Before, my son, all this was field. Or, transferred to the bicycle, gravel didn’t exist years ago… because road cycling was completely gravel. You understand me. Or not, go. Let’s see.
Considering the magazine you are holding in your hands, you are already familiar with the concept of gravel, right? The new fashion in this of the two wheels. Bicycles with an appearance very similar to the classic competition ones but that also allow you to ride on roads and paths where the asphalt disappears. Cyclocross? Well yes but no. Something similar, although including changes.
Things have been expanding at ease in recent years. The Giro d’Italia was surely the test that marked the way . Get away from the tar, introduce more or less long sections on other surfaces. It seems that there they have no complexes to do things like this, and the same thing happens to you under a narrow Renaissance arch that they put you in the bunch through the strade bianche, those unpaved roads that connect vineyard areas in Tuscany . Ah, Tuscany… They had the bit of luck that is necessary in these cases and they came up with an amazing competition in 2010, with the rainbow jersey muddy and Cadel Evans raising his hands with the face of not having forgotten the Somme. Iconic image and a fever that awakens.
Later, both the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España have incorporated sections on “anomalous” surfaces (more timidly the Gauls, with La Vuelta decision, although in Andorra the fortune that the transalpines did have was lacking) and there are more and more minor rounds and one-day races that also come close to these “experiments.” And, of course, since we are so capricious, we all wanted a machine with which to be able to accompany this trend. That already existed, eye. They called it gravel.
Before continuing… listen, it’s still a return to the past. What do you think bike racing was like before? How was the 1903 Tour de France, for example? Or, more recently… the first Tour of Colombia by Bicycle, in 1951. At that time, only a few streets in the cities were paved. The rest… earth, mud, mud . In the places where there was more infrastructure, there was macadam, those caked stones that leave a fairly smooth surface but on which you always find loose pebbles. I’m sure you know what I mean. See, see the old photos.
It’s all made up. Gravel is Fausto Coppi climbing the Stelvio (up there appears, coquettish, a young woman with black eyes and a white coat), or Gino Bartali devouring the Izoard through the sleet while thinking that maybe yes, maybe he can avoid a war in his beloved Italy . Gravel is also Fermín Trueba climbing La Braguía, leaving Julián Berrendero far behind, launching himself in pursuit of a victory that would never be his, licking the headwind while his teeth ground in pure pain. Or Federico Martín Bahamontes taking down Jacques Anquetil (so blond, so handsome) climbing the Forclaz, pain of pain for the Norman.
Stark roads that are not even roads. It is also part of the charm that gravel has… going back in time, going back to a cycling that was purer, that was freer, one with less obsession with the average speed , the marks or the photographs at the top of each port. Looking to the future to return to the past . That sounds good, damn… Let’s say that the most direct, most seminal origin is in the United States. Yes, where the mountain bikes are, it’s not too much of a coincidence either. The North American long-distance circuit, those ultras that travel the country in all directions, as if it were a Kerouac novel. Only that they must eliminate certain clichés. Not Malibu or Manhattan, no.
Between the two coasts there is a huge space, wild and desolate, where gigantic mountains, immensities of corn and some of the craziest roadside attractions you can imagine (from houses made of beer cans to a cemetery where the flavors of ice cream that no longer marketed).
There, in addition to bizarre, there is gravel. A lot. Roads and paths where the good ground disappears and becomes a crushed stone like the one that was trodden on in the first Tours(when lucky, otherwise potholes, slime and tears).
Places where traffic is just a purr away and freedom unfolds before your eyes. Places, too, through which one cannot (should not) go through with one of our sophisticated machines, because all the screws would end up shaking (I do not want to tell you if we are going on one designed for triathlon, also very numerous in the US .). So they turned their heads and introduced some variations. Industrious and self-sufficient types.
HYBRIDS FOR EVERYTHING
We spoke to the Cinelli company to decipher these differences. Founded in 1947 by Cino Cinelli (winner, among other things, of a San Remo and a Lombardy), and with experience in competition and velodromes, Cinelli has spent several years manufacturing bicycles oriented to travel with panniers, which have served as the basis for subsequent gravel models.
