Gravel Culture: Armchair Adventure – Cross Border
Gravel Union On
23 April 2020
Before the arrival of gravel bikes, fun-but-fast off-road riding was the domain of the CX bike. Olly looks back to hunting for trails, frites and the sound of cowbells in the borderlands of France & Belgium nearly a decade ago.
Back in the mists of time (in 2012) gravel bikes were still but a twinkle in the eye of most bike designers, so if you wanted to ride off-road on an inappropriate bike, then a CX bike was what you needed. The principle was the same - fast, multi-faceted, capable and most importantly, fun.
At the time I was living in the south of the UK and could drive to the Eurotunnel check-in at Ashford in around an hour. This opened up the potential for many fun weekends riding my bike with good friends on the continent. It was often quicker for me to travel to France or Belgium than it was to try and negotiate the M25 motorway around London in rush-hour traffic on a Friday evening.
We decided that weekends should be filled with as much riding and as little driving as possible and were all done on a budget. This often meant finding the closest HotelF1 to our arrival point in France and then following our noses to find great riding, cheap beer and frites avec mayo.
CX bikes offered the perfect combination of speed and durability and allowed us to spend as much time riding off-road as possible. But as our bikes were limited to 35mm tyres and as we were running not entirely reliable ghetto-tubeless set-ups, meant we spent quite a bit of time undertaking trailside faffage.
Back in 2012, Google maps had been around for a few years and were a real boon to trail finding, but GPS units were the size of a brick and out of our price range. Jersey pockets were therefore frequently stuffed with hastily scribbled notes and hand drawn maps. Rough route instructions were taped to our top tubes in homage to our professional cycling brethren. And we spent a lot of time using a mix of intuition and zen-navigation to figure out where the best routes were.
Partly because we were creatures of habit and partly because it cut down the driving, we often stayed in Dunkirk, but then trail hopped our way along the coastline and into Belgium, heading for the mecca of CX in the area – Koksijde – the home of the world’s finest CX bike-eating sand dunes.
Coming from the UK, where at the time cyclists were regarded as an inferior species to everyone else, the shock of riding in Belgium and discovering not only a huge network of segregated cycleways (and crossing points where cyclists had priority over drivers), but also areas of community forest with waymarked CX trails completely blew our minds. Perfect ribbons of sandy goodness wound their way between trees, over hillocks and across grassland, often heading for short, steep, energy sapping sand dunes. Many a happy hour was spent charging full-gas at the sandy climbs in an attempt to glide up them in a style which emulated Mssrs Nys and Stybar – the CX gods of the time. Needless to say, we failed and ended up more often in a giggling pile on the ground rather than serenely cresting the summit of the sand dune.
We frequently timed our weekend visits to coincide with a world cup CX race and on one memorable occasion, the CX World Championships, where we joined 80,000 slightly inebriated Belgians to cheer on the racers. The shock of going from riding as a small group of friends on perfect trails through deserted woodlands, compared to the noise and energy of a crowd of CX race spectators that size was phenomenal. The wall of noise that preceded the leading riders as they came across the course towards you was something I will never forget.
Fast-forward on to the current day and my aspirations of riding like my CX heroes have all but dried up. I sold my last CX bike last summer, having been firmly bitten by the bug of gravel riding. The thrill of riding an unsuitable trail on an inappropriate bike is still there, but now my tyres are at least 50mm wide, sealed perfectly on proper tubeless rims, my gears are electronic and a tiny über-clever box on my stem bleeps and tells me where to turn off to find the next ribbon of gravelly trail perfection.
I miss the days of riding cross border with my group of friends, but now I would pick a different style bike in my hunt for trail riding heaven.
Photos and text: Olly Townsend