A rose by any other name
I am sure William Shakespeare was not thinking about cycling when he came up with this line. There is a strong case to suggest however, that he was concerned with labels. We love to apply labels, to classify and file things, to create order (or disorder) where there was none. As it was with the Montagues and Capulets, so it is with cycling. We are a family of many clans or tribes, of which ‘gravel’ is one of the newest.
Gravel UK Style
We don’t have a real ‘gravel’ scene here in the UK. There isn’t the infrastructure. Gravel is pretty much a US thing where cyclists have taken to the back roads en masse. In the UK, ‘gravel’ encompasses a wide range of disciplines and terrain. From fire roads to mountain bike theme parks, you will find large numbers of people riding drop bar bikes. Not only this, but ‘gravel’ also seems to encompass (gnarly) audax and sportives as well as strapping camping gear to your bike and heading off into the big outdoors. And don’t forget ‘racing’!
So diverse is the range of people riding ‘gravel’, so varied the ground covered and time in the saddle, that it almost defies description.
As gravel becomes increasingly mainstream, so I am repeatedly drawn into conversation with cycling and non cycling friends about the nature of the beast.
What is ‘gravel’? Who rides it? Why is it different? Where can you ride it? What special kit do you need? The questions go on and on.
What I need is an elevator pitch but thus far, the ability to produce a pithy and succinct, two minute precis eludes me. It doesn’t matter if my audience are cyclists or not. I will invariably waffle on frantically, searching for the essence of ‘gravel’ (“the crux of the biscuit” as Frank Zappa would say) and before I know it, the eyes of my audience glaze over and I have lost them.
It should be so easy to describe the sport I love, the thing I spend most of my recreational time doing, but it isn’t. So I have looked to ‘the industry’ for help, only to find they are equally at sea.
Which tribe are you in?
Bike manufacturers are scrambling madly to get a gravel bike in their range before the boat sails. Some are barely disguised (drop bar) mountain bikes, while others are simply road bikes with a few tweaks. The diversity of designs is indicative of the fact that they don’t really know what to do. They just know they have to do something!
Micro companies, at the grass roots of the discipline, are still ahead of the curve and are more in touch with what people are actually riding. Despite this, there isn’t really any one accepted, industry wide, ‘solution’. Mainly because this ‘gravel’ thing is such a broad church. So, if you can’t reliably identify someone by the bike they ride, how about the way they look?
When I was a kid, you could tell which ‘tribe’ someone belonged to at 100 paces. Generally, they could be categorised as ‘hippies’, rastas, metal fans, punks, skins or disco. Identification was simply a matter of looking at the clothes they wore.
Within the cycling community, in general terms, you are either a roadie or a mountain biker. Each has, their own generic ‘look’. The cycle clothing industry are therefore keen to identify or manufacture an image or a style to create a ‘look’ that is immediately recognisable as ‘gravel’.
It just doesn’t work though. Unless you see gravel as an extension of urban posing and dress accordingly, most people I know, have adopted a mix and match approach. Predominantly based on road kit, mountain bike apparel is used as and when required. There’s no point heading out in your £150.00 road jersey in the knowledge that you will spend hours fighting through brambles. It will be in shreds before you know it so you use different stuff. On the other hand, if you will be out all day on dusty roads and trails, a road shirt is probably the best choice.
Couched in such terms, ‘gravel apparel’ is infinitely variable and largely defies definition. The only common (marketing) theme seems to be facial hair but even that is not as common as they’d have us believe.
Then there is the extreme touring crew. This group would have you believe that unless you look like a gnarly mountain man (with beard and tattoos to match), you aren’t really a gravel cyclist. For them (quite legitimately), strapping camping gear to a bike and heading out into the wild blue yonder, defines ‘gravel’. Unsurprisingly, the camping industry has jumped on this bandwagon, promoting images of said mountain man brewing (ethically sourced) coffee on his titanium micro stove, while gazing wistfully into the middle distance. This is what gravel is all about….except it isn’t.
This has no resonance for me or for a significant proportion of ‘gravellies’ I know. So, it is of no help in my quest to pin down the essence of gravel.
The media have a tendency to promote gravel as a lifestyle thing. Buy the products we are promoting and find the inner you, your new self. Ride out into the unknown or barely explored places on the planet and live off desiccated goat curry for a month while being attacked by rabid dogs or psychotic cattle. This is what it means to be a gravel cyclist.
Or… riding gravel is all about racing. Dress up in your most stylish gear and blast around forest access roads for 60 miles, 100 miles or more. This is what it is all about.
By now, you should get the idea. All of the above are relevant. They are all facets of this rather inadequate term “gravel’. In fact, there are so many things to take into account it fairly makes your head spin!
At last I have it. Gravel is an artificial construct, a designation applied to define a disparate group of cycling misfits. Having been identified and classified, they have become an interest group for whom products can be altered or designed and ultimately sold. Gravel cyclists are a whole new group of potential consumers conjured up and extracted from a top hat. The fact that we are mainly part of the cycling demographic already is moot!
Curiously, even the concept of the ‘misfit’ is useful. It separates us from the mainstream of cycling and reinforces a subliminal desire to define and identify our tribe. It happened in the late 1980s ad early 1990s with mountain bikes. I fell for it then and yes, I have fallen for it again!
So, as I take off my cynic’s hat, I am not anti industry. I am not a technological or commercial luddite, only happy when development stops and the status quo is preserved. We like being misfits, we like to be different and if we didn’t like buying stuff, then people wouldn’t succeed in selling it to us. As far as I am concerned, bring it on!
So where did all of this start? An elevator pitch. I’m still not there, but at least now I know why!
All photos supplied by kind permission from Stephen Smith Photography
Last modified: 29th October 2018