Words: Gary Sulllivan
Images: Cameron Mackenzie

Heading out on a bike is, by far, one of the best ways to explore a place.

The pace of a bike ride, and your exposure to the elements, make it perfectly tuned for full immersion. If you have ever asked the average motorist about what the conditions are like up ahead, you will know how little of what they pass through actually registers. Don’t expect a driver to be able to tell you about the wind – unless it’s a Canterbury Nor ‘Wester. Likewise, whether there is a shoulder wide enough to ride on. And forget about asking whether the route is hilly or flat. Drivers just don’t experience those things.

A bike rider knows all these things, in a visceral way. A bike rider also knows what a place smells like, has a strong opinion about road surfaces, and knows whether the locals like KFC over Burger King, by close examination of the discarded wrappers.

A road bike is a fabulous machine for getting familiar with the conditions of a place and the habits of its inhabitants. A mountain bike can be used to go bushwhacking just as well as it can lap out a bike park, and you can get well and truly lost doing either.

But for really spread-eagling a region, a gravel bike is in a league of its own.

Where we live, near Rotorua, there are a heap of bike rides on tap. The mountain biking beggars belief. If it wasn’t for this, we reckon the area would be a mecca for roadies; it’s easy to do a long ride on quiet roads in several directions. But things really open up when you are on a gravel bike, or similar. When you are trundling along and see a road angling off into the boonies, it is tempting to just take it and see where it goes….

Which is fine; until the tar seal stops. Then there is a decision to be made, based on a couple of things. How many spares are on board? I generally carry two tubes if I am going far, and a frame pump (since the time I rode home with a flat tyre and two empty CO2 canisters). I gave up on mini pumps that can be stowed in a jersey pocket after using one in an emergency, once. Maybe today I only have one. That’s a factor. How far is home? If flats happen twice, what’s the plan? Is there phone coverage? Do I have a phone?

On the gravel bike, these things still count, but nowhere near as much. Plus, on top of all that, neither of my road bikes are replaceable, so wilfully beating the tar out of them (see what I did there?) seems sort of irresponsible, even by the low standards of a lifelong cyclist.

On a gravel bike, I can take whatever route presents itself.

In fact, I can go looking for routes that are unlikely to lead anywhere…. that are not on the map…. or even on roads!

Cities the length and breadth of the country are throwing out cycleways in all directions. Some are thoughtfully planned and well-executed. Many are tacked together as an afterthought, and the person behind them should be fired. The worst ones are nerve-wracking torture tests on your Sunday Best roadie, or a challenge to be relished by a gravel hound. In Rotorua’s example, because that is what I know, there are long and varied loops than can be taken, almost completely off-road. Long sections are mind-numbingly boring if you are on a mountain bike, but are entertaining on a gravel bike. All you need is a sense of humour and some decent tyres.

Not long ago I visited Tauranga, and did near enough to sixty interesting kilometres off-road. Tar seal, dirt, boardwalks and crushed shells all rolled under my semi-slicks, and I never once questioned what I was doing or where I was riding. That was a solid ride, off road, within the confines of a city.

Being able to cut through a park, or across a forest, opens up many more options.

Unless you are racing, riding a bike with bigger tyres and slacker geometry doesn’t make any difference to your enjoyment of an average road. In fact, it makes surprisingly little difference if you are racing, but let’s not get into that.

What it does is make your ride much more open-ended. You can set out to ride somewhere, then decide at the spur of the moment to do something completely different, on different terrain, and not have to worry about possible consequences.

Or anything at all really.