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The off-road less travelled

Gravel biking
Andy Waterman
15 Sep 2015

Leave those marginal gains at home, pick up a map and make the most of your local rights of way, advises Andy Waterman.

‘I know where we are – I’ve ridden down here before,’ says George, one of our test riders, as the road we’re following ends in a farmyard. ‘I had to turn round and go back.’

We’re testing adventure road (aka gravel) bikes, and there will be no going back if I can help it. Bikes like this are how road cycling began, but as roads got smoother, bikes developed to go faster and in the process became less versatile.

Versatility is the calling card of these bikes. On the other side of the farmyard is a byway, an unpaved track (shown as a pink-crossed line on an OS map), and that’s where we’re headed…

Our group falls in line as tarmac turns to dirt and, despite staying at the same speed, the proximity of the trees that form a tunnel over the trail makes it feel like we’ve accelerated to warp speed. The bikes bounce around beneath us, skating over the loose stony surface, the gyroscopic miracle of the bicycle somehow keeping us mostly upright regardless.

Less than a mile later, we’re back on the tarmac, grinning and sharing stories of derring-dos and don’ts, when George admits he’s had a bit of a crash – the fresh earth lodged in his rear quick-release validates the claim. He’s laughing though.

‘It’s quite fun crashing off road,’ he gasps. ‘I’m just glad nobody got a photo of it!’

We get back to London with 95km under our belts. Riding on tarmac and dirt, with tyres widths from 33 to 40mm, we’ve averaged around 24kph – only a little bit slower than a normal road ride. What’s more, we’ve managed to stick to the nicest, safest roads, bypassing the usual vehicular conflict you come to expect in the southeast of England. When dead ends become magical gateways to a hitherto undiscovered route network, it’s amazing how much of the surrounding countryside opens up to you.

With nettle-stung legs, we arrive back in the office convinced we’ve been doing road riding all wrong. Marginal gains have their place at the head of the professional peloton, but for riders looking to boost their enjoyment of limited riding time, a pair of wider tyres, an OS map and a sense of adventure are the most effective gains you can make.

Road riding doesn’t have to be seriousness and suffering, it can be fun – start by redefining what you think of as a ‘road’.

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