Gravel Skills: 5 Must Have's and How to Practice

There are 5 Gravel Skills I recommend athletes develop and practice. 

Coach Sierra here, I just raced BWR Arizona where the course was loaded with singletrack, motorbike whoops, steep descents, and technical bits. I think those who raced can all agree that having either a mountain biking background or honed gravel skills provided a major advantage out on course. So here are 5 gravel skills that you can develop and practice to make your next Gravel race more fun and less scary. 

1. Going into the drop bars

This allows you to better CONTROL the bike. Ideally you should be able to extend your pointer finger to reach and pull the brake for better control.  Riding on the hoods can end poorly ... like hitting a bump and bouncing your hand clean off the handlebar.  Steering & braking in the "drops" allows for you to control the bike much more than with hand hands on the hoods or worse, on the tops of your handlebars.

Placing your hands on the drop bars also helps put some weight on the front wheel so you have traction and lowers your center of gravity to help with controlling the bike over technical pieces. Practice riding in the drops before you race, especially downhill, and then get out there and send it in the drops.

2Let the bike move beneath you

Something that you may have seen before is an uneven seat or, even worse, a broken seat post from a butt smack on undulating or rough terrain. If you are experiencing getting bucked and bumped around in the saddle, GET OUT of the SADDLE and stand up on the pedals.

As World Downhill MTB Champion Myles Rockwell would say “dance with the trail”. Since your gravel bike is suspension-free, you are the new and only suspension. Therefore, when you stand up, let the bike move freely while your knees and elbows bend throughout their range. A common mountain bike position is the “attack position” where your elbows are out, your chest is low and your knees are bent. 

Keep your head and torso stationary relative to the ground while your knees and elbows bend for your shock absorption.  This will help you 'flow' over bumpy and hilly terrain. Standing up on the bike allows more range for the bike to move and requires practice. Lucky for you, your knees and elbows are pros at bending and balancing. 

3. Look ahead

Playing off of the above point, the reason looking forward is SO SO important is because these gravel tires have less traction than mountain bike tires. Gravel tires will NOT slow down as fast because they are typically less knobby and more narrow. They do not brake as well. Therefore, you need to be looking ahead and responding to the terrain earlier than you would on a mountain bike (and even a road bike as pavement responds faster to braking than dirt). The sand and “kitty litter” gravel is skid-central. No one is coming to a stop quickly. 

When a turn is coming up, you need to ease the speed down gradually to take that turn (braking through the turn is not fast either) and come out the other end pedaling. Not only does looking ahead let you flow better through the trail and gravel roads, it also allows you to stop in time before hitting a cactus (important for  BWR Arizona 😄

4. Practice “Under Biking”

This is a term you may have heard from the local hipster bike shop. Basically this is just using a bike that is less ideal or more challenging for the terrain of choice. So for example, in BWR Arizona most people are under-biking in the singletrack sections because they have a bike best suited for fast, gravel roads. This is OK (and totally cool according to the same bike shops). However, under biking helps you be comfortable being uncomfortable.

Go ride your gravel bike on singletrack trails! This can look like taking that mountain bike trail shortcut between gravel roads in the woods, through the neighborhood, or purposely going to the closest mountain bike trail system with your gravel bike. Just like practicing sweet spot and endurance riding, you have to practice navigating the bike through different types of trails and terrain. If you just have a grassy field or thick gravel parking lot near the house then something is better than nothing. Go ride your bike somewhere new, challenging and err, get off your smartTrainer 💪

5. "Session"

To add to my point above, find a 'tricky' gravel section and ride it over and over. Practice the section; try different lines, speeds, cornering.  Repetition repetition repetition. 

Sessioning is not just for the downhill mountain bikers anymore. Try different tire pressures, try moving your hands to the drop bars more, try leaning forward to get better front wheel traction. There are plenty of improvements and changes you can make on your gravel bike, but you won’t be able to identify the difference if you don’t compare them back-to-back on the same terrain.

BREAK IT DOWN. Don’t be afraid to try something different. This may look like riding the twisty gravel path 2-3 times with your extra time after a workout and practicing how far you can lean the bike while you turn. Or you could go out to the dirt path by the house with 30 psi then practice braking quickly, turning; then turn around, let some air out of the tires and do it all again. What feels better? What is faster? Practicing the same section of gravel or trail with different tires even can help you determine which ones you take to the next race. Preparation for a gravel race needs to include sessioning in order to hammer out all the details and hone in your gravel riding skills. Practice, practice, practice.

 Overall, to become more confident and skilled in the technical sections in a gravel race, ride your gravel bike more and practice the 5 must have skills above.  See you out there on the trail!


Coach Sierra is a FasCat Coach, a Collective athlete and a competitor in the BWR Triple Crown.  To talk with Sierra about improving your gravel skills please fill out our new athlete questionnaire to have a free coaching consultation with her 

Or download the FasCat APP where the First Month is FREE, data analysis is instant, training plans are custom and our AI Powered coach will revise your plan when work, weather, time aka "life: gets in the way.  We will also auto detect your FTP 💪