Gravel Bike: The ride

A couple of days ago in a woodland not too far away, I hit the trails with my newly built Gravel/adventure bike.

If you’re interested in the build, shoot on over to my other post about the build.

It was Wednesday after work and the sun was shining (no birds were singing) and I wanted to get out on the new bike rather than rehash old routes on the road bike. So, after throwing on some pedals and my Garmin, we were off. I imagine like a lot of people, I can’t just step out of my front door on to gravel trails so first it was a quick 20 minutes ride on the road.

My first impression was that this bike is seriously comfortable. It’s certainly heavier than my Ridley, but that was always going to be the case and wasn’t my main concern when building it up. Any little bump is negated via the 38mm Panaracer tyres and steel frame. There’s certainly an increased rolling resistance in the tyres on the road but not so much that I felt slow, the gearing allows me to keep a good cadence and I never felt that I was being held back or having to push excessively hard to get where I was going.

Once I got to Parc le Breos it was a different world. I used to run down here a lot a few years back and its somewhere we like to go and walk in the winter. I have been so used to riding on the road and dealing with the noise and sights that to get onto this track was almost a little disorientating being on a bike.

It’s not too long, only a couple of kilometres but I only encountered one couple walking their dog whilst riding this stretch.

It was quiet and I had really missed that. It felt so good to be able to get out in that environment again. this part of the route was definitely the easiest part and I got to just sit up and enjoy the ride. I’d had to switch my Look KEO pedals and was using my training shoes rather than off-road shoes and pedals which I have still to sort out and this would come back to bite me at the end of this part of the trail as it narrows down and is un-rideable for perhaps 30-40 metres until to hop a gate and get back onto an access road for several small farms. Definitely not the easiest to traverse in road shoes!

After a few kilometres of the access road t was time to try the bike out completely off road on the grass path to the top end of Cefn Bryn.

The bike ate up this section, and I quickly had to adapt my riding to suit the terrain. The first stretch of gravel I had been able to sit up and enjoy the ride and to take in the quiet of being in the woods but once I got on to this section you really have to focus and pick your line and be constantly looking ahead to look for any big obstacles, holes in the floor, sheep, flora, sheep and any more sheep in the way.

Even then it was fun to be out here and not see anyone else around and to just ride. I knew roughly where the paths went and took a couple of wrong turns but thats fine, this isn’t road training. I don’t need to sit and watch my power numbers. This was riding just for the sake of riding and having fun exploring my local trails some more.

Once I had worked my way up to the top of Cefn Bryn, I took a few minutes just to relax and drink in the view looking north over the Loughor estuary towards Llanelli.

I had run the route along the top of Cefn Bryn a lot over the years but riding it on the bike was a different experience. It’s a fairly rocky route, but you can keep a good tempo just looking ahead and picking your line as best you can with one or two spots where you can open up the speed a bit more only to have to throw on the anchors for an impending ditch or wheel killing rock.

The bike responded well to everything, the tyres were more than up to the challenge, to the point where i thought perhaps 38mm were a little too much and I could possibly get away with 35 or 32 in the future to be a little more agile. The SRAM hydraulic brakes are fantastic and any time I needed to make an abrupt change in speed they responded instantly. I never felt like I was going to get thrown off the bike even when really applying some pressure to the brakes.

I definitely need some off road shoes/pedals for some of the rougher sections and just for ease of getting going again as with the single sided pedals I felt a bit restricted so perhaps some Shimano PD-M520 or Crank Brothers Egg Beaters, I’ll have to think about that some more.

After a few more kilometres I was nearing the end of Cefn Bryn and from there it would be back down into Parc le Breos. I just couldn’t get over how much fun I was having on a bike again. For me, it’s easy to get bogged down in numbers and trying to push up my watts per kilo as that was the sole focus of my training for large chunks of the year so to be able to go out and just have fun; to ride just for the sake of the ride and to go down whichever path/track/road looked interesting was really liberating. It brought me back to how I felt as a kid going out and riding my mountian bike:

Do things that make you smile as often as you can.

That feeling I got is still with me a few days later as I am putting all of this down to share.

My final lesson on off road riding from this one was descending. Going back down from Cefn Bryn through Parc le Breos was the first time in years I had opened up the taps off road and gotten some speed. I never felt out of control, but I did find myself being more cautious on any corners or changes in camber than I would have been in a similar situation on the road. Again though, the Gravel King’s kept me wheels down and gripped nicely on the uneven surface.

I have been fortunate to ride in some incredible places this year in Wales and France and there I have been other times when I have felt a bit jaded with cycling and not wanted to touch a bike let alone train, so to go through the process of selecting and building my new bike and to recapture that feeling of joy on the bike has reinvigorated me.

I cannot wait to get out again on it this week and see what other trails I have missed out on until now!

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