Can You Ride A Road Bike On Gravel?

From tarmac to trails, tweaking your road bike for rugged rides

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reviewed by Ben Gibbons

Gravel riding has exploded in popularity in the last few years.

It has quickly evolved from an attempt to combine the best parts of mountain and road cycling into a fully-fledged cycling discipline in its own right.

The biggest gravel races have even managed to seduce current Grand Tour riders whilst still maintaining a hipster edge. This is bike racing, but not as you know it.

It is easy to see why growing ranks of self-confessed roadies are dipping their toes into the world of gravel riding. If you are one of these curious road cyclists, this article is for you.

We will be looking at using a road bike on gravel and how, with a little fine-tuning, you can turn a road bike into a gravel-facing machine.

In this article, we will be covering:

A man cycles a road bike on gravel with hedges in the background.
© Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

What Is Gravel Riding?

The recent history of gravel riding has a very US feel to it, born out of its frontier geography and long unpaved roads (over 4 million miles at last count) that are too bone-shaking for a road bike yet too tame for a true mountain bike.

By melting these two disciplines together, road cyclists could properly explore and were no longer stuck with having to share the roads with grunting traffic. It was a way to rediscover the pure joy of cycling away from the increasingly technical world of road cycling.

Gravel riding is not just limited to gravel tracks, especially if you do your riding outside of North America. Gravel bikes are just as at home on sinewy single-track forest fire roads or even just rutted farm tracks.

Basically, anything that is not immaculate tarmac.

Gravel bike racing is also much more sociable and fun compared to many road cycling races. That is not to say that gravel races are easy or slow, but the mantra is more about inclusivity than winning at all costs.

Even the Grand Tours are trying to capitalize on gravel riding’s booming popularity with recent editions of the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia squeezing in some off-road action to spice up the race.

A man wearing red cycles along a gravel path.

Can You Ride A Road Bike On Gravel?

A pure road bike is built for gliding along the smooth tarmac. Even riding the heavy, weather-beaten farm roads on my local loop can be a bone-shaking experience in places on a carbon speed machine, even though they’re paved.

No matter how well you plan a route, most of us road riding cyclists have, at one time or another, found ourselves on a stretch of rough single track.

At first, we try to stay on our bikes, persevere, and hope that our wheels meet smooth tarmac in a few pedal strokes. The wheels slip and slide, and our bones chatter. Then, inevitably, we step off and walk.

So, you can ride a road bike on gravel – but you might quickly start to question your life choices.

The tires are just too narrow, too smooth, and the geometry too unforgiving.

What Is A Gravel Bike?

A white gravel bike sits on grass.
© Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

From afar, there is little difference between a gravel bike and a normal road bike, but get a little closer, and the differences become obvious.

Just like road bikes, gravel bikes rely on the same drop handlebar design that lets riders get into a more aerodynamic position to eat up the miles on smoother roads between gravel sections.

The wider tires with proper treads help to maintain proper traction on loose gravel and rooted single track. The wider tires also add to ride comfort since they can be run at lower pressures.

The geometry of gravel bikes is also more relaxed than traditional road bikes putting riders in a more upright position. For long days out on the gravel, this translates into more comfort and less strain on the lower back, shoulders, and wrists.

The longer wheelbase and the more relaxed geometry offer better handling when you head off the road and onto bumpy trails.

In keeping with the spirit of adventure and exploration, gravel bikes also have more options for carrying luggage.

Even the world’s most prestigious gravel race, Unbound Gravel, emphasizes self-sufficiency, with even former World Tour riders having to fix their own punctures like the rest of us mere mortals.

Even within the gravel bike category there a several sub-categories with some bikes designed more for speed and others designed more for stability on rough tracks.

Can You Ride A Road Bike On Gravel? 1
© Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

Can You Turn Your Road Bike Into A Gravel Bike?

So, what modifications are needed to ride a road bike on gravel surfaces?

The good news is that if you want to get a taste for gravel riding but don’t yet have a dedicated gravel bike, you can give your sleek road bike a small makeover to make it gravel-ready.

Before gravel riding took off as a discipline in its own right, road cyclists were already exploring ways to adapt their bikes to something that could handle a bit of off-road action.

The famous chalk-white Tuscan roads of Strade Bianchi prove that necessity is the mother of all invention.

There are a number of alterations you can make that will give you a little extra oomph on the gravel.

These are:

#1: Swap the Tires

A gravel bike tyre with white bicycle forks.
© Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

The single biggest upgrade you can make to your road bike if you want to explore gravel riding is to swap the slick, narrow road tires for wider tires with deeper treads for extra traction, better comfort, and increased puncture protection on rocky roads.

