There are times we feel a strong impulse to expose the skeleton in the cupboard. You've likely experienced the pressure between yearning to reveal a secret while holding back from speaking. Keeping secrets creates complicated human dilemmas. I have this relationship with gravel riding and after years spent on the trails, I'm at the precipice of spilling the beans.
I've one mind to hold on to the secret and selfishly retain my solitude on the trails. The other thought is fed by a more generous perspective. This involves sharing why some of your craziest most challenging experiences on two wheels could happen on gravel.
Many tribulations experienced on the trails rely on solidarity and serenity. Hence the hesitancy to invite the hordes. But, to steal a quote by Erin Morgenstern, "sharing secrets, real secrets, important ones, with even one other person, will change them." The power of riding into the unknown has such an effect that I figure withholding the experience in these times of anxiety and uncertainty is frankly unfair.
Following Hays Road gravel trail to best unwind from City life (Image credit :Leo Lopez)
Who benefits from riding gravel?
You don't need to be an adventure junkie to understand how riding a dirt track along the ridge of a Mountain offers a great way to release stress. When it comes to maintaining mental strength I'm convinced riding gravel is a potent medicine. Getting off the bitumen to escape from a bustling city life is a perfect tonic. What's more, anyone who's travelled gravel country roads knows the attractions for trails comes from the lack of cars, people and traffic lights. Without street signs navigating dirt trails offers a way to rekindle your awareness and excitement for adventures in life.
Mountains like these give opportunity for tough gravel adventures
Alongside acknowledging the health benefits gained for us amateur riders during moments of solitude, there's also a noticeable popularity towards towards the momentum of competitive gravel racing. Holding back any secret charms of gravel in the face of this new and popular style of riding would be like struggling against a tide.
With the recent UCI sanctioned gravel World Championships, the term “gravel” is splashed across cycling headlines. As expected, the competitive sport is increasingly commercialised. There are new bikes and kit, specific tracking devices and medical supplies, fresh races and sportives developed by a bevy of Brands investing in gravel.
A prime example of investment by established manufacturers is Wilier Triestina announcing a new breed of gravel bike. One step ahead, the Italians managed to create what I've always termed the “unicorn bicycle” – an all-terrain race bike advertised to “do it all.” The specific geometry and technology allow the fortunate rider of a RAVE SLR to compete without compromise on road and gravel. With the UCI on the gravel bandwagon, Wilier Triestina muscled into the competitive gravel scene by winning the very first UCI Serenissima Gravel race. With the cycling industry's European and American investments in gravel, this sport is a well-kept secret no more.
(Image credit: Eloise Mavian & Francesco Rachello)
But gravel riding is more than regulated routes and rules driven by stats and a desire for podium positions. It's better. Gravel riding proves always a challenge. It gives everyday riders the chance to travel beyond the unknown. Gravel's potential to increase in popularity is not born from watching a race. Instead, gravel promises to push your cycling limits and forces you to test your comfort zones. Beyond learning how to handle your bike, you'll need to polish survival and navigational skills and be aware of weather patterns. You may even need to know about the local wildlife behaviours.
There's no time to be risk averse if you're travelling trails like these at Dinner Planes
So on a quest to extend a practiced taste for local trails, I'll recount four reasons why gravel appeals to such a wide range of riders especially those needing motivation and some extra spice in life.
Number one: Repeating the same road routes or following someone's strava ride can become monotonous.
After 10 years of leading and teaching bunch riding, I've become a tad numb from retracing the same roads. There will always be riders who love to follow a length of bitumen in continuum. For them change is found not in the environment but oneself. Stats like heart rate, watts, speed, distance, endurance are recorded and compared. For me, those days are gone.
I will happily replace any QOM gained on a local hill. I'll replace it with the succession of celebrated moments I stay upright on a trail. When you don't know what's coming there's a constant mind game as to how far you can push yourself. There's this self-congratulations playing out in your head as you successfully make it from one new landmark to another.
Climbing a slippery hill (Image credit: Leo Lopez)
Such times are found when conquering steep rocky climbs. You need to work hard to avoid slipping out. It takes engaging your core, avoiding particular types of rock while choosing a good line to lead you straight to the top. Its not like a road ride where you plan to avoid a familiar pothole. This territory is always new and never boring.
There are so many moments of triumph that eventuate from a single gravel ride. When you're unaware of what's around the corner your library of built skills mean you can handle the variety thrown at you.
Continually wondering and then discovering what exists beyond a visible trail is a definite gravel charm.
Adventure is why my gravel partner Nadine and I built a plethora of gravel routes over the last few years. Nadine is my gravel partner in literal crime, aka The Destroyer. Looking after her equipment is not a strong point. But jumping a fence or two to discover trails is a superpower.
Alison McGregor & gravel partner Nadine Reynolds (Image credit : Leo Lopez)
Many times our bikes have been carried through snake-infested scrub. We plunge into water holes or rivers only to drag our bikes up boulders. There's pity for riders who, after our wake, dare to follow our Strava recorded foolery (more bike hike than riding). This situation led me to title particular rides on Strava, "Do Not Follow" or to keep them private.
The adventure is all the more interesting when the trails show complete disrepair. The more overgrown, pitted or muddy and full of cobwebs the better. It means the trails haven't been travelled for quite some time. The feeling of being the first to roll over soil in years is remarkably special. So often we numbly trod bitumen among throngs of people going to and from work that we rarely feel we "discover" anything anymore. Its a great loss we experience as we begin adulting. But gravel breaks the barrier. On the trails we're all kids discovering new lands, our bones are more brittle but our brains become just as pliable.
