I was recently explaining to a friend what had led me to buy a gravel* bike (actually, I was gushing enthusiastically about how great my new bike is and why he should get one too), and the reasons why I think the gravel thing has really taken off. It’s more than a passing fad, I gush-explained. Here’s why…
The G Word
*Gravel has become the descriptive for any drop-barred bike with disc brakes and wider than regular-roadie tyres. Whilst the moniker has its origins in steeds designed for the U.S. gravel-racing scene, for most of us these are just bikes that aren’t restricted to riding on asphalt: for me it’s a mix of mud, forest and field, dirt tracks and paths, sand, roads in various states of disrepair and, now and again, some actual gravel. (I prefer the term ‘all road‘ but when you say gravel everyone knows what you’re on about. So, for the purposes of this blog at least, gravel it is.)
Why Go Gravel?
What led me, literally, down the gravel/mud/grass track? Boredom. I’d been riding a combination of the same road routes around my Edinburgh home, over and over again, year after year. It was all becoming a bit samey, and so, minus the option of emigration, I decided to shift my focus, away from the main arteries, to zoom in on the map’s finer detail. There I found myriad lanes, dirt-tracks and paths, all covering the same wider areas I’d been riding before, but with added novelty.
The first of those new routes that I tried quickly made it clear that my old bike was unfit for its new purpose. My ten-year-old carbon-framed Scott, with its 25mm tyres (the widest it could accommodate) was only really suited to the smoothest of smooth tarmac: lightweight, super stiff, but super uncomfortable and super sketchy on anything remotely challenging, especially in the wet (which it is in Scotland, a lot). If I was going to fully embrace the spirit of adventure I’d need a new bike.
That’s how I ended up with a Jamis Regenade Elite. It’s not a full-on, purist gravel bike, but it can accommodate 40mm tyres, has disc brakes, a slightly longer wheelbase and a more upright position than your average road-racer. No denying, it was a bit odd to begin with, somehow unnatural, left me feeling not at all like the ‘proper roadie’ I’d imagined I was. First decent ride in and any misgivings were buried six-feet beneath a layer of dirt, sweat and glowing enthusiasm. The crumbling pot-holed roads had been smoothed by the wide tyres; the tracks and paths I’d once been forced to avoid were gobbled up with gusto and, thanks to the discs, I could brake with one finger, even in the wet.
Spirit of Nano-Adventure
Being adventurous with your gravel bike doesn’t have to mean bike-packing across the Himalayas. Micro, even nano-adventures can be just as satisfying; it’s all about getting off the beaten track, trying something new.
I’d spent years cycling passed interesting-looking roads and tracks but never once trying them because I didn’t know where they went or how rough they would be. No longer wondering, I now hop off the tarmac and head along to find out. Sometimes they’re nothing special, more often than not they’re snapped up and added to my ever-expanding inventory of interesting routes.
Now and again I get a bit lost, which has been great for my anxiety. As anyone with an anxious mind will know, it finds safety in, and sticks to, the routine, sees danger in the unknown and shies fearfully from it. Getting lost, having fun doing it and, eventually, riding home with a satisfied smile has been great therapy, a naturally positive counterbalance to anxiety’s dread weight.
Traffic-Free To Do What I Please
Another added benefit of all that adventurousness has been the lack of cars, and I reckon that’s one of the main reasons gravel-biking has become so popular. We all know through bitter experience how bad the cyclist’s lot can be on busy roads (and quieter ones too). For most of my rides I barely worry about the traffic and can often pedal for miles at a time and encounter no cars whatsoever — sheep, dogs, and walkers wearing headphones are my main ‘problem’ these days.
I used to spend so much time on my road bike zooming frantically around as if training for some important event, racing myself, my friends and strangers on Strava. How easy it was to forget the main reason I got into cycling in the first place: riding a bike is fun! Little kids, big kids (and medium ones too), we all like to play, enjoy the thrill, of cycling, its self-propelled speed the closest we can get to flight whilst keeping two wheels (mostly) on the ground. The gravel bike is perfect for just that buzz, zipping along single-track, slipping and sliding over muddy fields, whipping up clouds of dust on forestry fire-roads. For me, gravel-biking exists in the happiness sweet-spot dead-centre between the dirty thrill of mountain-biking and the liberating alacrity of road riding.
Okay, so my average speed on Strava is down a bit (by about 1 to 2 miles per hour since I ditched the road bike) but it’s not all to do with riding off-road and the grippy buzz of wider tyres. With the gravel bike my whole cycling attitude has changed. Gone is the roadie’s ego, telling me to keep my head down, ride faster, get there and back quicker.
Now I dip in and out of enlightenment, more inclined and able to look around, to connect with nature, crossing fields, riding through woodland, feeling (and when I’m sans mudguards, often tasting) the terrain. It’s mindfulness on two-wheels.
Built To Last
Cynics might (and some on my Twitter feed do) say gravel cycling is a marketing term coined to sell a whole bunch of new bikes people didn’t know they needed, but to me it’s more than a passing fad. The gravel bike is a way of bringing to roadies a taste of the car-free, adventurous fun that mountain bikers have been happily rolling around in since the late eighties, and a chance for mountain bikers to experience the mile-munching freedom that roadies have long enjoyed. It’s the best of both worlds, and in a world of its own: still just cycling but, rather than being constrained by a niche, the gravel cyclist is liberated to ride however, whenever and wherever she or he so pleases.
Oh, and that friend I was gushing to? He recently bought himself a gravel bike. Three rides in and he’s absolutely loving it. Happy to say, I told him so.