I did my first GRAVEL ride today.
Not my first gravel ride, but my first GRAVEL ride.
My first gravel ride was in 1983. I had met up with Jack Pritchard, Phil Tomlin, Mike Murray, Charley DiCarlo, Jay Bond, Tom Paterson, and the regulars for my first Saturday group ride. We were hauling ass along some road somewhere and Jack shouted out “Dirt!”
Everyone knew what that meant except me. Sure enough, we hit dirt and all hell broke loose until about a mile later when Jack yelled out “Low water crossing!” and as I prepared to get wet everyone slammed on the brakes, threw their bikes down on the edge of the little creek, and lit up several joints. The pace mellowed, oddly, but the dirt and dust went on for miles.
Yeah, there was gravel on every ride, only it wasn’t called “gravel” or even “dirt,” it was called a “bike ride.”
No fat tires. No wide fork clearance. No one-bys. No disc brakes. No tacos al carbon rims. Whatever bike you were on, and chances were good you only had one, that was your gravel bike, I mean your road bike, I mean your training bike, I mean your TT bike, I mean your racing bike-minus-race-wheels-if-you-had-them-I-didn’t.
In between 1983 and 2021 I rode off road a lot and never really enjoyed it. It was always a necessity when I did it, like the time I rode from Keystone to Gunnison via an eternity of dirt roads up and over Vail. My “gravel gearing” was a Suntour 13-23, Campy SR 52/42. For many years I did the BWR, which was a road race with a lot of dirt, or a dirt race with a lot of road. I raced ‘cross for four miserable years. I never backed out of a ride because it had dirt but I sure as hell never included it if I was calling the shots.
When I rode to Canada and back I had a lot of real miserable dirt shoved down my throat. Don’t talk to me about dirt until you’ve climbed and descended Windigo Pass with forty pounds of panniers. Or Lolo Pass outside of Hood River. Or the 8-mile climb “It’s nothing!” to Trout Lake with those same panniers. [Note to Dan Melkonian: It was something.]
So I’ve ridden more dirt than a lot of people, and I’ve ridden less than others. One thing is certain: I’ve never done a GRAVEL ride.
What is a GRAVEL ride?
I was flummoxed for years. As soon as I heard about GRAVEL rides I was confused. Were they rides over, you know, gravel? Sometimes. Were they rides over dirt? Sometimes. Were they a mixture of gravel, dirt, and tarmac? Sometimes. Mud? Sometimes. Snow? Sometimes. Did someone have a graph to show you when you were riding GRAVEL like the gear ratio chart you use on the velodrome to figure out which gear goes how many inches? No.
Oh, and didn’t they already have this and wasn’t it called “mountain biking”?
So I typed “what is gravel riding” in the search bar and bam, out came the answer:
Gravel riding, aka gravel biking, isn’t really anything new, but it has become more popular in recent years.Denver Post, Sept. 2020
I felt better reading these key words: IT ISN’T ANYTHING NEW. No wonder everyone was acting like it was something new, because it was old. Here is a line from The Knight’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer, written in about 1390: “There is no newe gyse that it nas old.” What does it mean? It means that there is nothing new that hasn’t been done before, Which makes sense because people have been riding gravel since bicycling was born. The first person to cycle around the world did it on dirt without gears.
Farther down in the article it did explain that although IT ISN’T ANYTHING NEW, there is something that is new. What might that be? You guessed it … stuff!
In recent years, bicycle makers decided to get on board with the trend and start making bikes specifically designed for gravel. Better equipment has made it easier for more people to start gravel riding, thus boosting its popularity … Put another way: “Gravel bikes are like the SUV of the bicycle world,” James said.Denver Post, Sept. 2020
Well, I think that says it all. Whereas bike riding used to sometimes make you go over gravel/dirt/mud/cobbles at high speeds on skinny tires, and it was hard as fuck, and dangerous as fuck, and hurt like fuck, and didn’t cost fuck, it made you a certified badass. Now there has been equipment to make it easier, and who doesn’t like easier? And who doesn’t like an SUV, which is an oversized, gas-guzzling wagon for slugs too lazy to walk into Starbucks because someone might steal the unridden bikes ostentatiously hanging on the rack?
No wonder GRAVEL riding has taken off. It’s easy, safe, comfy, requires lots of new shit, and is a lovely buzzword that immediately makes everyone on the outside look shamefully at their existing equipment, and like any religion has zealots falling out of the trees telling you that this is the one, the only, the true bicycle faith. I’m going to revisit the equipment list that you need to really do a GRAVEL ride, but not now, not today.
Today I’m going to tell you about my first GRAVEL ride and what made it such.
First, I used a GRAVEL bicycle. A GRAVEL bicycle is one that no self-respecting roadie would be caught dead with. I only have one bike, and I’m not self-respecting, and it serves as my road bike, touring bike, and commuter bike. Second, I wore GRAVEL cycling apparel. GRAVEL cycling apparel is different from road apparel because it looks ridiculous, but since road apparel also looks ridiculous, GRAVEL apparel is characterized by looking like my blue jeans and wool jacket. Third, and this is the truly defining thing, my GRAVEL ride began on dirt, continued on dirt, and ended on dirt, and the whole point was only to ride on dirt. It’s the first time in my life I ever intentionally chose an unpaved road to start out on knowing that I’d never see tarmac til I got back to within 200 yards of my driveway.
So what can I tell you about my first GRAVEL ride? It was fucking hard. I climbed about an hour and a half before saying “Fuck this,” turning around and going home. The snow got crazy deep and it was in the low 20s and lots colder descending with the wind chill, and the snow lower down that was slush had turned the road to mud and it was hairy.
I can also tell you this: My tars were pretty fat, 35mm, but they were touring road tars and they slipped around a lot. Next time I will let some air out of them if I can remember.
Also, GRAVEL riding means your bike is covered in shit and so are you. I hope you like that.
Finally, I still suck riding off road no matter what you call it. Some things aren’t ever gonna change.