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