(The Gear Loop) - There's something brilliantly liberating about breaking the cycle of the same old road riding route and heading onto the meandering tracks, bridleways and gravel paths that seemingly lead to nowhere.
Gravel riding is a cycling discipline that has witnessed somewhat of an explosion in popularity over recent years, combining the muddy fun and frolics of mountain biking with the sort of drop handlebar machines you might more likely see circulating Box Hill on a weekend. In short, a gravel bike is a beefed-up road bike that's built for adventurous spirits and packs bespoke geometry (tube layout), gearing and tyre clearance to deal with the rough stuff.
Naturally, you don't just have to stick to "gravel" either, as this form of riding is just as likely to take you down muddy tracks and other unpaved roads and for that reason alone, it pays to hit said trails wearing the correct gear. Granted, both road-riding and mountain biking gear definitely crosses over here, but there's now dedicated jerseys, shorts, shoes and even helmets for those who favour gravel.
We've collated our pick of some of the best gear currently out there and, because the weather is rarely a cyclist's friend in the UK, we've erred on the side of warmth and waterproofing with the kit we've highlighted. Fret not, we'll be updating this list when the sun finally decides to shine again.
Essential gravel bike gear 2021
Fizik X5 Terra Cycling Shoe
- Sleek looks
- Protective outers
- Two bolt cleats only
- Questionable colour schemes
- Not waterproof
Fizik has long been making extremely comfortable saddles, handlebars and all manner of finishing kit for many of the top cycling brands, but its range of apparel is also worthy of your attention. The X5 Terra shoes are predominantly designed for the mountain bike market but have been adopted by the trail riding community for their mix of road shoe styling and touch MTB features.
An injected carbon outsole ensures a lot of strength through the base, but also keeps the shoe incredibly light (282g in a UK size 8), while the upper is fashioned from Laser Perforated Microtex, which is a sort of manmade leather and proves incredibly strong and very good at resisting water from puddle splashing and mud splatters.
Although not fully waterproof, they do a good job of keeping the weather out, although the breathable inner mesh will leak if you decide to shove a foot deep in a babbling brook, or some other whimsical water source. The single Boa closure system is fairly ubiquitous now on cycle shoes and works perfectly off road too, allowing quick on-the-fly adjustments.
Perhaps the most pertinent feature for gravel riders, trail-hunters and cyclocross champs is the chunky TPU tread , which provides great grip when off the bike and in the muddy stuff, keeping those delicate cleats from bunging up with mud.
Giro Fixture MIPS Cycling Helmet
- Packs MIPS technology
- Comfortable fit
- Easy adjustment mechanism
- Fixed visor
Protecting your head is essential on any bike ride but those venturing off-road will attest to the number of potential hazards that lurk in the great outdoors. Slippery tree roots, giant potholes and adverse cambers might not be as erratic as the road raging morning commuter, but they can easily catch you unawares.
Giro uses the patented Multidirectional Impact Protection System (MIPS) here, which sees and a clever liner added to the inside of the helmet which, thanks to elastomeric attachment, stretches by just a few millimetres during hard impacts, reducing the amount of rotational force transferred to the brain.
Now, typically MIPS technology is an expensive extra on many cycling helmets, but Giro offers a very enticing package here, all wrapped up in a handsome, mountain bike-style helmet that sacrifices a bit of aerodynamic efficiency for a handy detachable visor at the front and more protection for the back of the head.
It is quickly adjusted via a locking dial at the rear, which is nothing ground-breaking in the helmet game but makes quick adjustments a doddle when on the bike.
Patagonia Men's Airshed Pro Pullover
- Packs away neatly
- Hooded for extra warmth
- Water repellent
- There are warmer jackets
- Limited colours
Although arguably designed with ultra-runners and trail bashing in mind, the Patagonia Airshed makes a superb piece of gravel apparel because it is so light and rolls up ridiculously small and into its own neck, no less. So small, in fact, that you can easily cram it into the cargo pocket of a standard jersey, for example.
It is made from Capilene Cool Lightweight material, which is both extremely fast drying and nicely breathable - both great qualities if you are thinking of hitting the gravel for extended periods of time. Hang it out in the sun following a sharp downfall and it's dry within minutes.
Better still, it makes an extremely handy piece to have in the back pocket and whip out when the temperature suddenly drops (at the top of a climb, for example), as it slides over a traditional jersey nicely and features a built-in hood, that can comfortably be worn underneath a helmet.
It might not be the most stylish cycling piece out there but we'd argue it is one of the most versatile. And when you've finished riding your bike, you can always throw it on for that trail run.
MAAP Alt_Road Thermal Vest
- Thermal Qualities
- Looks great
- Not 100 per cent waterproof
- Risks chilly arms
Aussie cycle brand MAAP is giving Rapha a run for its money when it comes to releasing extremely stylish but highly functional cycling gear to make other riders green with envy. It has recently teamed up with Polartec to bolster the thermal properties of its ace Alt_Road gravel and trail collection.
The Thermal Vest is a nice lightweight option for throwing over a more traditional cycling jersey or keeping in the back pocket for when the weather takes a turn for the worst. It features External windproof fabric with DWR coating for keeping cutting winds off the chest and lungs, while an internal exposed Polartec Alpha body lining does a great job of retaining body heat around the vital organs.
MAAP's fit is spot on for most body types and there's enough stretch in the garment to get a nice snug hug to limit the chances of anything flapping in the wind. What's more, this has a back zipper stash pocket and regular stretch ripstop Cordura cargo pockets at the rear for snacks and supplies. No more awkwardly reaching under your vest to fish out a Clif Bar again.
Rapha Cargo Winter Tights
- Insulated against the cold
- One of the best chamois pads in the business
- Ruddy expensive
When the winter arrives, it's usually time to crack out the tights, rather than risk freezing calves with regular bib shorts. Rapha has got you covered when Jack Frost starts nipping at your cleats, because the fleece-backed fabric and durable water repellent treatment ensure they stay warm and dry in most situations.
We've tested these on trails and riding through boggy patches of the New Forest and they haven't let us down. They cut wind brilliantly, trap warmth but also move with body fluidly. The chamois pad is extremely comfortable and can be worn for days on end without discomfort.
Rapha has also redesigned the calf section so it is made entirely of a highly reflective material printed with distinctive stripe. This lights ups like a Christmas tree when hit by headlights and other light sources, which is great for those darker winter evenings.
There's even a pair of pockets on the upper legs and lower back section, which are fine for stashing smaller things like bank cards and folded maps, but aren't so great for larger smartphones and tools. Naturally, they also look as sleek as you'd expect from a Rapha product.
Restrap CarryEverything SaddlePack
- No need for a rack
- Easy to install
- Holds ups to 4.5L of kit
- A bit bulky
- Gets covered in crud
Restrap's brilliantly-named CarryEverything range of innovative, rack-less touring system of bags and holsters aims to turn your bike into a full-on workhorse and although this might appeal more to those adventure riders, a cheeky saddle bag can prove essential if you're thinking of spending a day exploring gravel or trails and you don't fancy carrying kit on your back.
The small Saddle Pack effortlessly straps to most seats with and proves small enough to ensure plenty of clearance between the rear wheel and the bag. You can also purchase 8 and 14-litre version holsters, but they will require purchasing a dry bag separately and they do feel a lot larger and look bulkier when attached to the svelte frame of a modern gravel bike.
All bags are handmade from textured nylon in Yorkshire and are nylon-lined with taped seams. Kit is kept safe via a roll top closure, while it clips around most saddles with a clever magnetic closure system. All very cool and large enough for stashing jackets, tools, food and even a few spares.