I love a good Shel Silverstein homage.
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.