Can Road Bikes Go on Trails or Gravel? (+3 Other Surfaces!)

Road bikes are specifically designed to be fast and smooth on paved surfaces. But if you are looking to branch out into other disciplines of riding, you might be wondering:

Can Road Bikes Go on Trails or Gravel?

Road bikes can go on trails or gravel when the terrain is mild. For example, you should be able to manage a relatively flat section of well-packed dirt. Plus, you can usually install wider tires to improve traction. However, even with a few upgrades, a road bike won’t be able to handle advanced technical trails.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what factors are involved in taking your road bike off-roading, including gravel and trails. We’ll talk about the types of surfaces that road bikes can handle and tips for riding off-road. But first, let’s take a look at the specific challenges that make it more difficult to take your road bike off-road. 

Can road bikes handle off-roading? 

Road bikes can handle some off-roading, but they are not specifically designed to go off-roading. But, if you decide that you want to (or need to) try riding your road bike on a little bit of off-road terrain, then there are a few things you’ll want to consider.

First, please put your own safety first. Road bikes are more difficult to maneuver when they are not on well-paved roads, so if you take your bike on terrain that is too challenging, it could result in a dangerous crash.

If you decide to go ahead with it, then you’ll need to manage the specific challenges of riding your road bike off-road, which are primarily related to traction and obstacles in the road. You also need to consider how these affect your tires, bike frame, suspension, and brakes. Let’s dig into each of these below.

Can road bike tires handle off-roading?

Your road bike tires can go off-road, but it probably isn’t the best idea. Road bike tires are specifically designed for the flat, smooth surface of the road, such as asphalt, tarmac, and cement. The tires are thin and pumped up to a higher pressure to give you speed and agility, especially in a race or riding with traffic. 

However, these types of tires don’t work as well off-road. Road tires are more likely to get punctures and have trouble getting good traction on surfaces such as dirt and loose gravel. You can lower the tire pressure in your tires slightly for extra traction, but if you go too low, you’ll run the risk of pinch flats. 

If you want to take your road bike off-road, the best thing you can do is to put some wider tires on it. Wider tires with thicker tubes will give you more traction in loose gravel. You’ll also get fewer flats from rocks, holes, and roots. In addition, the lower tire pressure will provide you with a more comfortable ride

Road bike tires are easy to swap for tougher tires, but you can’t change your bike frame. 

Can road bike frames handle off-roading?

Road bike frames are pretty tough, but not all road bike frames are created equal. For example, many carbon fiber bikes are lightweight and aerodynamic, which gives you better speed on the road. However, these frames weren’t designed to handle the obstacles and challenges of riding off-road. 

This type of riding puts stress on the bike frame in different directions than you would expect a road bike to get. So if you are riding a carbon-framed bike, you’ll want to tread carefully around holes, roots, or rocks that might put too much stress on your frame, especially if you crash. You could easily damage your expensive frame this way. 

However, aluminum and steel frames are a bit more durable and can withstand a little more stress from obstacles. So if you can choose which type of frame to ride off-road, go with steel for the most durability. 

You might not be able to do anything about the frame you use, but how does your road bike suspension do with riding off-road? 

Can road bike suspension handle off-roading?

Road bikes don’t have a suspension system, at least not to the extent of a mountain bike. However, they do have some built-in characteristics to help with vibration from the road. For example, a road bike might have a carbon fiber seat post that will absorb some road vibration.

However, a road bike won’t absorb as much of the shock as a mountain bike or even a hybrid bike could

You can mitigate some of the shocks and vibrations by adding a second layer of bar tape, wearing quality padded gloves, and using your arms and legs as shock absorbers. 

Can road bike brakes handle off-roading? 

Brakes are a little bit complicated when it comes to off-roading. Rim brakes are still widely available on road bikes, but hydraulic disc brakes are far better off-road.

Hydraulic disc brakes will give you much more stopping power in adverse conditions. Rim brakes, while cheaper and easier to maintain, do not have as much stopping power. Plus, moisture and grime can diminish the effectiveness of rim brakes. You’ll need to be more careful and ride more slowly if your road bike has rim brakes. 

After looking at all of those characteristics for off-roading, what about trails? 

Can road bikes go on trails?

Road bikes can go on trails, depending on the terrain. Trail conditions can vary widely from well-groomed asphalt paths, to much more technical single-track dirt paths. So we need to look at just how much trail a road bike can handle. 

Types of trails that road bikes can handle?

Jeremy Powers of GCN fame explains in this video, that if you can ride the terrain one-handed or no-handed, it is a well-maintained route that your road bike can handle. For example, depending on your comfort and skill level, a road bike could easily handle a well-maintained walking path made with crushed stone. These are usually pretty hard-packed and easy to ride on any type of bike.

Another type of trail your road bike could handle is a hard-packed dirt path without obstacles, as long as the conditions are pretty dry and the road isn’t too bumpy. With any trail, though, you’ll need to be careful and make wise choices about whether you can handle it on your road bike or not. In some cases, it might just be better to walk. 

