Not Far Off, But Unfamiliar
Riding off-road can offer a new perspective on well-known surroundings.
Words by Caspar Gebel. Photos by Tom Schlegel & Caspar Gebel.
Think “Gravel,” and there’s a fair chance that certain images pop up in your mind. Images of endless farm roads through undulating rural U.S. landscapes or the white roads of Tuscany. Of riders trailed by clouds of dust and illuminated by a hazy sun, suggestive of a destination soon reached with beers and friendly chat after a day’s adventures.
These pictures have been placed there by advertising campaigns, photos of press-only product launches and races you’ll most probably never watch from the roadside, let alone participate in. Reality looks rather different – but also rather less uniform than the ideal, and that’s where things become interesting.
Reality is the countryside surrounding your city, the path through the forest, the hills not so far in the distance. It’s places you have a vague idea of, having lived near them for such a long time, but have you ever really been there?
The sixty-odd people gathered on a sunny morning near a beach on the river Rhine might or might not have an idea of where they’ll be going today. They all have a route downloaded on their device, and some of them – like me – might know some passages of the route Felix and Jan from The Gravel Collective have planned: a 100km loop with over 1,500 meters of climbing, in an area which is a far cry from the U.S. or Tuscan gravel ideal.
And that’s not only because of the unconventional start: After some coffee, chat, and speechmaking we’re finally riding, but only for a kilometer – to the ramp of the ferry which brings us to the other side of the river.
Quite a lot of riders have taken off alone or in small groups right after Felix wished everybody “godspeed,” but as his friends and office mates, cycling industry photographer Tom and myself are charged with shepherding all those over the 100 kms that prefer company. Though our group of around twenty will be whittled down to four during the hours to come – some taking off towards the front, some deciding to stay behind and some switching to the shorter, 60 km route at the first feeding stop. And the last two options are due to the fact that gravel riding around here is not really about gravel – but a lot about varied and challenging terrain.
So, after 15 kms on tarmac with one first climb, things are about to get serious. We stop for a bit to let some stragglers catch up, and with encouraging words to the more timid descenders, plunge down a Trouée d’Arenberg-like path into the woods, just wide enough to pass a rider, but with a mixture of mud and slippery blocks of stone that just makes you try to hold your line and hope for the best.
After a short, steep counter slope we pause and compare the shortcoming of our respective tires. What’s the perfect tread when you take on tarmac as well as MTB-like trails and nicely leveled forest roads? The tires I’ve mounted on my Ritchey WCS Zeta wheels are more gravel race than trail riding with their barely visible central pattern – a safety feature of sorts as they prevent me from descending too confidently.
Attacked by mosquitos in the humid forest, everyone is eager to get going, and so we ride on, through deep ruts filled with rainwater and over wooden debris left from logging. We go quiet along the long uphill stretches and start chatting when we must stop once more to check the GPS track.
And whenever we’re out of the woods, I look around and wonder where I am. Looking down on a stretch of tarmac in the near distance, I realize that it’s a short ascent I frequently tackle with the road bike. Navigating a particularly nasty descent, we drop into a narrow street with well-kept old houses and a rushing creek nearby. A beautiful spot I’ve never seen before – but a couple of corners on we cross a road I’ve ridden literally dozens of times.
It’s a combination of the unknown and the familiar that will inform most of our ride. Feeling lost in one moment (albeit in good company), and back in charge in the next, turns our local gravel ride into a pleasurable adventure, giving rise to a sense of euphoria never felt when just ticking off the kilometers on an everyday ride. And to a feeling of curiosity – what’s the next surprise in store for us?
Last, but not least it’s a challenge regarding the bike of your choice. With sharp descents and hefty climbs, tarmac, muddy trails and rocky hiking paths, your steed needs to be more of an all-rounder than a specialist, and my Ritchey Outback, its slender blue frame a bit exotic among all the carbon and aluminum bikes, definitely is a good choice: stable when things get fast with its super-long chainstays, nimble in the switchbacks of the steep vineyards and still keeping a straight line when the speed drops to a fast walker’s pace on a two-figure climb.
And it sure does provide some comfort on the next, not so welcome surprise: a stony downhill of the kind that makes us fear for our tires and headset bearings, followed by another moment of disorientation – and a 1.5 km, 100 climbing meters ascent. It will bring the tally close to 1,500 and our slightly heavier companion Jens close to distraction, but luckily route planners Jan and Felix have had a good sense of balance: With the last stretch before the hilltop, a Gravel Collective flag comes into view, signaling the last feed station. A pretty house with a small front garden which I have passed countless times without noticing, and that now becomes a haven with cake and lemonade, offered by a friendly couple.
Time stretches as we sit and talk, knowing there won’t be any more surprises on the last third of our ride. What follows is charted territory, the open plain and the forest around the city that can hold no secrets – at least not for us locals. But...what we do finally come across are real gravel roads, so rare in this area, newly made stretches through the trees with a sandy-colored surface that’s just loose enough under our now perfectly suited tires to create a nice sense of challenge.
Rolling back to the ferry through town, there are no clouds of gravel road dust behind us and no hazy evening sun above. But the feeling’s the same, because I am back from a ride with just enough on the unknown to call it a small adventure. And yes – chat and beers are waiting when we arrive at the finish, just like in the U.S. and Tuscany.