After riding knobby tires for 30 years, I needed something new; a different point of view that wasn’t fulfilled on my mountain bike. For me, riding a mountain bike has become more about Strava times and not truly enjoying the experience. As a trail rider, I never really considered getting into anything else. But, lingering in the back of my mind was that I felt I needed a change of scenery — a different perspective.
In my early years of riding dirt, my main focus was downhill racing and riding. I lived and breathed it. The scarier the trails, the better. On the other hand, I probably put in more hours on a road bike, initially to get fit, but eventually I enjoyed it. Riding road complimented mountain biking. I started doing off-season centuries and joined in on pace lines. I went out and did mountain climbs, pretending I was fighting for the polka-dot jersey. Spinning the legs was a great alternative to riding gnarly trails.
I got too comfortable mountain biking, not because of modest, personal accomplishments, but from years of investment. I loved mountain biking, but it was getting stale. My drive to ride had weakened. I did the bike park thing but honestly, earning my turns has more appeal.
Over the last few years, riding the same network of trails over and over became a chore — a fun pastime that turned into a full time job racing strangers on Strava. My retirement from racing somehow transformed into fighting for social media bragging rights.
Instead, I am drawn to seeing new landscapes. I want to take my camera on a ride and not feel like it’s a burden, rather another tool for capturing the moment. It has become more rewarding to me to take in my surroundings rather than trying to shave seconds off my personal bests.
During my mountain biking years, if someone asked me if I would ever define myself as a gravel cyclist, I probably would have replied with, “Not a chance.” I loved the semi-controlled dangerous nature of mountain biking — the thrill of chasing fast people down a mountainside, the exhilaration of getting air and riding gnarly lines. But things changed, and it started to feel like keeping up with the Joneses.
As I grew older, I knew I would hang up the knobby tires for something else, even if it was temporary. I thought I would have gotten into adventure motorcycles. However, with age comes the inevitable weight gain and a desire to get fit again. So, I’ve ditched the idea of a motorcycle for something I can pedal, and hopefully get down to my fighting weight.
Gravel riding seemed to be what I was missing, so I dove right in. Although I didn’t jive with the marketing I saw, the essence of gravel riding really struck me to my core. According to the ads, it seemed like only twenty-something hipsters with leg tats rode gravel.
A little immature of me I know, but the marketing didn’t capture me: a 20lb overweight, middle-aged, ex-bike-snob who probably drinks too much. But, as I grow older and surlier, I am becoming less concerned about my own sense of shame and what people might say. Instead, I want to try new things and have fun, hipster status be damned, and after riding XC, downhill, enduro, road, and BMX, it also made sense to try gravel.
I’m the type to completely immerse myself into a new hobby, enough that I can speak with some level of wisdom, simply from time put in. I actually enjoy being the new guy — the one who loves the process of learning; someone who has to start fresh and learn from scratch. I have embraced the embarrassment of the learning curve, because without it, you don’t fully learn. This desire to try new things led to me racing moto about a decade ago. When I say I go full in, I really mean it.
After calling and emailing almost every shop in British Columbia, I finally found a gravel bike at a Vancouver bike shop that was in stock, in budget, and fit. For the first time in about 25 years, I happily plunked down the full retail price on a bicycle.
Given the supply shortage we are currently in, I had to act quickly if I wanted to ride this year. The bike is a Specialized Diverge Comp E5 — an aluminum frame with a Shimano GRX 11-speed drivetrain, hydraulic brakes, carbon fork, and in-house branded alloy wheels, priced at about $3,000CAD. I figured that this level of bike would get me into the gravel riding experience without guilt, but still allow for slight upgrades as I typically do with all my bikes. It is a great base to work off of, and I can always get into something lighter and better later on.
“Like a mountain bike, only shittier,” said a friend when he saw it. Well, I couldn’t even argue that point, so I said, “Like a road bike, only slower.” His comment wasn’t lost on me, as I know that a Jack-of-All trades bike would never shine in any one area. Would versatility be a stand-out feature here?
Coming from the world of wide bars, it was an adjustment holding onto 42cm drop bars again. As a medium-sized human with slightly wide shoulders, these bars are completely out of place on a bike that gets ridden off road. I can’t understand why some brands decide to mount road bars on gravel bikes, as some delineation from its asphalt cousins would seem more than obvious. On my first outing, I felt like a bike messenger. By my second ride, I had already placed a 46cm curly bar on my bike, with a plan to ditch them for some fifties once I earn my keep.
For people who know me, they know I’m very opinionated on tires. The personality of the gravel bike is absolutely transformed by moderate changes in rubber, probably morso than any other type of bike. Forties are great if you want to ride a bit of everything, or small cross country MTB tires if rougher backcountry trails are what you’re after. Unfortunately, my bike came with tires fit for an entry-level commuter: 38s with a center ridge, reminding me of my first mountain bike, a 1985 Free Spirit from Sears. The second upgrade was a pair of Maxxis Ramblers in a more confidence-inspiring 40c width. This modest change in tires completely changed the bike for the better. The bike went from, “This is really fun” to “Oh my god, how awesome is this?”
I’m a firm believer in the right tool for the job, and the gravel bike specializes in blurred lines. If your main reason for choosing a bike is narrowed down to versatility alone, then you will be hard pressed to find a bike more suited to it than a gravel bike. The sheer amount of dirt roads in BC’s backcountry is staggering, and mostly all of them have lakes, viewpoints, and small towns dotted between vast networks of gravel roads. It’s such a unique perspective, being able to cover that much variable terrain so easily and efficiently. It’s definitely the right tool for that kind of job.
If I were to sum up gravel riding, I would say that it compliments mountain biking almost too perfectly. Gravel bikes are a ridiculous choice for riding most mountain bike trails. Nor are they the best option for long distances on paved roads, unless you have slicks or like to suffer needlessly. The usefulness depends on where you live. If you live close to a network of dirt roads, or if you ever travel to ride, then a gravel bike would be a great horse to have in the stable.
You will discover a whole new way of approaching the land. You’ll start looking at paper maps, at Google Earth, looking for routes that link the vastness of the backcountry with civilization. Offshoots become mini adventures. Long distances become a part of the goal. Really, the best part is just getting away from people and the whole scene. No, it might not replace your mountain bike, but if you plan on adding another bike, consider a gravel bike. Coming from a mountain biking background, this type of riding was an easy one to get accustomed to and you can still wear baggies.
Fortunately for me, I live in the interior of British Columbia, so I have a gravel biker’s playground outside my back door. The semi-arid climate, open, rolling terrain, and four distinct seasons create an idyllic picture of what it means to ride gravel. Climbing a high country dirt road to a mountain vista at sunset… that kind of stuff is more meaningful to me than PRs. I’ve discovered that driving some firewood splits to a remote lake for a future gravel ride is now my definition of goal setting. Light a fire by the lake, have a drink, ride back. It’s all about the experience, man.
This new approach to try gravel riding undoubtedly boils down to my love of exploring new areas. I love exploring. I live for that shit. What better way to fulfill that need than to ride a bicycle that can take you places with relative ease? Any bike will allow you to discover new spots, but the gravel bike is perhaps the best equipped. An efficient vehicle that allows you to ride everything. For my mountain bike brothers and sisters who are on the fence, the gravel bike should be at the top of your list as your next bike purchase.
Long live gravel.