There they are clear that, although they seem apparently the same, the road and gravel frames present fundamental differences . All the spans must be wide, because the wheels will be thicker (more, even, than in cyclocross machines), many models come with fenders and most of these bikes have disc brakes.
In addition, the geometry also adapts, allowing a more upright posture to better withstand the vibrations of the terrain , and favoring comfort for the cyclist as much as possible. The idea is to put less stress on the back, because these machines are designed not only for more or less long outings, but also for ultra challenges or even multi-day trips. For all of the above, the material that purists tend to prefer will be steel (so classic, so hard, so reliable), although aluminum can also fulfill its purpose. Carbon here dominates less than on the road, although it is the choice of the big brands for their stock frames. Mind you, forget about high profile wheels, aero frames and all that modern stuff.… because here they were not going to be of any use to them.
We said above… cyclocross? Well, the idea is similar, but the execution is quite different . To put it simply, CX machines are built to go fast…and if you’ve got legs, to go really, really fast. They are bullets, with geometry and materials oriented towards competition. Gravels are, in this sense, exactly the opposite. Slow cycling (although you can speed up, beware, no one is stopping you, but it’s not the goal) for a more relaxed philosophy of life , less based on sports to beat yourself up and more on sports to enjoy. Reaching unsuspected places, fleeing from the stress that sometimes appears on roads or circuits. Another way of seeing our passion… without abandoning it.
Ok, and so… where does the success of gravel come from? Because these bikes have arrived, it seems, to stay . At Cinelli itself, they told us that they were already one of the two most important sectors of their production, along with road donkeys. Well, of course fashion is a fundamental element. Let’s say that gravel bikes have a hipster aesthetic that makes them very desirable for a certain group of potential customers (surely they have them in their heads… checkered shirt, beard, horn-rimmed glasses, maybe a Bukowski book sticking out of a pocket) . Hey, he has his public , but he doesn’t know much about us, right? Fortunately there is more.
The gravel allows you to escape from the traffic that can exist in some more classic training places, to enter new landscapes, on trails that we have forbidden with our lifelong bikes. Of course, precisely its dual nature means that it can be adapted to more or less long stretches of road, in such a way that we will not suffer like dogs in those segments. And neither will we have that sound that the studded wheels make when you pedal at more than 25 kilometers per hour on asphalt (that continuous “fuuuuuu”, you know what I’m talking about). You’ll be with me in that it’s a huge relief, right?
It is, yes, a particular idea. One that distances itself from marks, from timings in ports, from filing seconds for each roundabout (come on, don’t look at me like that… you know we’ve all done it at some point). Escape, too, from the nervousness that sometimes roams the roads. Traffic, smoke, traffic lights. Lonely sites, isolated sites, towlines, dirt roads. Places that are not the usual ones. Going back to the origins, because from the origins one never completely leaves . It may seem fashionable but, in reality, it is nothing more than a return to that past that (some of us) only know from the tales of the elderly.
Gravel is a discipline where the competition generates controversy . Although races, such as the Dirty Kanza -an event in Kansas of 200 miles in its longest course- have contributed to its popularization, some voices reject the establishment of a more or less professional calendar. Until now, all kinds of cyclists participate in the races together, within a weekend in which some only seek to share kilometers and experiences with other gravel enthusiasts. The growth of the modality has opened new avenues for cyclists who have exhausted their time on the World Tour:Ted King, winner of the Dirty Kanza in 2016 and 2018, was a pioneer and at the end of 2019 Peter Stetina and Ian Boswell announced their retirement to focus on gravel, which also seduces Laurens ten Dam, although it is a different case due to his career.
His participation in these events – last year Alex Howes and Lachlan Morton were also seen – has contributed to the big brands looking at them as a showcase for their products. The latest controversy arose at the beginning of January, when David Lappartient announced that the UCI was considering organizing an official World Cup . In the near future we will see if gravel remains outside of the traditional parameters or, on the contrary, it becomes more professional to channel the interests of teams, cyclists and sponsors. Preserve the essence or grow to exploit the business , an issue in which it seems difficult to find a balance.