Canadian Cycling Magazine - - FEA­TURE -

Rid­ing through the city, I hug the curb as ve­hi­cles fly by close to my el­bow. At the traf­fic light, I look down through car win­dows to see that many driv­ers are typ­ing on their smart­phones, fid­dling with their gpss or ra­dios. Many cities have be­come chaotic messes due to dis­tracted driv­ers, bad in­fra­struc­ture and im­pa­tience. Re­al­iz­ing there is a park ahead, I cut right and dip down into a ravine to find a route where I can ride com­fort­ably and safely. The shift is dra­matic: chirp­ing birds and the cool air off a flow­ing river re­place the noise of car mo­tors and the heat they emit. A breeze blows through the val­ley and trees. A rab­bit hops into the bush, and tur­tles sun on logs. The ten­sion in my body and mind re­lease. The bike I ride, an all-road bike with tires larger than a stan­dard road bike, al­lows me to ride on al­most any ter­rain, so I’ll jump logs, snake along sin­gle­track, cruise along pea-gravel paths, speed across tar­mac and find a route that may me­an­der, but will even­tu­ally get me to my des­ti­na­tion. At the end, I’ll feel elated in­stead of frus­trated.

Cy­clists have al­ways sought out novel ex­pe­ri­ences whether along the Silk Road, over a moun­tain pass or down a back al­ley. The evo­lu­tion of bi­cy­cle tech­nol­ogy to­ward ver­sa­tile gravel or mixed-sur­face bi­cy­cles has made exploratio­n eas­ier and cy­cling more en­joy­able, whether that’s through re­mote ar­eas or sim­ply in a large, busy Cana­dian city.

In most de­vel­oped na­tions, cy­cling in the 1800s and into the 1900s was mainly done on gravel or mixed sur­faces. But, as more roads were paved across the world, cy­clists left the gravel for the smooth tar­mac. Traf­fic was not yet a prob­lem. In re­cent years, as the num­ber of cars has in­creased in most of the world, and pop­u­la­tions have grown, cy­clists are tran­si­tion­ing back into mixed-sur­face cy­cling. As a result, there have been some key in­no­va­tions in the cy­cling in­dus­try that make mixed-sur­face rid­ing more ef­fi­cient, sta­ble, safer and more com­fort­able. As rid­ers move off-road, many are find­ing new plea­sures on the bike: a sense of dis­cov­ery, ad­ven­ture, calm and es­cape – the as­pects of cy­cling that give us a sense of free­dom.

For chil­dren and teenagers, gravel rid­ing and trail rid­ing not only pro­vide safer al­ter­na­tives to road rid­ing within fast mov­ing traf­fic, but on the dirt, young rid­ers also im­prove their bike-han­dling skills. Some of the best road rid­ers in the world – think Peter Sa­gan and Wout van Aert – be­gan their ca­reers on bmx, cy­clocross and moun­tain bikes. The skills they learned help them to avoid crashes and ma­noeu­vre through a tightly bunched pelo­ton that is hurtling through a city cen­tre or thrash­ing down a moun­tain.

Of course, get­ting off the beaten path and away from traf­fic and city noise isn’t new. For many, it is the rea­son they ride. Gen­er­a­tions of cy­clists have been rid­ing across fields and moors, have cut paths through woods and climbed goat tracks to­ward peaks to get away and ex­plore. The Rough Stuff Fel­low­ship, a club based in the United King­dom, has been pur­su­ing off-road rid­ing since 1955. An eclec­tic bunch – some of them rode trikes, oth­ers rode tandems but most took to old tour­ing bikes. Now most are on moun­tain bikes, gravel bikes or tour­ing bikes with wider tires. Their de­sire to ex­plore the coun­try­side by bike brings them to­gether and takes them on jour­neys through the U.K. and through­out the world. My father, a Brit who was a keen cy­clocross rider and cross-coun­try run­ner, was a mem­ber. When he im­mi­grated to Canada, his love for gravel roads and muddy tracks in­flu­enced the events and clubs he or­ga­nized in south­ern On­tario. Along with or­ga­niz­ing one of North Amer­ica’s first ’cross races in 1964, he started an event north of Toronto over muddy tracks and gravel roads in 1986 that was also likely the first of its type in Canada. Now it would fall into the cat­e­gory of event called a gravel grinder. He was al­ways in search of the qui­eter, of­ten tougher route, that would turn a good ride into a mem­o­rable ad­ven­ture. Even 10 years ago, rid­ers were still lim­ited in bike

choice, as few com­pa­nies were pro­duc­ing bikes, parts or tires suitable for the ter­rain of my father’s event. Cy­clists rode what­ever bikes they had, whether a road, moun­tain, cy­clocross or tour­ing bike. Some ended up walk­ing sec­tions, but most had a mem­o­rable time and re­turned an­nu­ally.

