What is Gravel Cycling and is it Sustainable?

Gravel cycling is all the rage. That’s true among both lifelong road cyclists and people who are new to cycling. It’s even sort of true among mountain bikers. But what is gravel cycling? 

Strictly speaking, gravel cycling is about riding primarily on gravel and dirt roads. And it’s growing in popularity because riding gravel roads is an amazing experience that offers escape from cars and a connection to nature that’s not possible on busier paved roads. That it can get us out into nature ought to make gravel cycling “green,” right? 

Well, not necessarily. There are at least two ways in which the growth of gravel cycling is driving unsustainable practices. 

Gravel Cycling’s first problem

The first problem is that gravel cycling’s very name places the emphasis on riding gravel roads instead of a kind of experience that can be found beyond the gravel itself. Yes, gravel roads usually offer a great riding experience. But they also tend to be in more rural and harder to reach places, far from the urban centers where most cyclists live. It’s quite likely that the gravel cycling trend has more cyclists driving more often and further distances to get to their rides. 

This is best illustrated by the rise of the “gravel race.” Just look at Unbound Gravel (Kansas), Mid South Gravel (Oklahoma), SBT GRVL (Colorado), Grinduro (California, Pennsylvania, Wales, Germany and Australia) and the Belgian Waffle Ride (California, Utah, North Carolina and Kansas), just to name a few. The growth of these events means an increase in the amount of national and international travel undertaken by their participants to get to them. 

At the very moment when we need to be doing everything possible to reduce CO2, the rise of gravel is likely creating new sources of emissions.

Unless these trips replace previous trips, new and additional travel-related CO2 is the result. In other words, at the very moment when we need to be doing everything possible to reduce CO2, the rise of gravel is likely creating new sources of emissions.  

Gravel Cycling’s second problem

A second problem is that gravel cycling has spun off all kinds of new opportunities for the cycling industry to manufacture and sell stuff. For starters, there’s the gravel bike. Do you need a gravel bike to ride gravel roads? Not at all. A mountain bike will do just fine on gravel roads, but we’re sold the idea that speed is of the essence. A mountain bike, which is presumably slower than a gravel bike, is therefore overkill for nice gravel roads.  

What about our skinny-tire road bikes? Riding on gravel on a bike with skinny slick tires is possible, but requires a certain amount of skill. There’s a deeper problem here. It’s that the road bikes the industry has been selling to us are designed for a single type of riding: going light and fast on paved roads.

It’s no surprise, then, that the industry has responded to the rise of interest in gravel riding with a whole slew of new bikes. Many of these bikes are multi-functional, meaning you can commute on them, tour on them, mount bags to the frame for bikepacking, and, of course, you can “ride gravel” on them.

To the extent that the availability of these new styles of bikes means more people are out riding in all kinds of different ways, that’s great. But remember all those races previously mentioned? Well, the industry wants us to believe that a gravel race machine is necessary if you want to “race” in these events. Take Cervelo’s Aspero gravel bike. Cervelo boasts that “we engineered Áspero for pure, unapologetic speed, ready to take down finish lines, KOMs, PRs, and FKTs.” They add that it “performs like you’d want a road bike to perform off-road.” The marketing tagline for the bike is “Haul ass, not cargo.” 

We engineered Áspero for pure, unapologetic speed, ready to take down finish lines, KOMs, PRs, and FKTs

There it is in a nutshell. The evolution of gravel riding has brought us full circle. It first spawned new (or some would say old) designs resulting in practical bikes that could be ridden in all kinds of ways and on all kinds of surfaces. So practical, in fact, that if you bought one of these “do-it-all” bikes you might not need to buy another bike. Ever. Hmm…not so good for the bike industry.

Then gravel racing hits the scene and quickly grows from grassroots community events to international mega-events. This works well for Cervelo and other brands whose profits depend on the often unstated belief that the most important characteristic of our cycling gear is its ability to make us faster. And the industry obliges by constantly rolling out new lighter and more aerodynamic gear. And this is gear that we need, of course, if we dare to show up at something called a “race.” Thank goodness for for the Aspero–a truly aerodynamic bike that makes us faster by removing all those mounting points that might be useful if we ever wanted to install fenders or carry gear!    

Reclaiming the spirit of gravel cycling?

All kidding aside, gravel cycling is a beautiful thing. But for it to be sustainable, or at least not introduce new environmental impacts, the focus needs to shift to what we call “the spirit of gravel.”  

The spirit of gravel is about rediscovering the joy we all experienced as kids on our bikes. It’s about the freedom to explore the side roads–whether gravel or paved–and discovering the beauty of places that have been there all along but were previously inaccessible. It’s about using the bike to take on challenges and adventures that increase our independence and self-sufficiency. And it’s about an openness and inclusivity, and the shared “joy of the ride,” that creates community and builds connections.

At least that’s what what we’re about Comova. And it’s why we try to focus less on “gravel” and more on adventure. Our marquee trips in Sonoma’s West County are a great example. We’ll get you on some gravel if that’s what you’re looking for, but the real highlight of our trips are the miles and miles of remote backroads where you may encounter more wildlife than cars.

We keep our trips small and offer discounts for guests who arrive by bike, public transit, or vehicles powered by renewable energy. We focus on building your ability to be a self-sufficient adventure cyclist. This means there’s no SAG van following along on our trips.

By peeling back the outer layers of gravel, what we discover is that it’s about a spirit of adventure and the joy of exploring by bike, both of which align very nicely with our commitment to sustainability.