As the expansion of Arkansas cycling continues, the rider interested in reaching his or her full on-bike potential should be considering every option the Natural State has to offer.
Single track, slope-style and even great Greenway days have been discussed, but there is one surface so far ignored entirely: gravel.
Gravel riding in Northwest Arkansas is an extraordinary thing, because it offers so many opportunities to expand skill, vary terrain and find new adventures. Once you’re properly outfitted for gravel, there’s almost no ride in Arkansas that can’t take an adventurous turn down a county road.
People new to the idea of gravel riding may be wondering what constitutes an appropriate bicycle setup. This answer is in the hands of the individual rider, though there are some considerations anyone hitting gravel for the first time should be aware of.
The conditions of gravel roads vary, and so it’s wise to be prepared for a couple things one may not experience on a road-exclusive, or even mountain-exclusive, ride.
If you are entirely new to gravel riding, it’s possible that your first question may be, “Which bike should I take?” or, “Is the bike I have acceptable for gravel riding?” These are interesting questions and they depend on the individual rider and the bike.
If you have a mountain bike and a road bike, you have options. Some road bikes can handle gravel, while others are poorly suited. It depends largely on the size of the tires on your bike and the amount of abuse it can take.
Mountain bikes are universally safe on gravel, though the issue may be getting your bike to the gravel. Many of the rides in Arkansas that wind up in gravel begin on long stretches of road. That can be a big hassle for mountain bike riders, whose squishy tires eat up pavement. But if the idea of riding your mountain bike over a few miles of the Razorback Greenway or an Arkansas roadway doesn’t bother you, you’re well positioned to try out gravel.
If you have a road or hybrid bicycle, it’s really up to you whether or not it can become a gravel-going machine. The comfort level of the rider will have a lot to do with the on-gravel experience. Smaller tires won’t do anything to add stability, but they’re not necessarily a death sentence either. I once went on a gravel-only ride with a dude on a fixed gear Surly Steamroller who was running 700c-by-32mm tires and he was totally fine. The moral of the story here is that any bike can be a gravel bike, but not all bikes should be gravel bikes.
If you’re struggling to decide how your steed will fare on gravel, the answer is easy to come by. Find some gravel, whether it be in a parking lot by your house or a county road, then ride on it for a bit. If things feel weird, wait. But if you feel stable enough, and your machine feels OK, it may be time to take the next step toward a new medium.
Some of you may be asking another question of paramount importance: What makes gravel riding fun, or different, from mountain and road riding?
Fortunately for us, a good gravel ride should contain some or all the elements that make road and mountain riding so much fun. First of all, there’s the terrain. Gravel is like dirt in that it’s slicker than pavement, but it jives with being a road in that it’s mostly flat. Of course, there will be bumps, but there won’t be intentional obstacles in the same way as mountain riding. Remember, we’re still on a road here.
Riding on gravel should constitute a great workout in bike control. If you’re looking for a training ride, find a good gravel loop and stay fast. Vary your seating positions, see how fast you can go downhill without crashing and work hard on choosing the smoothest line you can.
Finally, perhaps my most important piece of advice is that you stay loose! Some people get on gravel and immediately get worried. You’ll bump around, feel your tires shift, and hear things bounce off spokes. But please, don’t get spooked! Remember that you’re just riding a bike. Take the time to appreciate where gravel gets you: Out in the middle of nowhere in an Ozark fall. I can’t think of anything better.