Gravel Gear

Kit Critic: The three parts of gravel style

Gravel is like mountain bike style for people tired of just doing roadie things.

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Kit Critic is a column on cycling style by Aliya Barnwell, the founder of Ride Up Grades, a cycling instructor, and a longtime rider. Follow her on Instagram at KitAddiction.

Despite the drama of gravel privateers — and a recently announced $250,000 purse for the Life Time series — gravel riding and racing still comes across as more relaxed than road. If road racing is a “suit,” and MTB is “jeans and a hard-hat,” gravel is road’s brother dressed in flannel, who encourages me to “chill out and enjoy the view, man.” Road is the brother who is over-dressing in aero all the time; gravel just wears what he wants when he wants.

Those who have ridden the more serious stuff competitively, know the lie detector says ‘that is a lie.’ Gravel can be as chill or as hardcore as road. Racing gravel is like road, but riders are bouncing over some terrain that could also be tackled by MTB tires. Since a race is a race and every watt counts, gravel kit for those in the “business at the front” portion of mass gravel starts is likely to be as aero as road kit, but with extra cargo pockets for ride supplies.

Also read: Bootleg kit versus the real thing — how to spot the fakes

I did a gravel event without any extra pockets or on-bike bags, but the ride had frequent rest stops where I could grab more snacks and water, and I wasn’t racing. It was my first “real” gravel ride and I took a decidedly “party in the back” position at the start.

I’d dare say most gravel riders aren’t racing gravel either, so us “normies” don’t have to worry about being aero on a gravel ride. Our concern is dressing for temperature changes, and carrying all the stuff needed to survive the day, warm and dry, without bonking. Hence the growth in popularity of bar- and frame bags, and puffy jackets. Extra pockets on bib shorts and jerseys are the norm now, so pocket designs have to innovate to stand apart, like Isadore’s gravel jersey or MAAP’s alt-road bibs. In doing so, gravel kit breaks with the roadie tradition of minimalism.

So then the question becomes: What is gravel style? For me, it has three parts: bags, layers, and ease. Gravel is like mountain bike style for people tired of just doing roadie things, with some flair — sans the full-face mask.

Gravel gear is like road gear, with more pockets. (Photo: Aliya Barnwell)

Starting at the front of the bike: your computer of preference with maps but – more importantly with the longest battery life. My Wahoo Bolt lasts through century days with battery to spare and still has the routing capabilities I need to go off the beaten path. But, in places where the GPS wasn’t 100 percent reliable, I have to consult a real trail map. Of course one can ride with no computer at all, going where the road leads and turning around when the sun gets low in the sky.

A handlebar bag from independent makers like Crosstown, Ellum Bag Works, and Trash Messenger Bags, as well as the bigger companies like Chrome Industries, Osprey, or Arcteryx all offer varieties of bags for your person and bike. Frame and handlebar bags are popular options for longer days on the bike where aero is not the primary concern.

Among the most sought-after of these is the Ornot Mini. At six-and-a-half inches long, it’s the smallest I’ve found that isn’t custom. If you know of a burrito bag as small — or smaller — please inbox me. In my opinion, the smaller size is just right. Many bags are eight to nine inches long, which may be too wide for smaller bars. Also, with any front-mounted bag, you’ll want to ensure it doesn’t rub the paint off of the head tube.

As gravel rides get longer and travel through more varied terrain, bags on the bike multiply in size and number. Hip bags and fanny packs are great because, when designed properly, they can double as U-lock and phone holders on commutes. I swear by my Crosstown and Chief Dirt Street bags, but some may prefer a fanny-pack-style, zippered bag over a flap-style hip pack. Then you have the myriad of other non-pannier bags: extended saddlebags, frame bags, and top tube bags.

Gravel gear has to be “easy.” (Photo: Aliya Barnwell)
Bibs and a baselayer are just fine for gravel style. (Photo: Aliya Barnwell)

Top tube bags seem like the go-to for some roadies because a top tube bag hides behind the stem and may be more aero than a burrito bag. If aero is still a requirement, top tube and frame bags are as close as it gets. I will admit that top tube bags are aero compared to a bar bag, but neither of them should be on an aero bike – they defeat the purpose of the bike’s (costly) front-end engineering. It is, however, a fair trade for a bar-bag, or a handy addition to one if a rider just needs more easy-access snack storage on a gravel ride.

Bike bags may start out stuffed with all manner of snacks, but as the day heats up, riders exchange food for shed items of clothing. For rides in varying weather, I’m a particular fan of the packable windbreaker, jersey, and base layer combo. The base layer allows one to open a jersey while still having something underneath, and the right packable windbreaker is ideal insulation; even better if it’s water-resistant.

This is decidedly summer roadie style. I might wear gravel bibs with extra pockets, but that’s about it. Isadore’s gravel bibs have a back pocket apparently intended for riders to tuck their jerseys through, so wearers can shed their jersey completely without stuffing it into a bag. This is, however, why all the pockets on the matching jerseys zip closed.

Also read: Cold weather cycling gear for people who don’t like riding in the cold

In the case of wearing a kit where the top layer can come off completely and be stashed somewhere, whether in the back of a bib or in a bag, riders can use bags for the rest of their gear instead of jersey pockets.

For casual rides, I chose a “resort shirt” because it’s quick to dry, opens in the front, and is surprisingly warm for a short sleeve shirt. Running jackets also work, and sweatshirts. Again, anything comfy that lets sweat dry. And it should be compact enough to fit into one of the aforementioned bike bags.

An “anything goes” approach is one of the things that makes gravel so beautiful, and therein lies the “ease,” aspect of style I mentioned previously. There are no aero considerations unless you want to make them, and no sock height rules – though I recommend dressing for the environment and not wearing ankle socks if you’re going to ride in a very cold climate, or tick-infested woods. I also strongly recommend shoes with grip while walking that is waterproof for any gravel ride with roads that are not maintained by the state.

What you wear for gravel rides may be determined by what kind of gear you already own: Roadies expect lycra gear, MTB riders expect baggies, and commuters can go with anything quick-dry. And, if anything quick-dry goes, then the world of athletic wear opens up before all riders.