Gravel is arguably one of the hottest trends in cycling this year. Gravel bike sales across the world skyrocketed during the pandemic with many bike brands and shops selling out. But where did this trend come from?
If you think about it, gravel is actually the original form of cycling! In the mid-19th century when bikes first became popular, almost all roads were made of dirt. Gravel riding in its current form, however, has been around for almost two decades. It’s origins are in the US where they are lucky enough to have over a million miles of unpaved roads to explore. In the UK the routes are somewhat different – think bridleways, woodlands, long forest fire tracks and towpaths connected by sections on road – but the bikes are the same.
The gravel specific bikes that we see these days have developed significantly in recent years. Driven by an increased demand and improvements in technology, they could be mistaken for road bikes if it weren’t for the wide, knobbly tyres and the fact they (and their riders) are generally covered in dirt! But look closely and you’ll see the geometry and gearing are also different, allowing for a more comfortable ride.
So what’s all the fuss about? There’s a sense of freedom and adventure that comes with riding off road. Every ride feels like a journey of discovery and we’re magically transported back to our youth again. You can lose yourself in your local countryside and suddenly pop out on a road that you’ve ridden along countless times, only to cross over it and dart back off grid into your own little haven.
Gravel riding is very different to road cycling, where it can be all about speed, power and data and where you can get carried away trying to top Strava leaderboards. Don’t get us wrong, there are Strava segments to be found off road, but that’s generally not why you’re there. You’re there for the joy of the ride and to really explore your surroundings. With often undisturbed flora and fauna at its finest, you’ll want to take the pace down a notch or two so you can take it all in.
Many cyclists in the UK have turned to gravel as it can be safer than riding on the roads. It provides respite from what can sometimes be a stressful environment with all the traffic, pollution and the aggression towards cyclists that has sadly seemed to increase of late. Most gravel routes aren’t completely free of sections on road. But they are generally only a brief interlude connecting you to your next bridleway sign or gap in the hedge to squeeze through to resume your adventures.
As you begin to explore further and wider in the UK, gravel starts to cross the boundaries into MTB territory. It’s a somewhat blurred line and you definitely get funny looks from the MTB community when you hit their turf on your ‘fancy road bike’ in your lycra! The skill required on the more technical routes can be tricky to master and are often uncomfortable on a gravel bike. Although gravel bikes have decent clearance, you start to look longingly at those big fat MTB tyres, as well as the suspension.
Even at the highest levels in gravel racing, it’s a more relaxed riding scene than road cycling. The emphasis is definitely on fun and adventure. It’s unsanctioned with largely no rules and that’s the way true gravel racers like it. Events are run independently and people race as individuals; there are no team tactics. There’s also very rarely prize money. Instead you race for beer and bragging rights.
The rise of gravel’s popularity hasn’t gone unnoticed at the top levels in cycling. The UCI has already shown an interest in staging a Gravel World Championships… Something we’re not sure the traditional gravel scene would welcome with open arms, but we’ll see.
Here in the UK, the new King’s Cup Gravel Festival was set to include the inaugural national gravel championships in September this year. Now postponed to 2021, the festival is set to be a massive celebration of all things gravel. The event will include a men’s and women’s gravel race and time trial, gravel fondo and team relay through the King’s Forest, Suffolk. It will be interesting to see how the national champs play out, but we can imagine the event will be popular.
Here at Breakthrough Events we love the gravel community and vibe and we are looking to innovate the gravel event space with a new concept for gravel racing. Gravelution.cc, a 1970s inspired gravel event that aims to get the cycling community and families back out on the trail, will be launching soon. Watch this space for more information and check out our Instagram page @gravelution.cc!
Whatever happens at the highest levels, we can be certain that gravel is here to stay and is only going to get more popular. So If you haven’t given it a try yet, what are you waiting for?
Check back in for future blog posts on the best places to gravel ride, top tips for gravel riding and a look at gravel tech. For now, let us know where your favourite gravel routes are and what you love about gravel riding.