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What’s the Deal with Gravel? (In a Jerry Seinfeld voice)

So I feel like the kid in the 1950s pot commercial; I rode gravel once and now I’m hooked and my whole life has been turned upside down. I just can’t see the road the same. I now see cars and replace them with trees, signal lights are now steep hills, cement streets are now dirt paths… Everything has flipped and I love it.

I had tried cross and it was plenty fun. Not like every day fun, but fun once-in-awhile-fun. I will/must/don’t want to admit how bad I am on a mountain bike. On a road bike is where I was the most comfortable. Gravel does not come natural for me even if I’ve tried most of what cycling has to offer. For me it’s not the descents because I’m not all that confident in my skills. It’s the views as I suffer and drag my 200 pound butt up these climbs that normally lead to some hike-a-bike situations. The climbing can be brutal but like the Instagram inspirational quote with a majestic background says, “It’s just a hill, get over it.” If you can, then you will get a new perspective; your eyes will open to everything you’ve missed on a road bike or a mountain bike.

On a road bike you ride with your eyes wide shut. That’s the appeal for me, a lot of it is just not thinking and just going; you can zone out on a climb and even forget about the views. On a mountain bike you are more aware but there is still a level of letting the bike do it’s job and going for it. The closest thing to riding gavel (on a rigid bike with drops), in my opinion, is riding a fixed gear bike. On a fixed gear bike you have to be aware of everything around you. From the cars to the road conditions, the signal lights to the pedestrians, you are on full alert all the time. Not having real brakes will do that to you. Gravel is somewhat like that, you have an idea of control but it’s more controlled chaos then precision.

The real beauty of gravel [(…and I get a ten-cent commission every time I type G R A V E L)- Gravel] riding is that it’s not just about riding, hiking is also a big part of the experience. On a road bike you can take another route, on a mountain bike you have a lot of gearing and a more capable bike, so when you get to a section that’s above your pay grade you either push yourself or hike-a-bike. You go on a ride and you really don’t know if you are going to be able to ride every section of it. How much of a route you can manage changes as you improve and get more confident/stronger. I tend to fall more on the climbs than the descents. I’ve also done a lot to improve my gearing.

Nonetheless, gravel is my new obsession. So much so that this summer I am planning a Summer Adventure Gravel Series (SAGS) around the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California. The adventure part is that there will be no routes given out. We will have to stay together, this will help avoid douchebagery. This is not a race. This is not about being first, fast, or better. This is about the people next to you, the landscape that surrounds you, and the route in front of you. Aside from maybe the Cannondale Slate [(with a gearing upgrade) no pun intended] there will not be a perfect bike for every situation. After, I hope we question our bikes but not our time in the saddle. I’m currently doing recon for the S.A.G.S ride- details will come.

The struggling cyclist.

Before I explain where I am let me mention where I came from.
I was always an outsider to sports. I had the determination and heart but I never had the raw skill. In golf they use the term L.O.F.T. Google it . Baseball, football, soccer, whatever, I was not really very good. I came into cycling after an injury. It was meant to be rehab for my back. That lead to the idea of commuting. Well, what it would lead to  was an obsession. At my lowest point I was fighting multiple addictions and cycling was what kept me going the streight path. I began racing and riding daily. I would race for a few years for a few teams and even for myself (unattached) when I lacked the fitness to race for a team .

Fast forward 10 years, I’m now married, a father of 3, and I have a dog to boot. In many ways I have what I want. I still have the drive to go out and test myself when I’m riding but there are many weeks that I just can’t ride, some weeks I’m just too tired, and yet others I’m not willing to make the sacrifice to get a ride in.  The fire is still there but the time/motivation/will is at times lacking. I set goals but get confronted with realities. Sure I could ride Saturday but one son has practice and the other has a soccer game. Did I mention my two-year old? So my choices are 4am ride or no ride. I made my choice before I typed it.

I don’t think I’m alone in my position nor do I think I need a small violin playing “sad romance”. What I need is a spark, something to convince myself to ride when it’s difficult to get going . As it turned out that spark that made me want to ride was a ride. That and something I heard on a podcast, something about second degree fun. It’s fun, just not from the idea or start. Like a climb, not really fun as a idea but as you get to the top, you can look back at the climb as a good time. Albeit a miserable, painful, good time .

So what keeps you going? Do you ever need a break or time to miss riding? Are you the type of rider who just wishes they had more time to ride? Let me know as that’s one of my motivations (I love hearing about others passion to ride).

Wanna race?

And it starts like most races do with a little hesitation, some trepidation, and a lot of anticipation. I roll out and set a steady tempo. I know my fitness is not where it used to be so I decide that a long range attack allá Contador is the way to go. I’m receiving information and it’s telling me I have a 30 second gap. I’m holding steady pushing about 20 miles per hour. I have some luck on my side and I have not had too many reasons to slow down. As I’m approaching the first climb, my first true test, my breakaway has gained me 2 minutes.

The climb shines light on the cracks in my foundation. I’m coming undone and I’m starting to Pedal in squares. The 2 mile climb is pushing my heart rate to 190 beats per minute, I’m bleeding time and fading fast. This climb that tops out at 7% and has taken my two-minute lead down to one minute. In the last mile of climbing I’ve fallen apart and this climb has taken its toll and although the major climb is over there is still more climbing to be done.

