90+ becomes your normal if it isn’t already.
- Or you can try high cadence drills, through efforts of 30seconds to 2 minutes of gradually increasing the rate from 100+ to 140+.
Climbing off road
Technical climbing could simply mean steep and loose and doesn’t necessarily need to include trail obstacles such as rocky step-ups or greasy tree routes. The steep, loose climb catches many folks out. If you have started to play around with your cadence and gearing, you will be getting a feel of what feels right on certain grades of climbs, hopefully still spinning away, preserving your ‘big gun’ efforts for when the terrain dictates your choices.
Then your seated, over-geared climbing efforts will come into play - you should now have the strength and composure to apply high torque, slow cadence as smoothly as possible, avoiding spinning out, gliding on over the top of the climb, appearing effortless, despite blowing your lungs out. Rocky, gnadgery climbs are of course harder and require an elevated level of skill and bike handling, but that’s a conversation for another time. In essence the principle still applies of saving energy and measuring your high torque efforts.
Handling a bike well just feels great and is a never-ending journey of exploration. It is valuable in terms of efficiency and confidence on your bike. Your feet are the absolute, most important contact with the bike. Get this right and the rest is a breeze. As the mountain bikers like to say, you may even “find flow”. Mountain bikers love flow, it’s a funny term that sells MTB skills courses, it instills emotions and poetry type ideas of effortless movement through a trail. It is meaningless really, it is state or a feeling, like “finding happiness”, it’s all about context, self-awareness, confidence, planning and expectation etc…
Anyway, back to feet, get used to looking at the position of your knees relative to your feet as you push down hard on the pedals, watch other people as they do the same, what looks good? If it looks good it probably is good! Practice high and low cadence drills, weekly or fortnightly. Focus on driving through into your feet with good form, feel what’s happening to your feet. Practice regularly and we are on our way to improved off-road climbing already, giving you some energy and power reserve to tackle the technical features facing you.
Next time we will look at descending basics, again by thinking about what to do with our contact points.
If you would like to find out about the skills tuition services that Verity offers, check out her website here. We will be sending Emma to on one of Verity’s tailored gravel skills tuition days later in the summer – watch this space for the story.