Way back in the swirling grey mists of time when I started riding, I had one bike. It had a skinny tubed steel frame and just enough clearance to squeeze in some 2.1” tyres on its citrus, lemon yellow rims. Any retardation requests required advanced notification, preferably in writing and the alleged 60mm of plush fork travel seldom did or was. Before descending, a wise pilot would briefly halt and select the largest chainring of the three available options and manually lower their saddle an obligatory few inches. Once adjustments were deemed satisfactory, one would grip the 590mm wide bars, place their trainer shod feet on the ever so vicious looking bear-trap pedals and throw themselves down whatever presented itself with a heady mix of wild abandon, anxiety and fear.
I loved that bike. We rode the tracks and trails of the Peak District year round. We visited the newly opened trails of Coed-y-Brenin once or twice and during the foot and mouth year, I even learnt how to jump on it. Our time together opened up a previously unknown world that I’ve been submerged in and continually exploring ever since. Thirty year’s sounds like a long time yet in some respects very little’s actually changed since my first ride. I may have a different bike now but I still ride similar trails to those my Continental Explorers first rolled over. I still value the journey far more than the destination and I still refuse to high-five anyone at the bottom of a hill. I work on the premise that ups are only downs in reverse and that simplicity is a bicycle’s greatest asset. That however, is just me and while time may have shuffled slowly in my world, in the one inhabited by most people, it’s raced forward heralding change and progression with each new dawn. Some of these changes have been technological and quite obvious to the naked eye but there are those that are far more subtle yet represent a sea change in our very perception and understanding of the cycling world and our place within it.
When I ride, I mostly do so in the company of no one but myself, yet on occasion, I do meet other souls who are also pushing or carrying a bicycle across a remote corner of the countryside. Some, like me are searching for the wilder places and solitude, while others are simply lost as fuck with no real idea where they are or how they came to be there. While their circumstances may differ, there is a common denominator that’s becoming increasingly apparent and it’s that, by their own admission, these people aren’t mountain bikers but are in fact, gravel riders. In a break from our advertised schedule, I’m not here to criticise that fact or to condemn it. On the contrary, I’m here to congratulate and those congratulations go to the cycle industry on a job well done. In a few years, they’ve achieved what seemed impossible only a short time ago, which is selling mountain bikes to roadies and doing it without them even noticing.
Let’s be absolutely clear – a gravel bike is only a couple of rungs away from my early 90’s mountain bike on the evolutionary stepladder and bigger tyres, wider bars, lower gearing, better brakes, slacker geometry and even limited suspension are pushing the twain ever closer. It’s a triumph of repackaging – I mean, who buys mountain bike guide books any more? After all, many mountain bikers have become ghettoised trail riders with limited need of direction beyond a car-park and a simple arrow. In comparison, gravel guide books are seemingly flying off the press and onto bookshelves and coffee tables across the land. The genius lies in the fact that the routes contained within the pages of a three decade old mountain bike guide will look somewhat similar to those in today’s gravel guide. As long as the veil of drop bars remains intact, then so does the entire illusion. Gravel has quite cleverly filled a vacuum left by trail centres and bike parks and in doing so, the hills are once again being filled with the scent of fear, anxiety and a little wild abandon. We really do appear to he heading full circle and even through my rose-tinted glasses, that’s probably looks like a good thing.