Jump on the Gravel Train

Gravel bikes have become quite the popular bike choice for the rider who is not too keen on a skinny-tyred, single-purpose road bike. These multi-purpose steeds have unlocked new adventures. KEVIN BENKENSTEIN arguably needs no introduction – he is the unofficial gravel-bike riding king.

IMAGES: KEVIN BENKENSTEIN

I headed out on my normal Saturday ride. Up the hill and past the hospital, under the bridge and right at the robots, left at the stop street and then, for the very first time, right up the gravel road I had always wondered about. That was the moment that my riding life changed, when I rode my first groad, when road became all-roads and when adventure became my purpose. That is what gravel has become to me, an endless opportunity to explore roads I had always wondered about, to link great tar roads by riding a great gravel road, to turn gravel roads that are mundane on an MTB into fun and fast groads that provide thrills, views and new challenges and an opportunity to escape, to feel free and to ride into areas that on any other bike would be either inaccessible or seemingly boring to go to. To me that is what a gravel bike is, a tool for adventure and exploration and a way for me to find freedom on two wheels without the restraint of having to ride a particular surface. Of course, you could ride an MTB on gravel, but it’s not made for that – get into the singletrack! Yes, road bikes can go on gravel roads, as can Cyclocross bikes, but their sharp handling and narrower tyres do not inspire confidence.

A great gravel bike is one that feels like a road bike on the road, stable on rough gravel, can handle some smooth singletrack and one that most of all feels perfectly fast and smooth on a great flowing gravel road. A gravel bike has slacker geometry than a road bike and a longer wheelbase and lower BB than a Cylocross bike, ensuring stable handling and a comfortable ride. That is not to suggest they are slow, they are anything but that, but they do inspire confidence and give you comfort and will ensure that you enjoy the riding experience for hours on end. Where are gravel bikes best used? Everywhere, almost. Gravel bikes are not just for perfect gravel roads, although that is where they are at their playful best, they are for roads and for rougher district stretches too and are more than capable on both.

Singletrack too, to a point, is also rideable on gravel bikes – just stay away from the rock gardens and drop offs at your local trail park and you’ll be fine. Personally, my gravel bike is a 50/50 bike, one that is used on- and off- road in equal measure, but it is my favourite bike because it allows me to decide what my ride will be as I roll out of my gate but then change my mind as many times as I want to during the ride. On a gravel bike riding routes become endless and you can explore to your heart’s, or legs’ desire. That is what makes gravel bikes so damn good, they are freedom on two wheels in a way that no other bikes are and that’s what riding should be, a source of freedom and a chance to reconnect to the adventurer within all of us.

EVENTS TO RIDE

1 SWARTBERG 100

This is South Africa’s first true gravel race. This is perfect for gravel bikes, but a modified MTB will be fun too. The route takes in a mix of road and gravel and summits the legendary Swartberg Pass along the way too.

2 MALMESBURY 100 MILER

More suited to a rough and tough gravel bike with highvolume tyres, from 40c upwards, this is a well-known and well-run gravel ride originally for MTBs but to which gravel bikes are suited. 3 CABAL A two-day event in Grabouw taking in a variety of forest roads, singletrack and tar with some surprises thrown in. The event is fully catered, meaning all that you need is your bike and clothes with accommodation, food and entertainment looked after for you. The event is based at the well-known Trails End.

4 THE BENKY RIDES GRAVEL RAID
Three days of riding in and around the Karkloof in KZN. The event takes riders across the plethora of gravel roads that the area offers, with views of the Drakensberg aplenty. The event is a fully catered one with routes designed to both challenge the rider and ensure maximum ride enjoyment. Riders stay at the Brahman Hills Hotel for the two nights of the event.

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