Ok, I’ll admit it. I’m a child of the 70’s. From a bicycle standpoint that means my first ‘real’ bike was a BMX – now where I lived (Port Morseby, PNG) the whole concept of a ‘BMX track’ was a bit foreign so most of our time was spent exploring tracks, making jumps and trudging through the scrub looking for hills to ride down. In short, mountain biking (not that I knew such things existed!).
In my circle, big kids bikes were racers – 10 (or if you were really luck, 12) speed machines so I was delighted when I turned 13 and finally got one of these speed machines. So fast. But, most of my friends still had BMXs, my mum wasn’t a high fan of riding on the road so that poor racer got thrashed through the same bush tracks as the BMX and subjected to the same sort of punishment. Looking back I don’t recall it being ‘broken’ that often so it must have done ok!
Fast forward a lot of years and we’ve all grown older and the bicycle industry has become more clever in its marketing. We now have a bike for every conceivable use. You want to ride smoothish single track ? Sir you need our hard tail XC machine. You want to ride technical single track? Sir here’s our long travel XC dually. You want to ride road fast? Meet our TDF winning carbon fantastic. Ride road all day? Ah ha – here’s our ‘comfort endurance road’ machine. You get the picture!
Well, with a limited amount of shed space I just can’t keep up so what I want is just a bike. You know – like I had when I was a kid – speedy and efficient to ride on the road, not scared of a little dirt, ok on the odd bit of rough stuff and comfortable enough to ride all day every day.
Sigh. If only such a thing existed.
Ah ha – but luckily the sport of gravel racing and not to forget gran fondo’s are gaining in popularity. Basically long distance races that have some sort of mixed surface (although it runs the spectrum from 100% dirt to 100% tarmac). To capitalise on this phenomena the bike industry is building dedicated bikes to fill this ‘niche’ although when it is a bike that can more or less do anything I’m not sure how this makes it a niche.
Now, I don’t have one of these wondrous gravel machines but I do have a cyclocross (Cannondale Super X) bike that serves as my daily commuter, occasional road ride with a bunch and kid trailer towing machine. Could this be a gravel bike? Would it work? I decided that I needed to give it a try – I had ridden it in the Rapha Gentleman’s race a few months ago but 3km of dirt isn’t really a gravel grind… I needed to give it a serious go.
Figuring that I’d stick with a route I knew, I decided to ride one of my bike packing favourites – Lithgow to Mittagong via Jenolan and Wombeyan Caves – I’d been out that way a few weeks ago and my memory was that it had all been freshly graded and therefore skinny tyre friendly. I also figured that the speedier bike should make this a pretty do-able one day adventure despite the 200+km distance (although the lack of takers to my requests for company suggested that not everyone agrees with me).
Now, thanks to the Bike Bag Dude I had a 1/2 frame bag and some feed bags that fitted nicely on the Super X so I was able to carry about 2 1/2 litres of water, lights, wet weather gear and three spare tubes – in terms of gear I was set. I had plans to change tyres but life got in the way so I ended up catching the 3:48am train from Central to Lithgow with the bike still shod in commuter tyres – 700*28 slicks – a Maxxis Refuse up front and a Schwalbe Durano out back.
Pedalling out of Lithgow, the first dirt section is after about 10km – a 2km dirt climb out of Lake Lyell. Concerns about the tyres were allayed as I had good grip and despite the washed out surface it was an easy-ish grind to the top. In fact, I only ended up with a single puncture for the day and that was hitting a small rock on the tarred surface descent into Jenolan Caves!
Once out of Jenolan Caves into was onto the proper gravel that cross crosses most of the country. This was where the limitation of road biased slicks began to show. It wasn’t so much the lack of grip but that there just isn’t a lot of volume in the tyre – this means that I had them at a pretty high pressure to avoid pinch flats (75psi or so) and this combined with the racy geometry of a cross bike meant that there was a pretty pronounced tendency to wander as the bike ricocheted off the larger rocks that seem to punctuate our dirt roads.
Still, by being conservative speed-wise this wasn’t too bad and I was making pretty steady time. The only doubt in my mind about the route was a 20km section of fire-trail that links the good gravel roads of the Central Tablelands with Wombeyan Caves – the aptly named Mt Fatigue fire trail. This used to a joy to ride on the MTB – rough double track but on my last run through it was freshly graded. Would it eat my skinny bike for breakfast?
In short no… but it was pretty slow going as the large rocks and uneven surface meant that you had to take care – not so much because of the fear of tyre damage but more that the cross bike is pretty stuff so hitting anything rough at speed was a matter of holding on and praying! It felt like it took me an age (although apparently I’ve set KOMs through there according to Strava…) but it probably was the only section of the ride that I would say I endured rather than enjoyed.
After that section it was all plain sailing… well apart from the corrugations which more than once threatened to separate me from my steed. I was quite amusing chatting to a guy at the Wombeyan Caves kiosk who couldn’t believe that I was riding out that way on a roadie. The word ‘insane’ came into the conversation more than once.
I arrived at Mittagong at about 5:30 or so – less than 11 hours after setting out. Pretty sore and tired but more satisfied than I’ve been on a ride for a long time. I’m now a confirmed gravel junkie and can’t wait to get out again! But how did the crosser stack up as a gravel bike? In short pretty well – for future adventures I’ll probably invest in some 700*35 touring style tyres – I reckon that alone will make the experience a lot more enjoyable. The main thought I had though is that for this sort of riding, a cyclocross bike is pretty tiring – they’re designed around short courses with lots of turns so holding a line through bad terrain when you’re tired is not a strong point. It works but there’s a lot of mental effort required and I found that as the day wore and my concentration wandered this got harder to do.
In short, if you’ve got a roadie that you can stick a set of 700*28(+) tyres on then for your next long training ride, don’t be afraid to go looking for a bit of dirt – it breaks up the monotony of those long road training days. Anyone that says gravel is boring perhaps just hasn’t tried it on the right bike!