Gravel Grinder Equipment Choices

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I get a kick out of looking at the search terms people use to arrive at this site.  And just before every big gravel race I see a slew of queries regarding tire and gear selection along with more general "gravel road racing bike" type searches.   

Well, we here at Bad Decision Bicyclist are here for you.  And, well, if you're willing to take gear selection advice from a site that bills itself as the "Bad Decision Bicyclist", gravel road racing is certainly the sport for you.  Now keep in mind, I'm far from competing in the elite levels of this sport and have only been gravel road racing for a very short time.  But I do spend a lot of time cruising the gravel roads and two tracks of the UP, I never DNF, and I stay pretty comfortable and have a good time.   However, I'm a highly opinionated cheap bastard with sometimes esoteric tastes.  I'll try to at least explain why I do the things I do so you know the variables you'll have to contend with when you make your own choices.  

The first thing to start with is tires. It's a big choice that affects what type of bike you'll be riding so consider it carefully.  Cyclocross tires are a popular option, but all those cute little knobs just don't seem all that functional to me in the conditions I most often encounter. And they wear away pretty quickly.  My choice: 35C Panaracer Paselas. They're cheap (the wire bead versions can be had for $15), they hook up surprisingly well in dirt, they last a long time, and are versatile enough to tour and commute on as well. I spend the extra ten bucks on the folding bead TourGuard versions, but I've never had any kind of puncture problems off road with the cheaper models. They'll slog it out in the mud in a pinch, but if things are going to get that ugly- best just switch to a mountain bike.  

700c tires gives me lots of options on the bike front- everything from cyclocross to touring to monster cross to full on mountain bikes along with all the little niches in between.  I find a cyclocross style bike works best.  Mountain bikes work OK for when things get really ugly, but a cyclocross bike is generally faster for me and can deal with most conditions I'll likely encounter.  Monster cross style, drop bar mountain bikes just seem like a "worst of everything" style compromise to me.

My personal choice is my trusty Kona Jake. The aluminum frame and a steel fork provide ride characteristics that work well for my riding style. It's got all the eyelets necessary for racks and fenders and what not, and most importantly- it's cheap.  Spend a fair amount of time on gravel and it will tear up components.  Replacing 8 speed cogs and chains is much more economical than fancy Ultegra bits- and really, after a 75 miles of grit and grime- I think it shifts better than the expensive stuff anyway. For brakes, I stick with cantilevers. When set up properly, they provide more than enough stopping power for 700x35 tires, even using cheap pads. I see no reason to jump for discs or any need to buy special brake pads.   

One thing I did do this year is spring for a heavy duty set of wheels- with really wide Mavic A319 rims.  Wow, best upgrade ever.  The Paselas really like the wide rims and the whole bike feels much more stable. Very, very helpful when bombing those sketchy downhills.  

I generally run under 60psi in the front and over 60psi in the rear. Plus or minus however much it needs because I forgot to pump up the tires.  I don't really stress about this a lot.   I usually leave my rear fender and rack on the bike, mainly because it's easier to do so than to constantly remove and add them for commuting duty.  However, I do worry about wedging a rock up underneath the fender and shredding a tire. Never seen it actually happen, but on those occasional killer death climbs- I occasionally pray for just such an occurrence.  

For clothing, I stick with my team kit from Champion Systems. It's great for getting our brand out there in shorter races. For slogging it out all day in varying conditions, I'm less than enthusiastic about it.  I'm currently experimenting with lots of wool clothing and having excellent results. I'll be pushing hard for a wool version of the team kit next time around.  

I'm very careful about spare gear and tools that I pack. Give me a pannier and I'll fill it, old boyscout "be prepared" habits die hard. I usually try to keep my load down to a couple of water bottles in the cages, a small camelback, and a seat bag. Tools and spares include a bike multitool, leatherman, 2 spare tubes, patch kit, frame mounted pump, duct tape, and spare master link. Depending on weather, I might pack the arm warmers and a heavier set of gloves- but I've never had to go digging for warmer clothes as I'm usually shedding extra clothing at every opportunity. Depending on what time of year it is, I might have a little bug spray or sunscreen handy too.

I also have a small feedbag type thing I keep strapped to the top tube. I usually rely on fig newtons, salted almonds, and maybe an ice cold coke from a gas station or something to get me through the day.   

For navigation I rely on a Banjo Brothers Map holder. One thing I've found to be helpful is to put a paperclip or something on there to mark which instruction I'm working on. I usually also have a GPS in my camelback tracking the course, mainly so I can geek out over the numbers later.  I usually rely on a cheap $10 walmart bike odometer for course mileages.  

And well... that's basically it. I've managed to go out and enjoy every ride I've been on with no DNFs due to equipment. I've got things ironed out enough that I rarely even have annoying small problems to contend with. It's important to consider shakedown runs and finding out what works for you, especially when it comes to stuff like food and other deeply personal issues like bike shorts.  

I hope this was helpful, but don't come looking for me when you hoark up half a box of fig newtons after your budget cyclocross bike conks out on you midride.  ;)

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