Seamus Allardice might be biased – he has drunk the gravel bikes Kool-Aid after-all – but he believes gravel is growing in South Africa. It goes further than brands bringing bikes into the country and events popping up all along the country’s network of dirt roads. The heart of the matter lies in the maturation of the scene, from fad to an increasingly fundamental part of our cycling culture.
I have had a gravel bike since September 2016. In that time I’ve ridden about 4 000 kilometres on it, including the Chas Everitt Around the Pot, Overberg 100-Miler; the Swartberg 100 Gran Fondo; three days of the initial Bikamino recce; and a whole lot of big solo missions. Some of my best days on the bike have come on my gravel bike. But admittedly so have some of my worst. The compromise of lightweight rigidity over comfort makes every dirt road excursion an adventure. And that is what makes gravel biking great in my books.
My longest single ride was on my gravel bike in February 2017. I took it on a 185 kilometre trip around the Rûens and coastal regions of the Overberg, including 50 or so kays of rugged gravel road. That was a good day; a soulful solo mission. A ride undertaken during a quiet time of the year; fuelled by hearty local cuisine when I made a ravenous lunch stop at Bredasdorp Square.
Some of the not-so good days on the bike included the 2018 Swartberg 100 Gran Fondo. That day I spent close to 100 kilometres riding into a head-wind on my own, before being forced to walk the final kilometre to the top of the Swartberg Pass. It was not the race’s fault however. I look back on the experience fondly, and with the renewed resolve to take on the 2019 race in better (ie slimmer) form. Another tough day was the opening day of the Bikamino. Heading into the mountains of the Northern Cape and leaving the district gravel roads, which are corrugated enough to make one question the wisdom of riding a gravel bike, for jeep tracks was brutal. But once again, in hindsight, amazingly fun…
Maybe I should revise my earlier statement about what makes gravel bikes great. Yes every dirt road section is an adventure. But also, every big ride guarantees Type II fun. The type of fun which you only realise you had once it’s over and you’re looking back, without the concentrated lactic acid in your legs. Type II fun isn’t fleeting. Type I fun is a rollercoaster ride, it’s instantaneous – over nearly as soon as it started. Type II fun lasts, it gives you stories to tell. Sometimes those stories involve blisters, aching backs and mild-dehydration. Those are simply signs that you really enjoyed your gravel bike ride.
Back to the real topic though… how do I know gravel is growing?
The Maturation of Gravel
Back in 2016 there were only a few gravel bike options available to would be explorers. And most were pretty much re-branded endurance road bikes, with limited tyre clearance. As someone who rides a bike which can only fit 33c tyres between the chainstays let me assure you tyre width is important. Fast-forward three years and the options are endless. Along with Specialized’s Diverge South African riders can choose from Momsen’s R355, Ride Farr’s Farr Out, Santa Cruz’s Stigmata, Trek’s Checkpoint, Scott’s Addict Gravel and Giant’s Revolt amongst others. And those are just the gravel racing bikes. There are gravel touring bikes aplenty too. Plus cyclocross bikes; which can easily blend into the gravel conversation here in South Africa.
The simple fact that many of the big bike brands have a gravel race bike and a gravel touring bikes shows market maturation. Those are two very different intended uses and ideally demand different bikes. Though one bike fits all solutions are of course available too.
Then there are the riders to consider. Increasingly 100 kilometre and 100-mile events are attracting riders on gravel bikes. Uninvited they arrive, looking to take on a familiar challenge on a new bike. Events like BUCO Karoo to Coast can be reinvigorated by gravel bikes. Most long-time mountain bikers have ridden Karoo to Coast before and to them the event might have lost some of its initial allure. But on a new bike, which is not entirely suitable for the task at hand, the old event becomes an exciting new challenge.
Added to the mix are the sheer numbers of riders on gravel bikes. As someone who essentially covers bike races for a living I definitely see more of them now than ever before. Which begs the question to the uninitiated; if you are keen on getting a gravel bike what do you look for?
If you can only have a mountain bike and a road bike, in your stable of bikes, then a gravel bike is a great compromise. It can do much of what a road bike can – especially if you go for a full carbon, with carbon wheels. The first question you need to ask yourself though is what kind of riding you are going to be doing. If it’s 90% asphalt with just the odd gravel excursion an endurance road bike, with tubeless tyres, is sufficiently rugged.
When dirt road racing or epic one day adventure riding calls a true gravel bike is a must. Look for something with tyre clearance for 40c or wider rubber. The wider the better as the tyre volume is your only source of vibration absorption. Innovative technology like 30mm short travel suspension forks, Specialized’s Future Shock or Lauf’s gravel fork offer added compliance. But as someone on a very unforgiving bike I have mixed feelings about these products. Yes, they will make your ride more comfortable, but taking the edge off will just reduce the Type II fun. If you are racing – especially an event with long and testing descents, like the Swartberg 100 Gran Fondo – then a touch of suspension could make the winning difference.
For touring a bike with slots for panniers to bolt-onto and clearance for 2.1 x 650B tyres is probably the way to go. In fact for long-distance, transcontinental bike touring supersizing to 650B + tyres is a good call. That extra tyre volume will serve you in good stead when you hit the inevitable sandy section or the mile upon mile of corrugations.
Ride Farr’s Farr Out
Santa Cruz’s Stigmata
Scott’s Addict Gravel
Essential Gravel Events
Race to the Sun
When: 16 February 2019
Where: Harbeespoort, Gauteng, to Sun City, North West Province
What: Gauteng’s first foray into gravel bike races was founded in 2018 and features a 100 mile route along the dusty dirt roads between Harbeespoort, and Sun City. From the photos from the inaugural edition it looks to be a fantastic event.
Swartberg 100 Gran Fondo
When: 27 April 2019
Where: Prince Albert, Western Cape
What: The Swartberg 100 Gran Fondo can arguably claim to be the grand-daddy of gravel bike events in South Africa. Even though it has only been around for four years. It’s route features a 60/40 tar/gravel split, but be warned the gravel can be pretty rough; depending on the stat of the Swartberg Pass road.
AmaRider 100 Miler, presented by Bike Hub
When: 19 May 2019
Where: Malmesbury, Western Cape
What: Now in its eleventh year the AmaRider 100 miler is a mountain bike race which screams gravel bike friendly. It rolls through the Swartland when the fields of wheat are just beginning to germinate on what’s usually a beautiful autumn day. It has been won by Erik Kleinhans and David George on gravel bikes in recent years.
Chas Everitt Around the Pot, Overberg 100-Miler
When: 20 July 2019
Where: Swellendam, Western Cape
What: Potentially the Dirty Kanza of South African gravel biking. There rolling hills of the Overberg make the course tough enough but not too intimidating. Plus there is room for expansion to a full 200 mile course too. It also currently offers 60 and 20 mile routes for the newcomers to the sport.
When: 22 September 2019
Where: Uniondale, Eastern Cape, to Knysna, Western Cape
What: One of South Africa’s best loved and the country’s biggest single day mountain bike event. Following the Prince Alfred’s Pass from Uniondale in the Karoo to the coastal town of Knysna it features about 10 potentially uncomfortable kilometres within the opening 20 kilometres. From there on out it’s perfectly gravel bike friendly.