Why do we saddle up and ride? There are surely as many answers to this as there are spokes at a wheel-builder’s – and none of them are wrong. Over years of riding, the inventory of reasons to ride has just got bigger and bigger. For the author of this piece, it’s become as much a sort of therapy as it has a sporting fixture and endorphin kick.
Climbing thousands of metres of elevation annually, giving gas, or ratcheting up your kilometre tally – these are all long-established reasons to ride. Admit it, who doesn’t enjoy getting back from a ride and seeing the kudos flood in. We want to share our rides, smug in the knowledge that the rest of the scene has spotted your ride. You do the same back; showing the same enthusiastic interest, and everyone gives the same reply: “Faster and further next time, yeah?” You stick to the familiar routes so that you can smash your own records. Where I live in the east of Hamburg, there’s very little improv when it comes to where to ride – every group gets on the drops and heads along the waterways. Yawn.
I’m not saying you don’t get a hit of endorphins when you’re millimeters from someone’s wheel, knowing that you haven’t gone this fast before. Do you even care about the views at this moment? No way, you’ve seen it before. This is about speed. Double yawn.
Focusing solely on someone’s back wheel on a rough trail isn’t recommended. In such a scenario, you’re better off watching where you’re going. But even gravel isn’t immune to this sense of ambition. Whatever we record can be compared. That’s just how it works. Our gravel rides are treated the same as our road rides – just with bigger tires and more tread. Yawn, yawn, yawn.
From time to time it’s great to floor yourself with a hard effort, but when you’re all about “bring on the pain”, you miss what really matters on your ride, which is the ride itself and where it takes you.
“Roads were made for journeys, not destinations.”
Long before bikes existed, Confucius appealed to our better sense to lift the blinkers because it’s the journey – and not the destination – that counts. While it’s the sort of slogan that’s emblazoned all over t-shirts these days, there’s still a lot of truth in it. Probably more than we realise.
It feels like the world is spinning ever quicker around us and society measures us based on crude metrics of performance, success and speed. While there’s little we can do to change this, we can shift our own ambitions, at least over our own actions, when we’re in control. Such as when we ride.
So, what does it mean for our time in the saddle? Nothing major. It’s all perspective. Ride mindfully, rewire your approach and focus on the fulfillment. And no, I’m not talking about the kick you get while scrolling through Strava afterwards.
It won’t take much. Let yourself be curious, look around, be surprised. Notice the little things, realise how great the views are, the food stops, and the technical sections. But mainly have fun. Don’t be motivated by average speed or total distance; you’ve got bigger things to focus on today. Lower the pressure, and while you’re at it, take some pressure out of your tires, too, so you cruise along and experience the world with more cushioning. You will probably like it.
There’s never been anything that stopped us from slowing down before, but gravel bikes let us tap into this mindset with more ease. That’s the beauty of a gravel bike: Without a single-minded focus, there’s no reason it can’t go anywhere and do everything. Critics will surely be scoffing right now, shaking their head and hauling their one-purpose bike out the garage for a one-terrain ride. Let them do it.
Power to the people on the drops
Gravel bikes have blossomed over the past few years and you don’t need us to tell you that they’re the best tool for exploring or idling down unknown routes. Gravel bikes put us back behind the bars – we have full say over where we steer them. They don’t let their build or geometry dictate where we can have fun.
Now it’s up to us to play with the newly regained freedom. If you thought you couldn’t have fun from your front door, think again. That’s the beauty of these bikes. Get on the pedals and follow your nose. Take a left instead of the usual right, spot a bit of singletrack and take it. Lose yourself somewhere. Don’t be intimidated or worry that it won’t work out. Your possibilities are now open, so play with them.
You’re like an ancient explorer that we learned about at school. Except with more advanced technology under you, and more synthetics on your body. Just because you’re exploring new terrain at a slower pace doesn’t mean you need to look like it. Think #lookprogoslow. Your exploratory ride is a living thing, so who knows what sort of challenges you’ll have to counter on the bike? Surprises are part of it and sometimes it stings. Illogical route choices can result in hike-a-bike sections, but that’s par for the course when you’re an explorer.
Always remember: reward yourself
Even with all this spirit of discovery, one thing should not be neglected: the reward. Sure, that unknown section of singletrack with the dappled light and fairytale-esque babbling brook was pretty nice and therefore could constitute enough of a reward, but why leave it there? Loop in some culinary highlights or end your ride somewhere special. A slice of cake, an ice cream, or a chilled beer at the end. For want of another hashtag, try this one: #noridewithoutmmmhh
Further, faster, higher? No way. Consider disrupting your usual routine and watch a whole new world open up. You have the green light to repeat rides if they’re particularly special – just make sure you go the opposite way at the junction this time around.
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Words & Photos: Martin Augner