Le Graveur: The Margins

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I just got turned back from a ride. 5k from the house I realized my bits were getting too cold not only for comfort (in which case, apply Rule #5 and move on) but safety (i’ll take my vasectomy in the hospital, thank you very much). It’s a lovely sunny day, the only problems being the minus 12C temp, biting headwind, and leg warmers that stop mid-thigh. Having to pull the plug on a ride is a bummer. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen all too often and I’ve still got the rollers set up in the house. But the silver lining here is that it was only my 4th or 5th training ride of the year for the Heck of the North which is still 7 months away.

Some would say gravel riding is here to stay. Others would say gravel riding has always been a part of cycling and all we’re doing now is applying intention to it. It’s undeniable though that the gravel scene has taken on a prominent role in cycling of late. From open-registration races all over the world to the Strade Bianche, graveling has ignited a passion in many of us. Riding dirt roads has a certain unique aesthetic, an aesthetic that is best described as taking place on the margins.

The tarmac, as we move further from the center of town, gives way increasingly to gravel. As the rider begins to stitch together longer gravel stretches of road he needs to go further out on the margin of the city until finally, any reminders of the city are gone. This is where the margin is blurred between “civilization” and “wilderness”. The Graveur’s bike is marginally a road bike. Road bikes can be fitted with wider tires but are limited by frame and fork design as well as clearance at the caliper. Cyclocross bikes can run with skinny tires which is usually preferred and then we’re left often with a higher BB, heavier bike, and a position that’s closer to sit up and beg. Only just recently have bicycle companies begun to manufacture equipment intended specifically for the booming gravel scene. But even still, the rider has to select a hodge-podge of gear from road, cross, and even MTB that will suit his needs and the particulars of the course.

This year, I’m experimenting with new bars. I’ve decided to give the Salsa Cowbell a spin. Maybe you’ve seen bars like this on Randoneur and drop-bar 29er’s common in the adventure bike and UltraCX scene. I’m trying to achieve a few things with these flared bars: flat hood-to-top area while maintaining horizontal drop, more upright position with a shallow drop, lot’s of drop for secure grip, and leverage provided by wider-than-Lampre-Man 46mm span. Gianni recently referred to the geographically curated bike as a “Terroir Bike”. I like this turn of phrase.

Toeing up to the start of a gravel race can result in sensory overload of Rule-breaking gauche.  Riders operating on the margins of The Rules show up with frame bags and EPMS’s, Camelbaks, zero saddle/stem drop, facial hair, MTB shoes, and even aero bars. The list goes on of Rule violations. Be mindful though that Rules are often bent consciously and  broken for geography, practicality and self-reliance. The most Rule compliant of Velominati on the road may seemingly be found out on the margins of decorum riding gravel. Don’t be too quick to judge.

It is the margins that attracted me to gravel riding and is partly what keeps me excited about it. For one, I have little choice in terms of the roads I have to ride. I live on a gravel road that mostly leads to other gravel roads. I’m closer to the margin of wilderness than civilization. Graveling is a necessity if I want more places to ride. Keeper status aside, I’ve always been one to eschew rules and authority and go against the grain. Gravel riding allows me a damn good reason to blur the Rules from time to time to see what works. Here are a few Rules worth breaking when it comes to gravel road riding:

  • Rule #29. If you’re way out on the margins you just may need the extra space for tools or food.
  • Rule #32. Two bidons won’t cut it often times. So unless you have the ability to filter or treat water, try a hydro pack or frame bag.
  • Rule #34. You will find yourself walking or running out there. Wear shoes that allow this.
  • Rule #44. I’ve found, especially on technical trails and ultraCX, that less drop reduces fatigue and improves visibility over a long ride.
  • Rule #50. I live in the woods, hipster. I’m growing a fucking beard and riding my bike if I damn well please.
  • Rule #52. Pfft.
  • Rule #54. I haven’t done this and won’t. But the guy that won the Heck in 2012 had aerobars and used them. Just sayin’.
  • Rule #61. I ride a Fizik Antares VS on my gravel bike and appreciate the extra padding (although the saddle is compliant).
  • Rule #68. It’s been said riding gravel saps an additional 10% of energy and thus requires an additional 10% of V over a course of the same distance of tarmac. Therefore, the quality of your ride will be 11% more on gravel. That’s one higher.

