Markus Stitz’ guide to the best gravel cycling in Britain captures the community spirit of the gravel scene and is sure to spark your sense of adventure.
After an initial period as a gravel sceptic, assuming that, “gravel bikes were simply another marketing move from the bike industry”, round-the-world cyclist and founder of Bikepacking Scotland, Markus Stitz, soon changed his mind. “Gravel riding was no longer defined by a certain type of bike, but much more by the opportunities it offered.”
And it’s those opportunities that his new book Great British Gravel Rides serves up on its 200-plus glossy pages.
“I wanted to write a book that portrays the huge variety of routes suitable for rough-stuffing in Britain,” he notes in the introduction. “I see this book as a source of ideas to embark upon your own journeys.”
An affectionate and insightful look at the current generation of Colombian professional cyclists and the country that made them.
From Rigoberto Uran and Nairo Quintana, to Fernando Gaviria and Egan Bernal, Colombia has of recent been a production line of gilt-edged cycling talent. Matt Rendell’s latest book is a detailed introduction to these, often enigmatic, stars. It’s also a great overview of their homeland’s chaotic modern history and its current political situation.
Colombia is a complex nation that many non-natives have only a cartoon knowledge of through tales of Pablo Escobar and TV shows such as Narcos. Rendell’s affection for the country shines through in his writing and is a vital aspect of this book. These riders aren’t Colombian in the way that Froome is ‘British’, because that’s the designation on his racing license. These men are products of the place, forged by the land like the terra makes the wine, by their culture, their people and politics, a very real sense that if born in Europe they would not have become the cyclists they are.
And there’s a paradox here too, in that as much as their nation has undoubtedly shaped them, many of these riders made it to the heights of the World Tour despite their country’s best efforts, and especially in the case of Quintana, despite his national federation’s best efforts.
Theirs is a country that has battled poverty, drugs, paramilitary forces and political factions, that has recently used sport, and cycling in particular, to bolster its self-image and portray a softer, more positive vision of itself to the world.
These are young men who learned how to work hard (and had no choice but to work hard) from a very early age. As boys they used whatever bikes and equipment their limited resources allowed, the rest begged and borrowed. Training was squeezed in around school work and actual (poorly) paid work, their formative cycling miles most certainly not a hobby in which they were indulged.
“You are strong mentally because you come from below. Not having many resources is an advantage, because it brings out your mettle. It gives you one or two points on the others. You are brought up on hard knocks. If you want something, you have to put your back into it.” EF Pro Cycling’s Dani Martinez on how his upbringing shaped his sporting fortunes.
But that’s not to say that there is any sense that these riders are telling their truths in order to seek sympathy. They come across as immensely proud of where they are from, what they and their families have been through, and where they are presently at.
“We have all been eating food we have grown ourselves, and drinking the milk from our own cows. It is very healthy, very natural. As kids, we always had to be doing something practical, learning new things, not lying around playing video games or watching television. All this makes us different from the other riders.” Astana pro, Miguel Angel Lopez, on what makes him.
Whilst British riders of the same generation were in receipt of lottery-funded support, Colombians were making tough decisions, such as deciding whether or not to sell the cow which was their only source of income, in order that they might be able to afford a half-decent racing bike.
There are no indulged rich kids amongst the Colombian crop. These are riders who chased a dream and an escape, who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds, whose cycling successes transformed not only their own lives but the lives of their families back home, whose salaries have improved the lot of generations.
Every story Rendell tells here is a variation on that theme, of upbringings that involved hard work and very real poverty the likes of which Western Europe hasn’t known for generations. I was reminded of books I’d read on the very early Tours de France, boys from peasant roots, steeled by the ardour of the lives from which they sought refuge.
An illustrative example comes from Egan Bernal’s recalling that his father couldn’t afford to give him the entrance fee for his first race. The sum in question? 50 pence.
Pick any chapter and it could be the basis of a heart-warming, tear-jerking Hollywood script. These real-life stories are humbling and inspiring, and if reading them doesn’t turn you into a fan of Colombian cycling it can only be because you already were a fan or because your heart is made of stone.
