The term ‘gravel’, when applied to bikes, can mean a whole host of different things. Gravel is grinding fire road climbs joining into fast and loose descents. Gravel is meandering through the forest and taking your time to explore places you’ve never been before. Gravel is packing your bags and heading out into the forest with a group of friends, camping under the stars. Having exploded in popularity in recent years and meaning something slightly different to everyone, gravel riding takes in anything and everything, from countryside back roads and double tracked forest fire roads to fast flowing single track and even onto mellower mountain bike terrain. It’s this versatility that has helped the gravel genre of riding grow at such an incredible rate, with one bike you can enjoy a long sedate ride through the hills taking in the views on one day, and the next be taking on some rougher bridleway descents that require laser focus and cat like reflexes.
While gravel riding can be done on a variety of different bikes, purpose built gravel bikes allow you to get the most from your days exploring. Covering big distances in comfort yet still being just capable enough to manage when the going gets rougher, this versatility is the gravel bikes party trick, a trick it manages to pull off by borrowing technology from both road, cyclocross and mountain bikes. For example, gravel bikes will typically use more relaxed geometry than seen on road or cyclocross bikes, making them more confident at high speeds while retaining the comfortable seated pedaling position of a drop bar bike. Borrowing from mountain bikes, higher volume tyres than seen on cyclocross bikes give more traction, comfort and puncture resistance on the wide variety of terrain that these bikes will inevitably face. Mountain bike derived 1x drivetrains and clutch mechs mean the chain stays quiet and secure over rough terrain and still gives a wide range to get up and over steep climbs.
Roads are swamped with cars, buses and motorbikes, and while we are blessed here in the Tweed Valley with an incredible network of trails, there is infinitely more gravel fire road than mountain bike trail. By just looking at what we have on our doorstep it’s no wonder that gravel riding has gained such a strong foothold here. Being able to step out of the front door and ride out into the hills is something we’re incredibly lucky to have here. We’re blessed with miles and miles of empty fire roads stretching out in all directions in the Tweed Valley. Such a huge amount of suitable terrain leads to some truly epic riding.
Since I took delivery of my gravel bike I’ve found new fire tracks, some more rideable than others, almost every ride. Being able to zip along gravel roads at a much higher speed than on a mountain bike while expending far less energy is very conducive to exploration. Where on my trail bike it can feel like a chore to climb back up the hill, on my gravel bike I’ve found myself searching out fire roads that climb off out of view, just so I can head up them and find out where they lead. This has led me to some incredible spots that I otherwise wouldn’t realise existed, and for that I have the gravel bike to thank.
I’ve also found that having a bike that is far more limited on descending capability has breathed new life to routes that a modern enduro bike would chew up. A classic example of this would be some of the Blue trails at Glentress. Blue Velvet into Berm Baby Berm can feel slightly dulled on an enduro bike, change to a gravel bike however, and you feel every undulation in the terrain. The riding in slow motion feeling of the trail bike is replaced by a sense that the bike is taut and alive underneath you and turns the trail into the most exciting descent you’ve had in a long time.
It’s the variety of riding that a gravel bike offers that is the main draw for me. Slow paced, explorative rides leading into action packed descents down places a gravel bike maybe doesn’t belong and everything in between make this style of riding incredibly appealing to me, especially as something that is totally removed from enduro riding. Modern trail and enduro bikes are incredibly capable and confidence inspiring machines; urging those who ride them to go faster and take on chunkier terrain. I’m a huge fan of this style of riding, and a modern enduro bike’s ability to smooth out nasty trails features is seriously impressive. However, with a bike so focused on one thing it’s sometimes difficult to see past that one style of riding. For me, gravel riding takes all seriousness out of the picture and takes us back to why we all started riding bikes in the first place, the sheer fun of it all.
Tom - Our Mountain Bike and Gravel Guide