How to Ride More With Less

Riding more with less? Is “Gravel” even a good name for these new bikes? Why “Underbiking”? What’s the big deal?

There has been a lot of buzz about what people are doing on gravel bikes lately and you may be wondering what’s going on? People have been riding drop bar bikes off-road forever but recent changes have enabled people to do even more with less bike. Some say we are just reverting to 1990s mountain bikes but I’d argue there is something a little more to the experience. What is key to doing more with less and what do I think is great about it?

What’s new about these bikes is their increased capability due to recent equipment evolution. A few updates have really removed weak links and have allowed riders to push the limits further and further on drop bars.

Some of the major changes have included increased tire clearance, tire inserts, improved braking power and ergonomics, and more recently suspension and dropper posts. The performance progression of drop bar bikes really ramped up with frame clearance allowing tires as big as 45-50c and pressures dropping dramatically down to low 20psi with tire inserts like CushCore. Much more secure and powerful braking positions available with gravel specific components have also removed another limiting factor. Recent additions of suspension and dropper posts have continued to allow riders to push the limits of what is capable even further. The beauty of these drop bar bikes, and it is all a balance, is keeping them light and fast enough to ride on smooth pavement surfaces and capable enough to ride on more technical off-road terrain. The difference with early 1990’s mountain bikes? To start bigger wheels, disc brakes, tubeless tires, 10lbs less weight, and more reliability are huge improvements, but it is the drop bar and gearing that differentiates them most. The drop bar allows multiple comfortable and aerodynamic positions to ride on the road and unlike mountain bikes the gearing range allows this higher speed road riding as well as slower steep technical climbing. John Tomac was ahead of his time racing with the drop bars off-road in the 90’s but I’d argue today’s gravel bikes are even more capable.

Variety is the spice of life and to me on the bike it is key to staying mentally fresh and motivated to ride. The diversity of terrain a modern gravel bike can tackle is quite incredible these days. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend everyone ride the rough Kokopelli Trail in one day, or drop down a steep mountain bike trail slab, like I have but they can open a lot of doors and riding opportunities. If the dirt roads are in prime condition, you can put together a nice quiet route away from traffic. Too wet and muddy and you can happily stick to paved surfaces. If a section of fun flowy singletrack unlocks a cool route these bikes are more than capable of tackling a few trail segments.

The contrast of terrain and experiences you can ride on gravel bikes can really get you out of a rut riding the same limited old routes.

The additional flexibility of a modern gravel bike is a great asset when it comes to decision making. Some days I can’t decide what I want to ride until I’m out the door. When life is busy sometimes it is important to just get out the door, start riding, and have time to clear my mind before I make any ride decisions. With the right tires, pressure, inserts, and maybe even a new suspension fork on a “gravel” bike you can really ride almost anywhere. Some days I’ll just head out on the road and if I see a nice dirt road I’ll take it. Maybe next I’ll pass some smooth singletrack and that starts to sound like fun. Being ready to adapt, being flexible, and spontaneous once out the door can make rides a lot of fun.

Another beautiful thing about cycling is that there is always something to learn. This can be training, equipment, tactics, or just enjoying learning to ride different surfaces like on a gravel bike. Don’t keep focusing on riding what you are good and comfortable on. Don’t be afraid to branch out and try new things. If coming from a road background maybe riding your gravel bike on rougher roads is intimidating, and even some smooth flowy singletrack sounds scary. Do some research to make sure you have the right equipment set up but don’t be afraid to push your limits a little. One of the biggest rewards is challenging yourself, seeing a progression, increase in skills, and comfort level growth. Get some tire inserts, drop that pressure and you will be amazed at what gravel bikes can handle and where they can take you. Even after over 25 years in the sport I’m still enjoying it because there is always something to learn and improve on. Pushing the limits to do more on a gravel bike has been a highlight in recent years.   

I call it Underbiking because I often show up in places people don’t expect to see me on drop bars. These modern gravel bikes are incredibly capable and can take you to a lot of places you wouldn’t expect. Maybe it is the excitement of pushing my limits, exploring new routes, riding more on less but there is something special about it I’ve been enjoying a lot lately. I encourage everyone to try it.