I’m feeling confident that I can get some of the time back on the upcoming rolling section. The problem is that this section is much less rolling then I remembered it. The next half mile has not a single negative grade and an average grade of 3%. I begin to lose more time and when I reach the two-thirds marker I’m only 20 seconds ahead. Those 20 seconds dissolve into zero, zero grows to a negative. My second best effort on this section is still about 1mph too slow.  I’m now 20 seconds behind, I’ve been caught, and I don’t have much left in the tank.

My strategy might seem to have failed me but I’m exactly where I want to be. I limp up the rest of the climb and utilize one of my best skills. The descent is my playground. I slowly see my deficit disappear and I even make up a few seconds. In my aerodynamic tuck I’m able to gain one minute and 30 seconds as I turn right, right into the last real climb. From here Colima is only 0.3 miles but with an average grade of over 6%, it can do some damage.  This climb is no test, this climb is a deal-breaker, make or break, win or lose.

My 1 minute and 30 second Advantage disappears yet again I get out of saddle I give it everything I have left to no avail. I’m riding like a man possessed but I’m two minutes behind. In 2 minutes I’ve lost 2 minutes. My lungs feel like raisins, I can feel the burn down my esophagus, my legs are begging me to stop, I consider sitting up. But for every climb there is a descent, so I hold my pace steady and continue up the climb. 2 minutes and 15 seconds is what I have to make up on a 2 mile descent.

I rearranged myself about 3 times trying to find an aerodynamic position I can hold for the entirety of the Hill. Colima Road flattens out and it’s now up to my legs pushing at times 28 miles per hour, holding my threshold as long as I can. I look down and realize I’m 3 minutes ahead. All that is left is to maintain my lead. I want to do more than maintain though, so I push each pedal as hard as I can for the remaining 2 miles. Little by little I’m gaining time, three minutes turns into four, four minutes balloons to 5, and by the time I’m at the finish my lead would tell a different story than my body. I’m a wreck but I’m feeling like an accomplished wreck.

My first race in sometime was not against a Peloton or a friend, it was against myself via my virtual partner on my Garmin 520. I had no idea that this is going to be so much fun, so competitive, and so inspiring. At the time I didn’t think twice I just thought “oh look what I can do” with my Garmin. It seems like my commute has found yet another way to keep my interest.

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Book Review: Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History

Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History fills in the gaps on how the awesomeness that is the bicycle came to be.

Up-front confession: this book was not featured (so far as we know) at Interbike!

However, it DOES chronicle pretty much all the innovations throughout bicycling history, so rest assured that the predecessors to many of the “new” things there are mentioned in it!

Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History is by Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing, and in the authors’ words seeks to fill the neglected gap addressing the technical aspects of the history of the bicycle. It starts out with… well, actually it starts out with ice skating and wheelbarrows… but it quickly moves on to velocipedes and draisines, the predecessors of the bicycle.

Another confession: I haven’t read the whole thing. I did read all the bits about velocipedes and high-wheel bikes and wire wheels and the development of the safety bicycle (aka a bike having 2 wheels of the same size), but after that concluded that this wasn’t really meant to be read straight through – and yeah, it took me a bit longer to figure that out than it might take most people, but what can I say… I’m a bit of a bike nerd!

 

Apparently we should call these draisines!

So after some deliberation, I’d consider this more of a reference book: the next time you wonder, “when WAS the first bamboo frame made?” rest assured that this is the place you can find that answer! (page 178: 1890’s, patented in 1896. Calfee wasn’t exactly the first!).

The first 5 chapters of the book detail the history up to the invention of the diamond-frame steel bicycle. After that point, it diverges into chapters on different aspects of bikes, such as transmission, braking, and lighting. It also – at the end – includes specific sections on “racing” bicycles and mountain bikes, folding bikes, and military bikes (an interesting chapter!).

Overall this is a very informative book, and I say kudos should go to the authors for assembling all of the information in a scholarly fashion, complete with TONS of references at the back (if anyone out there needs to write a term paper on anything about bicycles, this should be your starting point!).

My one minor (major?) complaint about it is that it reminds me of several of my history classes in high school. How so? No, not because I fell asleep… I like history, and this book is written pretty well, so I didn’t do that during either high school or while reading this! It’s because in high school I had several years of history classes where we spent a ton of time on something early in the semester… and then gradually less and less time per topic, until by the end we rushed through the 1960’s on in only a couple weeks (I don’t think I had a history class that ever made it to the decade we were in!). Bicycle Design reminds me of this: it spends a lot of time on early development, but we get to the end and there are a scant 10 pages on mountain bikes. Two paragraphs on disc brakes. Two pages on suspension. Etc. etc. Yes, these are relatively recent in the scheme of things – but they’re BIG things right now, they involve some pretty neat increases in bicycle capabilities, and they deserve to be included… not lumped together in a hash that includes everything from the 1970’s til now in a handful of paragraphs.

Gripes regarding recent history aside, this is something every serious bicyclist should at least flip through sooner or later. I highly doubt many people (apart from the authors) have a good grip on all of the developments mentioned in its pages, so you’re guaranteed to learn something (and probably something interesting!). At $20-something on Amazon (for a nice hardcover), it’s definitely worth picking up for the coffee table, or for the bike-themed coffee shop, or for the bike shop, or for a stocking stuffer, if Santa’s real nice and someone you know has a stocking that can accommodate a 564-page volume.

Please click here to read our review disclaimer as required by the Federal Trade Commission.