Maybe it was because I was fresh, or maybe it was because it was a new experience for me, but my first long gravel ride was really enjoyable. So, I expected the second one to be similar, but it wasn’t. Here’s the third and final part of my gravel riding experience.

By Sean Badenhorst

Gravel roads take you to areas you’d never normally find on a road bike.

David Higgs, who I did my first long gravel ride with, sent me screenshot of Sarah Hill’s 150km gravel ride off her Strava profile. “Let’s do this route on Sunday,” he wrote. I felt 150km was a bit far, but could manage 100km so I agreed and pointed out where we could cut across to leave out around 50km of Sarah’s ride.

The fact that that coffee truck wasn’t there like it was the previous weekend should have been a sign. Mike the coffee truck guy was our first stop after around 30 minutes the previous week, but he wasn’t there this time and Dave and I both cursed a bit.

“I never actually uploaded the route to my Garmin, but I’m sure we’ll find our way okay,” said Dave. That was the second sign that this might not be similar to last week’s ride. Ten minutes later we reached a closed gate, which had Dave checking his Garmin and his phone. Short detour but then we seemed to be back on the right route again. It was another beautiful autumn morning.

This was a familiar sight on my second long ride with David Higgs. Getting lost isn’t terrible though…

We caught a couple of guys on mountain bikes who knew the routes in the area and said they were training for the 36ONE, an ultra-endurance race in May. They were going a bit too slowly for our liking so we rode ahead and missed a turn due to a closed gate. Their whistles alerted us and we turned and climbed back up the hill where we followed them around the closed gate (who knew that gap was even there!?).

We rode away from them again after Dave confirmed he knew where we should be riding now. The early light was stunning and I snapped a few pics of Dave with some pretty Cosmos flowers adding some great photographic value. Shortly after that Dave turned right, I followed and we found ourselves riding across a freshly ploughed field.

This is a bit ridiculous I thought. I’m not one to shy away from hard riding or suffering on a bike, but this just seemed, well, avoidable. I tried to take some pics but didn’t quite capture the experience as I was living it. After about six or seven minutes of bumping and sliding and cursing we popped out onto a gravel road which was quite a relief.

Predictable Cosmos shot of David while the morning light was mint!

We were only about 90 minutes into our 100km ride and we had taken quite a few wrong turns. Navigation is clearly not a strength of Dave’s but he does know his herbs from his spices Anyway, after a short stop in Magaliesburg where Dave ate some boerewors roll, we took some more wrong turns before finally hitting some long stretches of gravel road, which I recognised as I had ridden them before in a race.

By now we’d been riding for over three hours and were still heading away from where we’d started. We’d crossed the provincial border into the North West Province and our spirits were still fairly high considering.

Somehow Dave’s Garmin guided us to this freshly ploughed ‘road’.

We discussed the ideal way back and just as I was starting to feel confident about my capacity to complete what would definitely be a longer than 100km ride, we hit a gravel road with corrugations. Actually, make that C O R R U G A T I O N S! Holy Wow! It was here that I realised that what seemed like corrugations we’d encountered before were just mild. There are clearly different grades of corrugations, these being at the extreme end.

We quickly became good at seeking out the least sharp-edged sections, much of this involved riding in the ‘gutter’ on the edge of the road where thick sand lay. Neither is fun to ride, but at least there was some relief. After what seemed like an hour, but was actually 11 minutes (the Strava segment is called ‘Death by Corrugation’), we got lost again, crossing a railway line a few times until we eventually made our weary way back to Bidon Bistro where we’d started.

Nothing cute about corrugations! Ask my hand.

It was a 126km ride that took us almost six hours to complete. I was officially creased after five hours. The corrugations had also resulted in my wrist-worn GPS device gouging a small hole at the base of my hand, which was bleeding. I did feel pretty satisfied that I’d managed such a long, eventful ride very limited endurance training. But it did also show me that while there are some great elements to gravel riding, there’s some counterbalance too. All bike riding over long distances can be hard. It wouldn’t be worthwhile if it wasn’t, right?

The following week the Trek guys called asking when they could have their demo bike back. I said that I wanted to do one more ride, a big group ride with some experienced ‘gravellers’ to conclude my research. It was a 100km ride to the south of Johannesburg with about 50% of it on gravel. It was also a farewell ride for former pro roadie Nic White and his cycling coach wife, Di, who were moving to Cape Town the following week.

No tension on gravel rides – easy to spread out, relax and enjoy the ride. | Photo: Dino Lloyd

What a great ride! We rode hard at times and we rode easy at times. I was the only one that punctured (I’d been told the Bontrager wheelset I was running was tubeless, turns out it wasn’t). Anyway, fortunately I had a spare tube and the embarrassment at having around 50 others wait for me on a ‘strictly tubeless ride’ wore off quite quickly.

I could write a lot more, but people don’t really make time to read long articles in a video-dominated world. So, if you have reached this point, thanks for sticking with me.

This ISO Speed decoupler on the Trek Checkpoint SL is superb at reducing/eliminating road buzz.

My verdict

As I mentioned in Part 1, I felt I needed to ride gravel bikes on gravel for a while to understand what all the fuss was about. As an experienced mountain biker and road cyclist, I honestly couldn’t see the appeal. But here’s the thing. There is appeal. There are three main things that I really got to like about gravel riding:

  1. There’s no tension: Unlike doing a road ride with others, there’s no apparent tension amount gravel riders. This tension comes from roadies always having to ride on the left and, at most in ‘double file’. On a gravel ride, with almost no motor vehicle traffic, you can spread out. You can pass others wide and without stress. And if there are motor vehicles, they’re normally unable to go very fast. It’s amazing to be able to ride a road-style bike without constant tension.
  2. It’s adventurous: I don’t know what the ratio is these days, but about 20 years ago, I did some research and found that there was 19km of gravel road to every 1km of tar road in South Africa. When you’re not limited by the road surface, you can ride just about anywhere you want to on a gravel bike. Yes, I know you can on a mountain bike too, but you’re more efficient on a gravel bike, eating up distance with much greater composure compared to a mountain bike.
  3. It’s fresh: Okay, for me it was a fresh experience. And a fresh experience is exciting. At age 50, having been riding bikes for 40 years, there’s not a lot of new I encounter while on a bicycle, but gravel riding became a wonderful combination of my bike riding experience and conditioning and riding new roads, seeing fresh scenery, actually relaxing while on a bike ride and meeting new people.

It was hard to say cheers to the Trek Checkpoint SL7 that gave me many hours of fresh perspective.

My gravel-riding scepticism is gone. Instead of being a negative-thoughts drain, gravel riding has enriched me and allowed me to appreciate and respect others that seek their cycling kicks on bikes that can ride comfortably on tar, but which can also cover many hours on gravel without too much discomfort.

It needs to be said that I was riding a really top-end gravel bike. The Trek Checkpoint SL7  really is designed to reduce or even eliminate the harshness of rough surfaces and it does so very well. I expect that cheaper gravel bike made from aluminium would make for a harder ride. I don’t currently own a road bike, but when I do buy another bike to ride on the road again, it will definitely not be a road bike, it will most certainly be a gravel bike…


If you missed the earlier parts of my gravel experience, here they are: