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Monday, April 29, 2019

Gravel Family Love - Stretching The Notion Of Rideable

Not many folks actually enjoy riding a bicycle in the cold, wet or wind, let alone all three. To watch the number of enthusiasts plummet, add steep hills, sloppy gravel roads, and no coffee shop in sight. But it's not just the possibility of physical discomfort that keeps folks off gravel roads in poor conditions.

Recently an experienced cyclist told me that he decided against riding on messy gravel because his new carbon "gravel" bike would get muddy, and maybe even scratched. Another experienced cyclist expressed unease that the mud threatened his recent investment of a costly new drive train. Those sentiments are understandable and, depending on the equipment, may even be prudent. I've seen derailleurs, chains, pedals and even carbon frames utterly destroyed by muddy gravel.

Rim brake steel Black Mountain Monster Cross, running single speed, after the 51 mile Black Hills Gravel Series #3.
No drive train issues. No brake issues. Never stopped to clear mud. Just rode. Garden hose cleanup about 15 minutes.
Newcomers flocking to the gravel scene bring along their cycling experiences and preferences. By riding primarily pavement, dedicated roadies may be unaccustomed to the havoc inflicted on frames by gravelly bits, wet and dry. Indeed, the type of carbon frames, forks and wheels popular on uber road bikes may not hold up well on gravel. Maybe it is a better idea to leave those for pavement.

By avoiding muddy single track, even experienced mountain bikers may be unaccustomed to the level of drive train abuse dished out by messy gravel. It is not uncommon for a muddy gravel race to break expensive components, notably rear derailleurs, chains and pedals. Maybe for gravel it's a better idea to install components that are more durable or perhaps replaceable without financial pain.

Cyclocross racers certainly can encounter crazy bad conditions, but their equipment must hold up for only 45-60 minutes. At the higher levels, cyclocross races even provide a pit area for bike swaps and crew that is accessible each lap, which typically lasts less than 10 minutes. So, cyclocross may be a good start for equipment analysis, but dependability is measured differently for an unsupported, long, remote gravel ride.

Other than being in the wrong gear all the time, single speed worked great at the Black Hills Gravel Series #3.
When geared, I run a simple 2x9, with XT top pull front derailleur, LX rear derailleur and bar end friction shifters.
Choosing the appropriate equipment and adopting the right mindset can greatly expand the range of what one considers to be rideable conditions. Stretching those ranges is a good thing.

Last Saturday, the hangover of overnight snow greeted almost 100 cyclists at the Black Hills Gravel Series #3. The roads were a muddy mess. The sun never appeared for more than a few minutes at a time. The temperatures hovered in the forties. The soggy, often rutted remote roads on the Scenic Route demanded about 5,000 feet of climbing over 50 miles, but offered no warming huts, no aid stations, no convenience stores and no cheering crowds. To even consider such a ride, one had to bring the right equipment and the right attitude. Despite the difficulties, or more likely because of them, those cyclists understood that sharing such an experience can be empowering, enriching, rewarding, memorable, and fun.

Sometimes, crappy conditions are just crappy. Sometimes, crappy conditions create something special. Almost 100 cyclists ventured out last Saturday to discover what the day would bring. I loved being one of them.

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