Open up any cycling magazine or cycling website over the past few years and it’ll feature gravel riding. Photos of gravel roads undulating through forests before leading to a gravel hairpin before a stretch of gravel especially open to expansive skies, before taking a small gravel off-shoot to a lake previously untouched by human breath, let alone a gravel tyre.
This lake, not on maps nor even seen by any of the 2787 active satellites above Earth this very second, will provide the perfect backdrop to boil a whistling kettle and stroke your beard whilst watching rare birds circle above some unicorns frolicking in the water (I googled the number of satellites, obviously).
These writers did not approach me or the expanding band of UK cyclists about our realities of going off-road, and as it’s autumn, off-road when the days are short and the tracks never dry. If they had, it would be this…
Ride along a road, a normal road. Internally remark to yourself about how ‘draggy’ gravel tyres are at 50psi compared to your road bike. Make a mental note to see how much slower it is on Strava. Arrive at a gate. It’ll have dropped on its hinges, requiring you to not to only open it, but also lift it up – all whilst trying to get yourself and your bike through it.
You enter a field. You’ve started at 50psi but the first foray off-road will have you reducing that in order to try and get some grip in the mud, or for a special occasion, cowpats. A few months earlier the mud was rock hard in the shape of wheel-stopping & eyeball rattling horse hoof prints but now the same field has replaced that with energy-sapping, slidey mud which is already collecting on parts of the bike.
As you approach the next gate, said cows will have congregated to block your exit. This is where they always stand you see, making it especially muddy & cowpatty. You can’t tell which is which as you tentatively cajole the cows aside, a balancing act of bravado vs bike vs bovine. Of course, this gate will have not just a catch to open but some stringy rope to unhook & rehook, plus it’ll swing wildly in the wind to smack the rear derailleur of your bike. It’s always windy nowadays.
It was summer when I met this lot, hence no mud. There were cowpats, obviously.
When you do happen across a gravel road, you can be certain it’ll be brilliant but also short lived. The ball-bearing affect on your steering means full concentration in parts and your previous years riding only road will have you nervously hanging on and the bike lurches from rock to gravel to, yep, more mud.
It’s getting dark now, the whole ride taking 2x longer than anticipated. You’d better head back quickly but upon getting home you’ll know you’ll have to wash the bike first. In not doing so, you’re going to end up with an ex-bike, having turned rock solid rusty from the cack so impressively that Medusa herself would applaud. So wash it & lube it you do, and then take all your clothes off by the back door as there is no way you can enter the house with half the County attached to your kit.
So it’s all a bit grim really. I haven’t even mentioned the inevitable offs where bike meets rut meets you heading in another direction to the bike. Or wrecking a chain & bottom bracket every month. Or byways where 4×4 off roaders & tractors have left huge, water filled ruts which you can neither avoid nor ride.
Take my story as a warning. Don’t for a second think it will be fun, exhilarating, interesting. Don’t for a moment think you’ll see beautiful places & sunsets, and as you stand by an open gate, have time to capture it all by eye & phone (for Insta, innit). You’ll also hate the complete absence of people & the studying of OS maps days before to select the right balance of bridleway, byway & minor road. You’ll hate the silence, the new routes, and if you do meet someone, the looks of “he’s riding this on a road bike?!?!” as you’ve dropped bars so it must be a road bike, yeah? You’ll hate the fact it’ll inspire your next social media update, your Strava ride title, or even, your first blog.. ?
David Wilson is a very keen cyclist (and blogger), riding round the East Midlands and North Wales, as well as hammering the muddy fields of various Cyclocross leagues.