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Ted's Talk: What is Gravel?
By: Ted King, the King of Gravel
“Why is everyone calling it gravel riding? Pshhh, we’ve been doing that for decades!”
Cyclists of a certain era will cast down the idea that riding gravel is a new concept. There exists a degree of truth to their emphatic remarks, but contemporary gravel cycling is a far cry from its dirt riding brethren of an age past. If aliens are up in space observing us here on earth, they might have noticed that bikes have been taking the path less traveled for years. However, if they have their really astute telescopic spectacles on, they would be able to point out that it’s a different sport entirely today from what we consider off-road riding years ago.
And they would be right. Gravel riding is the hottest facet of cycling today. It’s fresh, it’s new, and it’s lit a fire all throughout the cycling industry where everyone is jumping aboard the fast-moving gravel train.
The definition is easy enough. Cycling is “the act of riding a bicycle”, so by extension gravel cycling is the act of riding a bicycle on gravel. In more contemporary terms, gravel cycling is riding a bike on a variety of mixed terrain, often on dirt, rocky, or grassy landscapes, but quite frankly anywhere that a significant portion of the ride is off of traditional pavement. Moreover, it’s the amalgamation of road cycling, mountain biking, and cyclocross, where drop bar bikes are the norm, but frankenbikes – or bikes pieced together from a variety of traditional sources – ultimately become the optimal tool for the job.
By drawing on traits of each of those different aspects of cycling, the best technology from each sport makes for a Darwinist’s natural selection of carbon fiber, aluminum, and rubber. In practical terms, mountain bikes offer big clearances to allow muddy riding plus generous gear ratios that allow easy spinning up the steepest grades. Cyclocross bikes offer knobby, efficient tires for tackling any condition. And road bikes provide complaint, speedy geometry.
Just as mountain bikes, road bikes, and cyclocross bikes come together to compose gravel riding, there are distinct elements of each of those sports’ athletes that help set the scene. The brother and sisterhood that has always existed around mountain biking is very strong in the gravel scene. Meanwhile, the hard-working endurance of road racing is important as gravel rides and races can be anywhere from a dozen miles to 200-plus, given events like Dirty Kanza, the granddaddy of gravel races that takes place in eponymous Kansas. The skills from cyclocross rider’s quiver are perhaps the most relevant to gravel, as deft bike handling is a benefit to gravel events, although not mandatory.
Those of the aforementioned old school are invaluable in their foundational role in cycling and inspiring people to venture away from pavement and dangerous traffic as well as off the beaten track, but what’s compassionately wonderful about this modern era of gravel riding is how welcoming it is. While for the indefinite future there will exist the stodgy group ride which takes its cues from traditional road cycling, the welcoming nature of gravel riding prefers to take its signals from the fun-loving mountain bike brahs and their fun-loving female counterparts. That is, gravel group rides meanders at whatever pace each rider wants to pedal, with periodic regrouping to readjust, chat, or just take in the scenery. Community is the aim of gravel much more so than the arm’s-distance competitive side of cycling.
With a grim 10% increase in cycling fatalities from 2017 to 2018, with more congestion and drivers more distracted than ever, gravel cyclists are seeking a safe refuge by simply avoiding the traffic altogether. The ability to seek open space and an escape to clear one’s thoughts from modern distractions, all signs point off-road. Gravel riding is the perfect storm. It’s the long overdue, coming together of so many elements that make the entire sport of cycling so awesome. The best people, the best equipment, the support of the industry, and the wholesome backing of the community. Cycling is dead. Long live gravel cycling!
Welcome to Ted’s Talk! This is the first installment of a five-part series spearheaded by the King of Gravel, Ted King, as he goes deep on all aspects of gravel cycling. After a ten-year career in the World Tour ranks of professional road racing, Ted thought he was hanging up his wheels and setting off towards the horizon of retirement in 2015. But his fondness for the sport of cycling was too strong and it’s like he never left! Ted is a brand ambassador, gravel cyclist, racer, advocate, and consultant on all things two-wheels.
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