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so who invented gravel biking?

We can’t really be sure. A quick search throws up a myriad of theories and opinions.

And what does it matter anyway?

What does matter is the freedom that it provides. Opening the door to incredible journeys, new discoveries and places – be it the Highlands of Scotland, around the world or our own back yard – it’s amazing what you discover!

Equally amazing is the way in which “gravel” has made cycling more accessible to a wider audience, helped break down barriers and opening it up to a diverse, inclusive bunch of lovely people. Providing opportunities to ride further and experience the natural beauty of our surroundings - whether it’s a trans-continental ultra, a spin around the local park or woods - or joining a community of like-minded folk for a brew-out in the forest – there’s a whole new gravelly world out there!

It is quite interesting though to dive into the origins and see you how gravel-biking came into being and the many influences and influencers that have shaped this now much-beloved adventure-genre.

It is as old as the hills

When the bicycle was invented in the 19th century it provided an essential mode of transport - on unpaved (gravel) roads. Cycling soon evolved into full-blown competition – the first race being a 1,200m race held in May 1868, at Saint-Cloud, Paris. Later Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Paris-Roubaix, some of the most iconic classics - were held on mostly unpaved gravel roads and cobblestones (and still are to this day partially - adding to the spectacle, pain and mayhem!).

More “recently” in 1955 a hardy bunch set up the Rough-Stuff Fellowship ( which is the world's oldest off-road cycling club and still exists today. These early pioneers rode for the sheer joy of exploration, the challenge of navigating insanely difficult terrain in extreme, wild conditions. A quick flick through the RSF archives shows some incredible, inspiring images - many of which are of hike-a-biking around the world - wading through rivers, climbing mountains, over fences and sundry barriers - nothing would deter these gritty randonneurs.

Since then gravel riding has evolved organically. Some put off by the monotony of the road and dealing with the hassle and stress of sharing increasingly crowded lanes with polluting traffic and impatient drivers - many a roadie has converted - sought unpaved roads and gravel paths for relief and adventure.

Gravel cycling was also given a major boost by mass participation events such as Unbound Gravel. Founded in 2006 - the endless gravelly and hilly roads of Flint Hills, Kansas provided the perfect terrain for the birth of this now legendary gravel race. Events like these had a huge role to play in bringing gravel cycling to the forefront of the riding community and spread to Europe with the Gravel Trofee in Belgium, The Traka in Spain and Dirty Reiver in the UK – to name but a few.

The genre has grown massively in popularity in the last decade or so. The technology has obviously also evolved - combining the agility and responsiveness of road bike geometry with aspects of the cyclo-cross and mountain bike - designers and manufacturers have blended the best of these worlds to deliver speed, comfort, durability, reliability as well as load-carrying capabilities - culminating in a machine that is not only highly effective, fun to ride – but also drop-dead gorgeous to look at.

The jury is out as to who created the first gravel-specific bike. Some say it was Minnesota-based Salsa Cycles who were the forerunners, creating their ‘Warbird’ in 2012 which featured a longer wheelbase, more relaxed geometry and clearance for wider, chunkier tyres.

Regardless - what’s so special though - is that unlike road cycling, where the focus is often on speed, pushing kilowatts and chasing Strava KOMs - off-road riding rather prioritizes the journey, the experience and exploration - opening up access to wild and beautiful remote places. Not that gravel is without its competitive side and includes some of the toughest and most challenging endurance races in the world. Such as the Atlas and Silk Road Mountain Races – self-supported covering thousands of kilometres in some of the most rugged and remote parts of the world.

An extra refreshing characteristic of the genre is its ability to remove barriers to entry and participation. Famed for its emphasis on the social aspects and building community this open, welcoming, supportive movement makes it one of the most exciting, diverse and inclusive outdoor experiences in recent years. There is no expensive lycra clad dress-code and its very much RWYB (ride what ya brung) which makes it so much more accessible and sociable.

There are now countless groups, informal clubs and communities focused on the fun and social aspects - removing the rules that traditionally rendered cycling elitist and less enjoyable.

by Katherine Moore

So - who invented gravel riding?

Still none the wiser. Doesn't matter.

But that's no excuse not to get out on yer bike and have a blast!

See you out there




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