Vie la vie Velominatus

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96 Replies to “Le Graveur: The Margins”

  1. Marko, love the response to Rule #50. I’m sort of done with facial hair for the time being (if you don’t count my current five days’ growth, which is coming off before the VMH gets home from travel tonight), but living in the woods and riding off-road a lot these days makes me a little squishy about certain rules. 

     

  2. Looking forward to HOTN! Not much gravel here in WI outside “rails to trails” paths. Dairy lobby apparently made sure almost all back roads are paved to help get milk to market. I’ll be training on what I can find though.

  3. Gravel riding sounds fantastic. Leaving town, civilization and cars would make it all worthwhile. Imagine, one could even ride side by side and talk. And getting chased by a cougar or bear sounds like more excitement than being chased by a fat pitbull. Still, no espresso out there.

  4. @Gianni I’ve seen a lot of animals on rides. Wolves, bears, moose, deer. The only time I ever really got goose bumps was seeing the cougar. I imagine a skinny guy moving quickly would look like a big cat toy. No thanks. Btw, the espresso love GU shots are good.

    @Marvellous Marvellous.

  5. Very cool, Marko! Love the idea of seeing some Rules bent a bit for new types of riding. A CX bike has broadened my horizons, gravel riding just adds another option. Nothing better than seeing the true outdoors via bicycle.

    Attended the handmade bike show two weekends ago. Fat bikes and gravel grinders dominated, in my opinion. All pretty cool, but I left and realized I hadn’t seen too many bikes I wanted to own or ride. I know it’s a venue for builders to show off what they can do, but I think they need to have a better balance of function/form. Dario was one of the few builders with framesets for sale.

  6. @Marko

    the espresso love GU shots

    constitute one of the four food groups–rounding out meat, alcohol, and…  I guess there are three.

  7. @Ron

    Very cool, Marko! Love the idea of seeing some Rules bent a bit for new types of riding. A CX bike has broadened my horizons, gravel riding just adds another option. Nothing better than seeing the true outdoors via bicycle.

    Attended the handmade bike show two weekends ago. Fat bikes and gravel grinders dominated, in my opinion. All pretty cool, but I left and realized I hadn’t seen too many bikes I wanted to own or ride. I know it’s a venue for builders to show off what they can do, but I think they need to have a better balance of function/form. Dario was one of the few builders with framesets for sale.

    Agreed – I wasn’t terribly impressed with what I saw from photos of NAHBS this year.

    My gravel bike is my cross bike with less expensive/fragile tires.  Its 4130, its heavy, its relatively sit up and beg, but its comfortable.  I don’t know that I feel the need for a separate bike for gravel riding, but then my cross bike’s geometry is more what you would see on a dedicated gravel bike anyway.  Maybe I need a new cross bike!

  8. I raced Heck with a camelbak, but given the weather and rain, I could have made it on just two bidons. Still, I lost one of my bidons on some rough rode in the gutter sprinting for the first trail secteur. I was mighty glad I had a backpack full of water; with just one bidon I’d have been EFF YOU QUE EE DEE.

  9. Riding gravel roads out in the cascades is so incredibly awesome. You’re basically on a road bike with wide tires, no cars, no assholes throwing shit at you. You see a moto come by every now and again and give eachother a nod.

    One of my all time favorite shots from a ride I did last summer. You can’t find this shit on tarmac. (click for enlarged photo)

  10. @Marko

    @Gianni I’ve seen a lot of animals on rides. Wolves, bears, moose, deer. The only time I ever really got goose bumps was seeing the cougar. I imagine a skinny guy moving quickly would look like a big cat toy. No thanks. Btw, the espresso love GU shots are good.

    @Marvellous Marvellous.

    On the balance: no car traffic versus being eaten by a bear, I’d try the bear. I saw a fresh cougar paw print in the snow once, it was huge, and impressed me mightily. You are right about looking like a big fun cat toy, it would drag your skinny ass into the woods and just “play” with you.

    Espresso love GU shots, I’m psyched. Probably better than some of the poor espresso served in the US of A.

  11. @frank

    Riding gravel roads out in the cascades is so incredibly awesome. You’re basically on a road bike with wide tires, no cars, no assholes throwing shit at you. You see a moto come by every now and again and give eachother a nod.

    Frank, what’s the word on the Iron Horse Trail? 110 miles up to Snoqualmie Pass and then down to the Columbia?  Maybe an awesome training ride for the HOTN?

