Gravel Gearing Explained
With frequent steep rises and loose surfaces, gravel riding often blurs the line between road and mountain biking. Long hours in the saddle sap strength from the legs and, in some cases, stomping on the pedals to crest a rise isn’t in the cards. A versatile bike setup is an important element to surviving and even thriving with gravel’s unique physiological demands.
Gearing is at the forefront of this versatility with a plethora of options ranging from single to double front chainring setups as well as determining a gear range that allows for a successful and fun gravel riding experience. Gearing is as personal a choice as what tires to ride. But this choice can make the difference between a struggle fest ride or a fun-filled day of exploration and self-discovery.
Lower gears are a boon for gravel riders everywhere. They offer the ability to sit and spin up loose inclines and save valuable strength for later in the day. But it’s also important to maintain an appropriate top gear in order to take advantage of strong tailwinds and paved sections.
For a more personal view, here are Shimano Gravel Alliance members Kieran Andrews and Dan Hughes. With decades of experience and thousands of gravel miles in their legs, they both have strong opinions about their gravel bike gearing.
Splitting time between Ontario, Canada, Girona, Spain, and Mallorca, Kieran Andrews rides a very diverse profile of roads. Andrews also makes his way to gravel races all over North America. Here he explains his gearing preference:
“After years of experimentation I find myself to be a rider committed to a 2x drivetrain set-up. I live and ride in a land of punchy climbs and windswept, rolling farmland and I often ride with a very diverse group of cyclists. With the huge range of gearing on my 2x set-up I can always find the sweet-spot in my cadence. No matter who I am with or how their bikes are set up, no matter what the terrain or wind direction, my Shimano 2x drivetrain helps me to be the best cyclist I can be.”
Dan Hughes is the undisputed King of Kanza, with four wins, and is the only person to have won Dirty Kanza, Gravel Worlds, and Trans Iowa. As the owner of Sunflower Outdoor & Bike Shop in Lawrence, Kansas he lives and breathes Midwest gravel. When asked about his gravel gearing he wasn’t shy:
“ I absolutely prefer a 2x set-up for gravel racing and general riding. The adage of you’re either “hauling or crawling,” is totally true as it seems in Kansas you’re either cranking out 300 watts and going 10 miles per hour into the wind, or you’re doing the same wattage and going three times as fast with a tailwind. That’s a question of gear range of course, and while a 1x system might have the same range, it’s all the intermediate steps in between that are really needed over the course of a long day. 12 gears to choose from might be fine on a bikepacking excursion where simplicity is a bonus, but with pretty bombproof front derailleur setups these days (especially with Di2), I really appreciate going into new events and new parts of the country knowing that I have the right range to tackle anything that’s going to get thrown at me, and will always have the right gear to make my effort as efficient as possible.”
Ultimately, gravel gearing is a highly personal decision. Shimano encourages every rider to examine how best to achieve a wide enough gear range that also maintains the gear steps necessary to ride efficiently. Gravel riding is an adventure. Ensure that you have the right tools before you head out on your next gravel expedition.