Gravel Culture: First ride
Gravel Union On
6 May 2021
When my girlfriend Paniz started showing an interest in cycling, I raised a cautious eyebrow. This could either end in tears, or take us to a future of many happy cycling hours together. I put my relationship on the line for Gravel Union and set out on an intrepid quest to discover the pitfalls and highlights of cycling partnership bliss!
Unless your partner is already a cycling junkie (which might be a blessing or a curse), how do you get them to try out cycling? Rule No 1 is to never them force them to try it. They’ll never ever enjoy it and, you will probably be made to suffer for a long time. Perhaps a lifetime.
The next key point might be obvious to any cyclist and should be ignored at your peril. Make sure your partner is riding a bicycle and NOT a bicycle shaped object! Put simply, if you wouldn’t ride it, why expect someone else to ride it? After a lot of searching (made ever more challenging by the Great Cycling Drought of 2021) we settled on a Surly Bridge Club. The combination of the simple, yet ultra-reliable Shimano Deore groupset made for easy shifting through the huge gear range and the relaxed ride position matched with flat bars, gave Paniz extra confidence on rough terrain. The brilliant thing about the Bridge Club is that it is a great multipurpose bike – it’s just as adept at commuting through town as it is rattling down a rocky trail. No matter which direction you want to go in, the Bridge Club will morph with the rider.
As a serial bike modder, I couldn’t help but tweak the new addition to my fleet. A spare set of 650b wheels allowed us to run some plumper tyres for extra comfort. Perhaps the best and well received addition was a front rack and basket, which Paniz immediately loaded with enough paraphernalia to make even a seasoned round-the-world bikepacker feel underequipped.
Clothing, as we all know, makes a significant difference to rider comfort and as Paniz had already remarked from her last recollection of a bike ride, getting it wrong made her bum hurt. Her expression of surprise and confusion when I presented her with a pair of bib shorts was followed by revulsion and suspicion when I pointed out that she shouldn’t wear knickers underneath them. Luckily, after our first ride, she admitted that the bibs were a revelation in comfort and any accusations of me being a pervert were soon retracted.
Set sufficient time aside before the first ride to get the bike fit sorted properly. Just popping up the saddle height and saying “that’s close enough” is only going to lead to all sorts of pain (for both of you) later on. On the subject of saddles, remember that most Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) saddles are often actually long-forgotten forms of medieval torture, so look at upgrading that from the get-go. Find a quiet park to introduce your better-half to the joys of cycling. Let them to just ride about a bit and get a feel for the bike and its controls. Consider fitting a shorter stem for a more upright, relaxed position and some large platform pedals (save SPDs for a later date).
The first ride… While us seasoned gravel cyclists think nothing about just riding out on a loop from our doorstep and back again. The concept is unlikely to spark excitement in the eyes of your new cycling apprentice. Find a local café or visitor attraction to head out to - we all love an objective and the sense of adventure. Don’t do too much too soon, keep the distance short and slowly increase it over future rides (there will be a next time, right?!?). For our first ride, we packed a picnic and Paniz relied on my local knowledge to guide us out to a nice spot in the forest for lunch.
While Paniz hasn’t ridden a bicycle in many years, she is an avid snowboarder and the technical skills learnt on the slopes effectively crossed over to two wheels and riding off-road trails. With this in mind, I plotted a route that took us along quiet country lanes that steadily gave way to gravel roads and forest trails as we reached our stop-off point for lunch.
Something to watch out for with any new cyclist is their appetite for pedal mashing! They all seem to clonk down on the pedals until exerting enough pressure to make their knees explode. Remember the old saying ‘spin to win’ and encourage your new cycling partner to up their cadence… if they are having to put force into turning the pedals, they’re in the wrong gear, likewise if they’re spinning like a washing machine on a 1,000rpm cycle, they need to shift the other way!
Two other things to consider relating to pedalling – make your explanation of how gears operate as simple and jargon-free as possible – recommending they “down shift to increase your pedalling cadence” is likely to result in withering looks (or a smack in the mouth). Think “easy v hard” and explain when to use their thumb and when to use their index finger. Also, think about footwear choices – lightweight running shoes can flex too much and result in foot/knee pain – a pair of hiking trainers/approach shoes will likely be more comfortable.
Fuelled by a couple of cheeky cans of Stohk XPA over lunch, Paniz’s confidence on the bike grew and so too did her enjoyment for cycling. Before long, she had perfected riding with no hands. Wheelies perhaps thankfully, were less successful, partly due to the weight of the loaded rack on the front of the Surly Bridge Club.
Based on the success of that first ride, dinner discussions later turned to route planning and plotting quiet routes to reach coffee shops. The big target being to ride out to the coast, some 100+ kilometres away. Remember what I said about don’t do too much too soon?