Muddy potholes make an interesting washday. (Image credit : Leo Lopez)
3. Heightened sense of the Outdoors
Alongside "Do not Follow" warnings against unrideable trails, there are other thrills exclusive to Australia. For instance, our bags will always contain a snake compression bandage, a medical kit and pain relief. If the trail is a distance from civilisation with the likelihood of reduced phone reception we watch the time. This proves helpful in avoiding unplanned overnight company amongst wild dogs or dingoes. We are both alert to the tell-tale gloss of snakes in the summer heat. I also listen for groups of rowdy birds. Their cries can act as warnings against uninvited reptiles. Our eyes are on the lookout for slithery tracks. Once Nadine's heart rate monitor screamed for her to stop after I rode over an unfortunate adult brown, twice.
Not the first time we've taken our bikes for a swim to cross the river
While we'd both like to say we encounter a lot of wildlife we two are continually talking, laughing, relaying stories, philosophising, advising, listening, and ranting through the entire ride. It's fair to say animals with ears and eyes know we're coming well in advance. But as we mount the bike, and take off on a rocky trail with its muddy puddles and populated spiderwebs the awe of the surroundings never fails to amaze.
The sunrise cracks through fog and cloud, the mountains heave above us, the trees sway beneath that incredible sky and the ground we pass has lately been heavily laden with wildflowers. We travel the distance soaking in all of this thanks to our incredible trusty two-wheeled machines. What's more I state the inevitable words on every ride, “This is amazing.”
The hardest trails are impossible to capture by photograph. You'll be too busy gripping bars
4. Bike Handling
When you regularly ride gravel you accumulate a lot of skills with little purpose in the City.
One of the least likely talents you'll find a use for in the City is your newfound knowledge around the nuances of dirt. When it comes to the variety encountered on trails, your skills become obscenely honed. Up and coming sand-pits will likely require a quick flick of the gears and a change in weight distribution. Weatherboard trails will have you loosen your grip along with greater attention for riding on the external of corners - that's where you'll avoid the worst of the rattling. With mud, you'll want to stick to patches of grass on the sides to keep traction. Hills with rocks require a stronger core, and you want to hold your line and aim for the smaller rocks or even the wide flat boulders or risk losing a wheel over a temperamental rock.
Equipment becomes more important. Observe how obsessive gravel riders are with talk of tread, width and pressure of their tyres. The bar shape and width, type of pedals and other factors will contribute to how you handle the bike.
Its not only storms but bushfires that can damage trails
It's largely riding the roughest situations that we learn to read the terrain and predict the trail type. But all that goes out the window after a storm. It's then that you'll learn to quickly dismount to pass fallen trees. You'll figure out how to best throw your bike or manoeuvre beneath to continue on your way. A bent hanger is never good when you're miles from civilisation. You'll learn to push it in. Changing tubes is a given, alongside using all the paraphernalia, like slug plugs, that come with a tubeless setup.
But not all our rides end in blood and sweat. Occasionally we find a loop that has us in the saddle 100% of the trail.
Searching for the Perfect ride
A few weeks back we hit the jackpot. Like the perfect wave, gravel has an equivalent. We'd traveled a mountainous trail that in its entirety was fast, undulating, and scenic from start to finish. Furthermore, the gravel was such good quality the route was deemed appropriate for someone wanting to test gravel without investing in a gravel bike. At least, it was. A major storm cell hit our state and the trails are now a network of rutted weatherboard tracks. Like the perfect wave, even a perfect trail has a time limit.
Lithgow trails can be flat hard gravel one week and bone shuddering tracks the next
Australian gravel can be a very unpredictable tough nut to crack. The trails one week are hard-packed, and the next you're battling a rutted beast. So finding a "champagne gravel" route perfect for the starter was a real surprise. The changes in a trail from one month to another are astounding. No route is never the same with the passing of time.
But if you're on the lookout for change and actively seeking new trails to travel, test and explore, change is not a bad thing. It just makes recommendations and advice very difficult.
Nadine and I agree its time to let the proverbial snake out of the bag and share our gravel secrets. So recently we hatched a plan to ask a group of friends eager to join a gravel ride. We coordinated a group ride along a route that promised everything we love about the trails. This hard-packed dirt road ran for 50km's populated by eucalyptus with an occasionally exposed mountain view. The bush stretches a distance that is unimaginable to reach by bike. Varying terrain is provided between hills and descents, a challenging climb, farmland meandering, and bridge crossings. This was as close to the perfect ride as it got.
Our plan was to finish at a pub and enjoy the post-ride chats that often escalate into tall stories of bravado. This trail was going to be an access point for many riders thinking to move to the darker side of cycling to explore areas beyond the end of the road.
Regular rock jumping may mean a lightweight bike is a better option
Unfortunately, and with irony, the environment did not participate. With the storm came a deluge of water. Creeks were flooded, bridges were broken, ferry's canceled. Our champagne dirt roads became impassable. Much to our dismay, the very conditions we love meant those new to the experience were unable to join.
My secret of gravel is hence broken only by my story telling rather than in practice. Trails rarely play nice. And, if I'm honest, I’m not upset at all.