Gravel Culture: Armchair Adventure – Welcome to my manor
Gravel Union On
28 August 2020
If you invite a friend to come and visit and ride “your” gravel trails for the first time, what things do you need to consider? Is it the gravel riding equivalent of a first date where you only get one chance to make the right first impression?
Back in the days before GPS and digital mapping, I’d just started a relationship with a new girlfriend and she invited me to go and visit, bringing along my bike, so that we could go and explore the local trails near where she lived. She’d planned a really great route with plenty of fun trails and a mid-ride coffee spot. The route was quite complicated, with numerous junctions and easy-to-miss turn offs. We had a great time and I was really impressed with the quality of the riding near where she lived. I didn’t think anything more about it until quite a while later, when she admitted to having spent the weeks before my visit studying the local maps and memorising the entire route – learning every junction and every turn by heart, so that when we were out riding, everything flowed perfectly and we didn’t get lost. The sheer amount of mental effort she had put in made a big impression on me - even more so when I later realised how poor her natural sense of direction was! The bar had been set super high for every ride I’ve planned since then!
Having a friend come to ride your home trails for the first time is a bit like a first date – you only get one chance to make the perfect first impression! It’s not just about the trails themselves – you could have the best riding in the world on your doorstep, but if you don’t link them together in a way that makes the ride ‘flow’, then the overall ride can feel very dull and less than satisfying. Equally, your local trail network could be pretty scrappy – bits of urban singletrack through less than beautiful scenery for example. The good news is that (within reason) no matter what the trails are like, if the route linking them together has the magic mix of speed, challenge, fun and just the merest whiff of a proper adventure, then the whole ride will be a success.
“Can I meet you at this café for lunch, as it’s the only place locally that does decent vegan food and will allow the dog to come in with me” said Paul. This put quite a big spanner in my route planning. I’d already planned in a mid-ride café for one thing and maybe two cafes in a relatively short ride was a little much? But also, his choice of café meant not only changing the route (not the end of the world), but also missing out two really good sections of trail (a much bigger drama!) By this point, I’d spent quite a while mentally planning the route. James lived in the flatlands to the south and requested a ride with some hills. That instantly steered (pardon the pun) my route choice in one direction, with the topography dictating a good chunk of the route. But I also wanted to showcase the sheer variety of riding that I had locally – former-mining railways now turned into a network of smooth gravelly cycle paths, sections of rooty woodland singletrack, urban cut-throughs which miss out sections of horrible road and most importantly, a steep cobbled climb near the end of the ride – a real challenge to make the ride finish on a high (mentally and physically).
“What kind of gravel riding do you like?” I posed to James. “Are you a RealGravelTM man or are you more a 1990s-mountain-biker type gravel rider?” “I like to think of myself as a modern day John Tomac” came back his answer. From that point onwards, I knew we would get along just fine. Finding out what the aspirations, skillset and motivations are of a new ride buddy is one of the most important pre-requisites to get right. If they’re up for an epic forest road type gravel ride and you’ve planned a short route with every sketchy “this-isn’t-really-gravel-is-it” singletrack trail that you know, no one is going to end up smiling.
As I sat at my desk in the weeks before James’ visit to “my manor” (an old Londoner term for someone’s local area), I realised that my mental trail map of the local gravel riding was a very odd shape. Rather than having a mental picture of the whole area with different trails ‘plotted’ on to it in a coherent form, I actually had corridors of knowledge. I knew each corridor intimately and due to some weird anomaly in my brain’s internal wiring, I could visualise every junction, the terrain and the trail surface with a scary level of detail, but I couldn’t remember the name of many of the places that the route passed through. I also realised that I could easily open a mental doorway out of my corridor of knowledge and fall into an abyss of unknown riding. It made me think – what if there was actually a better trail running parallel to the one that I knew? The margins of my trail knowledge had little notes mentally scribbled onto them – “Here be dragons” or “Avoid this area if it’s dark” and “Come back and see where that trail goes one day”.
I broke out the digital mapping and started to plan our route. I had a few key locations that I wanted to add in – great bit of woodsy singletrack only a few seconds ride from where James was going to be staying? Tick. Some of the wide/smooth/flat gravel wagonways to the east and south of Newcastle? Yep. Head through the refurbished cyclists’ Tyne Tunnel? Hell Yes. Climb up to see the view at the Angel of the North? Wye aye man! But I also made the time to look for some bits that I hadn’t tried before. I wanted to show James as big a variety of gravelly trails as I could find, while avoiding as much road riding as possible (particularly busy urban stretches). In a few sections, avoiding roads meant choosing trails which weren’t on many local riders’ route radars – little scraps of narrow trail between houses (a few of which were a little less ‘picturesque’ than I had hoped for) and at least one which threw up an unexpected set of wooden steps to negotiate.
In typical fashion, the weather forecast for our chosen ride day was less-than-ideal – gusting winds of up 40-70kph and squally showers, mixed with sunny patches and mid-teens temperatures. The weather affected both my route choice but also generated some good clothing conundrums – what to wear/carry to make the ride pleasant, minimise faff and reduce our chances of hypothermia or boil-in-the-bag. You could tell be looking us which of us was the soft southerner (me, in full length leg and arm warmers and full-finger XC mtb gloves, waterproof jacket carefully stashed in rear jersey pocket) versus James’ northern origins (shorts and a short sleeved water-resistant jersey, no gloves) but somehow despite our different choices of clothing we both managed to stay with our own climate comfort zones!
Luckily everything panned out perfectly – the unseasonably stormy weather didn’t actually dump much rain on us, the trails were still in decent condition and I got my mix of gravel-to-singletrack ratio about right. The joy of a decent bike computer aided the navigation on the small sections that I didn’t know and we managed to avoid mechanicals or trailside faffage. I’d even planned the route to give us a few kilometres of post-lunch flatness as a digestif, rather than more normal just-eaten-then-straight-up-a-30%-climb which seems to more common on rides! The overnight forecast showed a small window of sunshine for the day after our planned ride, so with some speedy washing of kit and bikes, we headed out for a shorter second ride before James headed back down south. This time we headed north and east from Newcastle, riding in Paul’s manor. The trails had a totally different flavour – faster, flatter and less technical, but were equally as fun, just in a totally different way. Miraculously the sun shone for almost the whole ride and it was warm enough to have an al fresco coffee near the end of the ride.
As we parted ways at the end of the second ride, James said that he wasn’t going to go out on his gravel bike for a while when he got home as his local riding would seem very tame and boring in comparison.
As post-ride feedback goes, I’m not sure there’s any better compliment than that.
If you fancy trying out our route for yourselves, you can find it here
Copy and images @Olly Townsend
Additional images by @gringojimi