Saturday, July 27, 2013

Gravel Dabbling

I love a good Shel Silverstein homage.

Last weekend, I finally decided to scratch an itch that's been nagging at me lately and do a tiny bit of gravel riding, inspired by local dusty pals Steve F and Tom A, not to mention the blogular exploits of Pondero. I didn't do much off-pavement, maybe half to three-quarters of a 30-mile ride exploring the side roads off a local rail-trail, but it was definitely enough to whet my appetite for limestone grit. 

Before I'm accused of being a johnny-come-lately to the rocky stuff, let me lay out some bona fides: I grew up on gravel. We lived in rural Illinois, where gravel roads were just called "roads." As a kid, if I didn't ride gravel, I didn't ride. My "gravel bike" (a.k.a. my "bike") in those days was a hand-me-down early 70s Schwinn Continental: the mile-long wheelbase and big 27" wheels (probably fifteen pounds of Schwinn-approved steel right there) were unfazed by the washboard that characterized Illinois gravel roads. Float? Yeah, that baby had float.

On the gravel roads, I learned the bike handling skills that would pay off a few years later when real mountain biking caught my eye: finding the best line, keeping my weight balanced over the wheels, riding with a loose upper body (but not loose enough to lose the bars if things get really hairy), and generally trusting momentum. Thankfully, when I hit the Iowa gravel last weekend, the old synapses started firing (albeit much slower than they used to) and I was a twelve-year-old kid cruising the country roads again.

My "gravel bike" this time around is what I'm calling my "monster-road" Raleigh Clubman (if they can invent the marketing term "monstercross" for a fatter-tired cyclocross bike, then why can't I do the same with road bikes?) It's sporting 700x32 Panaracer Paselas on 32-spoke wheels, plastic fenders (again, finally), big Tektro dual-pivots with Kool Stop pads, and a bog-stock Tiagra 50x34/12-26 drivetrain. If I were just riding rough stuff, I'd want more tire clearance, but in terms of striking a balance between gravel capability and fun on pavement, I think it's right in my sweet spot. Basically, it's everything the Continental was, minus the weight of a compact car.

A couple things intrigue me about gravel riding: One (and I'm going to go snobby here -- you've been warned) is the solitude. I'd forgotten how peaceful a ride can be without running into a mildly intoxicated RAGBRAI "team" and its requisite 200-decibel sound system every 100 yards. Once I left the rail-trail, it was just me, my bike, and that delightful crunching sound of tires on limestone. I only saw one other rider on the rough stuff, a kid who -- like a much-younger me -- was just riding the roads around his house. It was bliss.

Two, the whole "gravel scene" (quotes intentional) seems like it hasn't been co-opted (yet). Shoot, I'm being snobby again, aren't i? As I read more about the state of gravel riding, the whole thing feels like mountain biking did way back in the day: unsanctioned, fun, casual, just people doing it for the sake of doing it. While the bike manufacturers are starting to notice the niche and produce "gravel-specific" bikes to add to their quiver of super-hyper-specialized "you must have a 27-bike collection to be happy!" options, the people out there actually doing it seem to have a "ride what you got and make it work" mentality. As a gear-geek, that's fun to watch. I'm fascinated by the "why" of it, the reasons for each individual choice, and the diversity that's produced when people don't have a catalog telling them what a "gravel bike" is. As a marketing geek, I'm also interested to see how the big players are going to coalesce those grassroots choices into showroom SKUs -- probably with a few hilarious missteps along the way.

I'd prattle on more, but Steve F has pointed me to a promising strip of gravel that I missed last weekend, and that thing isn't going to ride itself.


Anonymous said...

the best thing about riding gravel is that it'll be about impossible for hipsters in New York to adopt it!

I've spent some of my youth pedaling on gravel too... it's a good way to learn to ride on loose material, which is a skill that translates fairly well to slippery winter roads too. The dust is a bit much for my tastes nowadays, but at least its probably cleaner than mountain biking.

So if gravel riding becomes popular, and Iowa becomes a gravel mecca, will we hear you saying "Nobody rides gravel roads anymore... they're too crowded"??

Steve in Peoria,
where there aren't many crushed limestone roads such as are found in Iowa.

Pondero said...

You can't get any more authentic than "...just called roads".

The solitude is one of the great joys, of course, especially with regard to motorized vehicles. But I wouldn't mind the company of a few like-minded buddies occasionally.

Jason T. Nunemaker said...

Steve - I like the thought of Iowa being a gravel mecca! We'll be like Moab, except the rock will be bumpy instead of slick. :-)

Pondero - after my second gravel ride (report forthcoming), I feel differently about the perceived solitude of it. While I saw fewer riders, the people I happened to catch in their yards or fields were more friendly, and the (rare) cars passed with a wide, cautious berth. I could have done without the farm dog sprint intervals, though!

Steve Fuller said...

Welcome (back) to the fold. :) Anytime you want to cruise the local limestone, lemme know.