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Introduction to gravel

Text by Adrian Grant
Photos by Eric Levert / Crossroad Tremblant

Before entering the mainstream, gravel riding was very much an opportunity to “run what you brung”, whether it was an older hardtail or a road bike with 28mm tires shoehorned between the chainstays.  Neither of these options were ideal.  On long loops, any significant stretches of asphalt could turn into a slow and disheartening experience on a mountain bike.  Meanwhile, road bikes, with their skinnier tire, could be downright treacherous when the pavement ended and dirt began.  The advent of cyclocross bikes provided a better option, but with their aggressive geometry, short wheelbases, and only marginal improvements in terms of tire clearance relative to road bikes, they still weren’t a gravel cyclist’s panacea.  What was needed was a non-competitive yet high performance bike, designed for both adventure and fun.

In response, the last five years have seen an explosion in the development of gravel-specific bikes.  These include drop-bar frames with a more comfortable upright geometry for longer days in the saddle, and most importantly clearance for high volume tires (a minimum of 700x35mm up to 54mm or more (!) when equipped with a 650b/27.5 wheelset).  This has allowed riders to push the envelope even further as to where one could conceivably ride a bike that, at its heart, was originally designed for pavement.

While gravel bikes are viewed by some as yet another special niche, created by a bike industry eager to exploit those looking for their next n+1, I see them as a practical and versatile solution to the problems the average cyclist faces every time they just want to go out for a ride.  Specifically, gravel bikes offer an antidote to riding with heavy traffic.  Because, let’s face it – cycling on roads with heavy traffic sucks.  It can be a stressful nightmare of honking horns, high-speeds, and distracted drivers.  And to be frank, the culture around road cycling can at times be intimidating, pretentious and unfriendly to the unshaven hoi polloi unfamiliar with “The Rules”.

In comparison, gravel roads provide opportunities to traverse remote and scenic landscapes, devoid of cars and other distractions, resulting in a relaxing experience.  Perhaps that’s why the culture around gravel riding is generally much more mellow.  Forget aggressive pace lines, wattage metrics and Strava times, and focus instead on having a good time!  Whereas roadies may shun the use of saddle bags or other accruements, gravel riding embraces the use of top tube bags, handlebar bags and framebags to stash essentials like sandwiches, gummy bears and a can of your favourite IPA.  Rest stops (or even better, pub stops!) are considered welcome opportunities to eat, drink, and socialize with your fellow riders, and not evidence that you need to harden up.

In short, gravel riding is road cycling’s chilled-out cooler cousin.  The cousin most likely to offer you a beer rather than an energy gel.  It’ll remind you what’s it’s like to be a kid again, when what mattered most was exploring new places, making friends, and having a good time.  So go play in the dirt.  Slow down, don’t speed up.  Ride like you have nothing to prove, not to prove a point.

Go find your nearest gravel road.  And just go for a ride.

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