Gnarvel – A Tale of Misadventure on a Gravel Bike

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Has anyone else had the bright idea of taming their riding during lockdown with the use of a gravel bike? My flawed logic was that a gravel bike isn’t capable of sending down technical trails at speed, therefore I would be safer than I am on a mountain bike. Here’s a short story of how I made bad choices.

Before you all heckle me, let me explain how I got to this point. My beloved hardtail is being held hostage at a friend’s house and my current long term test bike is incapable of low gnar, given the speed I can go on it without even realising I’m riding fast. I have to make a real conscious effort to slow down, but then dragging the brakes never makes a bike ride well so I just end up feeling clumsy. It’s also not much fun lugging a bike bouncy bike around gravel paths, so the obvious solution was to get my hands on a gravel bike.

Those pedals are raising that gnar right back up there, Amanda…

My first ride was comedy gold, but unfortunately I didn’t film it. Drop bars are a new concept to me so I positioned them as I saw fit, and set on my merry way towards the tow path. Of course it only took a few moments before I met with a dog walker, so I went to grab a brake and couldn’t find them. In a panic I just jumped off the pedals and let the bike ram into me as I stumbled forward mumbling “S… sorry. Hi. Sorry” to the poor bloke with his dog. Did I mention that I’ve put my Nukeproof Horizon Sam Hill pedals on this bike? The ones featured in issue 130’s Last Word as the most lethal skin munchers ever made? So that was my first ride done.

The next day I looked at a photo of a gravel bike, had a chuckle to myself and proceeded rotated my bars around 30% upwards. I also took the sensible step of getting familiar with how it felt, leaning against a wall as the geese sang me the final verse of their morning song. Determined to get as far as possible from the honks that had kept me awake half of the night, I set off on a big road climb. My plan was to get used to how the bike behaved gradually, so a smooth road with not a lot to negotiate seemed ideal. And it was, that part went really well.

So how is that working out for you so far, Amanda?

The road led me to a bridleway that has a brilliant trail off of it. It’s a legal trail too, which in my book means it’s rideable on a hardtail (another entry to Amanda’s Big Book Of Misjudgement, right there). I’m not sure what my brain was prioritising at that moment, but it certainly didn’t think to remind me that more than the tail of this bike was hard, so I set off at full pelt and got a sharp reminder in my bad wrist and badder shoulder than I was on a rigid bike with weird bars. I took a moment to think about what I was doing. I’m a very competent mountain biker. I could ride this trail at speed on my big bike and be at the end in less than two minutes, safely. But I’m choosing not to ride that way right now, it seems irresponsible… I just need some fresh air and an hour’s exercise. So WHY have I got myself an unfamiliar bike that shares very few characteristics with my ‘real’ bike and convinced myself that this is low gnar? It’s SO gnar. I don’t know what to do with my hands, I can’t judge what trails are suitable, I can’t even look at the trail ahead properly because of my glasses.

Gravel bikes to me should be a great way to keep on top of fitness, discover new trails, and just enjoy the scenery. Instead, they are making me question if I have ever ridden a bike before or if it was all a big exciting dream. Stay safe, make sure you’re fully informed if you introduce new challenges to your life right now, and don’t ask me how much my back is hurting, because I’ll not be polite in response.

Comments (19)

    The reason you couldn’t find the brakes is because wherever you position those particular bars the levers are in an inaccessible position and at an angle they weren’t designed for. Even Ritchey Venturemax bars which are at the more extreme end of wide flared bar design have a less extreme flare at the bend. Also…flats? On a gravel bike? Get some proper pedals, decent bars , stop trying to ride it like a mountain bike and you’ll be fine!

    Easy solution, fit straight bars to the gravel bike. Dig out some wide-enough-5-years-ago bars from the pile of abandoned parts @ the back of the garage & they’ll work great on an otherwise “proper” gravel bike. That’s what I have (CX race frame, 105 chainset, Apex-1 derailleur, GX 10-42 cassette, old 660mm USE carbon riser bar) & it works a treat. Good on road, great on gravel & bridleways, perfectly useable on genuine MTB country (well, blue & red anyway; haven’t tried black trails, I’m not *mad*). Even done an out & out MTB race on it – didn’t win of course, but didn’t come last either.