  12. Last year’s Heck of the North was my first gravel race (to be honest, it was my first century of any kind), which I did on a road bike.  Lesson learned.  As I have more gravel races on the calendar this year, I built up a bike over the winter on a ‘cross frame with a mix of road components.
    It is good to know I am not the only one who will be violating the above rules.  I just hope it helps me through the Moose Mile.

  13. Unfortunately it it will be a few more weeks before we see anything resembling gravel or minimaly maintained roads.

  14. @Marko

    @Gianni I’ve seen a lot of animals on rides. Wolves, bears, moose, deer. The only time I ever really got goose bumps was seeing the cougar. I imagine a skinny guy moving quickly would look like a big cat toy. No thanks. Btw, the espresso love GU shots are good.

    @Marvellous Marvellous.

    Been trying to find the right road write up for this Robert Frost bit …

    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

    After using Espresso Love to this point, there is no other to consider.

  15. @Gianni

    @Marko

    @Gianni I’ve seen a lot of animals on rides. Wolves, bears, moose, deer. The only time I ever really got goose bumps was seeing the cougar. I imagine a skinny guy moving quickly would look like a big cat toy. No thanks. Btw, the espresso love GU shots are good.

    @Marvellous Marvellous.

    On the balance: no car traffic versus being eaten by a bear, I’d try the bear. I saw a fresh cougar paw print in the snow once, it was huge, and impressed me mightily. You are right about looking like a big fun cat toy, it would drag your skinny ass into the woods and just “play” with you.

    Espresso love GU shots, I’m psyched. Probably better than some of the poor espresso served in the US of A.

    Tiger track next to VMH’s hand in the Periyar wildlife reserve in India (Kerala). Bigass fucking cat.

    I’ll take being eaten while riding/hiking/camping/surfing/etc over being taken out by a drunk driver or a dude tweeting LOL to his mates.

    But on balance I’ll vote “live until tomorrow” every time.

  16. @PeakInTwoYears

    @frank

    Riding gravel roads out in the cascades is so incredibly awesome. You’re basically on a road bike with wide tires, no cars, no assholes throwing shit at you. You see a moto come by every now and again and give eachother a nod.

    Frank, what’s the word on the Iron Horse Trail? 110 miles up to Snoqualmie Pass and then down to the Columbia? Maybe an awesome training ride for the HOTN?

    I’ve been trying to sort that out. Its a must-do for Spring 2014. Lets tee it up, mate.

  17. @Zevo

    Last year’s Heck of the North was my first gravel race (to be honest, it was my first century of any kind), which I did on a road bike. Lesson learned. As I have more gravel races on the calendar this year, I built up a bike over the winter on a ‘cross frame with a mix of road components.

    It is good to know I am not the only one who will be violating the above rules. I just hope it helps me through the Moose Mile.

    Welcome, and so cool you did the ride. Did you finish the ride? On a road machine? Unbelievable, you should get a Lifetime V Award for that. People on mountainbikes reported snapped downtubes. That’s awesome. But I bet you ran the trail bits.

    We’ll see you this year?

  18. @Endurimil

    Unfortunately it it will be a few more weeks before we see anything resembling gravel or minimaly maintained roads.

    As many of you know, we lost our Great (well, fair to moderate, anyway) Dane about a month ago, and our plan was to spread her ashes and plant a tree in her honor at a river near the campsite was always took her to north of Cle Elum. She loved that spot and would always get real flirty and playful. Such a fun dog.

    Anyway, we drove up there last weekend and found the road to be covered in a similar layer of about 2-3 feet of snow. So the tree is now potted and the ashes await a warmer season before we can get up there. “Hey, its dry and sunny in Seattle, there can’t be any chance of loads of snow in the mountains, right?”

    Is there a  moron tattoo?

  19. Well since the door’s been opened: Can rule violations be given some sort of hiarchy? For example those determining rider behavior trump those governing rider aesthetics which then trump those governing bike aesthetics. Violations of the rules could then only be entertained if done in order to preserve a higher rule. There are sins and there are cardinal sins after all. Not hardening the fuck up will still have dire consequences.

    I for one will restrain, but you know, on those rare occasions…

  20. @frank

    @PeakInTwoYears

    @frank

    Riding gravel roads out in the cascades is so incredibly awesome. You’re basically on a road bike with wide tires, no cars, no assholes throwing shit at you. You see a moto come by every now and again and give eachother a nod.

