While the concept of gravel riding originated on the hard-packed dirt roads of the United States, exploring on bikes specifically designed to take you off the beaten track has captured the imaginations of riders the world over.
In part four of our Adventure Addicts series, we set out to find six of the best British gravel riding routes.
Britain may not have the extensive network of gravel roads found in the US and other parts of the world, but there’s still plenty of opportunity to head out into the wild, from the prehistoric Ridgeway route in the south of England, to the forest tracks of the Trossachs in Scotland.
John Whitney’s Ridgeway
In austerity Britain the road network has lapsed into a pothole-strewn wreck, so picture what state the country’s oldest road, the Ridgeway, is in. Circa 5,000 years old, it’s at least got an excuse.
The road predates the stone circles of Avebury, Wiltshire, which is its starting point in the west; in total, the Ridgeway stretches 140km, all the way to Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chilterns. It’s now a National Trail, open to cyclists all the way up to the river Thames – beyond that, there are fewer opportunities for two wheels, so our route ends in Goring-on-Thames.
The Ridgeway is more popular with walkers than cyclists, and you’re still more likely to see mountain bikers than gravel bike converts. Without suspension and with narrower tyres, it’s always a thorough examination of gravel skills, and the ever-changing terrain will keep you on your toes.
Unless you’re one of those oddities who embraces wet weather, it’s best to ride the Ridgeway on a dry, bright day because the chunks of actual gravel are sparing and, on soggy days, it’s infamous for turning into a hellish quagmire of Glastonbury-on-a-wet-year proportions.
If you’re interested in the ancient stones of Avebury, there’s plenty else along the trail for history buffs, including the Iron Age forts of Barbury Castle (where the National Trail and original Ridgeway diverge for a period) and Liddington Castle.
Wayland’s Smithy burial tomb, just off the main track just beyond Ashbury, has 1,000 years even on Avebury’s stone circles, built in around 3,590 BC.
Avebury has a National Trust car park, costing £7 all day. We’d recommend being self-sufficient as places to eat are few and far between along the route, unless you dip into nearby towns and villages.
- John Whitney is Cycling Plus’s features editor and new gravel convert
- 44.4 miles / 71.4km
- Get the route Ridgeway
Sam Dansie’s Kielder Forest
When a cycling event itemises a survival blanket and a whistle on its list of essential gear, it means business. Yet the oversubscribed 200km Dirty Reiver, four years old and more popular than ever, demonstrates that the UK’s growing legion of gravel enthusiasts want a challenge.
The ride fulfils that want well by sticking to the limitless web of access roads in Kielder Forest, the UK’s second largest, and which carpets the remote low-hilled borderlands between England and Scotland.
The roads are probably just uncomfortable if you’re in the back of a four-ton military lorry – besides being Forestry Commission, this is firing range territory – but 10 hours being bounced and pinged off angular rocks on a bike thrashes parts of the body other gravel rides can’t reach.
Despite the highest point being 475m, the course also packs in around 3,800m of climbing, about the same as the Fred Whitton Challenge. Just let that sink in.
The Dirty Reiver is not a race, but there is a timed sector, sponsored by Lauf, who make suspension forks. The prize was a piece of its produce and an invitation to experience more discomfort at The Rift, a big gravel race in Iceland.
Those forks are probably great, but not even a hovercraft would have been comfortable on the sector, which was by far the worst-surfaced and came after 180km, when most of the field had already been humbled by the distance, climbing and aggregate.
Kielder is hard to reach and amenities are scarce, but there’s a campsite and plenty of welcoming guest houses within a half-hour drive of the start. Be prepared to sign up early though, 2020 registration is already sold out.
The Dirty Reiver’s roads are open all year round, but on the day of the event, the organisation makes a point of taking you away from harvesting and industry going on at the time. I saw one moving vehicle all day, but just note that it might not be that way at other times of the year.
- Sam Dansie is a contributor to Cycling Plus magazine and a Northumberland native
- 119 miles / 191.5km
- Get the route Kielder
Sven Thiele’s London to Brighton
I first rode this whole route in October 2017 but it came together bit by bit over the previous year, just exploring trails, using maps and routing tools such as Komoot, realising there are paths here and bridleways there and connecting it all together.
The final half of the route, the Downs Link, is well documented, but the challenging bit was connecting that with our start at Hampton Court and it took some trial and error to hook it up.
The route below is an almost entirely flat route along towpaths, old railway line, a bit of singletrack and gravel roads, though we do a hilly route with another 800m of climbing that goes over the North Downs, rather than skirting around.
On Easter weekend, when we last did the flat route, we had the most glorious weather, and the surface was bone dry. I’ve ridden it in decidedly damper conditions and the weather makes such a difference.
There’s a section around Guildford through farmlands that gets very squishy in the wet and you need the most grippy tyres you can find. When it’s wet, bumps are shaped and when they dry out they’re like skiing moguls.
Given the nature of the ride you don’t see much in the way of cafes or pubs along the route, so take the opportunity to refuel at Stan’s Bike Shack in Horsham.
It’s a point-to-point route, so unless your legs are feeling good and you fancy a ride back to London from Brighton, you’ll need to get the train. It’s a very popular service with cyclists heading back to London, so there’s no problem getting the bikes on the train (at non-peak times), even if there’s a bunch of you. I’ve often considered riding home but once you sit down on the sea front and enjoy a few beers the urge to ride back subsides exponentially!
It’s just over 100km from Hampton Court, which I think equates to 160km on the road. It’s a different way of riding, and as well as the pain you get in your arms and neck, the concentration that riding on these trails demands takes it out of you. One day I’ll ride home.
I love the route, it’s one I constantly come back to and it’s a great showcase for what we have in the British countryside.
