Gravel 101 – Part I: A lesson in life

By November 4, 20192020 News

Dirty Clare is coming to South Australia! Showcasing the best of the Clare Valley including awe-inspiring views, world-class wine and endless horizons. Dirty Clare is the ideal way to get to know this fantastic part of the world. Today we are showcasing Part I of ‘Gravel 101’, an article by Bicycling Australia journalist and gravel enthusiast Alison McGregor.

By Alison McGregor

It began with my father enthusiastically pushing me towards a steep and dirty precipice. My lanky legs were spinning. My bottom lip was wobbling. And everything inside me believed I was heading for disaster.

We’ve all a story to tell about learning to pedal. It usually involves a parent and an off-road place you’ll never forget.
Having learnt to ride over 30 years ago local cyclist Bev Shroot now teaches new roadies how to handle the bike in bunches. During her own formative weeks, Bev recalls “Our local park had red gravel. My Dad would run behind me…shouting words of encouragement.”

Affectionate stories of off-road expeditions are aplenty. Taking to cycling again as an adult, her vivid memory involves her Mum supporting her two wheeled escapades. “Riding down a dirt road, my mum had a fixed broomstick behind the saddle helping with the balancing act.”

“I was 6. Along the grass footpath my Mum ran alongside me.” says Ange, who’s by now travelled multiple continents and routinely explores cities by bike. Many of us, like Ange, continue to benefit from exploring foreign countries from the saddle of a bike.

Learning To Trust A Bicycle

Being forced to learn the art of trusting a bicycle is high on the list of things my father taught me. Staying on the bike and overcoming the distress of a rocky decline allowed me to experience the first realms of freedom.
In hindsight recognising the physical challenges of learning to ride, and then excelling on the bike, provide plenty of metaphors to face life. The rocky path is hard, but with the right support you can overcome the dramas and just enjoy the ride.

I use the term rocky because every rider I speak with learnt to ride off-road. There’s something psychologically comforting about landing on grass compared to hard tarmac. Recalling his first major stack in dirt Ben the ultra-marathon runner of the bunch had his parents at the sidelines as he and his brother “rode full tilt at a jump we’d built out of an old card table and bricks. Being a fixed gear kiddie I needed to keep pedalling in the air (I figured this after the fact). I landed on the top tube and bucked over the bars and copped a face full of kikuyu.”

Nowadays there are instructions for everything and when it comes to off-road riding every reference advises grass and smooth gravel doesn’t hurt as bad if you fall. Likely our parents inherited this reasoning. Bitumen in comparison may be easier to navigate but requires thicker skin.

While the general consensus suggests dirt is softer and therefore safer, riding on sand, dirt, rocks and mud requires a keen set of skills. The act of balancing is more precarious and pedalling is more strenuous yet, like many things in life, the best things come from challenging yourself. You can’t learn these skills on YouTube, you need to get out, dig deep, and do it.
Add 40 years or so and today my wheels are back on the dirt. As a proud owner of a cyclocross bike, the perfect gravel frame is now on my agenda. And I’m not alone.

It’s exactly that heart pumping adrenalin and call for adventure we felt when learning to ride that now prompts a new breed of rider. Some may call them ‘Graveleurs’. They’re the guys and girls chasing dirt drops and searching for deep sandy trails. They look for rides that hark back to childhood times where dusty banks were for jumping, and riding through fields of paspalum after school was typical.

As kids we zoomed our wheels over everything, we’d adjust ourselves to the terrain and push ourselves to the limits. Gripping the bars, pushing on the pedals and moving with the bike was natural. On such days I’d ride my little red bike so hard, and habitually chuck it in a creek to rush and catch yabbies with Mum’s stockings. As adults, we tend to be a bit rusty off-road, and nervousness has us feel like we’ve reverted and are learning to ride a bike again.


This article was orginally published on the Bicycling Australia website.