Rob Sherratt, Global Marketing Manager for Nukeproof and committed mountain biker, heads out on a gravel bike for an attitude check with Adam Brayton and Meg Whyte.
Photography by Laurence Crossman-Emms
The unstructured, unplanned, unknown rides that turn into unexpectedly good rides. “Let’s go for a gravel bike ride in North Wales at the end of November….” Cue thoughts of sub-tropical temperatures, head winds, sideways rain, riding a bike with curly handlebars, no suspension and with a huge chain ring and minus my beloved Eagle 52T for a comfort blanket on the climbs.
Gravel bikes. For Nukeproof, our “gravel” bike was conceived during an intoxicated conversation in a restaurant in Italy during the launch of the 2016 Mega. A few too many Jacks in our Australian athlete Sam Hill, throwing out his desire for a bike to smash out some base miles into the bush, help him do the school run then run his tools to his trails. Turns out this was already a popular segment that we just hadn’t been playing with. For me, in all honesty it’s been a bike to ride from the doorstep to my local MTB trails, throw it down said MTB trails, but with the fear of god bleeding from my soul, with as much grace as Bambi on frozen fairly liquid, then a casual spin home.
These are my terms
But when I got the “let’s show you what a real gravel ride is all about” phone call I was intrigued – my only caveat was “I’m not wearing lycra”. Rolling into god’s back yard (North Wales) and up to reservoirs you remember visiting as a wee youth, I was apprehensive, but with a day by the weather gods I was also intrigued to see what said gravel bike was supposed to be used for. The guides (and photo stars) on this ride were two riders more accustomed to racing downhill than gravel: Adam Brayton and Meg Whyte. With “stay local” lockdown, the gravel bike was Meg’s escape around the hills of the Shropshire/Wales border. As with anything Meg and Adam turn their hand too, the “tame” rides tend to turn out a little more extreme.
The term “gravel” can often be misleading in the UK. I constantly suss out “nice” gravel now to Adam’s delight. Often, I will be in the van with Ad and shout out randomly when I see a nice section of gravel path, which I will then proceed to find on komoot. I love the variety which gravel riding provides across the UK, in the Lakes bridleways are rocky nadgery river beds, but here in Wales they can be a mix of mud and slick grassy fields, both enjoyable in their own challenging ways.Meg Whyte on Gravel.
Also along for the ride was North Walian photographer megastar Laurence Crossman-Emms to take pictures along the way.
We’ll cross that bridge…
The backdrop for the ride was Alwyn Reservoir and Llyn Brenig. It’s an iconic North Wales location with exceptional views of Snowdonia and provides some lovely quiet trails ideal for bombing along on a gravel bike. You often feel like you are in the middle of nowhere when journeying around the reservoir, when in fact you are only a half an hour blast back to the warmth and comfort of the van. The rolling moorlands, gravel tracks and rickety bridges keep the ride interesting and stereotypically Welsh. Our ride turns slightly more sedate rather than just hammering the trails to complete Strava. We cruise along, chatting rubbish and taking in the views. Alwyn’s trails split with two “bridges”. The first is the dam itself, which is impressive feat of engineering, the second halfway round the lake is a sketchy wooden affair – but no less epic. The ride is a very different ride from usual, strangely enjoyable, even though in my mind it shouldn’t be.
Wales has blessed us today and the water acts as a mirror to the surroundings and sky. A game of dodge the dog shit across the dam ensues, Adam taking it as a chance to practise his stoppies and 180’s over the little brown land mines before we enter the woodland surrounding the reservoir. Despite the sunshine, it’s still November and temperatures are still in the minus figures, but least you can layer up for the cold and the meandering route has a few climbs to warm you up.
Stop, snack, listen
Turns out too in gravel, you stop when you want. Not like a normal mountain bike ride when I gasp for breath at the top of the climb before dropping into a trail, this is a much more civilised affair. Riding as a group all together, we’re chatting all sorts and simply taking in the awesome views, no thought to Strava times here (or at least not on this ride)! That is until there are a few downhill switch backs and Adam drops his saddle (yep we’re still mountain bikers and so a dropper post is essential). We’ve strapped some rad little packs to our frames and crammed in loads of goodness, so just over half-way round the ride we stop on one of the many pebble beaches and pull out a flask of coffee, proper mugs and some stroopwafel biscuits. Next level trail snacks.
It’s a fairly easy pedal back, crossing through the forest, dodging frozen puddles and wondering who owns the houses on the lake and how can we buy them. Back at the van we realise we can head up to the larger of the two reservoirs, Llyn Brenig (there is apparently a linking off road path that we missed). Brenig is a staple diet of any youth that grew up in North Wales, however a lot has changed in my time away and there is a posh café and it’s all set up for visitors. We keep trekking past the main centre to the far side of the lake and an awesome viewpoint for Snack Stop #2. Did you know a Pot Noodle fits perfectly in a normal water bottle holder? Nought like a healthy trail snack to warm up on and take in the sunset over the lake and Snowdonia. As the golden light fades, it’s a small matter of rolling back down to the vans to close off an epic day.
Turns out gravel biking is totally different to what I had been doing, I need to see it with a different attitude to mountain biking. It’s kind of like eating Brussels sprouts as an adult. You know you should hate their evilness, but surprisingly the little green beggars are pretty tasty with the added bonus of being good for you. It’s to take in more of the views, cover multiple terrains quickly, explore different areas whilst having a sociable ride. To find rad places, to eat the snacks that appear in the magical bags that are strapped to the frame. It’s a nice addition to the mountain bike for a different ride. Plus, you don’t have to wear lycra.
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This ride describes 80% of the riding I do , without the stunning views did try a gravel bike couldn’t get on with curly bars so converted to flat bars . Moved that on I’ve got a 29 and 650B HT , 29er does nearly all the ” gravel ” duties , 650B for getting rowdy ( in my head )