Types of trails that road bikes can NOT handle

Your road bike cannot handle single-track. This is rough, technical terrain that you would need a serious mountain bike to traverse.

You’ll also want to avoid mud, rocks, and tree roots as much as possible, as your road bike just doesn’t have enough suspension or tire clearance to go over them. And although road bikes can’t go on single-track, can road bikes go on gravel? 

Can road bikes go on gravel?

Road bikes can go on gravel if it is a well-maintained gravel road or crushed stone path. However, there are a few caveats.

If you are going to ride your road bike on gravel, you’ll probably want to make a few adjustments first, which we can talk about below.

How to convert a road bike to a gravel bike

You can convert your road bike to a gravel bike with a few adjustments.  The most critical change you can make is the tires. Most road bikes don’t have much clearance for wider tires but put the widest compatible tires on your bike. You can also find tires with sturdier sidewalls to resist punctures and lots of deep treads for added traction. 

You might also want to swap out your cassette for something with easier gears. Climbing can be a little bit tricky on gravel, so easier gears will mean you can stay in the saddle when riding up a hill. 

For some more tips on converting your road bike to a gravel bike, check out Si’s video from GCN: 

Road bikes vs. gravel bikes

And, just for reference, there are a few differences between what we would call a “road bike” and a “gravel bike”.

Road bikes and gravel bikes are very similar. Both have drop bars and similarly shaped frames. In many cases, cyclists will choose a good gravel bike to also ride on the road. However, a gravel bike frame is a little more slack, making it more stable and more comfortable on uneven terrain.

In addition, gravel bikes have a larger clearance for bigger tires, and they usually have better brakes. That being said, the road bike adjustments we mentioned above can help your road bike to handle gravel more effectively. 

Can Road Bikes Go On Dirt? 

You can take your road bike on a dirt road with caution. A smooth, hard-packed dirt road shouldn’t be too much trouble for any bike, including your road bike. But you’ll need to watch your speed, especially when descending. Potholes, bumps, or large rocks could puncture your tire or send you flying over the bars. 

Can Road Bikes Go On Grass? 

Road bikes can ride on grass. In fact, well-maintained, low-cut grass is a great place to practice skills such as clipping in and out of the pedals, track stands, and other drills where you might want a soft landing. Of course, the grass is much harder to pedal through, but you can do it. 

Can Road Bikes Go On Sidewalks? 

Most sidewalks are smooth cement or pavement, making them a nice easy ride for your road bike. However, just because you can physically ride on a sidewalk doesn’t mean that you should. In many locations, it is actually illegal to ride your bike on a sidewalk.

For example, in Pennsylvania, pedestrians always have the right of way. In addition, it is illegal to ride your bike on the sidewalk in a business district or when a bike lane is available. 

If it is not safe to ride on the road and you need to use the sidewalk, it is a wise choice to dismount your bike and walk. 

Regardless of what type of terrain you’ll be riding your road bike on, there are some ways to make it easier and safer. 

Tips For Riding Your Road Bike Off-Road

If you decide to ride your road bike off-road, here are some tips to help you do it safely and more easily. 

  1. Slow down! Riding gravel, or other off-road terrain, is always slower-going than riding on the road. And if you’re taking your road bike off-road, you’ll want to go even slower so you can watch out for hazards. Take it extra easy on the descents. 
  2. Watch your line. Your road bike doesn’t take the potholes, bumps, rocks, or roots, as well as a sturdy gravel or mountain bike, would. So choose your path carefully so you can avoid obstacles that might damage your bike or send you flying. 
  3. Get wider tires. One of the best ways to help your road bike off-road is to put wider tires on it. The rougher the terrain, the wider the tires need to be. You’ll be limited a bit by the tire clearance of your road bike, so choose the widest tires that will still fit properly. This will give you better traction, more comfort, and less flats.
  4. Brake carefully. Loose gravel is difficult to brake in, and if you slam on your brakes with skinny slick tires, you’ll be much more likely to skid and slide out. So instead, brake slowly, feathering the brakes gently, so you slow down without skidding. 
  5. Get bigger gears. If you’re going to be climbing a lot, you might want to swap out your cassette for some easier gears to get up the hills. 
  6. Double your bar tape. If the road chatter and vibration bother you, double up on your bar tape. This will help reduce that vibration you feel in the handlebars. You can also wear nice, thickly padded gloves to make your hands even more comfortable. 
  7. When in doubt, walk. If there is terrain that you aren’t sure you can navigate, it’s ok to hop off the bike and walk it until the terrain gets a little less challenging. 


JJ here - I've spent a lot of time on a bike, including completing the 3,000+ mile Southern Tier Route (CA to FL). I started Cycling Beast to "demystify" cycling topics, and to help people overcome roadblocks and level-up their skills.

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