The ap­peal of off-road gravel events is that they are wel­com­ing to al­most ev­ery level of cy­clist as the com­pe­ti­tion is fierce at the head of the race, while oth­ers can sim­ply en­joy a day out through scenic and chal­leng­ing coun­try­side with­out feel­ing the pres­sure to keep up with the best. Most com­pet­i­tive cy­cling is a ruth­less af­fair where in­ex­pe­ri­ence, a lack of fit­ness or a sim­ple punc­ture can leave you ped­alling alone, or worse, out of the race. In con­trast, gravel events are in­clu­sive mass-start rides in which par­ents can ride with their chil­dren and am­a­teurs can try to beat their pro­fes­sional idols.

Toronto cy­clist Jac­ques Larac­ques neatly summed up the ap­peal of dirt and gravel: “It’s less about speed and more about skill. This means you can keep im­prov­ing as you age. Also, as the ter­rain gets a bit more tech­ni­cal, you think less about push­ing your­self and get more in the flow of the ride. You can en­joy the for­est or the dirt roads and get a work­out with­out con­stantly fo­cus­ing on the ef­fort the way you need to on a road ride.”

In the past five years, mod­ern bike de­sign has shifted the way in which the ma­jor­ity of cy­clists ride. Ver­sa­tile bi­cy­cles that look like typ­i­cal road bikes but have clear­ance for larger tires – such as gravel bikes, all-road bikes or the more tra­di­tional cy­clocross bikes – al­low cy­clists to move away from tar­mac streets to ride safer routes, while also be­ing more com­fort­able on pot­holed roads, trails and un­even ter­rain. For the ma­jor­ity of cy­clists, these bikes are far bet­ter suited to their needs than stiff, aero­dy­namic car­bon-fi­bre rac­ing bikes with skinny tires and deep sec­tion car­bon rims. Not only can the gravel bikes shine on a va­ri­ety of ter­rain, they are also more com­fort­able to ride due to the frame de­sign and their pil­lowy tires that ab­sorb road vi­bra­tions. Most of the current gravel bikes can eas­ily be loaded up for tour­ing or bikepack­ing. They can take fend­ers for ad­verse con­di­tions and stud­ded tires in the win­ter months. As a result, wider tire bikes, most of which fall into the gravel-bike cat­e­gory, have be­come the largest sec­tor of growth in the bi­cy­cle in­dus­try in re­cent years. For many of us, our tra­di­tional road bikes now hang on hooks in the garage while our gravel bikes are used ev­ery day.

Through­out my pro­fes­sional road rac­ing ca­reer, which spanned 1998 to 2012, I had a cy­clocross bike fit­ted with fend­ers so that I could ven­ture up into the moun­tains un­der fresh fall­ing snow or take off into the woods for a day’s ad­ven­ture in mid­sum­mer heat. Few joined me, lim­ited by their road bikes. In in­clement weather, the bike

al­lowed me to keep rid­ing out­doors while oth­ers rode on their train­ers. I could also es­cape the usual rou­tines of train­ing to re­gain a sense of why I loved rid­ing my bike. Out in the woods, on an old fire road, rid­ing didn’t feel like work, as it of­ten could when I was fol­low­ing a regime of struc­tured in­ter­vals.

The bike I rode was al­most ideal, but clear­ance in the frame lim­ited the size of tire I could ride to 35 mm and, there­fore, also lim­ited the trails I could take. Plum­met­ing down rocky de­scents on nar­row tires in­evitably led to punc­tures. The can­tilever brakes were fine but disc brakes, which al­most ev­ery new gravel bike car­ries, have made de­scend­ing, es­pe­cially in ad­verse con­di­tions, far more se­cure. Also, most mod­ern gravel bikes can ac­com­mo­date tires as wide as 42 mm, or even greater if smaller, 650b/27.5" or 26" wheels are fit­ted, a pos­si­bil­ity as wheels can eas­ily be swapped on a bi­cy­cle with disc brakes. There are now hun­dreds of tire op­tions, from knobby mud tires to wide, sta­ble high-vol­ume slicks, that will make al­most any ter­rain eas­ier to ride. Also, im­prove­ments in tube­less tech­nol­ogy elim­i­nate pinch flats and re­duce punc­tures.

Much of the current tech­nol­ogy that bi­cy­cle builders and man­u­fac­tur­ers have incorporat­ed into gravel bikes has been adopted from past moun­tain, road and cy­clocross bikes. For more than half a cen­tury, cy­clocross rid­ers used one chain­ring (1-by driv­e­train) to keep their chains from jam­ming or bounc­ing off. Shocks and elas­tomers, com­mon on moun­tain bikes for decades, were then tried in the 1990s by the pro­fes­sional pelo­ton in the Cob­bled Classics, but were quickly aban­doned as they were in­ef­fi­cient and heavy on smoother sur­faces. Wider han­dle­bars with flared drops that im­prove sta­bil­ity when car­ry­ing a heavy load or rid­ing on tech­ni­cal ter­rain have been used by ran­don­neurs and tour­ing cy­clists for decades. El­e­vated chain­stays, like on the Allied Able, that in­crease tire clear­ance and pre­vent the chain from jam­ming be­tween the ring and the tube, or slap­ping the frame tubes, were first used on early moun­tain bikes. There are also dropped chain­stays, such as on the Open U.P. and u.p.p.e.r.,

that ac­com­plish some of the same re­sults. Some of the tech­nol­ogy has changed the way we ride and where we can ride, while other tech­nol­ogy, some of it gim­micky, will be aban­doned be­cause it’s in­ef­fec­tive or overly com­plex. Ul­ti­mately, a bi­cy­cle that is built to be rid­den deep into the woods or back­coun­try needs to be com­fort­able, re­li­able, sim­ple and easy-to-ser­vice.

