Cover photo courtesy of the author
Gravel isn’t sexy.
At least, not at first glance. You’re just riding bikes on dirt roads. People have been doing that since 1817, which is when some German dude invented the bicycle. And yet, the entire world seems to be obsessed with riding gravel. There are bike shops dedicated almost entirely to the niche. Some of the most exciting advancements in bike tech are happening with gravel rigs. Gravel races have lottery systems where you must win an entry because demand is so high. And I’m right there in the thick of this cultural obsession. I love gravel. I don’t know why I love gravel, but I do, which is causing a bit of an identity crisis, because I’ve always considered myself a mountain biker.
Am I still a mountain biker if I choose to ride gravel all the time? What do I tell people when I meet them at parties? “Hi, my name’s Graham, I enjoy long, arduous climbs in the middle of the woods on wide, dirt roads. I would have previously described these rides as pointless because there’s no promise of a fun singletrack downhill at the end, but now I love them and am confused by that love.”
Is that how my conversations should go from now on? Won’t people think I’m weird?
To the casual observer, preferring to ride gravel over singletrack probably doesn’t seem like an issue. But I’ve identified as a mountain biker for the last 20 years. Mountain biking is what I do. Or did. Riding bikes on singletrack helped me establish my career and has been a defining character trait of my adult persona. Imagine if you’ve been a vegan for two decades and then, suddenly, you just start ordering fried chicken all the time.
The situation I’m in is like that, but with bikes. Just as that fried-chicken eater can’t identify as a vegan anymore, I can’t identify as a mountain biker anymore. If I’m being honest with myself, I have to say I ride gravel. But the truly weird thing is I can’t figure out why I’m choosing gravel over singletrack.
The easy answer is that idly pedaling country roads with no traffic and no trail obstacles is a lovely way to spend the afternoon, but I have a suspicion that there’s more to my decision at play here. I think I like gravel because of my age. My kids are teenagers now, and when they do something confusing like ask if they can get a perm (true story), my wife is quick to point out that their awkward decisions are likely just part of the developmental process. They’ll outgrow them and will stop wanting perms. Is it possible that the gravitational pull of gravel is part of my own developmental process? Is my choice to ditch singletrack for safer surfaces just part of some second puberty I’m experiencing? And if so, will I grow out of it?
There’s other evidence to support this theory. Exhibit A: I find myself listening to a lot of Lionel Richie recently, singing along with “Say You, Say Me” when I’m alone in the car. I mean really belting it out, without even a hint of hipster irony. The lyrics speak to me in a way they never have before, which is troubling because I’ve survived almost entirely on a musical diet of grunge, hip-hop, and jam bands up to this point. Easy listening never factored into the equation. And “Say You, Say Me” isn’t even fun, danceable Lionel Richie. It’s pensive, love song Lionel Richie. Nothing says I’m an old man like tearing up while singing “as we go down life’s lonesome highway, seems the hardest thing to do is find a friend or two…” while waiting in the car line to pick up my kids.
Now that I really examine the situation, I see that gravel riding is a lot like Lionel Richie’s music: It’s safe and lovely. I’m not saying gravel riding is easy like Sunday morning. Some dirt roads are ridiculously steep, but compared to gnarly singletrack and aggressive drivers, gravel is the safest choice a cyclist could make. It’s “Three Times a Lady” safe, and the exact kind of riding that someone of my distinguished age should choose.
Jesus, I like soft rock and cruising gravel, am I going to start watching three-hour-long documentaries about WWII warships now? And wearing slippers to the grocery store?
I spent the first half of my life actively trying to kill myself through diet and questionable hobbies. Now that I’m in the second half, the downward slide if you will, I must be in some sort of default preservation mode where I avoid dangerous situations.
I used to avoid gravel like the plague. I would plan massive rides through Pisgah National Forest where a few friends and I would ride for days, camping along the way, pedaling from Asheville to Brevard, and I would painstakingly plot the route to avoid dirt roads as much as possible. To set tires on gravel for more than a couple of miles was considered a failure. But little by little I started adding more gravel into my regular rides, taking singletrack out in the process.
It’s gotten to the point now that many of my rides are exclusively gravel. Maybe I’ll use a piece of singletrack to link two long roads together, if I have to, but the focus of the ride is dirt roads. Do you know how sick that is? To actively avoid singletrack? That’s like saying I’m actively avoiding fun. I’ve actually done versions of my original Pisgah thru-biking route that avoid the singletrack altogether. And God help me, I loved those all-gravel rides. I loved them so much.
I don’t know who I am anymore. Now that I’m a gravel biker, do I have to get a whole new wardrobe? Do I have to start wearing spandex and those little Italian cycling caps? To quote the great Lionel, “I’ve been through so many changes in my life, it’s a wonder I ain’t lose my mind.”
And if this newfound love of gravel is just a developmental phase, what’s the next phase in my second puberty? eBikes? Spin class? Dear God, am I headed towards 6am spin class with a septuagenarian instructor named Phyllis who sets the whole workout to a soft rock soundtrack? Is that where this all ends? And more troubling, why does that 6am spin class with Phyllis sound so appealing to me? People have been telling me for years that I’m going to get older, but they never said I’d actually like it. That I’d welcome the change.
I guess the important thing is I’m still riding bikes, right? Doesn’t matter what kind of bikes. Mountain, gravel, stationary while listening to Lionel Richie sing “Dancing on the Ceiling”…doesn’t matter. The important thing is to keep pedaling. Because I know, I’ve found in biking “my endless love.”