do you remember when owning a bike was just a rite of passage in your youth? a bike that was just a bike, no matter the colour or style, with or without gears and with an anonymous set of tyres that were on it when you got it? if it was second-hand, the tyres might not even have matched back to front. but it was your bike, and it would do whatever it was you wanted to do on your bicycle. you could ride down country roads, back streets, main roads, farm tracks; whatever lay between you and your intended or unintended destination.
and if you set out with a group of friends, nobody paid that much attention to what everyone else was riding. yes, one of them would almost certainly have been on a ten-speed racer, but that only made you wonder why. possibly even engendering a smidgeon of unrequited envy. those were the days when you simply went for a bike ride, with little thought for carrying a spare inner tube, even though there was a pump attached behind the seat tube. tyre levers were metal things that sat on the shelf in the garden shed, just next to the three-in-one oil can and two packets of lawn fertiliser that your dad never used.
no doubt i'm speaking of an era that excludes several of those reading. i don't quite get the notion that life's quite so simple these days, even for the children and teenagers of our era. those days have pretty much gone for the rest of us; we're way too sophisticated for such simplicities nowadays. obsessive compulsive disorder never arrives alone. nowadays we have different shoes for different kinds of pedals; the road bike travels exclusively on tarmac while the mountain bike and 'cross bike may take us out to play in the wilderness, but there is a distinction between one and the other. seatpacks hold spare inner-tubes, tyre levers, multi-tools, a pound coin in case we need to phone home, and mini pumps the size of an aa battery with the ability to inflate a large dirigible have their own special pockets in that merino jersey.
perhaps one of the truest statements made by grant petersen in his recently reviewed book 'eat bacon, don't jog' was that we should ride our bikes for the enjoyment factor, making it an end in itself rather than a means to an end. ostensibly, that's what i take from the latest cycle fad to arrive from across the pond. there's no denying an incredible similarity between cyclocross bikes and the latest gravel bikes being touted by several of the world's principal manufacturers. frames featuring hydraulic or cable disc brakes, mostly with drop bars and wide, faintly knobbly tyres while encompassing the sloping top tube endemic in the road bike trade but eschewed by true 'cross bikes due to the need to heft them onto a shoulder every now and again.
at the risk of stating the obvious, gravel isn't mud. hardpacked gravel oftimes presents a similar surface to that of many british roads. we do not have the substantial gravel tracks that inhabit the backwoods of the united states. but we do have so-called fire-tracks which wend their way through acres of forestry. sometimes they may descend into gloop, but for the best part, they'll suffice as a british euphemisim for gravel. and as has been advertised on many occasions, there are one or two british based sportives that welcome the road less travelled with open arms. but in truth, so you really need a special bicycle to enjoy such riding?
maybe, maybe not.
few road bikes nowadays have clearance for much more than 25mm tyres, while 'cross bikes have just been given sanction to race greater than 32mm width. but if we accept gravel at face value, while tyres designed to clear mud with great alacrity will undoubtedly cope with pretty much any kind of off-road, they're not always the best choice if you've a way to ride on tarmac to get there in the first place. i've a couple of pairs of just such tyres and i always sound like a small landrover when riding road. aside from which, if fashioned from a soft compound, road-riding can't do other but accelerate the wear rate.
so what if we take what we need from the latest craze and fit it to the bicycles we already own?
italy's challenge tyres, beloved of helen wyman and richard sachs have been quick to spot the trend and offer their gravel grinder tyre sporting a file tread with modestly knobbled edges in a 38mm width. unusually black sidewalled, i fitted a pair of these to the ibis hakkalugi and went out to approximate the feeling of going wherever the notion took me irrespective of road surface.
several years ago, it was decided due to popular demand, to create a footpath alongside the main road from ballygrant village to that of keills only a few miles north. terminating at the road end up from caol ila distillery, this allowed access to the very pleasant walk back through ballygrant woods, or possibly even onward access to the ferry terminal at port askaig. dunlossit estate, the property of bruno schroeder, kindly made land available and even surfaced the new footpath with gravel from ballygrant quarry (which, incidentally, is also owned by dunlossit estate). disappointingly, the gravel used was of an incredibly chunky variety, providing a surface that hardly made for smooth, effortless walking.
quite possibly due to the vagaries of the latter situation, it is very unusual to see anyone using the footpath, and it seems the necessity of maintaining the path was not included in whatever budget was available at the time. so it is now something of a white elephant, with patches overgrown with grass and/or moss, while sections of the drystone wall bordering the road-side have collapsed onto its surface and providing the occasional obstacle for any who may have had the temerity to walk that way. what it is good for, however, is as a three mile test track for either bicycle wheels or tyres or both. the gravel surface has compacted in places yet remained disturbingly loose in others, and features short, sharp climbs and descents.
it also has the benefit of being great fun.
getting to the northerly start point can (and did) involve a ride through ballygrant woods, a favoured haunt for dog walkers and just walkers, also featuring several sections of gravel, though mostly these have been placed there to fill in muddy ruts engendered by the estate vehicles and quad bikes. several of the shortish but steep descents are a few inches deep in grey gravel, and i cannot deny that in most of these cases, the challenge tyres were far more in control of my destiny than was i.
the sidewall label recommends a minimum 3 bar inflation pressure, which is exactly the level at which i set my track pump gauge. this provides good pressure for road riding (eleven miles to get to ballygrant woods) but also enhances bike comfort for the offroad gravel sections. i'd love to profess excellent bike-handling skills, but then i'd be telling fibs. yet despite impressive cack-handedness on my part, not once did the rear tyre lose traction, even when i found myself ascending a steeper gradient than i'd expected in completely the wrong gear. similarly on hitting an unexpectedly deep section of gravel at speed, the front wheel remained pretty much straight and true, resulting only in a drastically increased heart-rate and much scanning as to the best place to fall off that might incur the least physical damage.
to round off my day of derring-do, i hopped onto the grassy strip that constitutes uiskentuie strand, because i like to act as if i just don't care. though the sheep seemed totally unimpressed by my lack of forward speed across the green stuff, even on the portions that remain disturbingly wet, there was still no apparent loss of traction. maybe a touch more speed would have forced some errors, but there's a limited amount you can do about a south westerly gale.
there are plenty of narrower file-tread cross tyres on the market, but these are the first i've found with such an exaggerated width. if you fancy recapturing a lost youth, or intend to create one in the first place, a set of these seems unlikely to let you down. and if you've already succumbed to the hype and bought your very own gravel bike, might i tender that challenge's gravel grinders would make the ideal partners. now that i have embraced devil may care and all that such entails, i have every intention of riding wherever and on whatever i please. though in a concession to modernity, i intend to carry spares that might get me home if i over-reach my minimal abilities.
'tis the only sensible, grown-up thing to do.
the challenge gravel grinder race retails at £35. there is also a similar but slightly heavier version for £5 less. challenge tyres are distributed in the uk by paligap
monday 16 march 2015..........................................................................................................................................................................................................