My first gravel ride was on my own. I rode some tar and then rolled into Northern Farm, the most popular mountain bike trails park in Johannesburg. One of the reasons it’s so popular is because it caters very well for beginner mountain bikers with plenty of gravel roads, jeep track and some tame singletrack. Here’s what I discovered.

By Sean Badenhorst

The Trek Checkpoint SL7 posing at Northern Farm.

There were a couple of rooty bits and some erosion ruts, but mostly my ride at Northern Farm was rather smooth. Without trying, I set a few Strava segment PRs and I felt that the bike rolls faster than any mountain bike I have ridden on gravel roads. This isn’t really surprising, but it is important to know if performance is important to you.

A reminder that I’m riding a Trek Checkpoint SL 7, a R115000 absolute beaut of a bicycle! More about it here  My quest to determine the attraction of gravel riding is being explored on a top-end bike so that I can focus properly on the riding experience.

My second gravel ride was a shortish one in the Free State. I was riding with my wife, who was on a mountain bike. It was around two hours in duration and it gave me a chance to focus on getting accustomed to the electronic shifting and appreciate the IsoSpeed, a decoupler at the top of the seattube that allows the frame to move slightly to absorb vibrations and small bumps.

The Free State has gravel roads everywhere…

My next ride was completely different. I accepted a last-minute invitation to join David Higgs (an avid cyclist who knows his way around a kitchen pantry, on his Easter Monday ride on his new Bianchi Arcadex gravel bike. It was an out-and-back ride from Bidon Bistro in the Cradle of Humankind to the summit of Breedtsnek and back.

A grin near the end of my ride with David Higgs, which I managed surprisingly okay and grew some fondness for gravel riding.

I wasn’t confident in my endurance for this ride and tackled the 115km ride with a Plan B in the back of my mind. I would call my wife, Joanne, to come and fetch me if the Biogen gels didn’t help. The ride was half tar, half gravel. David was quite fit and I had made it obvious that this ride distance/time would be a stretch for me.

Not really knowing much about tyre pressure on gravel bikes (I didn’t do any research), I had inflated the 40mm wide Bontrager GR1 tyres to 4 bars/58 PSI. I figured they needed to be harder than a mountain bike tyre, but not as hard as a road bike tyre. So, I decided 4 bars was somewhere in between. And this pressure seemed okay – until we hit the gravel!

David’s pressure on his 35mm Vredestein tyres was around 2.5 bars/36 PSI and he seemed more composed than me. I was shaking and bumping around, struggling to see clearly and this was only on some mildly rough gravel surface. We stopped and I let some air out of my tyres. How much, I don’t know. But it made a big difference. In fact, it made a massive difference!

The surface of the Breedtsnek climb was a bit of a challenge.

Anyway, our gravel-road pedal to the base of the Breedtsnek climb was fairly uneventful. Pleasant actually. Quite a change to ride next to someone on a road-style bike and be able to chat. There were maybe three cars in total that we encountered during what must have been almost three hours on the gravel section. I also felt myself noticing the warm sun on my neck, looking for game behind the game fences and generally feeling quite relaxed while riding at a moderate pace.

The Breedtsnek climb itself has deteriorated so much that it’s really not accurate to call it a gravel road currently. Stones, rocks and ruts make it a reasonable surface for mountain bikes, but it’s really not the ideal place to guide a gravel bike, no matter how skilled you are. Anyway, it posed a challenge and David and I are both males, so we obviously took on the challenge and managed to ride all the way to the summit for a well-deserved check on the view and an energy bar (David ate what looked like a gourmet sandwich).

The ride back down was, well, interesting. With no suspension on a rocky, rutted surface, the best position was hands in the drops. Let’s just say that it was a relief to get to the base without any real drama. There were some flattish sections in the latter part of the gravel which I was able to really motor on. Well, it felt pretty fast to me (around 35-40kph). I have been that speed on gravel roads on a mountain bike, but it’s not really possible to sustain it for too long. On a gravel bike though, it is.

Somehow I managed to complete the full ride without needing a gel. Our ride time was just on five hours for the 115km with 1369m of climbing. This got me thinking that it’s easier to ride longer distances – on gravel roads – on a gravel bike than a mountain bike; certainly in my current riding condition. Suddenly, these 160km (100 mile) gravel races didn’t seem as formidable as they had before I’d dipped my toe in the gravel pond.

Despite not being conditioned for long rides, I didn’t feel too bad afterwards, or the next few days. My quads were the only muscles that complained. Not surprisingly. In fact, I largely enjoyed the ride experience and was quick to say yes to another one the following Sunday with David – a shorter, flatter route that was 90% gravel in a different direction. But in hindsight, maybe I was too quick to say yes…

Find out why in Part 3, coming soon.

Did you miss Part 1? Here it is.