Gravel Style: What to Wear When You’re Getting Gritty

It would be really cool if K-Pop took over the gravel cycling world and provided a sweet theme song. Well, actually, no, because having an earworm of this magnitude while trying to enjoy an unpaved road would be brutal, but I still want to see the viral video of this guy dancing while holding a disc-braked-huge-tire-dropbar-bike and trying to get mud out of his giant beard.

The Dirty Kanzaa just finished, and on a forum I saw that Ted King had won, but as of my first coffee, the venerable VeloSnooze had yet to put up any results. Instead, they had an article about a team using road-style tactics, with skinsuits and aerobars, along with a Sky-modeled Marginal Gains plan. These intrepid MAMILs secured a solid 5th place, showing that working hard as a team, practicing transitions and handoffs, and hiring Dave Brailsford were no match for four other guys riding by themselves, bereft of TUEs and questionable mailer packets. Marginal gains indeed.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m impressed as hell of anyone who gets into DK, let alone finishes. I might be able to do the 100, but the 200 sounds completely bat-shit crazy, and the 300 is just plain bonkers. I bear no ill will to Kansas, but really, I’m only familiar with the part between Morrison and Denver International Airport. It seems cluttered to me. I respect the hell out of the event and the competitors; I just like my gravel a bit slower and shorter.

It was the skinsuit part that caught my eye, in an unseeable sort of way. That sounds really awful- they make tons of sense for time trials, sprinter’s stages, crits, and so forth, but sound less comfortable than the Seventh Level of Hell for 200 miles on dusty or muddy roads. I have never tried one on, nor do I have any interest or reason for doing so, but in hot and humid conditions, the lack of being able to let air flow around my prodigious insulation sounds horrific.

I imagine this, but beardy-er.

To me, gravel cycling is a great blend between mountain biking and road cycling, offering the higher-speeds and quieter tires of rolling on a road, coupled with the fun and whooping of mountain bikes. In fact, modern gravel bikes ride better on singletrack and are more capable than my first “mountain bike”, a 1983 Ross Diamond Cruiser.

My first mountain bike was this model and colorway, but with flat bars. The “bike fit” was me standing over it and lifting it nearly 2mm off the ground, the knowledgeable expert at the shop declared it to be perfect for me. Nevermind that I was 14 years old and the frame was a 21″; my saddle was slightly lower than the one in the photo. It’s OK, though, because this was in the Reagan era, and paying too much for something that would smash your kiwis was par for the course in those days. Think K-Cars and Flock of Seagulls, and suddenly your nostalgia melts away like a popsicle on the dashboard.

In those days, we wore what we had. There was no lycra, and as young teenagers, we had neither the money nor the self confidence to wear it. Instead, cut-off 501s, cotton t-shirts, and mesh baseball caps were the height of cycling fashion. Helmets were not even a concept, and we attacked the local hiking trails like maniacs on our giant machines, testing the capability of our decorative brakes (none), and slashing our tanwall snakebelly tires on the finest shale shards Idaho had to offer.

Fast forward a few (OK, many) years, and I’m back on trails and roads similar to what we rode then. Unlike those days, a mountainbike would find these routes to be stupefyingly boring, but on a gravel bike, they are ideal. The lack of cars and bro-brahs on enduro bikes makes them quiet, and at my advanced age, I am finally learning to enjoy the sights and sounds on my rides.

Great graveling, might be boring mountain biking.

In the cross-over between the disciplines, I have adopted some mountainbikeness and blended it with my roadie sensibilities- basically, a good pair of bibs with an excellent chamois, combined with overshorts and a baggy, well-ventilated shirt. I like the comfort and pockets of the shorts, and I have found some shirts that ride much more comfortably than a road jersey.

Club Ride, a company from my hometown, makes great stuff. They could probably be credited with starting the baggy, comfy ride clothing movement, and for that I give them huge props. Their stuff is well designed and well made, and their website features photos of trails I grew up on (and some I helped build), which is cool.

Sadly, I seem to fit between their sizes. Their L shirts are a bit too skin-suity, and their XLs fit me like a basecamp tent.

Comfortable, but not aero.

