My Gravel Bike – The Holy Grail
by Tom Woodbury
Like most people born in the early eighties, my first bicycle was a BMX. Not one of the gaudy Raleigh Burners or gimmicky Street Hawks, but a rather subtle white Ammaco number. I rode over anything and everything I could on it, the time eventually came to get a new bike because I had outgrown it. This coincided with the explosion of mountain bikes into the UK scene.
All of a sudden the must have bike for the discerning youth was an ‘MTB’ or ‘ATB’ with Muddy Fox the ultimate aspiration. Some friends had Raleigh Lizards in their lucid two tone fade and orange bottle cage, and the odd MBK or Giant was spotted occasionally. My first MTB however was one of the most affordable and popular amongst pre-teens – Halfords’ own Apollo Atomic GT18.
Weighing at least 30 lbs and coming with a colour coded quill stem with at least forty degrees of rise, the bike wasn’t a looker. The saddle was the size of the top of a bar stool and the ‘borrowed’ triple triangle frame design just didn’t look right. But it did have eighteen gears and bigger wheels than the BMX.
Living in southern Hampshire, decent mountain biking territory was not readily accessible. Fortunately for me, I grew up in Lordswood, Southampton however. Lordswood is now established itself as a mini-mountain biking mecca due to years of trail building activity there in recent times. Although I had no involvement in this, I still like to think of myself smugly as one of the original trail blazers of Lordswood mountain biking, despite never having my wheels off of the ground and sticking to the bridleways.
As I started getting more into the sport, and gaining exposure to the type of riding you could do in the UK from magazines like MBUK and MTB Pro, I yearned for some more exciting riding destinations. Slightly further afield was the New Forest; pleasant enough to ride but hardly gnarly, and a car ride or train trip away. I started to think that I was destined to an entire youth of riding around Lordswood, but then one chance encounter changed my ideas about cycling completely.
I was doing my usual pootle around the off-road tracks of Lordswood and cut through on my way home to Southampton Sports Centre. Ride and white tape was marking some sort of course on the trails that I used to get home and from the hill I was on I could see lots of guys on bikes in the distance. I rode down to see what was going on, and it was evident I had stumbled across a cyclo-cross race. Unbeknown to me in the days without the internet, Wessex Cyclo Cross held an annual event minutes from my house. I stayed and watched the deranged group of lycra-clad maniacs punish themselves for an hour around the hilly course on drop bar bikes. Heading home for lunch my head was buzzing with ideas – if the local sports centre could be a race destination, what else could.
So from then on, I didn’t limit myself to Lordswood. I got a map, explored bridleways, quiet roads and off the beaten track footpaths. I went wherever looked interesting, complete with a few chocolate bars and a sandwich.
After a few years of saving up, at the age of thirteen I upgraded my bike to a beautiful titanium coloured Saracen Eiger. The bike was a huge departure from the Apollo with a much lighter Tange steel frame, 21 gears and a new-fangled “Gripshift” shifting mechanism. I rode it to death, exploring further afield up towards Salisbury and Andover and even doing a bit of ‘mountain bike camping’ with my dad (and we all know how popular that is now).
Like a lot of riders, I look back on this period with great nostalgia. The bikes where a lot simpler, and cycling was far more of a fringe sport; not the huge global industry it is now. Most older cyclists I came across on the bridleways and in bike shops were eccentric types, and the whole scene outside of proper road racing had a real quirkiness to it. As I got older, and cash became more accessible I moved on to bikes firstly with front suspension, carbon fibre frames, then the upgrade to full bounce. Yet the riding I did was no more gnarly than the pottering and exploring I did in my youth. Most local riding for me, including the South and Wessex Downs didn’t need front suspension, let alone a full carbon four inch travel monstrosity. Inevitably the lack of off-road riding that provided a challenge led me to the cardinal sin for a self-proclaimed Mountain Biker: I bought a road bike.
Initially I hated the road bike. It was too light, too twitchy. The pedals were harder to clip out of. But I persevered and for several years barely used my mountain bike. But as the roads got busier, near misses became more frequent and a few minor crashes made me consider my safety a bit more having found out my wife was pregnant with our first child, the lure of the trail re-emerged – especially when riding on a beautiful country road and then seeing an interesting looking bridleway to the left…
By sheer luck, it was at this time I became aware of a new bike that had just hit the market. Whilst not specifically billed as ‘Gravel’ (‘Adventure’ came a long time after) a guy on the Singletrack forum had just acquired a titanium bike that was ostensibly a road bike. A few clicks later however, there were photos of it riding down steep trails in the Cairngorns. More users got on board, posting pictures of the bike and telling stories of the long multi-surface rides they had been doing with it. By the time the thread had got to twenty pages, I had decided I had to have one.
Relaxed geometry, a zingy titanium frame, rack and guard mounts, room for 45c tyres. My first ride was totally unplanned jaunt that took me on bridleways, quiet roads, dirt tracks and a few places I probably shouldn’t have been. Whilst there have probably always been bikes that could do stuff like this, the point was they didn’t do it nearly as well. I was pretty much as fast on the road as I was on my racer, and faster than an MTB on flat gravel. On the steep stuff it was way more interesting than ploughing over everything knowing your suspension will take care of you. Put a rack on it and it’s a touring bike. Strap some bags on it and it’s a bikepacking bike.
It took me 25 years to find a bike that was perfect for my kind of riding in Hampshire – but the most striking thing about my gravel bike is how similar it was to my first ‘proper’ MTB – the Saracen Eiger, albeit with modern luxuries like disc brakes and external bearing headsets. So whilst bikes will always evolve, not everybody’s riding does – I’ve always been an explorer and bumbler, and the modern gravel bike suits that down to the ground.