Gravel Culture: Summer’s last hurrah
Gravel Union On
11 September 2020
Brits have a (probably well deserved) reputation of constantly talking about the weather, but this year the change of seasons (and the imminent arrival of the UK equivalent of a monsoon) feels especially difficult. We put on our rose-tinted glasses to look at solo post-work gravel riding as the seasons change.
There’s an old British wives’ tail about departing swallows marking the end of summer (as they start their annual migration to southern Africa). From a purely scientific point of view, I’m sure this is correct, but to a gravellista I suspect the end of summer is marked by something much more tangible than tiny birds setting off on a 3000km migration – the need to fit lights when you go out for a post-work gravel ride!
In the middle of summer in the north-east of England, we have daylight until around 22.30 (and then you get 30mins or so of twilight). This means that for a couple of months either side of this date, you can get away with just fitting tiny blinky emergency lights to your gravel bike for a post-work ride. But then suddenly, August flashes by and September arrives with a whoomph like a metaphorical curtain descending to mark the end of a stage production.
The difference between it being light until 22.30 and light until 20.00 is more than just physical, it’s a big mental shift from summer finishing and the imminent arrival of autumn. This year the impending arrival of worsening weather, muddy trails and the need to dig out so many extra bits of clothing before we can get out and ride, feels worse due to the combined weirdness of a coronavirus impacted world and the vagaries of the 2020 summer weather.
One of the many bike-related impacts of CV19 is the necessary huge mental and physical shift from holding sociable group night rides to the relative safety of riding solo. Night riding for me used to be all about the shared experience – lots of chatting, scoffing freshly baked cake shared by everyone and the good natured peer pressure when sessioning a difficult trail segment in order to ‘clean it’ (or prove it was rideable on a gravel bike…). But since March everything has changed. I haven’t ridden with more than two other people on a ride since then. The thought of shared cake at a mid-ride stop now induces a mild metaphorical shudder. This isn’t in any way a criticism of my former ride buddies, it’s just symbolic of how my attitude has shifted.
Post-work rides now mean riding local trails, 99% of the time straight from the back door. Significantly longer distances and higher average speeds, but with drastically reduced technicality levels of my chosen trail. Crashing in the dark when you’re riding with a group of friends nearby is bad enough, but crashing when riding solo is a different level of worry altogether.
While I really miss the sociable aspect of the evening rides, the big benefit of riding solo is the ability to be the master of your own destiny. Want to make the route longer or have more climbs? Go right ahead. Want to stop to capture an amazing bit of late summer light on your phone? Sure, why not. No need to think about (or worry about) what your ride buddies are thinking/feeling/desiring. It doesn’t matter how everyone else’s legs are feeling – it’s now all about me me me.
Although being totally self-centered is a less-than-ideal characteristic in general life, on the bike, the solo rides have led to unforeseen benefits. It might sound airy fairy, but I’m sure that riding solo has heightened my senses. It’s partly the lack of noise – no group chatter, mechanical gear crunching or the white noise of multiple tyres digging into the gravel trail. But it’s also the lack of distraction. All I have to concentrate on now is the route in front of me. No need to be in permanent (unofficial) guide-mode, forever worrying about how everyone else is doing.
With a focus shift away from the group ride, the subtleties of evening riding have been gloriously revealed – dips and rises in temperature as my route headed through pockets of different temperature air. Smells of late-summer harvesting. The involuntary hairs-standing-on-end feeling as my lights catch on something unexpected in my peripheral vision. The stunning interplay of light across the landscape.
Aspects of evening riding that I’d never thought about before have proved to be really fun. The most eye opening of these has been the simple joy of riding along a totally silent rural road in the dark. This is partly testament to the sheer flexibility of riding a gravel bike – linking road sections are now super fun, rather than an unescapable slog. But partly just the realisation of how much goes on around you on a night ride that you don’t normally notice. The sound of pounding feet on soil as a hare bounds through the field right next to me. The wide-eyed joy of a pale coloured barn owl seemingly chasing me down the road. The minor sense of triumph as I do a subtle tweak of my body-English to swerve one of the ubiquitous Northumberland potholes that I’d only spotted at the last second.
But it’s mainly about the light. The physical gulf between the north-east of England and the equator means we get long twilight periods – at least 30 minutes after sunset where the colours of day slowly fade into the inky blackness of night. This is easily my favourite reason for solo evening rides – the long shadows and super-saturated colours of the golden hour fade gently into more subtle tones as the sun dips. The only downside is from a Health&Safety perspective – I suspect I spend way more mental energy watching for that perfect bit of light to try and capture than I do focussing on the trail hazards just in front of me.
As September rolls inexorably past, it seems like summer is laying all of its cards out for everyone to see before it disappears for another year. Stunning sunset colours, unexpected evening warmth, über-photogenic clouds and tiny tableaux of all that is good about summer gravel.
Grab it while you can. Autumn will fly past more speedily than a flock of migrating swallows and winter’s evil grasp will soon envelop us once more.