Gravel Culture: “One ride and he was hooked”
Gravel Union On
7 September 2020
“I’m not very happy with you” said Veronika looking me straight in the eyes.” I might have looked slightly bashful at this point and averted my gaze. “One ride! Now he’s ordered a new bike. It’s a good job our son is off to university, otherwise we wouldn’t have space in the house”
My Tuesday night ride group are a somewhat eclectic bunch – we have an interesting combination of winch&plummet style MTB-enduro riders, cyclocross racers, all-day cross-country MTB riders, ex-roadies and then me as the gravellista. When I first turned up to a club ride on my Trek Procaliber monstercross bike I raised a few eyebrows. Some of the group thought I was insane and didn’t really understand my logic, but some “got it” and made occasional covetous looks in the direction of my monstercross beast.
Like any good salesman I soon figured out who had a more gravelly-leaning to their riding aspirations and so would be the ideal target for my indoctrination gentle encouragement to join the gravel gang. Clive had his feet in both cycling camps – he would happily spend a morning sessioning a section of enduro trail, jumping off what looked to me like unfeasibly high objects, had mastered wheelying at a slightly more mature age than normal, but had also been a dedicated road racer and touring cyclist in the past. Fortunately, Clive’s idea of a perfect road to ride along was something with grass-up-the-middle, so narrow that most car drivers would think twice about attempting it and most importantly was considered bonkers by some of his more straight-laced road cycling companions. In other words, he was a perfect candidate to be won over to the gravelly way of doing things.
“Do you fancy trying out my monstercross bike on a big gravel ride?” was my simple pitch. Like a fisherman doing the perfect cast, I didn’t have to wait long for a bite. “That sounds like a great idea”, replied Clive. Like all good gravel fans, I’d been building up a collection of constantly-refined gravel routes and I soon figured out which one would be the right one to lure Clive into the gravelly-fold. I had an 85kms circuit, which included a huge mix of terrain and trails – everything from vehicle-width forest road through a commercial forest, to ancient moorland drove road. It had a brilliant café stop included (who wouldn’t want to have lunch in a set of converted 1950s railway coaches!) and I had tried to balance the mix of rural roads and gravel trails – partly to showcase the adaptability of a gravel bike, but partly to give us regular rests from the battering of a technical gravel trail. The route was pretty lumpy and the cumulative height gain was more than 1500m – quite enough for one day and probably pushing my luck somewhat as to whether Clive would finish the ride more happy than broken.
We set a date for our ride based both on our schedules, but also on the long-term weather forecast which promised sunshine and half-decent temperatures. Of course, anyone who either lives in, or has visited, the UK will tell you that a UK weather forecast is at best somewhat variable in accuracy and at worse is often a complete lie! Instead of the sunshine and warm temperatures, we had nearly 12 hours of constant rain the afternoon/evening before our ride and on the day itself had gusting 50kph winds and mid-teens temperatures. Although I’d ridden my chosen route plenty of times before, I’d never done it in wet conditions and was somewhat worried that it would be boggy/energy sapping and that Clive would go home wondering what the attraction was of gravel riding through a bog.
The first part of the route traversed the edge of chunks of farmland and was pretty wet and slow going – not the ideal start to a route and the gusty headwind dampened our enthusiasm somewhat too. I was starting to worry that Clive would soon be fed up with this gravel riding lark and would head back into the shelter of the woods and their MTB trails instead. Fortunately, I knew that if he survived the first hour or so, the route then became quite a lot more fun/challenging/gnarly and the early bog-fest would soon be forgotten. Our first proper descent, while pretty tame in MTB standards, was just steep and lumpy enough to be a real blast on a gravel bike. The overnight rain meant the gravel was wet and was exactly loose and greasy enough to be fun – perfect for convincing a MTB rider that a gravel bike was the right tool for a bike day out in the Northumberland hills.
The attention-to-detail focussed among you might well say argue that a monstercross bike isn’t a real gravel bike and that by introducing Clive to gravel riding on such a bike was not giving him a true picture of gravel riding. Obviously, I could just argue my case here, but I’m just going to include this picture instead:
This is the face of a man who has just clocked 60kph+ on a gravel descent and has a grin on his face so wide that its surprising his helmet stayed on! My monstercross bike is currently shod with 2.3”/60mm tyres set on 18psi/1.24bar and that does give it significantly more comfort/grip/damage limitation than a standard gravel bike fitted with more normal width gravel tyres, but other than that it has many of the same ride characteristics of a pure gravel bike. The most important of which is how much fun it is to ride. But also, how flexible/adaptable it is. Clive commented on how apart from the width of the tyres, the bike had similar ride characteristics to a road bike – fast, fun and lively. This meant the switch from gravel track to linking road section was smooth and fun, rather than a slog which it have might have been if we had done the route on MTBs instead.
After refuelling at the super-friendly lunchtime café, we headed back out into the drizzle and to what I thought would be the biggest challenge – 10kms of road riding, most of which was straight into a headwind. With a small group of road riders you can share the load of facing the wind and the low weight/low drag of the bike and tyres mean that although it’s never exactly fun, a block headwind section is tolerable. With just the two of us riding and the road feeling like it was made of Velcro at times, it wasn’t super fun, but we made it through and were soon onto tiny backroads climbing up to the section that I was going to be the A-Grade gravelly drug to get Clive hooked.
This 3km section of moorland gravel is marked as a public road on the Ordnance Survey map, but would be sub-optimal in a normal car (as opposed to a 4x4). Luckily on a gravel bike, it’s perfect! We were helped by a screaming tailwind and a predominantly downhill gradient and we flew. You can tell by the shakiness of the image quite how rough the surface is – trying to ride one-handed and get a decent image was a H&S nightmare and the resulting shot is rubbish, but the trail did the job and Clive was flying along, a big grin plastered over his face. This was probably the point where he “got” gravel riding – we had been climbing on a tiny tarmac backroad one minute and then turned off onto gravelly heaven the next – no loss in speed, no need to faff with tyres pressures – just smooth transition from one type of fun to another.
From this point onwards, the gods were smiling in our direction – we had a strong tailwind, the sun came out and the combination of crazy fast gravel trails (I got to 67kph on one section of gravel trail descent) and sections of flowing linking tarmac were just right. I’d saved a bit of a sting in the tale with a tough climb within 10kms of the end of the ride, but the views were great and the wind in our favour, so the gradient felt a lot less unpleasant than it should have.
The last section of gravel trail was a super-fast forest road. Not exactly smooth in places and quite of bit of body-English needed to subtly move the bike around to find the fastest/smoothest/safest line, but each time I snuck a crafty glance over my shoulder Clive was right behind me giving it “full gas” and the same wide grin on his face.
As we got back to the start point, I was pretty confident I’d won Clive over. We were both cooked – the combination of killer headwind, substantial climbing and the concentration required on some of the lumpier gravel trails had taken its toll, but Clive was buzzing and I knew he was converted to the gravelly way of doing things. The role of an unofficial gravel ambassador is a finely balanced one – you don’t want to come across too preachy or you risk putting off your potential new recruit. Luckily, the combination of fun trails, the challenge of some of the route, a bike which suited him perfectly and probably the good choice of cake at lunchtime, had convinced him – Clive was now a fully signed up gravellista.
He’s just got to figure out how to explain his new addiction to his long suffering wife. And perhaps more urgently, where to store his new gravel bike when it arrives.