Despite resistance from traditionalists, the adoption of disc brakes on standard road bike frames offers exponentially more potential for tweaking it into something like a gravel bike.

The move away from rim brakes to disc brakes wasn’t just because of better braking, especially in wet conditions, but also as a response to the trend to run wider tires.

You only have to go back a decade to find most of the peloton running skinny 23 mm tires, or even narrower back in the day. As science disproved the myth that skinnier tires were inherently faster on the road, riders were free to run wider tires at lower pressures with the extra bonus of improved comfort on the bike.

The limiting factor in increasing your tire width is your frame’s tire clearance.

Older bikes, particularly those with rim brakes, simply weren’t designed with wider tires in mind, so you may find that tires wider than 25 mm begin to rub on the fork, brake calipers, seat tube, or chainstays.

However, more recent road bikes reflect the trend for wider tires. So, if your road bike is one of the recent cohorts with disc brakes, fitting wider road tires with a tread should not be too much of an issue.

You might not be able to fit the 40 mm to 45 mm tires that are typical on dedicated gravel bikes or MTBs, but anything up to 32 mm is often achievable on modern road bikes.

Manufacturers will often provide recommended maximum tire widths in their bikes’ specifications, which you can usually find online.

What tire pressure should I use for riding a road bike on gravel surfaces? There are a number of factors that will dictate the optimum tire pressure, but generally, you’ll expect to run between 30-55 psi in gravel tires.

Although this will slightly increase your rolling resistance on the tarmac, gravel tires offer increased tire width and support when you’re on rough terrain such as gravel roads.

You will want to leave a comfortable clearance of around 6 mm to prevent mud building up and slowing you down but apart from that you want to go as wide as you possibly can.

On the subject of tires, it is perhaps no accident that the gravel riding phenomenon coincides with the more general adoption of tubeless tires. Going tubeless will pay dividends out on gravel and rough trails with much less chance of suffering pinch punctures.

The added puncture resistance also means that you can run tubeless tires at a lower pressure, again improving comfort and grip whilst reducing fatigue when riding gravel.

A black road bike handlebar with bar tape.
© Robbie Ferri/BikeTips

#2: Double Wrap Your Bar Tape

Another great (and cheap) way to improve comfort when riding on gravel is to double-wrap your bar tape.

When you’re traveling at high speeds during off-road riding, you’ll want all the extra cushioning you can get.

This is a simple yet effective way to stop all the vibrations from the road going to your hands, as the pro riders who tackle the brutal Paris-Roubaix cobbles each Spring can attest.

#3: Attach Sturdier Bottle Cages

Another simple upgrade is to attach more traditional steel or generally sturdier bottle cages to your frame.

Carbon bottle cages are great for saving a few grams but on bumpy roads, your bidon will slowly work its way out and you will find yourself stopping a lot to retrieve it from the side of the trail.  

#4: Adjust Your Riding Position on the Bike

These tweaks will make riding on gravel much more enjoyable, but you should also consider your overall position on the bike and how to adapt to riding on gravel.

The most important thing is to try to keep your weight off the front wheel as much as possible to stop it from sliding out on corners.

Shifting your weight backward so that it is much more over the back wheel also improves traction, especially when tackling uphill sections.

Try to lift your bum slightly off the saddle and bend your arms and legs to lend some natural suspension to your ride. Keep your body as relaxed as possible whilst ensuring that you have a proper grip on the handlebars.


Gravel riding allows you to explore the road less traveled, to get away from traffic and cars, and to get back to the basics of cycling.

If you are stuck in a cycling rut, bored of the same local loops and climbs then gravel riding could be the perfect tonic to help you rediscover the fundamental spirit of cycling.

The great news is that if you do want to dip your toe into the world of gravel riding, then there are some quick and easy upgrades you can make to your road bike to make it gravel-ready.

Take it from someone who knows, though…once you get a taste for the freedom of gravel riding, it will become yet another way to throw your hard-earned money into cycling.

We would love to hear about some of the modifications that you have made to your road bike to help you head off the beaten path.

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David rediscovered his love of two wheels and Lycra on an epic yet rainy multi-day cycle across Scotland's Western Isles. The experience led him to write a book about the adventure, "The Pull of the Bike", and David hasn't looked back since. Something of an expert in balancing cycling and running with family life, David can usually be found battling the North Sea winds and rolling hills of Aberdeenshire, but sometimes gets to experience cycling without leg warmers in the mountains of Europe. David mistakenly thought that his background in aero-mechanical engineering would give him access to marginal gains. Instead it gave him an inflated and dangerous sense of being able to fix things on the bike.

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