    Frank, what’s the word on the Iron Horse Trail? 110 miles up to Snoqualmie Pass and then down to the Columbia? Maybe an awesome training ride for the HOTN?

    I’ve been trying to sort that out. Its a must-do for Spring 2014. Lets tee it up, mate.

    As soon as I acquire my gravel rig, I’m the guy you’ll be waiting for all along that ride.

  21. @Marko If the Moose Mile was out I must be misinformed on the local trails.  What then, I pray, was that stretch of shin high weeds and mud?

    I guess I will have to hope it is in this year to get the full experience!

  22. @frank Yes, thank you, I finished on a road bike with a mix of efforts on the trails.  I will be there this year hoping to find even more joy in the mud.

  23. @Zevo The moose mile was a stretch of bouldery, muddy, rutted single track. Basically a BWCAW portage that was overgrown. In 2012, I rode half of it if I was lucky. MTB terrain for sure but the only stretch that really required one.

    Look for us this year. We’ll be there en force.

  24. @Marko

    @Endurimil You’re living in the snow globe that that douche keeps shaking too, eh? We’re a good month out still.

    Yes I do. In 12 years since I moved out to Ontario seems to be the worst.

  25. @frank

    @Endurimil

    Unfortunately it it will be a few more weeks before we see anything resembling gravel or minimaly maintained roads.

    As many of you know, we lost our Great (well, fair to moderate, anyway) Dane about a month ago, and our plan was to spread her ashes and plant a tree in her honor at a river near the campsite was always took her to north of Cle Elum. She loved that spot and would always get real flirty and playful. Such a fun dog.

    Anyway, we drove up there last weekend and found the road to be covered in a similar layer of about 2-3 feet of snow. So the tree is now potted and the ashes await a warmer season before we can get up there. “Hey, its dry and sunny in Seattle, there can’t be any chance of loads of snow in the mountains, right?”

    Is there a moron tattoo?

    Tattoo? I can confirm no. Because if there’s was one my VMH would have gotten me at least two based on some of the in her words ” Crazy idiot rides” I have done in the past.

  26. Kinda fuckin’ sucks that one big part of why gravel riding is awesome is that you don’t have to put up with irrational, aggressive auto drivers. In cycling heaven, road cycling won’t involve those bastards either.

    I also forgot to mention that I can’t imagine cycling in that sort of cold anymore. Too long in the south; low single digits seems pushing it a bit nowadays, as we’re generally subjected to mild winters. Road riding feels slow in that cold, with all that gear. Off-road is such a blast you forget you feel like a marshmallow barely moving along.

  27. @Ron

    I also forgot to mention that I can’t imagine cycling in that sort of cold anymore. Too long in the south; low single digits seems pushing it a bit nowadays, as we’re generally subjected to mild winters. Road riding feels slow in that cold, with all that gear. Off-road is such a blast you forget you feel like a marshmallow barely moving along.

    Kind of got used to the cold from my days freezing my ass off alpine ski racing at Whistler.

    Speaking of Cougars….25 plus years of doing all sorts of stuff in the BC woods and have only seen a Cougar once. Exactly 3 seconds as it ran across a logging road and all we saw was it’s tail heading into the bush.

  28. That cowbell bar looks a good shape. Zipp flares their road bars too (though not that much). I think it makes a lot of sense.

    Not sure I could ride a 44cm bar though.

  29. Peakin’, Frank, G’rilla,

    I went up to the Iron Horse Trail at the end of last summer.  It’s a great trail, but I got to the section with the tunnel through the top of the pass and found that the surface through the tunnel is seriously shitty.  Like, fist-sized or baby-head-sized pointy rocks.  I’m not sure I’d even want to do it on a mountain bike — a fatbike might be in order.

    The good news, if anything, is that I think I might have found a route that drops down from the Iron Horse trail down onto the access road for the Denny Creek Trailhead (the road is 1 to 1.5 lanes wide) that then continues up to the Alpental ski area and, beyond that, to Snoqualmie pass proper.  I’ll be checking it out later in the spring.  If it’s like what I imagine, the whole ride would be terrific on a graveur: mostly gravel, a little singletrack, some bad roads.

