The JRtB guide to... gravel
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What are gravel bikes? What is gravel riding? Why is it now such a big deal? Why do we like it?
Gravel bikes, used for riding gravel routes, which are roads made of gravel rather than tarmac. If you’re in the USA, then yep, that’s right. But we have gravel bikes, and we don’t live in the US, and we’ve ridden gravel bikes in Scotland, England, Wales, France and Spain.
Gravel seems to have come from nowhere to dominate conversations about ‘what bike should you get if you only had one bike’? (the obvious answer being, hardtail mountain bike, but we digress). In reality, there was already plenty of bikes on the market that we might now consider as gravel bikes.
Much as it is considered to be the ‘discovery’ of a multitude of gravel road networks in the US, as great places to ride, with minimal traffic levels, we would suggest, as others have done, that it was the point at which disc brakes became the norm that bike builders could start to experiment with wider tyres, and then wider wheels, and then the ability to have different kinds of wheels and tyres on one bike, and then finding the right kind of places to ride them. It was an interesting trickle through though. We bought a Genesis Croix de Fer. Famously heavy, now beloved by urban hipsters (can you even be a rural hipster? ed.), arguably one of the early gravel bikes, but at the time, marketed as a do anything, go anywhere, touring style bike. For a first carbon road bike, one of bought a now-discontinued Genesis Datum. This was marketed as a ‘road plus’ bike. Not a mountain bike, but a bike that could deal with rougher roads, whilst still being light and fast (ish). Surly were early attendees at the road bike plus conference. Drop handlebar bikes, but the complete opposite to the bikes of the professional peloton. Bikes with elements from touring bikes; like multiple cage attachments, attachment points for bags and racks and so on. Tyres from mountain bikes, or tourers, but with drop bars, road bike gears, carbon forks. You can see where this is heading. Such that it is now possible to buy a gravel bike that has both front and back suspension, like a full-on mountain bike. In our opinion this is just a bit silly. But then we have full suspension mountain bikes, without any need to add drop bars to them, so I guess we are likely to say this. So, whatever you want to ride, and works for you, then go ride.
Gravel rides are more comfortable, and fun, in our experience, with a gravel bike. But not everyone wants or needs to add another bike to their stable, and a mountain bike, or a road bike with chunkier tyres could do the job. But not quite as well, or as fast or comfortably.
However, if might be worth noting that a gravel bike is very much a compromise bike. It's faster than a mountain bike off road, but cannot handle anything especially 'gnarly' (unless you are our friend Richard, but that's another story) so it limits what you can ride off road, such that care is needed in choosing off road routes. Likewise, it is slower than a road bike on the road, and if your route has very little off-road maybe it's not worth taking the gravel bike out. That being said, when you do find the right kind of route, with a mixture of on, and certain kinds of off, road the gravel bike can be spectacularly good (see Badger Divide).
The gravel bike in someways is the ultimate bike for those of us too old, too lacking talent and bouncing bones to ride exclusively mountain biking, and again, still too old and too lacking time and motivation to take on just road riding. It's a sweetspot with off road dominating, but with much lower risk of injury.
The issues we are starting to see about gravel riding are manifold. To call out just a few: the UCI are spoiling it all by making a set of boring UCI gravel races. The whole point of gravel was to escape the tyranny of UCI regulations, the forced adherence to unnecessary rules and ways of cycling. The UCI getting hold of gravel will surely make it worse for everyone.
The curious belief that gravel cycling means wild camping (we need to also have a guide to 'bikepacking'; which has become synonymous with gravel biking, whereas you can bikepack with any bike on any terrain). Other than some of Dartmoor and Scotland, it is illegal to wild camp in the UK. When we rode King Alfred's Way before it became well know it was essentially deserted. Nowadays it is so full of human faeces in hedges, behind trees and on the trail it is heading towards becoming a public health hazard. We are at a loss to explain this strange activity. Use a campsite with facilities. Why do certain cyclists believe that they shouldn't have to pay for these things? It is a destructive, deeply unpleasant, arrogance that needs to stop.
Nevertheless, gravel biking is a splendid thing to do, away from traffic and pollution, able to travel good distances in shorter amounts of time, and opening access to fantastic scenery landscapes, people and places. If we can keep our common sense, then long may it continue.
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