Following the road less paved

20 03 2016

The pro peloton has rediscovered what the FRF’s Flying Oakes has known all along; gravel is fun.

Flying Oakes leads the way on his favourite riding surface, gravel.

Flying Oakes leads the way on his favourite riding surface, gravel.

Gravel roads were common in bike racing’s early days, simply because paved thoroughfares weren’t as prevalent, especially on high mountain passes where it was difficult and expensive to deploy proper paving equipment.

Save for some of the early-season Classics in Belgium and northern France that feature sections of pavé, or ancient cobblestones, that were once used to build roads, most races traverse smooth pavement.

Occasionally, the organizers of the three Grand Tours have tried to shake things up by including  a gravelly climb in their parcours.

In 2007, the first Strade Bianche was organized to celebrate the historic white gravel roads of Italy’s Tuscany region. The early-season race annually includes more than 50 km of gravel and dirt road. It quickly became a fan and racer favourite.

This year’s Paris-Nice one-week stage race included four short sections of gravel near the end of its first full day of racing. The challenge was made even more epic by the snowy and windy weather conditions that left the riders and their bikes a cold, muddy, dirty mess by the time they reached the finish.

In the FRF, gravel roads have come to be an expected feature of any ride route devised by Flying Oakes. He’s a gravel hound who can sniff out stones from miles away.

I used to be dubious of gravel’s allure; it rattled my fillings, jangled my nerves. I worried about the jarring toll on my bike.

The former could be dealt with by technique, the latter was just unfounded.

Modern, carbon fibre bikes are incredibly tough and forgiving on rough surfaces. Heck, they build Formula 1 race cars out of carbon fibre. Properly maintained wheels and tires should be able to absorb the gravel’s shock.

Shooting a section of gravel is exhilarating. It transports you back to cycling’s roots, when many roads weren’t paved and riders returned from their day on the bike covered in mud and dust.

Riding the rocks hones your technique. It requires supple knees, a light touch on the handlebars, flex in the elbows. It also demands concentration and a keen eye to avoid the larger rocks and sudden potholes that can cause a puncture or broken spoke. All will serve you better when you return to the smooth hardtop.

Gravel paths and roads take you deep into parks and rural routes you might not otherwise experience on the bike.

We used to chide Flying Oakes for his affection for gravel. Now we give him the gears if he doesn’t lead us to gravel.

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