    This is why a hardtail with lockout and a slick on the back makes infinitely more sense than trying to be a trendy gravel rider. Don’t do it kids. Don’t end up in A&E for Instagram.

    Get on the drops on the descents makes a huge difference.

    Treat it more like a road bike than a hard tail and you’ll get it sussed. Itll do stuff like above but its hard work and not fun.

    Smooth singletrack and dusty double track are so much more fun.

    I tried road. Couldn’t get on with it. I got a gravel bike for commuting. Boring. I ride an XC hardtail with what you would consider old skool geometry. Perfect. Just a switch of the tyres is all that’s needed to go from far to gnar and back

    If you have spent time on a road bike and want something that feels similar but can cope with rough surfaces then a gravel bike is fine. If you only ride mtb then (IMHO) just harden your suspension and stick with a bike that can cope with anything.

    Amusing tale tho, cheers!

    @sargey2003 To be honest, I agree! It was a combination of my hardtail being stuck at a friends house during lockdown, and curiosity.

    Don’t give up on it Amanda! Do stop trying to ride it like a mountain bike though. As you’ve discovered too many new things to adapt to all at once. I’ve swithced from clipped to flats on my mountain bikes and it’s definitely slowed me down. I’m also slowly adapting to how they feel so I’m sure you can do the same with the gravel bike. It’s all bikes, it’s all good. You are a good rider Amanda and you will adapt.

    Does a MTB feel good on the road? No, not remotely.

    For similar reasons, a gravel/adventure bike won’t feel good on those sort of trails. Gravel/adventure bikes are ideal for your stated purpose of low risk exercise in these times, but a big NO! on anything like your bridleway!

    If you stick to road and smooth forest tracks you should be fine. Might even enjoy it as gravel/adventure bikes are fantastic at soaking up rough, scabby tarmac and loose surfaces and you can go a long way in an hour. I can see the issue with those bars though – they are at the fashionable rather than the practical end of the scale. Something 42cm across the hoods with a 12 degree flare would probably be the sweet spot at a guess.

    Good luck and have fun!

    Being Gravelcurious in Calderfornia was always going to be difficult!

    Bars are fine. Pedals are fine. You just need a dropper.
    Seriously, it makes a world of difference what you can underbike.

    Brilliant!! and so true, both worlds are quite different. I got a Camino to commute and rehab after knee surgery 18 months ago, its completely changed my riding. Being based near Epping forest my Santa cruz is a bit overkill. Im on my Gravel bike much more these days as the thrill level is much easier to reach without me getting wheels off ground. Being closer to the edge takes you back to why we ride. You can hit moderate single track, fly over gravel fire road, get some miles in, and not have to clean a full suss! Forget the nay sayers, Ride everything and enjoy!

    You rode Rodwell on a gravel bike? Ahahahahahahaha.

    I can confirm that trail (not Rodwell BTW) is very entertaining on a gravel bike. Could be a new thing once we’re allowed to be stupid again.

    I very much enjoyed this story. Thanks, Amanda; brightened my day.

    Stick with it Amanda,

    I ride last year’s Camino on flats and it’s fine. Eventually.

    Admittedly, I ride in the South Downs and would be tiptoeing down that path (the first few times anyway). It does need to be ridden very differently to something with bounce, as someone else said, use the drops and the dropper is a really good shout.

    Love the article, I am having a similar learning experience here in Aberdeenshire. I am fortunate to have a huge logging forest (Clashindarroch) on my doorstep so loads of opportunities to play. Even the corrugated fire tracks absolutely batter me on the descents. Hopefully I will come out of lockdown a stronger, smoother rider!

    I got the Camino al last year (old model in red) I got the bars swapped to spitfires which are much more natural for me, and I haven’t been thrown into the undergrowth since. Kudos for alpkit for swapping them over too. I love mine. It’s surprisingly capable but it’s not a mountain bike clearly. I’ve got mountain bikes for that! I’m sticking to indoors at the moment, finally getting my money’s worth out of the Zwift sub!

    Also I think 650b x 2.0 or similar is a better choice in the area you’re in. 700c is great where you’re mostly on double track, logging roads and byeways and tarmac lanes but if the terrain is At the rougher, steeper, rockier end and is more byeways and bridleways and mountain tracks and trails a 650 b x 2.0 will give you a lot more comfort and it won’t be the tyre that’s limiting your speed, just the terrain.

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