However, their shorts and chamois liners are nifty, and I wear those. I like the concept of chamois padding based on ride time, and I have a couple of pairs that have worked very well. I also like their shorts, mostly. Mine are an older version of the Mountain Surf (I think), and have great pocket design. I’m very surprised that the low left zipper pocket, located outboard on the mid-thigh, works as well as it does for car keys. The other pockets are also very good, holding a phone snugly and also putting a wallet in its rightful place: the hip pocket. However, the cam-buckle built in belt straps don’t work. They pop open, and as I am between sizes, the waist of the shorts drifts southward. While graveling, this is not a big deal, but while mountain biking, the crotch of the shorts gets caught on the saddle nose.

While having a nose up your crotch is expected when you encounter a Golden Retriever, it is not considered a plus on techy singletrack.

Fortunately, Club Ride provided belt loops on the shorts, so problem solved. I have also found that these are a good traveling short, and have used them between rides while touristing. Verdict: Pretty nice stuff, if it fits.

ElevenPine is another company trying the concept of baggy-ness. I bought a pair of their shorts in 2017, and have been quite pleased, except for a few small design issues. I love the stretchy fabric, as well as the close-cut fit. These shorts have long zippers which open to some full-panel vents, which work remarkably well. I also like the elastic and drawstring waistband- they stay up and there’s no binding at a fastener in front, making them very comfortable while riding in the drops.

I haven’t tried their chamois liner, preferring my road bibs as a base layer.

However, I’m not a huge fan of the slash pockets. While their placement is pretty good, the fabric inside seems to tangle around whatever you are trying to get ahold of. Also, if you put a phone in the pocket, it sits on the top of your thigh, which is uncomfortable. I wore these shorts on nearly every winter ride this year, with knee warmers or long bibs. They worked great as a fairly snug overlayer, and I have to say that I love the fabric. I would be super-excited to find a pair of full length cycling pants made of this stuff for winter rides, maybe with thigh vents and zippered cuffs.

Beyond the funky slash pocket issue, the velcro closure at the cuff is backward. The hooks are on the adustment flap rather than the leg-side, so if you have a lycra baselayer extending past the cuff of the shorts, and the velcro tab isn’t perfectly aligned, the hooks will shred your base layer. My trusty Hincapie knee warmers are pretty hammered, and I didn’t dare wear my wool ones, as the cuffs would have destroyed them.

Verdict: A good first effort, amazing fabric. Since they seem to have these on sale, maybe a new version is coming.

I’ve recently started riding in some of my older Hawaiian shirts, they are designed to be baggy and cool, and I find them to be quite comfortable. On a whim, I tried out a shirt I call my “fly-fishing shirt”, which has a large vented baffle across the shoulders and intake vents above the breast pockets. I have no idea where that shirt came from, as I don’t have the patience to fish, and it’s never been something that offered the slightest appeal to me, but man, those fisher-folk have comfy shirts.

The light fabric and venting seems to be an ideal combination of features, and I promptly scooted off to my local second-hand sports store and found a couple more at $15 each. Brand and model don’t really matter here, but fabric and venting do. I found an older ExOfficio long-sleeve shirt with huge vents and silk-like fabric, and it’s become my go-to gravel shirt. I love the light weight and quick-dry fabric, and the venting is amazing. The only downside is that due to the baggy fit, in a headwind or at higher speeds, you flap like the Pequod in a hurricane.

Yesterday, I tested it in a brief rainstorm. It was notably not water repellent, soaking completely in a nanosecond. However, once the storm stopped, the shirt was dry in about 10 minutes.

My assumption is that ExOfficio has a current version on their site, but for this type of thing, you have to actually feel the fabric before buying. If you have a second-hand sports shop, go there and root around. I’ve found a couple of great shirts in this style, and they work very well for comfort and coolness on the gravel bike.

Verdict: Comfy, and if you find them at $15 per shirt, you really can’t lose.

Is there a gravel style? I’m sure there is, but given the nature of the discipline, for the time being, the fashonistas have not moved in and defined it. Maybe a beard is required, but in the summer months, I keep mine on the inside of my face.

Ride what you like, and experiment. The hardcore roadies may glare at you for showing up in baggy clothes, the bro-brahs may shoot past you in their kits-that-look-like-jammies, but you have pockets for extra beer money and your shirt is dry and cool, so clearly, you win.