Column: Can a road biker dig gravel?
As a warm up to our Dirty Reiver coverage, and while our crack grit.cx team stretch out aching legs, here’s Rob’s pre-event build up. He doesn’t really do off-road, so 200km of gravel riding was a step into the unknown. Unfortunately preparations didn’t quite go to plan…
It’s November 2015. My wife, accustomed as she is to riding her mountain bike to the hum of 50mm of cushioning rubber rolling over the road (sorry I don’t understand MTB tyre sizing: 50mm looks about right), enters the room with a look of disdain. She must have had a really nasty bone rattling trip to the shop on my creaking winter commute road bike. In passing, she said: “Maybe you should consider getting a new commuter bike. You spend more time on that horrible thing that you do on your good bike.”
You don’t let an invitation like that that pass you by. Post haste, I went online, and stayed there for two solid weeks drooling over the possibilities. Having avoided the sack from work for abusing the acceptable internet usage policy, I knew what I wanted. I also knew that I could afford a new bike in late November without striking too many items off my children’s letter to Father Christmas. What I wanted was a gravel bike; specifically, a GT Grade. It ticked the following boxes:
- Clearance for wider tyres for more comfort on potholed roads, with the option to pootle happily along canal paths and bridleways with the kids at some point in the future when Father Christmas comes good on the new bikes they were hoping for this year.
- Mudguard eyes. Not cool, but yud b’daft not to’ave ‘em round these parts, lad.
- Disk brakes. Some fellow roadies disagree but I think they look good. They also work. In the wet hilly Pennines you wear rims and pads out in no time. A colleague at work commuted on the same set for 2 whole years! Following a very quick sum in my head I worked out that I could use the saving on pads and rims to upgrade to a Carbon Grade. Maybe even the Ultegra version? Yes, definitely the Ultegra version!
- Gears high enough to rarely spin out. The Carbon Grade runs the ever so on trend mid compact but has a forgiving 32 tooth sprocket on the back. Bang on. Bike ordered.
Waiting to take delivery, I decided that the Grade would be too good for the usual commute to work. It needed to be put to its intended use, so I entered the Dirty Reiver: 200km around the forest roads of Kielder. Having a goal keeps me motivated and the idea of training for something completely new to me – an offroad adventure – appealed.
I then learnt a thing or two from forum posts by experienced gravel riders who were also doing the Dirty Reiver. They filled my roadie heart with dread about the impact riding gravel could have on my lovely new steed. Going back to those boxes I ticked earlier….
- Go for a tubeless set up so no pinch flats (me: what a bloody messy faff. Gravel tyres will be so slow most of the time).
- Obviously the commuter mudguards will need to go. Expect to get filthy. Expect horrible things to happen to your drive train (me: but it’s Ultegra!!!)
- Take a spare set of brake pads (me: but I thought they’d last two years and I have absolutely no idea how to change them).
- If it rains, it will be carnage. That Ultegra rear derailleur could get ripped off if you’re unlucky. Not sure about that mid compact – 1X might be more functional (me: f.f.s).
However, the bike was delivered and it was great. I knew that Dirty Reiver was going to hurt, but I wasn’t intimidated by the 200km distance. I do about 11,500km a year on the road. I don’t class myself as a natural endurance cyclist – I suffered horribly for my sub 7 hour Fred Whitton and a second place in a one off cat 4 race – but I can turn pedals for several hours at a reasonable pace.
But would that mean I can cut it as a gravel cyclist? Before entering Dirty Reiver, my only experience of riding off road was the annual family trip to a Forestry Commission trail centre, to enjoy a leisurely hour with the kids on the green route aboard a hired mountain bike while my wife goes ‘shredding the gnar’. Also, my bike handling skills are a source of some mirth. My 7 year old likes to remind me: “Dad do you remember that bike ride when you shouted ‘careful on the cobbles’ then you fell over on those cobbles in front off all those people in town?” (at the time I was sporting cycling shades, racing jersey and matching lyrca bib shorts, having just bumped into the family on my way home from a long ride so looked like a complete tit).
So while I hoped to finish the Reiver within the top 10% of fastest times, was I being naïve about riding off road? As soon as I got off the tarmac, would every corner and every downhill be a source of trepidation rather than joy? Could I end up staying a frustrated road biker, exasperated by the inability to get over 25 miles an hour and irritated the whole time by the constant noise of the bike over rough trail? Would I learn to tolerate the pain not only in my legs, but also in my hands, joints and feet? In short, would the Dirty Reiver feel like riding Paris Roubaix, only it’s a more dreadful circle of hell? I am imagining being trapped in the Arenberg Trench in a never ending loop.
Fast forward 4 months to March 2016 and the Dirty Reiver was just a month away, and I have loved every minute of my off road time on the Grade. The gravel bike has of course opened up route choices that I wouldn’t go near on a standard road bike set up. We may not have hundreds of miles of gravel roads in the UK but we have an extensive bridleway and canal path network, and I am lucky enough to live in an area where there are plenty of possibilities to explore. You can’t exactly float over the really rough stuff (or at least I cannot, in my caution) but the Grade does an excellent job of smoothing out the bumps. I have had one slightly unhappy experience on a particularly rocky route where I expected to flat at any moment, but didn’t. Going tubeless is therefore a revelation and is worth the bit of mess and the frantic pumping to get the tyres seated. On tarmac, I have been pleasantly surprised by the speed of the 35mm tyres I have been using. I will not therefore be going back to anything under 30mm on my winter bike. I’ve come to realise that speed is, of course, relative. On the one hand a gravel bike has a low weight advantage – I feel I should apologise to the mountain bikers for entering their Strava leader boards. On the other hand, 12 miles an hour can feel fast on a bridleway. There is a pleasure in having to think about the best line to take when you are off road. This means there is never a dull moment; the same cannot always be said for riding on the road where it can sometimes feel like you are just getting from A to B. I have also found that riding where there is no motorised traffic feels like a relief; I have felt myself longing for that turn in the road that will lead to my escape.
There has been a change in my mindset. The roadie in me would care if I didn’t hit my sportive target time. Now, I am beginning to think that I won’t set a target time for Dirty Reiver. The riding experience, not the time it takes, is what will bring me satisfaction.
Unfortunately, my gravel biking induced Nirvana was then shattered.
One night, on the usual commute, I hit a pothole. Remarkably, I didn’t have a blow out – go tubeless folks – but I did manage to break a spoke. This, in turn resulted in a badly buckled back wheel but as I could pedal okay, I decided to keep going. What felt like fairly gently rubbing resulted in wear to the inside of the chain stay. The next day I am told that this rubbing was sufficient to compromise the integrity of the frame. The roadie rage kicked in: mentally I throw my bike in a ditch. I do this over and over again in my mind but the damn carbon won’t smash.
Eventually I calm down. Having missed just one ride due to this mechanical calamity, I already sorely missed my gravel bike, and I still had the Dirty Reiver to do. Luckily, my lovely wife, grit.cx, and Genesis Bikes came to my rescue, and I was provided with a Croix de Fer 20 to complete my training and the event. It’s steel, and it’s very different to my Grade. I’m going to review it, but I’m trying to delay the deadline because, even after 200km of hilly off-road grinding at the Dirty Reiver, I rather like it and I don’t want to send it back just yet. In fact, I heard of some people who couldn’t make it at the weekend and thought they might go up to ride the route. I’m tempted to see if I can join them.