Gravel biking: How it started, how it’s going…

by 106

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.

My fashion sense has remained the same

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

Live laugh love?

Check out more of Gary’s writing on the UK Gravel Collective.


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Viewing 26 posts - 81 through 106 (of 106 total)
  • Gravel biking: How it started, how it’s going…
  • IdleJon
    Full Member

    Someone up-thread mentioned fatbikes
    gravel biking is the new fat biking  is the new singlespeeding. Etc etc.

    Except that almost nobody bought fatbikes or singlespeeds, whereas you’ll see gravel bikes everywhere you go. I passed several on my way into work this morning, on my gravel bike.

    scotroutes
    Full Member

    I saw 10 fatbikes on Sunday…

    chakaping
    Free Member

    I saw 10 fatbikes on Sunday…

    Have they all migrated to the same bit of Scotland for the winter then?

    scotroutes
    Full Member

    😂

    kerley
    Free Member

    Someone up-thread mentioned fatbikes
    gravel biking is the new fat biking is the new singlespeeding. Etc etc.

    Gravel bikes are here to stay because they actually make a lot of sense for a lot of people for a lot of uses (road, gravel, fastish, lightish etc,.) and could really be the only bike a lot of people need.

    The same cannot be said for niche bikes such as fat bikes and single speeds.

    tazzymtb
    Full Member

     could really be the only bike a lot of people need.

    and

    The same cannot be said for niche bikes such as fat bikes and single speeds.

    I think you’ll find you are wronger than a wrong thing that lives in wrongsville with that statement.

    the entirety of my extensive bike collection are singlespeeds, which are used from everything from twatting about in the woods, trail centre buffoonery and  100’s km of “gravel event” faster than a lot of folks on gravel bikes.

    single speeds are for life man, you just need the fitness/commitment/luddite tendencies/bloody mindedness/stupidity/and thighs of a norse god.

    If you are proper freakoid of epic proportions you do all of the above on fixie making the “gravel bike being the one bike for all” argument even less valid

    jameso
    Full Member

    you do all of the above on fixie

    Might as well just pack a rucksack and go hiking at that point : )

    matt_outandabout
    Full Member

    Someone up-thread mentioned fatbikes
    gravel biking is the new fat biking is the new singlespeeding. Etc etc.

    *looks out window*

    The bike shed here today has gravel bike, e-HT, hybrid x2, road bike and a fatty on the end. 😎

    you do all of the above on fixie

    There is one of them over at the office across the car park, as it is daily.

    kerley
    Free Member

    the entirety of my extensive bike collection are singlespeeds, which are used from everything from twatting about in the woods, trail centre buffoonery and 100’s km of “gravel event” faster than a lot of folks on gravel bikes.

    Good for you, however you are not a lot of people. A lot of people would not want to ride only single speed bikes and if having a geared bike to use on road, gravel, bit of single track then a gravel bike makes more sense than a single speed to those lots of people

    If you are proper freakoid of epic proportions you do all of the above on fixie making the “gravel bike being the one bike for all” argument even less valid

    My only bike is a fixed gear with no brakes and I ride it 5,000 miles a year all year round on gravel, single track and road (I have owned gravel type bikes and find them boring) but I realise I am in a very small minority and again, LOTs of people would find a gravel bike suited them more.

    dudeofdoom
    Full Member

    Yes there’s competitive flavours of gravel now, dunno if things like the “Lifetime Grand Prix” are really in the same non-competitive spirit as tubby Dads and third wave hipsters trundling about on bridleways and knackered B-Roads enjoying the views and a pork pie, but it’s all part of a broad church of “gravel”…

    TBH I always wondered if the big gravel rides are wholly dominated by hordes of cycle journalists/fluencers and sponsored riders pimping the wares of the manufacturers.

    (Although im sure this can’t be true 🙂 )

    molgrips
    Free Member

    it’s 90s xc though innit really

    No, it’s not. Just because everyone had the same style of MTB in the 90 doesn’t mean everyone was riding the same trails. In fact, the fact we were riding different trails in different ways is what led to the diversification of bikes in the first place.

    13thfloormonk
    Full Member

    No, it’s not.

    I like the 90s MTB comparison though, I think because some of the routes which were considered ‘classic’ MTB loops back then are now sort of ‘classic’ gravel loops as MTB has moved on and nobody has the patience for 90% estate tracks and tarmac for 10% singletrack or quad track e.g. Glen Kinglas, Gaick Pass, Glen Tilt etc.

    chakaping
    Free Member

    Yeah, it certainly is like 1990s XC to some… but it isn’t to others.

    No need to be absolutist and argumentative about it.

    On the subject of which, it’s a bit weird that a few people in this thread just seem to want to bash the writer for looking like Seasick Steve.

    scotroutes
    Full Member

    I’ve no idea who Seasick Steve is but maybe there’s some irony in me currently growing a winter beard while the gravel bike languishes in the garage for a few months 😂

    rOcKeTdOg
    Full Member

    On the subject of which, it’s a bit weird that a few people in this thread just seem to want to bash the writer for looking like Seasick Steve.

