“I don’t think I’m injured” I groaned while extracting myself slowly from an upside down bicycle and a wet ditch, “but thanks for asking” I added. Adam was far too busy pissing himself laughing to show any sympathy for my predicament.
Welcome to the strange world of ‘Gravel Riding’. A further pointless niche in the ever splintering discipline we used to call ‘riding a bike’. And as with any new thing, it’s mostly an old thing repurposed for late stage capitalism. Actually, it’s not even a thing at all, more a spectrum bookended by the Rough Stuff Fellowship* at one end and re-imagined 90s MTBs at the other.
If it’s not a thing, then maybe it’s a lifestyle. A familiar double triangle silhouette repurposed for bike packing epics, social spins on quiet roads, criss-crossing a network of forest roads or simply doing the same thing on a different bike. All things to all riders- the ‘throw shit at the wall and see what sticks‘ marketing approach.
Fairly sure a middle aged bloke lying supine in a brackish ditch wasn’t on anyone’s mood wall, but here is where we find ourselves. Dressed in unflattering lycra while riding past great singletrack. We’re deep in what should a very familiar Forest of Dean, but my mental map is misaligned with what’s happening on the ground.**
Discombobulation stared early. I’ve not packed the Mighty Wind in a vehicle since Ads and I set out on the Lon Las Cymru back in 2019. Since then it’s been mostly titanium wall art interspersed with desultory exploring from home***. That had been fine, which should not be confused with good.
Exploring alone doesn’t feel adventurous, but I guess if we’re going to grudgingly confer some benefits on nichedom, bikes likes these encourage that adrenal trigger of ‘I wonder what’s down there’. See also eBikes. Except.. no don’t get me started. It’ll be ‘old man shouts at clouds‘ before I can stop.
Adam has brought his new-to-him steel Fairlight bouncing on a set of 650B tyres rocking that 90s MTB vibe. Including the tan-walls but only one of us is pulling that off. I’m keeping it closer to what we used to call Cross Bikes with 700cc wheels running pressures best thought of as ‘desperately seeking tubeless‘.
In the spirit of our last great adventure, we are immediately lost. Ads is reacquainting himself with Garmin’s finest software, while I’m confidently fixing our location by randomly pointing at trees. MTB DNA takes over and we abandon the electronic line, instead climbing up a wooded singletrack trail mostly in the right direction. If you’re lost, up is always that direction.
We quickly rendezvous with the route and settle into that third place between the road and the proper trails. White roads, fire roads, logging tracks, sunken doubletrack – tedious links between the good stuff on a MTB. On these bikes tho, they offer a fast path under a colour changing autumnal canopy.
The FoD has become a Mecca for mountain biking. What we forget is how it was before. Timber and mining have a strong heritage here. The legacy of which are countless tracks criss-crossing over a hundred kilometres of mixed woodland. We’re following a few meandering towards the centre where a late breakfast awaits.
It feels like we’ve circumnavigated the cafe and bike shop in some kind of pincer movement. Trails I’ve ridden hundreds of times appear from unexpected directions. Fall line descents are enclosed by fireroad loops. However these are not without a certain excitement and occasional feelings of peril.
Gravel is mostly marbles loosely connected to hardback. Slides are a real thing. Speeds can get pretty high and while I’ve dumped the SPDs, there’s no safety valve dropping the seat post. I don’t really get riding these bikes on anything technical, but on easy trails and fast white roads they are bloody good fun.
We’ve covered the miles at a good rate so ride straight past Pedalabikeaway. I’ve not given up on bacon and coffee tho so some ten minutes later we’re sitting outside in October sunshine toasting our Wednesday skive. A quick map check shows 30km to go which on these bikes doesn’t feel like a chore.
There’s a few steep pulls tho. Most of them staying away from the road. Only once are we spat out onto the Gloucester Road where a considerate multi-access user gains 10 feet by doing something stupid, while another swears at us from the safety of his 2 ton cage.
Fuck ’em basically. This is why I hate road riding. Soon enough we’re back to where this started. A poorly defined path with a well defined rut. Adam clears it with that annoying bike handling ease of his, whereas I drop the front wheel perfectly into the groove. The rest is basically physics and a further loss of dignity.
Dusting myself down, we gurn up some tough tracks to crest the summit of last valley. End of the ride was a bit anticlimactic with the route pointing us through unpassable felling. So we abandoned the GPX and engaged PubNav(tm) for a downhill road blast and a well earned pint.
Next time we said, we’ll find a better way down. And maybe see what’s up that other bit, could add that bit on, link to that other bit. That felt like proper adventuring. If these bikes are anything, they are brilliant companions for that.
However, I’ve still not forgiven Ads for buying a ‘Gravel Helmet‘.
*Buy the book off that website. It’s fantastic.
**This is not new. I’m 80% lost, 10% “oh we’re there are we? I wasn’t expecting that” and 10% “I recognise this bit, we’re near the pub”
***Getting lost in local woods, on local roads and occasionally in a random field