Graubünden landed into collective conscience courtesy of the ‘Home of Trails’ video starring Danny MacAskill and Claudio Caluori. Graubünden itself is not a resort but a canton in south eastern……
Gary ‘Rocketdog’ Walls from the UK Gravel Collective (and regular Forumite) has shared this article with us about where he thinks gravel came from, and where it (should be) going. Does he paint a familiar picture, or is your experience different?
The picture below is the first one I can find of me with a gravel bike back in 2018. I’d been dabbling by adding gravel-esque tyres to my rigid forked 29er MTB in the months before but although a flat bar gravel bike is now a thing I don’t think it counted way back then.
I was lucky enough to be working in a bike shop at the time and the manager let me use the demo gravel bike that we got in for the showroom. I was to showcase this new fangled bike genre and we thought having a bike that looked like it had been used as intended, i.e. off road, would attract more customers to the idea than a nice shiny showroom pony. I wasn’t going to argue so for around six months I got to ride a Trek Checkpoint AL5, IIRC. This was in the days before GRX and so the bike came with a Shimano 105 groupset. To preserve the drivetrain, as the bike would be sold after the demo period, I swapped the double chainset (even back then I felt the 50-34 road ratio was not ideal for an off road bike) for a cobbled together 38t single ring, and added a wider range rear cassette which I think was an 11-44 (Revolutionary at the time!) and added a frame bag to carry my lunch and cake money (Again, nothing has changed there) and went out exploring.
I’d ridden a road bike now and then but was always more of a MTB rider and while the MTB is great for exploring rugged off road routes, where I live the off road is pretty tame and can only be accessed by using roads or tarmac, and even then the off road sections are short and sweet. The gravel bike then was the right tool for the job. I could ride 50 miles and the route could consist of 35 miles of tarmac and only 15 of off road, but the tarmac bits wouldn’t be as tedious as they would be on a MTB and on the gravel bike if I spotted a new to me bridleway or track I could ride it to explore where it went, something I’d have been hesitant to do on a pure road bike for fear of punctures, mud and tyre clearance etc.
For me this was why gravel bikes were so exciting, it opened up areas I’d dismiss as too far away by MTB, or even worse, that I’d have to drive to before riding. The gravel bike for me was very much like getting your first proper bike when you were a kid, the difference from only being able to play outside your house and not being allowed to go further than the end of your road, to being able to ride to the local park or woods (and further, sorry Mom and Dad!)
In its infancy gravel seemed the refuge away from the ultra serious road riders, and believe me some of the customers who came in the shop were way too serious about road bikes and wanting to look like pro road riders – to the point of duplicating the bike set ups of their heroes, even though it was clearly too extreme a position for them and was causing issues, with their full trade team kit, even though they weren’t sponsored #FKW (Ed – and breathe, Gary!) For Gravel riding there were no rules, you could wear what you liked, ride what you liked. If you met up with other gravel riders it was more about the chat, the sharing of trails and routes and there was no mention of “you must be able to maintain this *insert inflated kph figure* to be able to ride with us” and there definitely wasn’t a “if you get dropped, you’re on your own” rule that seems to be applied to every road club I’ve been involved with. I’ve taken riders out for their first gravel ride and their only experience was having ridden with road clubs and they are astonished that someone in the group would volunteer to go ahead and open a gate and wait until everyone else was through before shutting it and then catching up. “I can’t believe how everyone mucks in and supports each other, I love it” is something, or a variant of, that it I’ve heard many times in the last five years.
Group riding is awesome, so many shared experiences and laughs with no pressure to be a riding expert or Iron man distance fit. This area of gravel was growing and growing and I’ve met so many cool people by sharing my or their routes. But then a little pandemic hit the world in 2020 and suddenly all group rides were restricted and solo riding was the thing to do.
This also was a boom time for the bike industry, gravel bikes were suddenly the thing to have. This was absolutely awesome, but in promoting the gravel bike, companies began to sponsor riders or sponsor events. This is sort of great, and yet also I think began the divergence of gravel. When things opened up again we’d gone from home grown events where everyone shared the route and did it at their own pace to “stage races” with timed stages where there was only one “winner” rather than everyone winning through the joy of shared adventure and experiences. The grassroots events in the USA such as Unbound Gravel went from something that riders were proud to just have finished to arguments about the use of aero bars, female riders being drafted by their male team mates to achieve a win and that old favourite trade team kits instead of wear whatever you feel comfortable in. There were now “race gravel bikes” – light weight, with minimal luggage mounts and steep head angles, as well as “adventure gravel bikes” for mounting bike packing stuff, with forgiving geometry for riding for days at a time if you wanted to. Ok, I can forgive this as a perk of the commercialisation of gravel as more choice is always a good thing. But someone was waiting in the wings to take this all to a new level.
Hello UCI. The governing body of cycle racing, never quick on the uptake – it’s taken them a few years to stumble onto the band wagon – bringing the UCI World gravel championships and qualifying events, pro licences for racing, rainbow jerseys and, worst of all, a rule book as thick as a ebike’s down tube.
Don’t get me wrong, I like to watch cycle racing. I sit glued to the Spring Classic road races and the Tour de France, but now the “I can’t ride because I’m not that good” mentality has started to be heard in gravel racing. I conducted a poll via the 19k+ followers on my Instagram account and asked what was stopping them either starting to ride gravel, going to gravel events, or organising group rides themselves, and by far the most popular response was “i don’t want to ruin other people’s ride because I’m not quick enough” or “my bike isn’t good enough”. And this is my whole reason for writing this long ramble.
We need to get the message out that you should just get out and ride your bike, there are no rules, ride what you like, wear what you like. If you just want to ride to the top of a nearby hill and sit on your favourite bench and look at the view, then just do that. Ignore average speeds and distances covered, they are just numbers, your ride doesn’t need to be “epic” just because you see people doing extraordinary distances and trips on social media. Any and every ride is worth it compared to not riding. Ignore the commercialisation. If you want the latest bike and tech then get it, if you want to use your 1992 MTB, then do that too. Want to ride alone? That’s fine. Want to share the fun? Then why not plan a ride and meet up with other riders. Encourage others and let’s stop gravel riding from becoming elitist and get back to how it started. Innovation and progress is good but let’s also keep things simple and accessible for anyone to be able to join in.
NO RULES JUST RIDE
Check out more of Gary’s writing on the UK Gravel Collective.
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