Gravel Culture: A Bike is a Bike is a Bike

Posted By Gravel Union On 16 July 2021

Most of us, if asked to describe a gravel bike, would mentally picture a two wheeled bike based loosely on a road bike. But gravel bikes come in all shapes and sizes, including hand-powered three wheeled versions, as Emma discovered recently when she chatted to Neil Russell from Hand Bike Packing.

Gravel Union caught up with Neil Russell from @handbikepacking to hear about the riding around Aberfoyle in Scotland and learn a bit more about handbikes and what they can do. Neil works with both able-bodied and adaptive cyclists through his work as a teacher of outdoor education, learning and development.

For those of you who’ve not come across handbikes before, they’re often called adaptive cycles. If you’ve little or no use of your legs, then as the name suggests, the bikes enable you to pedal using your hands. Being adaptive means there are no particular rules for wheel and drivetrain configurations. The more traditional recumbent handcycles feature two wheels at the back and one at the front, with the drivetrain powering the front wheel and a parallel movement of the cranks. The center of gravity is pushed towards the back, making it more suited to XC and gravel.

The kneeling handcycle uses two wheels at the front and the drive to the back. With more weight at the centre front and alternating hand cranks, the bike delivers a tighter turning circle and more nimble movement, often preferred for DH racing. The gravity quad bike features four wheels, but doesn’t have a means of self-propulsion so is only suited to DH.

You can find every mix of the above, including e-bike attachments and pure e-bikes depending on the rider’s needs and in the case of the full-suspension gravity quad I once saw bouncing skillfully down a mountainside - the rider’s bravery! It looked terrifying but very cool.

Neil first came to our attention via a friend's Instagram feed and we gto in touch to ask if he would like to connect with us. He agreed, and we’ve since been chatting to him about making cycling more accessible for everyone.

GU - How did you get involved in your local gravel scene?

Neil - I used to live in Edinburgh and ride with a bunch of guys there but they just wanted to do road cycling and I hate riding on the road now because I've had a few close calls riding in the city. I used to just ride on my own a lot then hooked up with Rosie and we began riding together. I think people are often scared of riding with handbikes but there’s really no need as they’re more capable than you think.

Not coming from a conventional cycling background meant I hadn’t heard of the people I ended up riding with, like Kerry McPhee (Winner of the Three Peaks Cyclocross Race 2019 and current Scottish MTB champion) and Stu Thomson from Cut Media —they’re kind of a big deal I’ve learnt! I found I could comfortably keep up with them and Kerry said to me afterwards that it’s changed how she views a route and she now looks to see how accessible they are for handbikes.

I’ve realised more about the social implications of cycling with able-bodied riders—there's something about small groups, minority groups and marginalized groups wanting to cycle together that helps similar people feel comfortable riding and that's great. I'm seeing that there's huge power in the integration of everyone.

GU - What makes a route accessible and have you managed to get any infrastructure changes in place?

Neil - When I spoke to the guys at Aberfoyle, the first thing we did was ride around their gravel routes just to see how accessible they were. There were a couple of things that we spotted - a couple of gates along the forest paths were a bit tricky, but most routes actually weren't too bad. It was very manageable.

Some of the Aberfoyle team have worked with the Forestry Commission to make some minor improvements – for example, getting a few boulders moved to make the routes a bit easier. But ultimately, it was quite accessible. We were talking to the Forestry Commission and they said they didn’t want to come across as being tokenistic and were conscious of trying to use appropriate language —everyone’s terrified of using the wrong language.

It's an absolute minefield and it is a minefield for me too! It's not because people are trying to be closed-minded, it's because they often don't know and we all need to learn. Change comes about through discussion and being a good ambassador for your sport, not bitching about what you're unhappy with, but trying to actually work collaboratively towards what you think would be better.

GU - How about the future? What adventures do you have planned? And did we hear something about a new bike?

Neil - I’ve just put the deposit down on my new bike. I’m going over to Las Vegas to collect it from Lasher—it’s a full suspension e-handbike. I’m super excited! It’s for a really big trip handcycling across Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, and Mozambique next May as part of the Bidii Yetu 2022 Handcycle.

I’ve also got a new job working with Experience Community as part of their education team. They do a lot of work reaching out to people and introducing them to handbikes and getting people out who might not otherwise experience cycling. It means moving to Yorkshire and learning all the new gravel routes around there, too.

In the longer term I want to learn as much as I can to be able to set up the same kind of thing in Wales and move over there to be with my girlfriend.

As Neil is moving just down the road, we’ll be sure to keep tabs on what he’s doing and hopefully be able to join him on some of his handbiking trips too. You can check out all of his adventures here

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