Bar­ri­ers to en­try in the gravel/mixed-sur­face bike mar­ket have dropped as the bikes have be­come more main­stream. Cur­rently, most bike man­u­fac­tur­ers have at least one mixed-sur­face bike of­fer­ing. There is a wide range of op­tions in terms of both price points and spe­cial­iza­tion. You can pur­chase a bike based on the per­cent­age of gravel, road, sin­gle­track rid­ing you plan to do. The avail­abil­ity of mixed-sur­face rid­ing ac­ces­sories has also added to the over­all level of cus­tomiza­tion and com­fort: gravel-spe­cific shoes, seat­posts with sus­pen­sion, gel pad­ding for the han­dle­bars to re­duce numb­ness and sore­ness i n the hands, tech­ni­cal T-shirts, bib shorts with ad­di­tional cush­ion­ing and map­ping de­vices that link with apps such as Trail­forks that can guide you through a deep, thick for­est.

Across all dis­ci­plines of cy­cling, gear­ing has changed and the avail­abil­ity of a wider range of gears, along with the sta­bil­ity pro­vided by wider tires and flared han­dle­bars, has made mixed-sur­face rid­ing safer and more ac­ces­si­ble for all lev­els of cy­clists. Dur­ing the 1970s and ’80s, cy­clocross gear­ing usu­ally in­cluded a 42-tooth chain­ring with a five-to-nine speed, 13–28 range of cogs in the rear. Many rides and races in­volved sec­tions where rid­ers needed to carry or push their bikes. To­day 12-speed driv­e­trains on gravel bikes have be­come the norm and can be used with 10–50 tooth cas­settes, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to grind up steep, rocky in­clines.

As the mar­ket for gravel bikes has flour­ished dur­ing the past five years, Shi­mano and sram have de­signed groupsets suited to the con­stantly shift­ing ter­rain of a gravel ride. These groups have a wide range of gears.

Their rear de­railleurs have built-in clutches that re­duce the chance of the chain bounc­ing off the chain­ring on bumpy ter­rain. All the parts are slightly more ro­bust. The brake/gear levers are er­gonom­i­cally de­signed for bet­ter con­trol when jump­ing logs and rocks, splashing through rivers or snaking through deep sand.

De­spite all the tech­nol­ogy, what re­mains most im­por­tant in help­ing a cy­clist to be com­fort­able and safe on a bike are the an­gles of the frame and the rider’s po­si­tion. The bike does not only need to fit prop­erly but the rider’s weight must also be bal­anced be­tween the front and rear wheel to en­sure the bike han­dles well, es­pe­cially when cor­ner­ing, climb­ing, de­scend­ing, nav­i­gat­ing rough ter­rain and rid­ing out of the sad­dle. A good gravel bike should be quick on tar­mac or smooth gravel and com­fort­able and sta­ble on bumpier, rougher ter­rain. A com­fort­able, ver­sa­tile bike al­lows the cy­clist to stay out longer and ride far­ther.

Back on my own ride, dip­ping on to trails and cut­ting across fields, the bike floats un­der­neath me ab­sorb­ing the bumps and feel­ing as though it is sim­ply an ex­ten­sion of my body. My thoughts wan­der. I gaze at the clouds, take deep breaths of the wood­land aro­mas; I am present. I’ve rid­den hun­dreds of thou­sands of kilo­me­tres in my life­time, yet over time my de­sire to ride has only in­creased as there are al­ways friends to ac­com­pany, chal­lenges to meet and a world to ex­plore. There is noth­ing like it.

right above The start of Paris to An­caster (p2a), one of the first and still most pop­u­lar mixed-sur­face races in On­tario

right It’s not un­com­mon to see moun­tain bike and drop-bar rid­ers bat­tling head to head at p2a

top left The first Open U.P. gravel bike is one of, if not the first, to use a dropped chain­stay to in­crease tire clearence

above In the early ’90s, the Yeti Ul­ti­mate be­came one of the first bikes to uti­lize el­e­vated chain­stays

top right The Allied Able gravel bike fea­tures a raised chain­stay de­sign

be­low Peter Morse, Michael and Dede Barry ex­plore ar­eas un­reach­able by con­ven­tional road bikes

right With tube­less-tire tech­nol­ogy, you will do a lot less of this

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