Off the map. The tarmac ends just like that. No warning. Mud, gravel and rocks ahead. Behind the ignominy of retreat, of surrender.
You pause and stop as if your eyes deceive you and the road will be resurfaced if you just stare at it long enough. The road pitted with holes, with sharp rocks and more grit than a Ken Loach film. Punctures and snapped derailleurs hide in plain sight.
You look at your bike. The once sturdy and comfy 25mm tyres now look razor thin and as soft as jelly. The track ahead will surely splice them to bits.
The clue is in the name. Road bike. What fool would ride on anything but smooth asphalt? Yet road bikes are not as precious as we might think. They’ll survive all sorts.
Road bike used as a BMX? Tick. Road bike used as a mountain bike? Tick. So what’s the secret? Tyres. Decent rubber is the difference between bumpy fun and puncture pain. Other than that all that’s stopping you is your own preciousness not the bike.
I remember cringing when I first rode the Belgian cobbles, my bike clattering over the jagged stones like a speedboat on choppy water. Yet it survived (a lot better than my soft parts and wrists).
Riding off road is a lot fun, challenging too. Picking your line, risking your speed, in and out of the saddle, eyes peeled, constantly on the lookout for your next puncture, your next fall.
There. That’s sold it to you. Right?
Sure, riding off road will slow you down but it will quicken the pulse and heighten the senses. Add a little interest to your ride with a few lumps and bumps.
Learn some new bike handling skills, build your core strength a little. Change down the gears to avoid wheel spin on loose gravel, fly over mini-jumps and hold a straight line when the ground gets soggy.
Riding off-road instantly sends me back to my childhood. It’s a joy to recapture such youthful abandonment. Carefree, neverending days of sunshine and random rides throughs woods and forests, always on the lookout for the next big jump or super steep decline, the more dangerous the better.
Even the Pro’s are at it
Such is fashion. There’s been a resurgence in sending the poor old pro riders over surfaces more suited to moon buggies. The Tour de France organisers must think it hilarious to send the peloton crashing over the Roubaix cobbles. Cue crashes, epic images and dirty, miserable faces.
Over at the Giro d’Italia, fans love nothing more than the novelty of gravel on the beastly Colle delle Finestre. Eight kilometres of gravel, or mud as it’s known in the wet.
Not forgetting rides like Strade Bianche (translation: White Roads) who’s very reason for being is gravel, albeit pretty soft. I’ve ridden dirtier, lumpier country lanes here in the UK!
A lesser know race is Tro-Bro Léon. The hipster’s favourite, apparently. Cool name, cool route, riding through the dirt, cobbles and gravel in Brittany. The local Bretons even have a poetic name for any such uncovered filthy roads, ribinoù.
Next time you’re heading off, why not confuse folk and ask them if they fancy a ride on the ribinoù? Damn those French and their poetic license. They make the ordinary sound so sexy. Bidon monsieur?
I know something for sure. Tro-Bro Léon sure has the best prize. You can keep your filthy lucre, forget about your boring old cobblestones, glass plates, and shiny trophies. Give me a piglet. For real. A prize reserved for the leading Breton rather than the race winner.
Gravel rides and sportives
The rise in popularity of dirt can also be found a little closer to home for us mere mortals. With origins from US gravel grinding races, more and more sportives and even local club rides are beginning to venture into unknown worlds of filth.
With it comes the added the adventure of er, breaking your bike, but mostly your legs. Riding off-road requires more strength and stamina, an all over body workout. Not to mention the warm down when washing your bike.
Dirty Reiver is perhaps becoming the most well-known, or notorious, of the UK off-road rides. A 200km romp (or hack, depending on your ability) across the English-Scottish borders. The landscape lumpy, alien to us road riders, the course isolated, lost to the world.
I’ll usually do all I can to avoid puddles. Dirty Reiver challenges this approach. Bring your snorkel.
Sure you’ve packed the fifteen spare inner tubes but did you remember the mandatory survival blanket? And perhaps a sidecar for Bear Grylls?
Time for some classy black and white photos of proper suffering and epicness. Rapha’s Hell of the North ride is a little nearer to home for us Londoners, for who the concept of dirty riding is usually a tube train journey.
Of course the event is not really in the north (just north of the river) and neither is it hell. Or is it?
Personally I draw the line at any ride requiring you to get off the bike. If I wanted to go for a walk I’d do it with a hip flask and without the bike. Rough, muddy and rocky is fine when dry but best left to horses when wet.
Did somebody say walking? With a bike on their shoulder? Then Yorkshire’s 3 Peaks CX is for you. Gruelling.
Technically we’re getting into cross-bike territory now, so probably best not to try this on your road bike. As this video shows, plenty of rocks and crashes await.