It's nearly been a year since we added the gravel bike to the fleet and in all honesty, it's been a hit and miss adventure. For all the good riding moments, we've had tech issues that has made us consider getting rid of the thing! So if you're thinking that your next n+1 should be a gravel bike, let us take you through our journey before you make your mind up.
Probably the best bit about buying a new bike is searching for one because you get ahead of yourself and you end up in the premium section looking at bikeporn when you know you have nowhere near the funds to complete the transaction! Our budget wasn't big by any means, it was more of what hit can I take and get the most out of. I wanted a gravel bike because I realised I was brutalising my Tarmac every Winter and every bad weather ride. It's not really designed to take on the worst of the British roads so what could I add to my collection that will handle the crap roads, a bit of off-road and still keep a relatively good road pace? The answer was a gravel bike.
With the help of my trusted tech know it all buddy Chris Detsicas, I weighed up a few options but as each option lead to an out of stock dead end, I found myself ordering a GT Grade with a 105 groupset, disc brakes are standard on gravel machines. Tip here is to not to look to the big chains and stores but search around the online sites of the LB's because we managed to get ours (although it was an old model - still brand new though) for around £600. Obviously, looking at previous years models just as the brands are about to release their upcoming range is prime time of when you will find a decent deal.
In hindsight and something I will mention later, I would of loved to gone with the single chainring upfront, it saves on a bit of weight and maintenance which we will get to. You usually get stock wheels with a bike purchase unless you happen to stumble on a really good deal, have wheels of your own or the brand offers you a customised option. Once again, we will get to this issue later but the wheels didn't last long at all. The tyres that also came with didn't match up with what was on the spec and were road based rather than gravel. A few emails to the shop (I honestly can not remember where I got the bike from!) but no reply, I got the feeling they were happy to get rid of old stock and chucked the tyres on there and it was case closed for them. So I had to invest already in some off road tyres but budget was next to nothing so Halfords it was for some £10 Schwalbe CX Comp 700 x 30c tyres which actually turned out to be really good value for money. Apart from that, it was a cracking looking bike. I loved the frame geometry and the bars/shifters were turned out, I felt like a proper CX/gravel rider!
Find Me Some Gravel
Right, where's the gravel? My area is full of small parks and a nature reserve of some sort so finding a mostly gravel/off-road route was a challenge at first. I am now clued up to which areas to avoid because it's just a bog and to where to jump on the road to get to my next trail section. And that's where the fun is with gravel. Yes, you could do it on a MTB but with the drops and the lighter frame, you can get your head down with a bit of speed to the next segment to explore.
First ride knocked me a bit though. The weight difference from the Tarmac to the GT is considerable and going back on the Tarmac is a bit worse, takes a minute or two to get used to the lightness of the steering again. The increase in grip for the wider tyres is very welcomed though although these were only 30s, I didn't know what maximum size tyres the wheels could take so I went safe and just sized up from the 27s I was sent.
The biggest pull of having an off-road bike is the scope for exploring. You are restricted on a road bike. I remember on my ride to Paris for Astriid, we were taken down a farm track and the amount of muck and clay which clogged up a lot of expensive looking bikes was unreal. On a gravel bike, it was probably doable. Don't get me wrong, it too also has it's limitations. I found through a short section of slush, it was fine but as soon as the mud thickens, you're just spinning on the spot. The first few times, the back end started dancing but if you keep confident, you start to react to the slides and control the bike better.
The bike though does come alive on proper gravel. I was beginning to gain confidence in corners more, I was at first still adopting a roadie mindset but you have to realise the tyres here are designed to handle rough stuff. Through the Winter of 2020, my commute to work changed from the roads around Heathrow to the connecting parks to school. There was potential for a route which I'd say around 80% could be off-road. I took the opportunity at weekends to scout these trails and I'm glad I did because some parts were impassable. Massive shame because the quietness and isolation trails give you is such a welcome compared to the noise and bustling of road traffic. Is it safer though? All depends. I'd really recommend scouting trails first before you commit to them more. You'll begin to learn where the best spots to put the hammer down, where tree roots stick out, where there is most likely to be standing water. The downside to isolation is that you're isolated. Come off here and you may never ever be found again...!
