Get your gravel on! – Bike Magazine Australia

Words: Richie Tyler      Photos: Matt Hull, Mike Blewitt

The blend of road cycling on looser surfaces has become the latest trend to sweep the cycling world. Accessible to most cyclists, especially in Australia, it’s tapping in to the heart of why we ride.

Once the bastion of cyclo-tourists and would-be beatniks, gravel roads have entered the mainstream of cycling culture. Whether an antidote to the perceived threat of city roads, or something more philosophical, gravel and grinding have become by-words for freedom on two wheels.

On one hand, it’s easy to understand. When asked as cyclists why we love our sport, the word ‘freedom’ almost always tops the list. As cliché as it may be, the moment we ditch our training wheels and take off on our own, something inside each of us is stirred. We become freedom personified. As grown ups, it seems, there is something about riding off-road that captivates us in similar ways.

The growth of gravel riding has been both rapid and incredibly organic. Cyclists have spread the word, pouring fuel on the fire through Instagram and other forms of social media. Manufacturers have joined in via ‘adventure’ bikes, but the movement has largely been led by cyclists willing to use whichever bike they have at their disposal.

Cyclocross bikes, too, have found a purpose far beyond their short-course routes. From one-day gravel rides to multi-day lightweight bike packing adventures which have been embraced amongst more experienced cyclists, there has been a trickle-down effect from this cross-pollination of cycling disciplines. A fact that should serve to make events such as the G.O.G.G viable.

Grinding it out

With over 300 riders taking part in 2017, the organiser of the G.O.G.G – Rapid Ascent – were rewarded for their support of a discipline that provides an opportunity to reach and encourage cyclists of all abilities.

In perfect weather and on two courses, 97km and 49km respectively, taking in a combination of fire trails and regular gravel roads throughout the stunning Otway ranges, the event attracted a diverse range of participants eager for gravel.

For first timers, short, sharp loose gravel climbs of the 49km course served up a taste of what gravel grinding is about. There was a challenging, but achievable 1000 metres of climbing to conquer as well. There was plenty of friendly chatter and plenty of acknowledgement of riders on the trail.

The longer course served up a further 1200m of climbing, including a long ascent back from the edge of the Great Ocean Road. A greater challenge, but a unique view that only few properly equipped vehicles or hardy walkers may have experienced before. The perspective that gravel grinding opens up is one of its lesser-known benefits.

Officially, the G.O.G.G is a race. This year it attracted high quality winners in the 97km race, with Peta Mullens and Tasman Nankervis claiming the respective women’s and men’s divisions. However, the event serves perhaps an even a greater purpose as an introduction to off-road riding.

While many of those elite riders had come for the mountain bike marathon at the Otway Odyssey a day prior, it’s easy to see things working the other way. First time G.O.G.G participants could easily become first time Odyssey riders in years to come.

Adding to the charm of the event was a coffee stand-equipped water stop at the 30km mark of the course. Located in an untimed section of the course, it gave riders a chance to take as long as they wanted refuelling or just chatting, prior to commencing the largely downhill run back into Forrest for the finish and a well-earned ice cold beer from the local brewery.

Curiously, it is the very social and back-to-basic aspect of gravel grinding that has helped fuel its popularity across every level of cycling, and among every level of cyclist. Whether or not this will translate to popularity as a competitive form of cycling remains to be seen. It will largely be up to G.O.G.G and events like it to offer riders a chance to decide.

Back to our roots

The G.O.G.G, and the growth of gravel riding in general, seems tap right into the sense of ‘freedom’ that riding a bike inspires.

As riders we all share a thirst for adventure. This manifests itself in many ways. For some, it means facing the challenge of riding across countries with few established routes, for others it means conquering ever-greater distances on far smoother roads.

However, talk to many riders embracing the movement towards gravel and they’ll tell you they were looking to try something new, mix things up or a combination of all of these. A search, it seems, for purpose.

The Thereabouts film series, created by brothers and professional cyclists Lachlan and Angus Morton, has served as both inspiration and a time capsule of how cyclists appear to be feeling en masse.

The pair recently released the third documentary in the series, charting their journey through Colombia. This followed films set in remote areas of the USA and Australia. The underlying theme of the series is the brothers’ falling back in love with their sport via the sport itself.

The popularity of blogs such as The Radavist, and the volume of forums and gravel-based events across the United States serve as testament to the scale of “gravel grinders” popularising their favoured form of cycling.

Given the popularity of the media surrounding it, a chord has been struck by the legion of riders now happy to include some gravel along their road rides, or seeking it out specifically. In many cases taking a bike on holidays is the reason for the holiday itself.

Here in Australia, one of the biggest drivers has simply been the sheer volume of roads provided to us that qualify as gravel grinding territory. Thousands of kilometres of fire trails, and specially built routes such as Canberra’s Centenary trail provide a perfect environment for Australians to embrace this gravel revolution. 

Certainly, a large part of the appeal of gravel is a greater sense of connection between us and the path we’ve chosen, or in some cases the only one we can find. Getting a little bit lost is the new black, it would seem.

Official business

Gravel grinding is riding for the sake of it, lending a purity that may have burdened other disciplines. In spite of blurring the lines between road and mountain biking, it hasn’t yet inherited any of the rules and etiquette of either.

An often overlooked barrier to entry for many people put off by the politics that can pollute the competitive side of cycling. For those of us with a few years of racing under our belts it’s easy to forget just how intimidating that first day pinning on a number was.

This creates a curious challenge for events such as G.O.G.G as they bridge the passion-driven nature of gravel grinding with their event; can you create inclusive competition? 

The quote-cum-adage from Field of Dreams, “build it and they will come” immediately springs to mind. Fortunately, riding a bike on gravel is a lot of fun, so the signs are bright that the G.O.G.G. will lead a wave of gravel-based events in Australia.


* Gravel grinding combines some of the technical aspects of mountain biking and cyclocross, often combined with the long-range efforts preferred by road cyclists. 

* Whether you’re doing it aboard a road bike, cyclocross bike or mountain bike, the only requisites are a desire to include unsealed roads and a willingness to give it a go.

* Events such as the G.O.G.G don’t represent a formal cycling discipline (yet). However, many cyclists are embracing the opportunity to mix up their rides with gravel sections, many of which can be tackled on a road bike.


* Purists will say whatever you’re riding, although those purists may be responsible for more than their fair share of punctures.

* Equipment is largely route dependent. If your gravel riding takes in relatively well-graded gravel roads, a road bike may suffice. However wider tyres will help with traction in gravelly corners.

* Many manufacturers are including ‘adventure’ bikes in their ranges, with some, such as Cannondale’s Slate being specifically marketed as gravel bikes. Adventure bikes are primarily road bikes, with much greater clearance and disc brakes. This means you can fit wider tyres, similar to cyclocross bikes.

* Cyclocross bikes, too, make perfect gravel grinders – however they may not be as stable as a dedicated gravel bike, due to different geometry.


* Just do it. There are no rules to gravel grinding, apart perhaps from respecting the environment you’re riding in. Leave only tyre tracks.

* The important thing to remember when heading off road is being properly equipped. Consider your equipment. Take plenty of spare tubes, patch kits and the skills to use them; they’re far more likely to be needed.

* Water, food and a mobile phone are also critical as gravel adventures will often take riders away from help, should it be required. Being self-sufficient is part of the fun of gravel grinding, not to mention key to doing it safely.

* Know where you’re going. Like any outdoor sport you should let someone know where you’re going, and when you expect to be back.

* Get out on the trail and enjoy yourself. You’ll quickly discover why so many people have become hooked on the gravel!