  30. @PeakInTwoYears Hi, no its in the Austrian Alps – Zillertal, about 15kms from Italian border.  I am from England but live here now.  You can ride over two thousand metres here – many many tracks to explore…

  31. @frank  Hi Frank, Austrian Zillertal Alps where I now live (from the UK).  The bike is a Klein Pulse Comp from 1997.  Recently got rid of fork for rigid Project 2.  Total XT 10 spd group upgrade, Dura Ace shifters and new Mavic rims, specific for the Berg – so many rules broken but it works fantastically well!!  Just as a point of interest, I do have a Gunnar with Srampag mix, 10 spd for the Alps climbing – 32 at the back.  Works perfectly, no gadgets required.  I can post a pic if you like.

  32. @Ccos

    Well since the door’s been opened: Can rule violations be given some sort of hiarchy? For example those determining rider behavior trump those governing rider aesthetics which then trump those governing bike aesthetics. Violations of the rules could then only be entertained if done in order to preserve a higher rule. There are sins and there are cardinal sins after all. Not hardening the fuck up will still have dire consequences.

    I for one will restrain, but you know, on those rare occasions…

    For pure road riding on one’s road machine, no.  Codifying exceptions to the rules is the road to perdition.

    That said, I do a lot of Audax, a discipline marked by the worst sort of Rule violations:  Galaxy-class EPMS, YJAs, and unshorn guns abound.  Just you try to tell a guy who’s rolled 1200km in 80 hours that he’s in violation – a swift kick in the ass is the only sane response.

    Rule V trumps all.

  33. @The Grande Fondue Initial reaction to the Cowbells is that they’re headed in the direction of a Reverence article this fall. More data needed but so far so good. These are 46’s! Yikes. They’re so wide. But they feel nice, open up my chest for breathing, give be tons of positions, and oh the leverage. Plus, I just think they look cool.

  34. @Ccos Perhaps another way to look at this is that some Rules just don’t apply given the circumstance of the terroir. Shorter, less marginal rides will find me totally Rule compliant on the gravel bike. Two small bidons, road shoes, and everything packed nicely in jersey pockets. But when required for self-reliance and certain trails on farther flung rides those lines start to blur.

  35. @Frank – that camelbak lesson was good last year. I too could have gotten by without based on the conditions. But the year before is was hot, dry, and sunny and two bidon and a full camelbak later I was coming in on fumes the last 10k or so. No fun.

  36. Fan-fucking-tastic! I can’t wait to put my new(to me) Bianchi Crossmax to good use on the multitude of gravel roads we have. I’ve done a little on #1, but it wasn’t quite right. So much exploring, so little vacation time saved.

  37. @Marko

    @The Grande Fondue Initial reaction to the Cowbells is that they’re headed in the direction of a Reverence article this fall. More data needed but so far so good. These are 46″²s! Yikes. They’re so wide. But they feel nice, open up my chest for breathing, give be tons of positions, and oh the leverage. Plus, I just think they look cool.

    I’ve heard of Major Taylor and need to do an article on him soon. He had to Rule V it in so, so many ways . . . .

  38. @Ccos

    Well since the door’s been opened: Can rule violations be given some sort of hiarchy? For example those determining rider behavior trump those governing rider aesthetics which then trump those governing bike aesthetics. Violations of the rules could then only be entertained if done in order to preserve a higher rule. There are sins and there are cardinal sins after all. Not hardening the fuck up will still have dire consequences.

    I for one will restrain, but you know, on those rare occasions…

    Let me see here, what’s the phrase I’m looking for? Oh, right: FUCK OFF!

    I reject the premise and the question; this sort of thing can result in excommunication, you know. Even just asking these sorts of questions.

  39. @Marko

    You’re going to be riding a Dutch Bike by the time you’re done exploring this route you’re on.

    I’m not judging because it will irrevocably lead to you riding one of these, which is kinda cool.

  40. @cognition

    The good news, if anything, is that I think I might have found a route that drops down from the Iron Horse trail down onto the access road for the Denny Creek Trailhead (the road is 1 to 1.5 lanes wide) that then continues up to the Alpental ski area and, beyond that, to Snoqualmie pass proper. I’ll be checking it out later in the spring. If it’s like what I imagine, the whole ride would be terrific on a Graveur: mostly gravel, a little singletrack, some bad roads.

    Count me in, dude. Sounds like prime Cogal material!!

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