    I look like I live by train hopping in the mid West? …..actually I would like some denim bib and braces. Wish I could play a 6 string guitar like Steve though, let alone a 3 stringer!

    ampthill
    Full Member

    TBH I always wondered if the big gravel rides are wholly dominated by hordes of cycle journalists/fluencers and sponsored riders pimping the wares of the manufacturers.

    (Although im sure this can’t be true 🙂 )

    Certainly every rider at a professional road or MTB race is sponsored directly or indirectly by a bike manufacturer. Why would gravel be different

    It is one of the odd things about gravel. Roadies in particular seem to want to put it all down to marketing. Seeming to not have noticed that the amount spent marketing road bikes swamps that spent on gravel by orders of magnitude. We are talking millions per world tour team to ride those bikes

    sc-xc
    Full Member

    My only bike is a fixed gear

    Show us a pic! I rode fixed for a few years…it’s pure AF 🙌

    scaredypants
    Full Member

    No need to be absolutist and argumentative about it

    +1   Anyone who thinks that any particular variety of (whatever) is the one true way is (in my non-argumentative opinion) clearly an arse.  Anyone who whines about how other varieties are “worse” than their preferred option is a needs their genre-specific shoes pissed in.

    BadlyWiredDog
    Full Member

    Now it’s become a lot more commercial here in Norway.  You see a lot more people with full beards, flannel shirts, and expensive packs full of organic sandwiches and coffee.

    The woke, liberal elite, gravellarti… undermining the true spirit of gravel and stealing it from real people? Please god, don’t let that happen to gravel in the UK.

    chakaping
    Free Member

    It is one of the odd things about gravel. Roadies in particular seem to want to put it all down to marketing. Seeming to not have noticed that the amount spent marketing road bikes swamps that spent on gravel by orders of magnitude.

    Bit of a tangent, but it’s interesting how bike brands spend loads on sponsoring road teams, but are apparently selling more gravel bikes these days.

    Is it a general brand awareness/trickle down thing? Like how DH racing sells enduro and trail bikes?

    I look like I live by train hopping in the mid West? …..actually I would like some denim bib and braces. Wish I could play a 6 string guitar like Steve though, let alone a 3 stringer!

    No offence intended, was just trying to point out that people were a bit silly to be so triggered by a beard and check shirt.

    SirHC
    Full Member

    Picked up a Crux this week, winter road bike and commuting to work. Felt bad for the stumpjumper getting hammered in the rain and crap everyday, equally the nice road bike was getting hammered at the weekends as well.

    Its comfy, perfect on the shitty backlanes that constitues my commute and road rides. Just waiting for halfords to deliver some mudguards.

    Was looking at a Diverge, but the headshock put me off, as it will creak and be a pain in the ass.

    nickc
    Full Member

    that people were a bit silly to be so triggered by a beard and check shirt.

    I think anyone who’s triggered by what someone else is wearing probably needs a stern word with themselves, frankly. After all I’m guessing that  we can probably all identify the cycling tribe we all belong to just by what we’re wearing.

    dudeofdoom
    Full Member

    TBH picking on rOcKeTdOg is akin to drowning kittens 🙂

    dudeofdoom
    Full Member

    Anyway I think the Raleigh Mustang Elite 2015 (£1,000) was reasonably an early affordable entrant.

    I had one that made me realise that I didn’t mind drop bar and it worked more for the stuff I wanted to ride.

    Then 2017 enter the Aero Phase the 3T Exploro with the idea of being able to run 700 and 650b (a la Open.Up)

    TBH I do have a check riding shirt(Sombrio) that I never ride, just for the pub and I’ve no chance of owning a beard 🙂

    13thfloormonk
    Full Member

    As an aside, my first gravel bike was a Genesis Day One Singlespeed with 32mm Kenda Small Block 8s, back before the designer sold out and added disc brakes 😉

    Loved that bike, added a White Industries freewheel and XT octalink cranks then sold it in a fit of student pennylessness 😭

    Rode some daft winter loop with Markus Stitz on his very similar Swobo singlespeed, so at least two manufacturers doing gravellable bikes back in 2009…

    jameso
    Full Member

     a Genesis Day One Singlespeed with 32mm Kenda Small Block 8s, back before the designer sold out and added disc brakes 😉

    Ha.. grindy rim brakes in the mud, I don’t miss that. I still have the plain gloss black pre-production canti-post sample. Currently a SS town bike and it really should go back to SS CX duties one winter. Used to ride it loads but got sick of flat tyres in winter, would need tubeless on it if rebuilt. Funny how small the 58cm feels to me these days though. 

Viewing 26 posts - 81 through 106 (of 106 total)

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