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My one problem with gravel riding

What do we give up when we head to the bumpy stuff?

Peterborough Ont gravel

Peterborough Ont gravel
Image: Matt Stetson

If you’ve already read my feature on the riding around Peterborough and the Kawarthas, which opens with a great gravel ride, the headline above might make you scratch your head. What could my problem be? I obviously loved riding the bumpy roads in that region. (You should ride them, too.)

This past summer, I was back in Peterborough when members of the Shimano Gravel Alliance met at the company’s Canadian office. I spoke with gravel ambassadors about what they love about riding a mix of surfaces. (You can hear some of those conversations in episode 22 of the Canadian Cycling Magazine Podcast.) Did my problem with gravel arise at that event? Did I hear or see something that changed my mind? Nope. The enthusiasm of the Gravel Alliance riders is infectious.

Is it the gear? From gravel-specific shoes to bikes that can work well on the cyclocross course as well as fire roads, there are so many new products for gravel riding. Am I tired of that category? No, sorry. That’s not it. As always, I’m fascinated by new gear. I’ll criticize something based on its own merits or shortcomings, but not because of the category it’s in.

Is it the popularity of the trend? Am I having a reaction to gravel similar to the one I had in high school when the relatively unknown band that my friends and I were listening to became crazy popular? The band was no longer our special thing, so I liked it less. No, that’s not it. I like to think I’ve abandoned, long ago, that need to “zag” when everyone else is “zigging.” If a lot of folks are digging gravel, great.

One of the great appeals of gravel roads is their quiet nature. They attract few cars. With fewer cars around, most cyclists feel a little more comfortable. I get it. I remember what a road rider who logs big miles said to me once about my daily commutes in Toronto: “I don’t know how you guys ride in the city.” He was uncomfortable with the idea of riding among all those vehicles, many with drivers who have given their brains over to apps, telling them what to do next. So, head to the nice, safe(er) gravel roads.

My worry is that this move – this retreat away from well-built roads – is a capitulation. We’ve given up. You win cars. We’ll go ride where you guys don’t want to go. We’ll stay out of your way. All that worries me. In the 2014 book Roads Were Not Built for Cars, author Carlton Reid sets out the convincing thesis that good roads in the U.K. and the U.S. first came about through the activism of cyclists. Then motorist got involved, which was natural because cyclists and motorists in the late 1800s weren’t so different. They were all gear-heads into the latest technology. But then the car took over. Now, in many cities, we’re struggling for our rightful place on public roads, roads we as cyclists (and motorists, too) all pay for.

So, am I going to stop riding gravel? Heck no. I’m going to ride in the country and in the city. I’m going to ride where I feel safe. Where I don’t feel safe and where others don’t feel comfortable, I’m going to do what I always do: speak up for cyclists.