Gravel Culture: #Home
Gravel Union On
1 September 2021
Can you still call somewhere home when you don’t live there anymore? Twenty-five years after Olly moved out, there’s still some magnetic attraction to the trails of his youth. Only now he’s riding them on a gravel bike.
Photo courtesy of John Townsend
I guess I should be grateful to my Dad for capturing this moment in time and then for carefully labelling it 26th January 1992, so that I can look back nearly 30 years later and realise this was the exact date that my love affair with riding inappropriate bikes on the wrong terrain first started.
I think we’ll just ignore over the fact that I look like a total berk and focus on the bike set-up instead. I had retrofitted my “All Terrain Bike” with dropped handlebars and road bike brake levers paired with cantilever brakes. It had mountain bike shifter pods mounted in the center of the bars (as Shimano’s STI road bike levers had been released less than two years prior and cost more than my entire bike). It came fitted with the least grippy off-road tyres in the known world. When I bought the bike, SPD pedals had only just been released and I couldn’t afford them, so I used clips-and-straps pedals instead at this point.
Even looking back with rose tinted glasses (or ski goggles in my case), it was appalling to ride, but it got me hooked. At the time MTBs were still in their infancy, or at least they were in rural Herefordshire where I grew up. At the point this photo was taken, I’d owned this bike for around 18 months and was utterly addicted to riding off-road. OK, so my bike had no grip, the brakes were either hopeless or way too grabby, I couldn’t brake and shift at the same time and it weighed only slightly less than the building behind me in this photograph, but I ignored all of that, as it meant freedom.
Gravel riding was a good twenty years away from being christened, but like many other early MTB riders I suspect, my friends and I were doing it anyway. My local trails were a mix of singletrack (normally rooty, off-cambered and either bone dry and hard packed or lethally slippery due to the limestone geology of the area) or what we called fire trails – vehicle width tracks constructed in the local forests to allow logging trucks to get in and to minimise the fire risk. We linked our trail network with tiny back roads, frequently pot holed or mud-slicked and often filled with tractors and other agricultural vehicles. We didn’t really differentiate between what was legal to ride on and what was slightly more dubious, so rides would quite often include small sets of wooden steps built to aid the passage of walkers or some sections of hike-a-bike.
I spent a ridiculous amount of time on that bike. When I wasn’t riding, I was fettling it to try and improve its function. We learned which trails to ride at which time of the year, which direction trail obstacles would “go” and where the shotgun-waving gamekeeper was likely to be at which time of day in case we “accidentally” found ourselves riding on one of the vast private country estates nearby. With zero suspension, minimal grip and a #rideeverything attitude, we were basically gravel riding the whole time, we just didn’t realise it.
Heading back “home” recently for a visit to see my parents happened to be perfectly timed to hit peak mid-summer. It was a good 10 degrees warmer than where I actually live, so it felt like I was properly on holiday. An evening walk with my parents around the local area had shown me what mint condition the trails were in and as a total (planned, obviously) coincidence, I happened to have my Trek #monstercross with me on my trip. Despite owning that bike for more than 4 years, I realised that I’d never ridden it ‘back home’, so this seemed like the ideal opportunity.
The route I chose, which went straight from my parents’ backdoor, started with a 15% road climb for the first five minutes. It’s brutal and it’s been brutal for the past 30 years, so I wasn’t expecting much less. Your legs are never warmed up and your brain is never ready, but you know there’s pay off at the top. If you get your timing right, the sunset-warmed view from the top takes in the Black Mountains about 40 kms to the west, the hills of Shropshire to the north and the wooded slopes of Gloucestershire to the south.
I rode for a couple of hours in total, no real plan, just following my nose. I used muscle memory more than brain power to navigate. With a proper bike underneath me, the trails seemed to flow from one to another. Towards the end of the ride, I was climbing up an ancient driveway to one of the large country houses which are found nearby. The driveway is vehicle width and is a mess of broken asphalt, cobbles, concrete patches and sections of compacted sand/gravel. At the top I would normally turn left and spin along a section of quite backroad for two minutes to get home, but this time something pinged in my brain. If I went straight on instead, up a 100% legal trail that looked as though it went practically through the garden of the country house, I knew there was a steep, techy, singletrack climb up a stream bed that I could try.
Without exaggerating, I don’t think I’d ridden up (or down) this trail for more than twenty years. It’s short – just under 500m in total, but it climbs at an average of 10% and is 99% solid limestone bedrock. The reason I hadn’t ridden it for so long is that the rock is right at the surface and outcrops in such a way that the trail climbs up the different layers (or bedding planes for anyone who is interested) so that its basically one long flight of rock steps. Each step is uneven, there are frequent tree routes and the whole thing is adversely cambered, so it pushes your wheels off-line into a small gully the whole way up. In the wet it is a total nightmare. The rock is so slippery that even walking on the trail is impossible.
But I knew that it had been dry for weeks and weeks before my visit. So dry in fact that my parents were worried that the well from which they get their drinking water was in danger of running dry. I hit the first section of the trail and something inside me just clicked. It was that combination of the right bike, on the right day, with the right trail conditions. As I climbed, I somehow had an in-built confidence that it was going to “go” and that I could clean the whole route. The climb took me 3 mins and 4 seconds. I know this as accurately because when I uploaded my ride later that evening to a certain ride tracking website, a little appeared next to my name.
I not really a big fan of the whole KOM thing and wouldn’t generally go out of me to try and break a record, but I thought that if this was going to be my only ride at home this year, then being crowned the king while I was there seemed pretty apt. Having not lived there for so long, it’s definitely not ‘home’ in any meaningful sense of the word. But for one perfect, summery evening I did feel like I was king of the castle.