It’s safe to say that when the next Grand Tour rolls around I will be rooting for the Colombians, each and every one.
Colombia Es Pasión – the Generation of Racing Cyclists Who Changed Their Nation and the Tour de France is out now on hardback.
The Yellow Jersey by Peter Cossins is a fitting commemoration of the 100th anniversary of one of sport’s most iconic prizes.
Conceived, and first worn, in 1919 as a means of helping spectators at the roadside more easily identify the Tour’s leading cyclist, the maillot jaune is one of the most coveted prizes in the sport of cycling, only rivalled by the World Champ’s rainbow bands.
The bicycle is the perfect mode of transport for a post-apocalyptic world, so why are there no bikes in the movies?
It’s not strictly true to say I’m always thinking about cycling but it is on my mind a lot. Take the other evening, when I was watching one of those end-of-the-world movies that are all the (literal) rage.
Two of the story’s heroes were about to head off in their car in search of supplies, burning some of the finite supply of precious petrol, with no guarantee of a return.
“Why don’t any of these idiots ever ride a bike?” I asked my wife.
“Eh?” She said, trying to concentrate on the movie.
I kept quiet and thought the rest.
The bicycle would be the ideal means of transport in such a scenario:
no fossil fuels required
no engine noise to attract the worst of the evil dead and the evil still-living.
the rider could travel whilst avoiding roads, which would undoubtedly be blocked by traffic jams of burnt-out and zombie-infested wrecks.
it would give the rider an endorphin boost to help counter the misery and crushing lack of hope.
My motivations for considering bicycles at such moments aren’t all purely practical. I’ve often considered what it would be like to loot the nearby branch of Evans whilst all my fellow survivors were busying themselves scrabbling around for food, medicines and other such fripperies.
Imagine having all those brand-new bikes to choose from* and not knowing where to begin – delicious.
Roll on the end of the world!
*I’d probably opt for something gravel-ish, to cope with the newly uncivilised conditions.
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…
Prior to picking up this book I hadn’t heard of The Tour of the Battlefields (Circuit des Champs de Bataille in its native French), and given that it took place only once, back in 1919, I’m probably not the only one. Enter Tom Isitt, photojournalist and cycling enthusiast to provide enlightenment.
It’s a long time since I last pinned a number to my cycling jersey. Back in my day (when MTB wheels were all 26 inches and fluro lycra wasn’t retro) I entered a lot of cross-country races. The only tactic I observed, with mixed to middling results, was to ride flat-out from start to finish. My only ‘glorious’ road-racing memory involves failing to ride my breakaway companions off my wheel on a climb, then leading out the sprint, ignoring my inner monologue, which was breathlessly shouting, “you shouldn’t be leading out, you shouldn’t be leading out!”
I have no immediate intention of returning to competitive ways and so picked up Full Gas – How to Win a Bike Race: Tactics From Inside the Peloton, to give it its full title, unsure if this book was really for me.
It didn’t take long for those doubts to be dispelled.
Shut up legs! Retired pro-cyclist Jen’s Voigt inner-pain voice, turned catchphrase, turned marketing slogan is now the title of his autobiography.
Voigt had a long, successful career with a palmares that most domestiques (that’s mostly the role he played) would kill (their team leader) for: two Tour de France stages, wore the yellow jersey twice, five-times winner of Criterium International, won the Deutschland Tour, Tour Méditerranéen, plus various other stage wins and podiums, and he broke the Hour Record on the track.
At the start of this year I swapped my old skinny-tyred Scott CR1 for a fat-ish tyred Jamis gravel bike. If my Twitter feed is anything to go by, a lot of folk see the gravel trend as marketing bollocks designed to sell more bikes. In all honesty, mine has proved something of a revelation. Over the last couple of years I’d begun to get a little tired of tackling the same old, routine road rides in my local patch. Owning a bike that can take the rough with the smooth has allowed me to explore tracks, paths, old drove roads and the like to expand my route itinerary without the hassle of moving house.