- Sven Thiele is the founder of event organiser and cycling club HotChillee. These days, when he’s riding, he’s likely to be on his gravel bike
- 64.6 miles / 103.9km
- Get the route London to Brighton
Andy Mccandlish’s Trossachs
Blessed with endless miles of forest and estate tracks threading their way through hills and glens, the Trossachs are a gravel paradise. It’s so good that the locals here built a gravel extravaganza around it, the Duke’s Weekender.
Named after the formidable Duke’s Pass that rises high above the town, this gravel enduro has a meagre 2km of road across its entire 70km route. There’s much more besides that too, so you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to a gravel deep dive.
This ride is based in Aberfoyle, 32km north of Glasgow in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. With cafes, shops, a great pub (Forth Inn) and plenty of parking, it’s a perfect starting point to kick-start your adventure. Take note of the facilities because this figure-of-eight ride passes back through the town at the halfway mark, allowing you to stock up on supplies before you embark on round two.
The first half makes use of National Cycle Route 7 north as it winds up through magnificent, towering mature woodland on forest tracks, topping out after a stiff 250m climb at the summit of Duke’s Pass.
Staying on forest tracks and keeping your eyes glued to the wonderful views over the Trossachs ahead, you drop past the brilliantly-named Loch Drunkie to Loch Venechar for yet more speedy gravel trails along the waterfront.
In fact, the only short section appears as part of the climb back over the Duke’s to Aberfoyle, and even that is a beautiful and scenic road in its own right.
It’s here that you also pick up the trickiest section of singletrack in the route – a challenging trail from the old slate quarry back towards town. Narrow and occasionally rocky, it demands attention, so make sure that you’re ready for it.
After a quick (or not so quick depending on your legs) feed in Aberfoyle, you take to the open tracks again heading south for the second half. Highlights include the ‘Alp Duchray’ switchback climb up to meet Glasgow’s water supply flowing through a picturesque viaduct and a punchy section of singletrack by Rob Roy’s Cave on the side of Loch Ard.
- Andy McCandlish is a freelance photographer and gravel enthusiast who’s a lucky man indeed to call the Trossachs home
- 43.9 miles / 70.6km
- Get the route Trossachs
Deborah Goodall’s North York Moors
I’ve been mountain biking in north Yorkshire for over 20 years and the arrival of gravel bikes has taken me back to those early days. It’s good to have to use your skills again, because modern mountain bikes are skill compensators. It’s about exploration, too, just going anywhere, and that exploration has led to us setting up our own gravel event, Yorkshire True Grit.
We want to show off how great the gravel riding is here. I think it’s the sheer variety as to why it’s so special. One minute you’re in forests, the next onto the moors and back again – you can be looking at a panorama stretching 96km, or at the tree in front of your face.
The route I’ve shared below has elements of the Yorkshire True Grit course, but we can’t share the whole route because it’s pieced together with bits of private road that aren’t open at any other time of year. Land access in Yorkshire generally isn’t that good and we work really hard to convince landowners that we’re not going to cause any damage or that there’ll be issues with grousing birds.
We’ve moved our event this year to Hutton-le-Hole so that we can show off the eastern side of the Moors, but our original plan A route got a big fat, ‘No!’ from landowners. So we cooked up plan B, which I’m actually happier with now. We’ll take riders up Newtondale and Cropton Forests, which are unique due to being on hillsides, so you have these amazing vistas. It’s amazing gravel country, with fun, fast descents and grind-it-out hills.
There’s no single tough section, its difficulty is with the cumulative effect of all the climbing. We save some of the punchiest stuff for the end because we want to make it a real test – for you to show your true grit!
- Deborah Goodall co-created the Yorkshire True Grit gravel event, which this year has moved to Hutton-le-Hole
- 45.9 miles / 73.8km
- Get the route North York Moors
Nick Craig’s Peak District
This Hayfield route is not what I’d call a beginner’s route. Then again, this is the Peak District – there aren’t that many of them here!
Nevertheless, this route starts off nice and gently on the Pennine Bridleway, on a section of the path that’s a disused railway line that once connected Hayfield and Manchester. There are a couple of sections early on that you shouldn’t cycle on and my advice, generally, is that if you’re in doubt, get off and walk.
After a ride on a canal towpath, we turn off and begin climbing into the high peaks, joining back onto the Pennine Bridleway. It slowly morphs from gentle gravel riding that anyone could do to a point where you really need to think about your bike and equipment – it’s wide, tubeless tyre and mountain bike shoe terrain.
I don’t think it’s that challenging, but, hey, I have been riding it for 30 years. I would do it on my cyclocross bike before even mountain bikes existed, and we’d jump off and carry our bikes over any bits that they couldn’t handle. For a newcomer, though, it will be undoubtedly tough.
Gravel bikes have made the job much easier though, the control you get with disc brakes and what bike gurus can do with modern carbon fibre works like magic.
During the easier early sections, it’s best to get into the flow of gravel riding. Once the terrain gets trickier, into the Peaks, it requires more mountain biking techniques, standing up on the pedals with knees and arms slightly bent, letting your bike move around. You need that to get back down to the Pennine Bridleway into Hayfield.
Once there, you’re not quite done, as you turn off up a cobbled climb towards Kinder Reservoir. It’s really quite steep at its lower part: 1:1 gearing is essential, so a 34t chainset with a 34t big rear cog. Once you’re over that you’re into typical Peak District heather moorland.
On the way back down, try to avoid the sheep. There are lots of them and hitting one is to hit a brick wall.
- Nick Craig is a former British cyclocross champion who was riding gravel decades before the bike industry got around to inventing it
- 16.3 miles / 26.2km
- Get the route Peak District
Are you a gravel convert? Where do you ride your gravel bike? Let us know in the comments below.