“This!” C yelled from just ahead of me on the long, loose gravel climb, “This is a sport? This?!?” Our tires zig-zagged in the chunky mess. Progress was slow. “A sport!” he yelled. “This!”
Gravel, not the catch-all, but the specific thing, the stuff running the gamut from sand to stone, is not a great substrate for cycling. In fact, it sucks. You don’t want to grind it. If there’s a compact bit of dirt off to the side, you will choose it every time. Gravel might actually be the worst thing to ride a bike on, cobbled roads aside.
How did we get here?
As with so many of our sub-cultural decisions, we allowed language to lead us. The word gravel isn’t bad. It’s trochaic, an accented syllable followed by an unaccented one. When you follow it with another, like ‘grinder,’ you get this double trochaic cadence that rolls off the tongue.
‘All-road,’ which is a more accurate name for the sort of riding people like to do now-a-days, is a spondee, two stressed syllables, sorta like ‘butt plug’ or ‘rattrap.’ Spondees are a bit harsh, and not that much fun to say, but probably more apt in this case than gravel. In fact, if you think about it, ‘gravel’ lacks a certain onomatopoeticism. It could be called crickle-crackle, for example. Or, cacophoroll. Something that embodies it’s juddering, frustrating nature better.
‘Gravel’ is close to ‘gavel,’ which sorta makes sense, because when I get to a long stretch of actual gravel there is a metaphoric gavel striking that says, “That’s enough forward progress out of you, mate. Time for you to sit down and be quiet.” If only sitting down quietly was the thing to do. Instead, there is an ad hoc test of bike-handling skills combined with a referendum on your fitness, neither of which turns out quite the way you’d hope.
As a word, it’s also adjacent to ‘grovel,’ and I don’t think I need to explain that.
‘Gravel’ comes from Middle French gravele, a small, sandy beach, but both our English word and its French cognate appear even earlier in Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo-European words, linguistic predecessors that indicate “places where dead things go” and “to dig, scratch, or scrape.”
Deep in the cycling industry’s marketing bunkers, I’m certain that power-players sat around enormous glass tables dreaming up a new way of riding that entailed digging your own grave, climbing in it, and plaintively scraping the loose scree over your own body, just to bring an end to the ceaseless and Sisyphean struggle of riding up an actual gravel incline.
Alternate terms used to describe the surfaces that we actually ride, when we’re on our “gravel bikes,” include: mixed-terrain, dirt-road, all-road, mixed-media, any-road, fire-road, double-track, etc. all of which are more correct.
And yet, we settled on gravel.
“This is a sport?!?!” he yelled. We were both running out of legs and lungs, just trying to get to the firm, sandy side trail that led back into the woods. “This?” he yelled. “This! A sport?!” He was laughing and not laughing, and I was doing the same.
Gasp-laughing, a sort of laughing gasp, not to be confused with laughing gas, but not entirely un-dental in its persistent discomfort. It makes a tasty side dish for gravel grinding.
This? A sport? No. Not really.
Actual gravel roads in these parts also involve the associated feature: washboard. If you have ever ridden serious washboard on a bicycle lacking fat, low pressure tires, you probably have a very keen understanding of two things. One, why roads in first world nations are paved. Two, why riding gravelly washboard isn’t a fun sport but something a bicyclist is sentenced to in court after committing a heinous crime.
It was a decade since I had last bought anything new and in that case, it was a Long Haul Trucker frameset onto which I hung late nineties parts from a 1992 tandem that we had retired after getting a new one. The rest of the fleet is 15-20 years old. So there was this money burning a hole in my pocket and I got a gravel bike. Not to ride gravel, but to ride the dirt trails, dirt roads, the chipseal ubiquitous around here, and anything else a sixtysomething cyclist tired of jarring rides wants to ride since a gravel bike could take wider rubber than my Six Thirteen or CAAD-5 which sorta tells you how old my stuff is. Well I do have an older cross bike too currently shod with 700-40 Donnelly MSOs but as we all know, the proper number of bikes is n+1 where n is the number you have now.
Did I need a gravel bike? Probably not. I thought of a Co Motion Deschutes but most of my riding is more along the lines of the gravel or cross variety and sure, I already have the LHT built up lovingly out of the parts bin, i.e., its highly individualized. or should I say it was a cheap date. But like the Litespeed Gravel, that Deschutes sure is pretty.
Back when people were smart, cyclists backed the “Good Roads Movement”, to pave gravel and dirt roads.
Kids rode balloon tyre bikes, now their kid ride balloners aka gra-vel bikes.
In lower Indiana, gravel bikes make passable road bikes, tires are a might small for the 40 years worth
of pot hole patches that constitute an Indiana road.
Hey, I recognize the location in that header pic. Totally agreed re: gravel as a surface to ride on. And totally agreed re: there should be a better name. “Mixed terrain” is the other one I hear a lot. Better than “all road,” I think, as the gringletrack (https://dieffenbike.wordpress.com/2019/06/30/gringletrack/) I like to ride extends well beyond road. But “mixed terrain” doesn’t sound all that interesting at all.
The best I’ve heard so far? “Adventure.” It’s of course not the surface, but it’s the point.
Butt Plug and the Etymology of the word gravel in the same essay. THIS! This is why I look forward to your useless reviews!
And I just happened to read this right after Padraig’s Russian River essay.
Damn. I just love this site!