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Singletrack is Gravel Too - Ritchey

Singletrack is Gravel Too

Limiting a gravel bike to only riding pristine, graded roads is also limiting yourself to the experience of riding those roads.

Many years ago, I was in Northern Italy for work and had the opportunity to go on a gravel ride with a local cycling club. I leaped at the chance to venture out on a gravel ride outside of my usual Midwestern U.S. routes. I had a romanticized vision in my mind of endless gravel paths twisting through the Italian countryside and up and down the mountains. I thought of stopping in small cafes for wine and espresso while snacking on a baguette and some charcuterie along the way.

Cured Meat and Beer is Gravel Too - Ritchey

The day of the ride, my vision became a reality. My riding companions and I found ourselves on exactly the types of terrain I’d imagined — and then some. Riding a mixture of cobbled roads, winding gravel paths, and steep farm roads, we stopped for espresso and beers (close enough!) along the way before finally reaching a mountain top inn for lunch. The ride up to that point had exceeded my expectations tenfold.

After lunch was another story.

Leaving our lunch spot, I was told we were almost to the real gravel part of the ride. I paused, wondering how the gravel ahead differed from the gravel we’d already ridden. Needless to say, I was wholly underprepared for what was to come.

Singletrack is Gravel Too - Ritchey

You see, what my midwestern brain had failed to consider was that the term “gravel” varies greatly by locale. In the Midwest, gravel is typically limited to farm roads, minimum maintenance roads, and double-track. To me, what we’d already ridden was gravel.

But long sections of the second half of the route took us onto steep trails generally reserved for hooves. This was the first time I’d ever encountered “gravel” that included cattle trails, ditches, and singletrack. In the moment, I didn’t fully appreciate all of that varied terrain as I was entirely focused on not careening off the side of a mountain.

Ritchey Gravel Singletrack Chaos

But that ride has stuck with me ever since. The smooth gravel sections, the treacherous and chunky “ungravel” sections, the paved roads, and the singletrack — I rode all of it on a gravel bike. More than that, I survived it on a gravel bike. And in retrospect, I think I even enjoyed it.

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The dropped bar, slack geometry bike with 700x45c tires I was riding handled it all, often better than I myself handled it. Others I was riding with were on similar or even more minimal setups, with one brave soul riding the entire day on a road bike with 25c tires. Ironically, the only real incident of the day was on a super-fast paved descent when someone didn’t quite make the curve and hit a guard rail. They were fine. The bike was less fine.

With all the niche products available now, getting wrapped up in what constitutes a gravel or mountain bike ride is far too easy. When in all reality, the best of both types of rides includes a combination. There’s nothing better than mixing up a long gravel ride with a bit of technical singletrack or connecting different mountain bike trails with gravel roads or double-track when possible. Hell, I’ve even found ways of mixing both gravel and singletrack into my daily commute — with a rack and panniers, no less!

Singletrack is Gravel Too - Ritchey

Gravel is much more than just dirty road riding. There’s a whole big world out there well past where the pavement ends — it’s not all smooth sailing gravel that you’re used to. Limiting a gravel bike to only riding pristine, graded roads is also limiting yourself to the experience of riding those roads. Similarly, only riding singletrack on your mountain bike means more time spent in the car getting to the trailhead. But by taking a “yes, and…” approach to your dirtier rides, you can ultimately spend more time actually riding. And ultimately, isn’t that really the goal?



Words by Joel Swenson - a Minneapolis-based writer and former bike racer who now opts for rides that don’t elevate his heart rate quite as much. When not writing or riding, you’ll probably find him cooking, reading, buying records he’ll probably never listen to, or relaxing with a beer in hand and cat on lap. Photos by Jeff Lockwood, who was also on the ride Joel writes about here.

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