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What Is Gravel Riding?

Cycling went full circle and reinvented what it had already invented in the late 1800’s. Being raised in Western Montana’s Missoula Valley it seemed, at the time, that every elementary school kid raised in Missoula during the early 1970’s went on several school field trips to Fort Missoula. This is where I first learned of the great “Buffalo Soldiers. They were, undoubtedly, America’s first truly hardcore gravel riding gravel grinders. You may recall Bob Marley’s famous song about these famous and historical men.

As kids, we rode our bikes tirelessly and endlessly on unpaved mountain dirt roads, on logging roads, and along river beds next to meandering railroad tracks while imagining we were Captain Meriweather Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark on great expeditions of discovery. From 1804 to 1806, those very pioneers made their discovery of my hometown’s mountain valley, then called Hell Gate, while heading east from the Pacific coast.

            GRAVEL RIDING IN AMERICA 125 YEARS AGO

Nine decades after Lewis & Clark cut trail through Hell Gate, a Westpoint graduate named 2nd Lieutenant James A. Moss, an avid cyclist from Louisiana, was ordered by the Army’s Commander-In-Chief to organize the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps. The Army’s new Bicycle Corps of 20 African American U.S. Infantrymen were stationed at Fort Missoula and were the first of its kind in 1896. The A.G. Spalding Company donated Spalding Military Bicycles to the new Bicycle Corps. The Bicycle Corps was ordered to use their bicycles to explore the lay of the land and its topographical features such as the conditions of roads and to gather intelligence on supply sources. At the same time in America’s cycling history, Major Taylor was a world champion track cyclist.

This seems all too familiar: riding balloon tire heavy duty bicycles to explore the lay of the land, road conditions, and learn where to refuel with water and food? Can you say, “Belgian Waffle Ride?” These men trained 40 miles a day for months and completed an 800 mile ride from Fort Missoula to Yellowstone National Park and back to Fort Missoula. The news traveled far and wide.

Next, the men rode nearly 2000 miles in the most inclement weather imaginable, including muddy gumbo, sand, rocky gravel, even on train tracks 8 hours a day for days-in-a-row to St. Louis in only 41 days! It is reported they carried their bikes for 300 miles across Nebraska! This may have been the beginning of gravel riding, or gravel grinding, as we know it today. Their reception by thousands in St. Louis was known and reported across the United states: 

            THE PAST IS CONNECTED TO THE FUTURE OF GRAVEL RIDING

Imagine the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps riding today’s modern gravel bikes adorned in proper cycling clothing and carrying lightweight bikepacking gear. The next time you are out on a long, difficult gravel ride just imagine hundreds of miles of muddy “gumbo” stuck to your 60-pound bike! But you ask, “What is gravel riding?” My guess is that you already know what gravel riding is and you may be an enthusiast enthralled with everything that is known today as gravel riding.

Perhaps you are familiar with the former “Dirty Kanza” today known as “Unbound Gravel” where former professional world tour road cyclists and elite cyclists from around the globe, including amateurs like you and me, race gravel bikes 100 miles, 200 miles, and up to 350 miles across Kansas. Why? Well, why not? What IS gravel riding? By now you have likely realized gravel riding exists for those who love riding bikes on unpaved roads (sometimes) over long distances and for the sake of intended suffering and delight!

            THE ADVENTURE AND PLEASURE OF SUFFERING

Gravel riding is the adventure in your bones seeking more around the next bend on the dirt road under you. Gravel riding is all the water you will need for the next day, so you won’t ever be thirsty. Gravel riding is 45mm puncture resistant, tubeless knobby tires with lower air pressure, flared carbon drop bars, a long wheelbase for stability all designed to help make the extended day on the bike more comfy, more fun, and more challenging. Gravel riding is titanium, carbon, and steel (usually) without suspension or front derailleurs. Be sure to review our inventory of gravel bikes here

Less “breakable stuff’ that can cause you to have to push your bike on foot is highly desirable. Some riders prefer a bit of suspension to soften the constant chatter from washboard gravel roads while others revel in the stiffness of a traditional, rigid frame and fork. Gravel riding is about suffering…but for fun! Gravel riding is about pace, traction, and scenic adventure without fear of motor vehicle traffic and their inherently inevitable danger.

You may have heard that gravel riding is like what mountain biking was like in the early days of mountain biking. Many early mountain bikers rarely ever rode their purpose-built mountain bikes in mountains on gnarly, treacherous, rocky and rooty singletrack trails. They did ride their 18-speed all-terrain bikes on unpaved dirt roads. Today we call those roads “gravel” roads. “Gravel” defines it just fine and describes a cycling style or type of modern bicycle. Strangely, we never labeled today’s modern road bikes “asphalt bikes,” or “pavement bikes,” or “tarmac bikes.” 

Of course, gravel riding is not all about suffering and struggling to ride to your destination. Many of the best gravel rides can be ridden in only an hour in ideal conditions on smooth roads or trails, perhaps with paved roads less traveled by motorists and in perfect weather. You may even return home with only a light dusting on your bike instead of it being crusted over with dried mud and proof of the harsh conditions you may have ridden in all day.

Riding today’s gravel bikes, the actual act of riding, is like riding a grand tour capable road bike. Yet, unlike a traditional road bike, modern gravel bikes are built with rugged, off-road worthy componentry equipped much like high-end XC racing mountain bikes.

Today’s gravel bike tire and wheel technology; frame geometry; gearing and braking: combined, they are all so superbly refined and designed for pure cycling pleasure in nearly all conditions, that these machines truly are all-terrain, human powered pedaling pleasures that can replace most of the bikes in anyone’s cycling quiver.

            GRAVEL RIDING IS FUN

Whether you prefer a gravel bike set up with more mountain biking characteristics or more of road cycling build, either way, gravel riding is what cycling is all about: freedom, fun, and human powered adventure. Pedaling our gravel bikes opens doors in our daily life that may otherwise remain closed.

125 years ago, our Buffalo soldiers rode in the most intense, harsh conditions. While that may be, they surely enjoyed the great outdoors and all its amazing wildlife alongside their fellow man! If Major Taylor were still pedaling today, he’d likely have a gravel bike to enjoy!

While we grind away on our pedals and straddle the top tubes of our wonderful gravel bikes, whether we traverse mountain ranges or carve our way through vast valleys and open plains, we are living life and living is gravel riding.