Ask a Mechanic | Gravel Bike Conversion

Question: I’m planning on riding in some gravel events this year. Do you have any suggestions on converting a regular bike for this kind of riding? From: Gary

Answer: Every road bike can be ridden on dirt or gravel roads without making any changes to it at all. For a lot of folks riding a road bike on a dirt road is just a regular road ride. However, there are a few things you can do to your road bike to make it more reliable and comfortable when riding it on dirt roads.

If you only change one thing to adapt your bike for this type of riding it should be swapping your tires for something wider. Most road rim brakes will only accept up to a 28c tire width before running into clearance problems, so keep that in mind as you shop. You don’t need to get tires with any kind of tread on them. It won’t make any difference on a tire of this width. Go with a tire that has a reinforced casing, such as a Continental Gator Skin, that will resist cuts from sharp rocks.

If your wheels are tubeless compatible, go with a tubeless tire for the best protection against pinch flats. Tubeless tires also have the added benefit of a tougher casing that makes them well suited to this kind of riding.

Thicker bar tape like this 3.2mm Lizard Skins DSP tape really helps to take the edge off when rolling over washboards or rocks. Another option is to go with bar tape utilizing a gel pad that is placed underneath the tape. Personally, I’m not much of a fan of tape utilizing a gel pad placed underneath it because I don’t like the feel and that it often tends to make bar tape move around and come loose. But, there are some folks with hand problems that swear by it.

Likewise, a saddle with a touch more padding is also a nice addition to smooth out the ride. If you are happy with the shape of the saddle you have, often the cheaper version of the saddle comes equipped with more padding, so start your search there.

If you don’t already have a carbon seatpost, they help to dampen vibration as well. A carbon handlebar will accomplish the same thing up front but you should consider your bike handling skills before making your purchase. While carbon bars are more comfortable, they are also expensive and should be replaced after a crash. So, if you are a confident bike handler, carbon bars are a good option; but if not, stick with aluminum.

If you are a bigger rider it is a good idea to select a wheelset with a high spoke count if you don’t have one already. Not only are these wheels stronger compared to the same wheel built with fewer spokes, they also offer greater reliability in the event that you break a spoke.

As I said at the start, you don’t have to make any of these changes to enjoy riding dirt roads on your road bike right now; so don’t let a lack of funds stop you from giving it a try. But if you find that you want to get out on the dirt more, I think you’ll appreciate making some of these changes to your road bike.