Opinion: Gravel. It's a thing.
Tickle your wanderlust on the road less travelled, hunt down unsealed routes in the back blocks, and intersect with places and lives you may never have guessed existed. It is the bike world’s newest and most exciting thing that doesn’t have a battery.
The reality is, it’s actually an old thing. In fact, it’s as old as the bicycle itself. While people were horsing around with tar-based roading before the invention of the chain-driven bike, tarmac wasn’t patented until 1902. By that time, the oldest of the classics was in its tenth edition. Precious few roads were sealed, and cycling was already a big sport and massive pastime.
Riding and racing on sealed roads didn’t really become commonplace until much later in the 20th century. For decades, the heroes of the roads and the weekend warriors alike had done their miles on gravel.
And if you are going to ride gravel, you need a bike for it.
The modern road bike has tight tolerances and a sculpted frame aimed at beating wind resistance and getting every watt you can squeeze out onto the smooth road surface it is designed to roll upon. It is a creation of its terrain. Geometry is tweaked to get the most speed out of the bike, and to make it handle on hot mix - that is it’s job. But, that makes it a bit of a one-trick pony. When my mate, David Benson, built my favourite road bike over 20 years ago, he did it with the spirit of those earlier bikes in mind.
It’s beautifully hand-crafted in steel. Fairly relaxed angles and a low bottom bracket make it incredibly docile, even at high speed. Plenty of clearance means the tyre size that can be crammed into the frame is limited, mainly by the reach of the brakes; 32mm will fit.
It is still outfitted with the original build kit, a budget range from Campagnolo called Daytona. It has a low-range set of ratios, the cassette is 14 - 28 and the chain- rings are 39 - 50.
One of the Benson’s first outings was in the Hunuas, south of Auckland. We went there to meet its maker for a ride. We started with a long singletrack climb, on a rutted clay trail between encroaching walls of gorse, then rambled around on forestry roads for a couple of hours before dropping down into Clevedon for sustenance. We took photos - there is a beauty of me and the Benson grovelling up the initial trail - but it was during that fuzzy period after everybody had stopped using film, but before the average person had a decent digital camera. Also, way before anybody had photos organised on their computers - so I can’t find it. But I remember it, and the day, with more clarity than the camera could manage.
We were as energised by going bush on our road bikes as we were a decade previously, on our novel mountain bikes. We were some sort of perverse pioneers, riding bikes that were arguably throwbacks to a bygone era, to do a thing that wouldn’t hit its straps for another couple of decades.
Sometime after that memorable outing, I wrote a blog about the Benson (blogs were no more of a ‘thing’ than gravel when I took ownership of it so I had about ten years aboard it, to talk about). I called it, “The Bicycle You Can’t Buy”. That title applies to my bike still, and always will, but in the context of the blog I was describing a type of bike - not my exact specimen.
At the time, you’d have struggled to buy anything like it.
Comfy enough to pull out of the pile and ride all day on; plump tyres with pressure under the thumb roughly equivalent to a medium-rare steak; gearing that will let you climb up a lamp-post; geometry providing a ride so forgiving you don’t really need to watch where you are going.
Stick some smaller and lighter tyres on it and it becomes a really well behaved road bike. I have been around Taupo on it about twenty times, and it doesn’t go any slower than the full carbon rocket ship I briefly owned a few years back.
I started worrying I would eventually wreck the Benson if I continued to take it off road. Gravel is one thing, but it had seen a few of Rotorua’s trails as well, and that seemed like pushing my luck.
So I went shopping.
It’s amazing what the bike biz has presented in a fairly new category. There are gravel bikes at almost any price point, and with every point of view. Metal frames, carbon frames, 650b or 700c, myriad equipment options, some even have dropper posts.
The bike I ended up with is actually “road- plus” - not a true gravel bike according to an expert I ran into on social media. It is a swiss-army knife of a thing that can switch between two wheel sizes, run almost any tyre size south of fat bike rubber, and can wear mudguards, racks, and at least three drink bottles. It has a rugged steel frame, is hefty to lift on to the rack, but really good to ride. It feels indestructible - most of the fittings are from mountain bike parts bins, and there is nothing there that has been selected to cut down on weight.
The Benson doesn’t get out as often these days, but hopefully it will outlast me now it’s not being mistreated.
Words & Illustration Gary Sullivan