“What’s the point of riding gravel?”, a friend of mine asked me just the other day. To me, as I am rather fond of it, it seems obvious. Because it’s awesome. That’s the only answer you need, right?
He went on to say that he loves riding his road bike on roads, and when he wants something off-road and more challenging, that’s what his mountain bike is for, which he also rides a lot, and rides rather well.
This gravel riding thing, then, is not quite hot enough, and not quite cool enough. It tries to be two things and ends up being neither of them.
Firstly, you either like something or you don’t, so there’s no point in trying to argue someone into being fond of something. It’s not like you’re trying to argue a moral position for something that will cause or alleviate suffering, so there’s no need to make sure everyone is on board. People like things because they like them, and that’s all that needs to be said.
So to that end, there’s no point in trying to argue for riding a road bike, CX bike, or similar, on gravel roads.
But I feel I must come to the defense of gravel, or at least to address this particular criticism.
See, gravel riding is done for much the same reasons as anyone rides a bike, which is to say, for pleasure, restoration of the body and the mind, for the challenge, for the fitness, a way to enjoy time with friends, and all the rest. The reason why (I think) it is so great, though, is the same reason why hiking, especially back-country hiking, or trail-running is so great.
Road cycling is like walking or running along city streets or paths. You can do that for all the same reasons as those listed above.
Mountain biking is like proper mountain climbing. It requires a higher level of skill and comes with a higher risk of danger. There is far more of a technical challenge to both, and your focus, at least while in the moment, is all about clearing those logs or rocks without falling over, or making sure that handhold is a good one and the ropes are secure. Obviously these are both highly enjoyable and satisfying things, and are enjoyed for many of the same reasons as those listed above, but there is a different, if not greater, sense of achievement attached to it.
In the middle we have hiking or trail-running. This is gravel riding. It’s getting your normal run in while also getting away from it all. It’s getting a different view with different sounds. It’s quieter. There’s a better sense of being connected to nature than pounding the city streets. It’s getting your hands a little dirtier than running, but without the higher risk of mountain climbing.
Of course, this still has to appeal to you. You have to want to explore a bit. You have to be ok with getting a little dirty. You don’t necessarily want the challenge of remaining upright to be the main focus, but you do want to get a little further from civilization than the usual roads take you. You don’t necessarily need an adrenaline rush but do take pleasure in a bit of suffering and amazing views that you don’t normally see from the smooth, sealed roads everyone else rides.
Some people like the challenge, which can be technical, but quite different from mountain biking. That’s what rides like these are for, whether large organized events or just with a few good mates.
Can you accomplish these things on paved roads and mountain bike-only trails? Absolutely. I’ve had brilliant times on both. Really, significantly memorable times. But something that I just this moment realized is that one reason I enjoy gravel is because if the same roads were paved and smooth, there is nothing to slow you down. Nothing to keep you in the moment. The descents are done in an instant. Your cruising speed is just that little bit slower on gravel that it makes you linger in these moments a little longer. Of course, that can also be the source of agony when you’ve had enough, but then that also adds to the challenge.
For me, the rides I remember most are the ones where the grandeur of my surroundings smacks me in the face. The view. The light. The road. The colours. The stillness. The raw beauty of it all.
Just like trail-running or hiking, instead of not being jogging or climbing, you do get all of the benefits of running with a healthy dose of getting a bit more nature all up in your grill.
And that’s gravel riding. For anyone looking for the in-between, who want to add an extra element to your rides, who want to do a bit of exploring and like a bit of adventure, grab whatever bike you have, and go find some gravel.
All images: The Sticky Bidon