Gravel Culture: The never ending search for newness
Gravel Union On
17 April 2021
What if, over the course of a year, every single time you headed out on your gravel bike, you made sure you rode a new trail? Is that possible or is that a sure-fire path to madness? Olly dug out his spotter’s guide to gravel trails and went off in search of newness.
“Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue and a silver sixpence in her shoe” is perhaps the least likely opening sentence to a story about gravel riding that you'll ever read, but bear with us! Back in the dim distant past of March 2020, a lot of our world, gravelly and otherwise, was thrown into turmoil. With the ability to travel, ride with friends and socialise more-or-less curtailed overnight, our worlds changed vastly and for many people some mental anguish arrived, uninvited and unwanted.
In the big scheme of things, my lack of ability to ride with friends was insignificant, and I fully appreciated that many others had a heck of lot more to worry about than something so minor. But it was one of the many tiny ways in which our lives became perceptibly diminished. Like many people I tried to come up with some coping strategies to deal with the unwanted change in my (gravelly) world. One of these strategies was to set myself a challenge – if we weren’t allowed to travel, then I was determined to explore my local neighbourhood to a crazy level instead.
I decided to try and add a new bit of trail into every single gravelly ride I did from March 2020 onwards, with my aim being to satisfy my craving for adventure, exploration and that constant wonder about what’s over the next hill or around the next corner. Sometimes these new sections of trail might be only a matter of a few metres long, occasionally though they were multiple kms long and they often fell completely off the edge of my mental trail map.
Because it was my challenge and my rules, no-one was going to judge if I bent the rules or even blatantly cheated somewhat. On some rides, my “new” trail was simply riding something I already knew, but in the opposite (and previously unridden) direction. Some rides it would be a tiny section of path I’d never spotted before. But over the course of the last twelve months, I reckon on 99% of my rides, I succeeded in my aim and managed to add in something new.
“I’ve lived and ridden here for more than 30 years, and I haven’t ridden about 70% of that before” said Clive as we neared the end of our ride. At this point the grin on my face was so huge I probably looked like a hamster. Now, not only was I challenging myself to try and always find something new, but I was indoctrinating my ride buddies into my scheme too. And, more importantly, the trails that I’d shown them were really fun. It was a cold, but sunny Friday in early April. Clive, Barry and I were all bunking off work to ride our gravel bikes. The rules around how many people you could ride with had only recently changed and it felt initially distinctly odd to be riding with other people again. But after a few minutes, the sunshine, that sense of camaraderie and the comfort-blanket feeling of riding with friends you know really well (even if you’ve barely seen them over the past year) soon overcame any weirdness.
In the weeks leading up to our ride, I’d been in proper mental planning mode – my potentially slightly gormless/unfocussed look (that I suspect my wife has now become immune to) was actually me mentally visualising how our route would fit together. Even though Clive and Barry have lived here decades longer than me, I figured they wouldn’t have ridden all of the trails I was planning on including, so at the very least, they would unwittingly become accomplices in my ‘new trail’ mission. But I also had to put in something new for me – this was more than just a box ticking exercise or a way of being able to look myself in the eye when cleaning my teeth in the morning - it was now something much deeper. Partly it was satisfying a physical need to find a bit of adventure, partly it was a way of keeping my bike guiding/trailfinding skills ticking over and partly it was a little dollop of mental first aid.
I’m unlikely to ever be found in an Alcoholics Anonymous class or a self-help group for gambling addicts, but I will hold my hands up and say I’m 100% addicted to trail hunting. Whether it’s pouring over a printed map spread out on my living room floor, or searching Google earth images for the tell-tail line of a trail running around the edge of a field or constantly looking at local riders’ social media posts desperately seeking clues as to where they’ve been riding and whether it was a trail I had ridden or not. With a combination of map sources, aerial photographs and existing trail knowledge I managed to put a decent loop together mentally. 70kms, one potential café stop and a huge mix of trail types from sandstone bedrock to sheep-nibbled grass to ancient gravelled carriageway, I figured I’d got it about right.
But I also needed some newness. Busy scanning a digital Ordnance Survey map one day, I struck potential trail gold – nearly 5kms of bridleway that I’d never spotted (or tried before), a lot of which appeared to be vehicle width (which generally means the surface will be hardpacked and the trail will actually exist on the ground). It was an entirely pointless addition to our route as it basically formed two-sides of a triangle and we could have just stuck on the tarmac and missed it out completely, but where’s the fun in that!
On the day of the big ride, the new trail was actually somewhat mixed in its brilliantness – the first and last sections were perfect, but the middle part was just over 1km of tussocky grass with a barely discernible line wiggling its way around a number of small boggy sections (the last of which was quite deep and pretty stinky, eh Clive….). Luckily, I’ve ridden with Clive and Barry frequently enough to know that they’re always up for a bit of a challenge! Despite the hard work needed to ride the grassy section, they both came through smiling and only slightly more covered with pond-weed than they had been at the start.
New trail hunting relies on a mix of good planning and good fortune and it’s not always fun. I’ve got friends who positively hate the potential disappointment (and wasted energy) in riding something “just to see where it goes” – they want 100% guaranteed bang-for-their-buck and I can understand their point of view (although I fundamentally disagree with it). It’s one of the reasons why I do most of my trail hunting by myself. I’m like a one-man focus-group testing out a new prototype product. There’s no-one with a clipboard asking me to vocalise my opinion on something and there’s zero chance the product will ever be changed based on my feedback, but at least I know there’s only myself to blame when I’m carrying my gravel bike across a bog or spending 20 minutes trying to match what appears on the map to what actually exists on the ground.
If you pick you exploration mates well though, the collective sense of achievement of having found something new is incredible. There’s a mix of almost childlike wonder of peering into the back of the trail-wardrobe looking for Narnia, hoping to find the nugget of gravel-riding perfection and there’s also a warm glow of satisfaction at knowing that you’ve stretched the edges of your mental trail knowledge map. While gravel-trail hunters are hardly discovering new continents or pioneering new routes that will revolutionise world trade like our ancient ancestors once did, the challenge of always looking for something new just over the next hill is one of the things I love most about gravel riding. Next time you see me with a wistful look in my eye or you have to ask me the same question a couple of times, there’s a fair chance I’ll be deep in mental trail-exploration. You might think I’m just not paying attention, but actually I’ll be trying to figure out the ideal combination of trails to make that perfect goldilocks gravel ride.
Thanks to Clive and Barry for being as enthusiastic about searching for gravel gold as I am and for being happy to eat ice creams in the middle of a spring hailstorm.