When I began cycling in 1982 I rode with the guys out of Freewheeling Bicycles in Austin, Texas. The mainstays of that club were Jack Pritchard, Mike Murray, Phil Tomlin, Tom Paterson, Greg Hall, Charley DiCarlo and of course Jay Bond. Those were the days when Jay Aust still rode and managed the shop.
I will not soon forget the time early in my apprenticeship when we were shooting down a country road outside San Marcos and Jack said “Left!” and swerved off the asphalt onto a dirt road. Everyone followed as if it were normal. I felt my sphincter clench as my tires hit the caliche.
Dust was everywhere on that scorchingly hot day but especially in my nose, throat, and eyes. No one had glasses because Oakley hadn’t been invented yet. The pace became single file with each rider pushing as hard as he could before swinging over. I was terrified. My bike seemed to float on the dirt, and brakes, when applied, didn’t do much.
This went on for about ten or fifteen horrible minutes until Jack yelled, “Low water crossing!”
Brakes were hit and riders fanned out along the banks of a low creek lined with shady trees to pee in the cool. “Ah,” I thought. “Pee break.”
But I was only half right, because after the pissing stopped, up wafted the smell of hemp. The guys had all huddled around Jack, who was passing around a joint. It came to me but I declined, forever marking me as Not One Of Them. It’s a spot I occupied before cycling, too, and occupy today.
We remounted and the pot turned everyone into a smashing, snarling, hammering machine, for five minutes. Then everyone was distracted, sitting up, smiling, giggling, and thinking about pizza. The hard part of the ride was over, at least until the next water crossing. That’s what dirt road riding meant back then. You took your ordinary racing bike and rode it on unpaved roads, which were called “dirt roads.”
Gravel? That was a species of dirt road, but no one ever called it a “gravel road.” It was a dirt road with gravel. Gravel, by the way, had an actual meaning. It meant small crushed rock, more or less evenly spread. It was a midpoint between caliche and asphalt. Gravel was not preferred, either, because it kicked up and scratched your frame. If the gravel was large, it could also puncture your tar far easier than riding on the finer caliche, which only occasionally had jagged pieces in it.
Then a few years ago I began hearing about “gravel” riding. I imagined bikes riding over, you know, gravel. And I thought, “Wow, that must suck.”
Then I learned there were, surprise, “gravel” bikes specially made to ride over “gravel.” I wondered why, because our old bikes rode over it just fine, so I looked up “gravel bike.” It turns out that gravel bikes look a lot like cyclocross bikes. “What’s the difference” I asked a friend who knows these things.
“Gravel bikes are for gravel.”
“Can you use a ‘cross bike?”
“So what’s the difference?”
He spoke slowly as you sometimes do to very small children. “Gravel bikes are for gravel.”
I never thought much more about it after that and chalked it up to another great mystery of life that I was destined to never understand. During off moments I’d wonder things like, “Would Jack, may he Rest In Peace, have bought a gravel bike? Or would he just have put fatter clinchers on his road bike?”
I thought I knew the answer to that.
Then on Facebook my friend Keith Ketterer, who is older than dirt and as accomplished a bike racer as you’ll find anywhere, posted this beautiful photo, which kind of says it all.
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