Zap’s Column

The joys challenges and trevails of gravel riding

Here’s a news item (not). Cycling is a funny sport. I don’t follow a lot of other sports, but from what I can tell, there aren’t a lot of them where the fans and participants have as much interest in knowing and talking the business side of the sport as they do participating in it as cyclists. On my last group ride I heard as many conversations about training regimens and new products as I did gossip about Rapha losing millions of dollars in 2018 and Team Sky losing their title sponsor. 

One other topic that was making the rounds as we pedaled along was the news that after 33 years acting as America’s premier bike show, the Interbike trade show was no more. For many of us who have grown old in the bike industry, it was as much an emotional blow as it was professional. 

Given that the show had never really opened its doors to consumers, it was odd to hear so many consumers opine on its demise. Yes, it’s an industry story, but it’s one which speaks as much about the show as the bike industry itself—perfect fodder for the next group ride!

GRAVELITIS

As I’m sure we all know by now, gravel riding means a lot of different things to different people. For as long as we’ve been including gravel bikes in the pages of RBA, one thing I’ve noticed is how tolerant gravel fans seem to be in comparison to the gravel detractors. That assumption is based on the fact that I never seem to get hate mail from irate gravel riders for not including gravel in any particular issue. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said by the road purists who often take to threats (of canceling their subscriptions) as a means to alter our editorial content more to their liking. Crazy, huh? 

And just as it’s true among road riders; there is no broad swath of gravel enthusiasts that can be covered with a single brush stroke. There are many different types of gravel riders in terms of how people ride, where they ride and what they ride. This point was made clear when I was talking to my pal Pierre, who is a local mountain biker.

“You crashed again?! Dad, have you ever stopped to think that maybe you’re not as good at riding bikes as you think you are?”

 In recounting a recent ride on our local Brown Mountain, I was getting giddy reliving the thrill of hammering the stutter bumps as fast as possible in the drops. Pierre was having none of it. “Even with suspension, I hate those things. When I start going too fast on those bumps, my eyeballs start bouncing in my head and I know it’s time to slow down.”  If only I had listened.

HARDPACK VS. SOFT-PACK

The next day I headed back out for some more fire roads doing my best to exploit the advantages of some big 45mm tires. Just a few weeks prior I’d ridden the same fire road on some pinner 34mm tires, and all I can say is the difference was like night and day. Wheel options—and the bigger tires they allow—is easily one of the most impactful design improvements when it comes to riding fast off-road.

As I approached the celebrated section of stutters, I let loose the brakes, putting more faith in a bike’s capabilities than I was soon to realize or had talent to exploit. And, just as Pierre had described it, my eyes started bouncing in my head as the bike began bouncing across the road. “Yeah, I got this,” I thought to myself. Turns out, I didn’t.

Once the front wheel got away from me, it steered the bike directly into a field of deep rain ruts. It was at that point when I knew I was doomed. No matter which direction they run, rain ruts, for me, remain the single-most sketchy gravel hazard.  

A DAUGHTER’S QUERY

Wouldn’t you know that of all the times for my daughter to call it would be minutes after I’d picked myself up off the ground. Although I would always interrupt whatever I was doing to answer her phone calls, this time I wasn’t sure if I should pick up, but I did. 

“You crashed again?! Dad, have you ever stopped to think that maybe you’re not as good at riding bikes as you think you are?”

Actually, no, I’ve never thought that before. But, after I dusted myself off, wiped away the blood, straightened the handlebars and did my best to creak the rear derailleur from out of the spokes so that it would deliver some shifts (only two gears), my mind began to wonder, “Could she be right?!”

My problem is that no matter how much every pedal stroke on the road makes me feel young, it’s always with an air of caution. When it comes to off-road riding, I enter a different universe and lose my mind to every vestige of my reckless two-wheeled youth that I still feel so attached to. As such, there is just something about hitting the stutter bumps at speed and having to confront that moment when you’ve exceeded the limits of traction, bump absorption and, yes, even talent, that produces a euphoric clash between enthusiasm and self-doubt. It’s a level of exultation that I don’t allow myself on the road. I guess that’s one reason why I like gravel riding.

GravelZapmounatin bike