Gravel Culture: #nemesis
Gravel Union On
6 September 2021
Everyone’s version of what counts as gravel riding is different. But no-one sensible would think that a 20degree slope made of lethally slippery limestone is an appropriate trail to ride a dropbar bike on. But then, who said Olly was sensible….
If I was being stuffy and formal, I can put the letters MSc BSc (Hons) after my name. I don’t use any of those qualifications anymore, but it shows that back in the mists of time, I was trained and qualified to recognise different types of geological formations. You would have thought therefore, that with a decent understanding of what makes up the geological constituents of the trails that we choose to ride on, that I would appreciate which ones are a sensible choice and which ones would be best avoided.
But what if the magnetic pull of one particular trail was so strong that all my training goes straight out of the window? The trail in the image doesn’t, as far as I know, have a proper name. So, I’ve called it #nemesis. It can in no-way be described as a typical “gravel” trail. It’s roughly 20 degrees in slope, around 30 metres long and is cambered to the right (as you look down from the top), getting steeper the further right you go. Just in case steep and cambered isn’t terrifying enough, it’s also liberally sprinkled with roots. Oh, and it’s also made of limestone.
In fact, it’s made from “Grey, micritic limestone interbedded with grey mudstone containing large calcareous nodules.” That geological description should put fear into the heart of anyone considering riding off-road in anything less than bone dry conditions. In the dry, the surface holds up fine, but in the wet it’s lethal. The surface develops a sheen, sometimes only a few millimetres thick, but it feels as though the upper layer is sliding over the underlying soil structure. The calcareous nodules are fist-sized chunks of limestone bedrock which poke up through the surrounding soil and do their best to knock your wheel off-line.
Exceptionally blurry and rubbish photo, but which nicely captures some of the horror of this section of trail
I’ve been riding this particular section of trail for more than 20 years. I’ve ridden it on a huge array of different bikes and every single time, without fail, it scares the hell out of me. I spend the ten minutes before I arrive at the top mentally psyching myself up. The trail leading into #nemesis is a tough enough challenge – a spider’s web of 10-20cm diameter tree roots crisscrossing a ribbon of clayey singletrack. It’s not as though you arrive at the top of the chute mentally relaxed, but it does mean you get there physically warmed up.
If I’m honest, I probably only “clean it” i.e. ride down it smoothly and manage to keep things rubber-side down, 10% of the time that I’ve attempted it. No matter what mental and physical preparation I do on the run-in, there are times when I get there and a little red Health&Safety flag flashes up before my eyes. I’m generally riding there by myself. It’s not a well-used path and it’s quite a long way from the nearest road. None of those things make it a sensible option in anything other than perfect conditions. Add to this that fact that 99% of the time I’m riding there on a totally inappropriate bike and you can see why my success rate is pretty low. I’m sure that our downhill MTB cousins would look at the trail and laugh. They would probably roll down it on their front wheel, while livestreaming it to their adoring fans.
But I’m never there on a downhill bike, wearing a full-face helmet and body armour. I’m there on an anything from a cyclocross bike with 33mm wide tyres and 140mm disc rotors, to my current bike-du-jour – my Trek #Monstercross. Even riding on this bike with 2.3” tyres, decent brakes and an XC MTB heritage, this drop is deeply dicey.
I would love to say that on my last visit, when I shot these images, that I nailed it first time and then rode off into the sunset like something out of a Hollywood movie. I would, of course, be lying.
There’s a reason this trail is called #nemesis after all.