My commute though was really enjoyable. I could cut across Hanworth Airpark on the proper gravel paths, pop onto the cycle lane over the railway track, down a back road towards Cranford and then dive into a local nature reserve which connects into an under rated Cranford Park and I am at school. 8 miles in around 30minutes compared to my usual road route which was 8 miles again but around 25minutes. That extra 5 minutes for some peace and quiet? I was sold on commuting this way for the future!
So apart from a few gravel paths and trails near NITP HQ, they didn't really take me anywhere I haven't been before. So I asked around for a gravel route and thankfully, Harry from Insta had a GIRO Cafe route he uses and he kindly shared it with me. So off I went one Sunday into Surrey to check out some off-road sections. I've been past these commons and woodlands many times on my road bike but I have never had the chance to explore inside...until now! Gravel, mud, muck and even sand presented itself and it was a lot of fun. Some sections were busy with walkers and I did lose my bearings at one point and ended up creating my own cut through but just shows a few miles down the road from home, there's a playground that I've only just got a taste of. I will be back.
Depending on the weather, I jumped between the Tarmac and the GT for commuting. I assumed the GT could take more of a battering but I was slightly mistaken as not once, not twice, but 3 times on the same wheel I get a broken spoke! Andy (@thebikingbruce) did his best to replace the spokes but I had enough of the wheels. I know my other wheels have aero spokes but they feel are much more stiff and they seem better equipped to deal with bumps and bruises. So a new wheelset had to be researched and brought. I was recommended the Mavic Allroads with the Panaracer Gravel Kings. The Mavics cost me just over £200 from a bike store in Italy (pre-Brexit) and the tyres were a little pricey compared to what we usually budget for at £60. They were both set up for tubeless but I didn't have the knowhow or confidence to go down that route but my god, the tyres were really tight to get on the rim. I was in deep ___ if I get a puncture...
And what happens in the first week? I roll over a screw which refuses to come out. My phone's battery has also died from the cold and I have forgotten my bank card so it was a 4mi walk of shame back home. I was so p****d off. I had a massive blister on my heel from the walking and I was freezing. I also assumed £60 went down the drain but when I got home and managed to get the screw out, the hole was actually small and hidden underneath one of the nobbly bits so I dodged a bullet there.
Lockdown 3.0 and we are at home remote teaching to our class. Which means commutes have stopped and have been replaced with Zwift rides which has been really helpful. Just jump on and go, stick a bit of music on and spin some Winter miles. But because everything is closed and my commutes have temporarily been suspended, my outside world has literally shrunk. So inspired by others especially Guy Stapleford (who is probably the most insane person I have ever known to attempt to endurance challenges), I decided to try some night rides and wow! The emptiness, the quietness, the surreal environment lockdown has created, the night time really enhances it. Honestly, there was moments I thought I would never day ride again!
We feel we have exhausted our local area for the time being, the wet Winter weather has closed off a few routes for us so a revisit in the Summer will be on the cards. Our local rides have consisted of muck, graffiti and the odd ride by a teenager on a scrambler!
Ironically, it seems Summer trails is the optimum time for gravel if you want to tear up some segments with speed! But we're all hoping for a more open year when it comes to getting out and exploring and fingers crossed we all get it. I bet you've all done this and have started to make a little ride list for 2021 just in case we're all set free again! Our list includes:
- River Thames and Chobham Common Exploring
- Grand Union Canal
- South Downs Way
- King Alfred's Way
- The Downs Link
Our ears open to any other gravel/off-road ideas if you want to share, our DMs are always open! In the mean time, we have found a happy place with our gravel bike. It's had some moments where selling it looked a much better option than riding it but finally we've come to an agreement that if I looked after it, it would look after me.