Dirt before gravel

February 17, 2020 § 16 Comments

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?”

“Of course.”

“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.

Sent by Tom Paterson. Back in the day on a Jack Pritchard ride. On “gravel bikes” aka Tommasini with Vittoria CX.


§ 16 Responses to Dirt before gravel

  • Matthew Smith says:

    I own 2 bikes. One is very obviously a mountain bike. The other is my everything else bike. It’s a cyclocross bike, but then, through the magic of tires, I put smooth ones on and it becomes a road bike. To me, it’s just my bike, and I make it fit whatever riding I want to do. It never fails that at Telo, or the Donut, people see the disc brakes and 30mm road tires and ask, “Is that your gravel bike?” Once dropped on said rides, people will console me, “I bet it would go better on a road bike.” lol. When I respond that it’s technically a cyclocross bike that I use for nearly everything, the puzzled looks I receive are priceless. “Cyclocross? But how does it grind gravel? And how is it possible that you can ride it on the road? Doesn’t it feel weird?”

    What a sport!

  • Dan says:

    F-ing capitalism. The big bicycle companies aren’t selling enough bicycles, so they come up with new bicycle styles to sell.

    • fsethd says:

      On the weekend when I ride through my neighborhood people will have their garage doors open. Inside the garage is always a collection of bikes. Unridden. For years.

  • I’ve been riding dirt since dirt was young and I still had to google “caliche”.

  • I can’t tell who is in that picture, but I was able to figure out it was part of a stage in the 1989 Dauphine.

    • fsethd says:

      Mottet was the guy 3rd wheel, I think. Don’t know the others.

      • RGT says:

        I believe:
        #1 RMO rider maybe Thierry Claveyrolat?
        #2 Charly Mottet
        #3 ?
        #4 Gérard Rué

        • fsethd says:

          I got nuthin.

        • David Shulman says:

          Good catch on Gerard Rue. That is most definitely Thierry Claveyrolat, RIP, in the lead. I am going to guess Yvon Madiot for rider number three. Rider five is Eric Caritoux and six looks like a Colombian rider.
          For Seth, speaking from experience, a good gravel bike has a nice relaxing effect on the sphincter when racing real gravel (those pesky loose rocks spread all over the road). Thanks, as usual, for another great blog entry.

  • LesB says:

    As a kid in the mid-fifties I had to do some riding with my Schwinn on actual gravel because the county put down gravel instead of paving the road.

    I hated it.

  • Slim says:

    Six to seven layers of dirt was the typical dusting for most rides to Lockhart. RIP Cactus Jack.

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