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16th October 2017 / Comments (1)

Genesis – the evolution of the gravel bike

Genesis – the evolution of a gravel bike

Ok, so the title is a little disingenuous. It should read: “Genesis – my evolution into a gravel biker”. Or something like that.

It was only after a recent conversation with James that I realised my transformation from mountain biker to gravel grunt has been a long one. Like most mountain bikers, I have had numerous bikes with varying amounts of travel and handlebar width. (You have to have been riding a while to appreciate that one!) Most of my bikes were ridden in spurts of an hour or so. I can remember the pride at having ridden for two hours for the first time. This was much longer than most of the Thetford crew ever managed so it was an achievement. Anyway, as my riding was short and intense, most of my bikes were heavily race oriented. Fast, but as uncomfortable as hell!

One evening, preparing for the Tuesday night race at FR7, a small handful of friends turned up haven ridden from Bury! This was exceptional, and was justified by the need for endurance training prior to the first Mountain Mayhem. I shook my head, they were mad. However, could this have sown the seeds of longer rides in my mind?

While I enjoyed riding trails in Thetford, Wales, Scotland and anywhere else I could point my bike, it was only ever when I strayed outside the nascent trail centre network that I got any sense of achievement. And so it began. My first long ride was a solo 75 miles on roads, tracks and trails in Scotland. While I had a basic idea where I was, I may have been lost for a while. But we don’t talk about that!

Meanwhile, new bikes came and went. A Cotic Soul, Surly 1×1, all sorts of Massis, an On One Scandal, Santa Cruz Superlight etc etc. None of them did it for me and after a few thousand miles on each, they were hastily moved on.

Meanwhile, as I made further, tentative, steps into the world of longer distances, my bikes began to change. First to go were suspension forks. Discarded as unnecessarily heavy and, simply unnecessary in Suffolk. Tyre selection went from super narrow, to 2.4, gnarly to more subtle tread patterns.

It was not until I got hold of my first 29er that things started to make sense. I bought one of the very early Singular Swifts. It took ages, and an uncountable number of permutations until it felt right. Racing Ralphs in 2.25 flavour, carbon forks, 1×8, 1×9 and then 1×10 gearing and shock horror, I even dug out my stubby bar ends.

Proto Gravel Bike?

Why bar ends? When you are riding 80 odd miles off road in a single session, it makes sense to have as many potential hand positions as you can. And therein lies a tale. Gone were the days of one or two hour rides. They were replaced by 60,70, 80 and even 100+ mile outings. The latter tended to be on special days only, but 60 and 70 miles were not uncommon with short, mid week night rides seldom less than 30 or 35 miles.

The venue for these rides changed dramatically too. Gone were the trail centres, the hours of looking ahead at man made trails and trees…always more trees! The open country beckoned, and if that meant bridleways, minor roads and only a bit of singletrack or technical stuff…then that’s how it had to be.

The Swift became a sort of template for the kind of bike I wanted to ride but it took many years and maybe 10,000 miles of riding before I found another one that even came close.

First of all I flirted with a CX bike. Alas, it was too large, had limited tyre options, and was as uncomfortable as hell. Then came a Kinesis T5 Disc. This was really close to what I wanted but it wasn’t quite there. In the end came the Bokeh and the rest is history. Pretty much my ideal bike, I can take it across moors in Yorkshire, explore the Suffolk singletrack, byways and bridleways or blast around the roads with slicks.

Many years and thousands of miles of riding rigid MTBs prepared me for riding a gravel bike. It can take me on 99% of the trails and tracks that were once the preserve of a mountain bike yet, it can spin along the tarmac at a decent pace. The comparatively narrow tyres and rigid forks may feel harsh if you aren’t used to it. My recommendation however is to stick with it and gain the rewards that are bound to come.

Bike design has finally caught up with the type of riding I like to do. No doubt both of us will evolve but right now, this is nirvana.

A classic case of finding the right bike to suit the type of riding you like. It sort of mirrors the spirit of those guys in Marin County riding ‘clunkers’ downhill in an attempt to expand the range of the bicycle and have a blast at the same time. I like to think I was ahead of my time but maybe not!

Last modified: 16th October 2017