Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Gravel Grinding; Enduro Specific Roadbiking?

Gravel ready for the grinding
Photo Marcel  van Schie
After a heart warming visit back home to New Zealand to make an honest woman out of Heidi (or rather her making an honest man of me!), then a work trip to Kiribati, I was about ready for a good old fashioned long ride. It just so happened that the trend setting crew at City Bike Depot had planned a trial run of a new concept in road riding: gravel grinding. While I say new, the truth is far from this as for years and years when people circulated the countryside on their penny farthings (or less endo prone safety bicycles), they didn’t feel the need a focus group derived moniker to label their excursion, the very description of bicycling was enough!

So it is understandable then that when gravel grinding started to trend on Twitbox and Instabook, I greeted the concept with derision. The cynic in me saw it is a way to sell another slightly different type of bicycle with fatter tires and vertical compliance. While I’m a staunch believer of the n+1 rule of bicycle ownership, the fact remains that you can ride whatever bicycle you like on whatever terrain, as long as you are willing to accept varying levels of sketchiness and comfort.

Hugh and his crew had put together a 140km loop around Bathurst,  4 hours west of Sydney on the dry side of the Blue Mountains. The area defied its reputation for boganism, with a possie of 15 riders happy to note that the picturesque quiet roads made for some very fine gravel grinding. Very fine indeed.

The bunch of grinders heads out of Bathurst early on
Photo Marcel van Schie
Heidi was aboard a perfect machine for the ride, her well loved Surly Cross-Check, with the only change from commuting spec being a slight drop in tire pressure on her 32mm wide Conti Gatorskins. With cross season coming up I decided some time on my Gates Carbon Drive singlespeed would be fitting, leaving on my 25mm Contis and the 64” gear, mindful that the distance could make a larger ratio overly arduous.  Sydney CX mafioso Rob P. opted for fatter tires and a monster 70” fixed gear, and as we hit the first stretch of gravel with a few skyward pinches, I swear I heard his knees groan in protest, later admitting to taking a number of tactical walks.

The bunch familiarizes themselves with the cue sheets, while Ollie waits for his Garmin to load
Photo Marcel van Schie
Starting at a local sports ground Hugh dished out a cue sheet, thankfully we had GPX backup after the paper melted in the morning mist. We made our way south as a merry rabble, the group amicably parting  when rolling over the stretch of gravel which caused Rob’s first knee trauma. We met this section with whoops of delight, but were shocked to find the experience of riding road bikes on gravel just like riding on the road, only more gravelly. It made a nice crunchy noise as our tires rolled over the rain hardened surface, a smooth and thoroughly enjoyable experience.

The collection of back roads which followed was a symphony of riding delight, cresting rickety old railway passes and darting past historic homesteads, all the while surrounded by the lush greenery of the surrounding farms. Most sections of road we came across less than a single car, which evoked a feeling as if we were in a bygone era free from automotive evil, ambling through the countryside fueled by pure riding joy.

So much natural beauty, even the local spider population were getting amongst it!
Photo Heidi Kahl
The course was not without its challenges, the Olive hill climb making for a particularly challenging stretch, its extended 21% grade teasing with surprising gravel traction, only to let up on standing. By the time we rolled in to Oberon with a mean pie hankering, the sit down was welcomed and we rehydrated with sugary beverages for the final stretch to Bathurst.

Hurtling down a particularly bumpy stretch through a patch of forest, my back wheel hissed with a pinch flat, and I fortunately managed to scrub speed without resorting to secondary braking. A quick change and we were back on the gravel, however the accumulated miles had started to bear their toll on Heidi. When asked which bits hurt, she replied everything, to which silence followed as we crunched the last gravel climb, eager for the downhill run back to Bathurst.

Heidi's post-ride lie down.
Finishing up in seven and a half hours, Heidi starfished on the lush grass of the finish line, quickly rousing herself before limbs stiffened for the ride to where we were staying. Exhaustion quickly faded as we reunited with our buddies and shared highlights from the ride. Both Heidi and I can attest to the joys of gavel grinding particularly in such a beautiful part of the world. But by all means don’t wait to get that gravel specific bike or even for an organized event. The singular thrill of riding skinny tires of gravel is there to be experienced, so drop out some psi, pack a sandwhich and take your road bike out on something sketchy!

Any bike is OK for gravel grinding! Except recumbent trikes, they are never OK.


sifter said...

Nice one. Made me hanker for some gravel!

M said...

Well said Ollie. Was a fun day out,with the weather gods looking out for us too.