Everyone is Having fun on a Gravel Bike…But Me

For this mountain biker, enjoying gravel rides requires a bit of an adjustment.

This story begins a few years ago, when my husband and I were fairly new to the Southern California area and the biking scene here. We went to a meet-up of like-minded mountain-biking diehards, at our local bike shop no less. One of our compatriots casually mentioned a ride/race called the Belgian Waffle Ride that occurred yearly in north San Diego county, and was known for its epic toughness. The people who tried it, well, they were crazy. I mean, who would willingly race over 130 miles in one day? So, of course, I had to try it.

With a little more research, I learned that most people who raced it used road bikes set up with slightly more burly tires due to the fact that about 40% of the ride was off-road. I packed that thought away in my brain and somehow came away with the idea that since I’m a mountain biker, I’ll do it on my mountain bike. And so, a few years later in 2019, I signed up. 

Then COVID hit. The race was canceled for 2020, and the following year I badly injured my thumb, so I deferred another year. In the meantime, as we all know, gravel racing took off. Like, really took off. Gravel bikes became a thing, and I realized that maybe I shouldn’t try racing 137 miles of mostly road on a mountain bike.

Over these past two years, as I’ve thumbed through Instagram and Strava, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon: Everyone LOVES gravel biking. World Tour Pros are dropping the tarmac and hitting the dirt. Mountain bikers are retiring from big hits and seeking out fire roads. Maybe it’s a ploy to sell more bikes to an emerging market, maybe it’s legit. Gravel bikes, like e-bikes, have permeated our culture, and gravel bikes sure seem way less polarizing. 

Even my husband has become a gravel biker: as someone who mostly mountain bikes and only uses a road bike “for training,” he did the race in 2021, when it was masochistically moved to the summer. He used his Giant Defy road bike and 32mm slick tires, and I was frankly surprised at how much he enjoyed it, even with miles of cramping legs, skinny tires, and no suspension. 

So, with my husband’s encouragement (read: “You’ll die out there doing BWR on your mountain bike”), I picked up a used but mint-condition carbon gravel bike to use for BWR. I by no means intend to disparage this bike — I actually really like it, although it did take me a little while to get used to it. In the case of this new-to-me gravel bike, it’s not the bike I have a hard time with. It’s the graveling I’m supposed to do with it. 

This may be hard to explain, but I’ll try my best. As mentioned before, I’m a mountain biker, but I’m mainly a cross-country mountain biker. I like my bikes light and fast, sure, but I also like suspension and a dropper post. My M.O. is to charge up hills lightning-quick, and then bomb down them. I don’t care whether the trails are fire roads or steep, chunky chutes that I probably shouldn’t be attempting with only 90mm of rear suspension, it’s all good on my mountain bike. 

It seems that a gravel bike, in theory, isn’t that far off from the cross-country riding I’m describing. Shouldn’t I be able to do the same thing on my gravel bike? Isn’t that the allure of gravel biking after all? Heading out into the unknown, riding dirt roads and singletrack alike with speed and agility? That’s what everyone loves about gravel bikes, right? I just haven’t found that to be true for me. 

I’m pretty sure I made a mistake when I first started riding my gravel bike. Maybe because I’m a mountain biker, my natural tendency is to get off road, as quick as possible, and get to some trails. Any trails, no matter how rough, steep, twisty, etc.. So that’s what I did with my gravel bike. The first few rides on the new gravel bike, I basically rode my favorite local cross-country loops without considering the, uh, jarring nature of riding a bike without suspension. I tackled countless nasty climbs and descents that are challenging even with my mountain bike. It was after these first few rides I came to the conclusion that gravel bikes are not fun: The dirt is more fun with a mountain bike, and the roads are more fun with a road bike. The compromises of a gravel bike were too much for me to bear happily. 

Case in point: one of my favorite things to do on my mountain bike (especially my XC bike) is to explore new singletrack. I’m confident enough on my mountain bike that I know it can handle pretty much anything a new trail can throw at me. I have not found that to be the case with the gravel bike. When I see a fork in an unknown trail, where one option looks smoother and tamer and the other option looks wilder, and I’m on the gravel bike, I take the tamer option. Then I really wish I was on my XC bike and could’ve tried the wilder option. 

I’m an optimistic person, and I truly love to ride bikes. So even though I did not have favorable impressions of gravel biking when I first started, I realized I’m new to this facet of the sport and have been willing to give it time. And sure enough, after a few weeks of grinding out tough, cross-country style routes (and wishing I was on my XC bike the whole time), I went for a group ride with people who actually know how to ride gravel. What a difference! The ratio of road to dirt was about 60:40, and the dirt was a nice mix of smooth fire roads, gravel, and a few rougher techy bits to keep things interesting. I began to have an inkling of why people love gravel riding so much, and slowly began to adjust my routes at home to be similar to what I discovered best fit this new bike. 

So, I have to admit, as I ramped up hours of training for the BWR, gravel biking grew on me. However, to mix things up a bit, the other day I went for a ride on my neglected XC bike. I couldn’t help but notice how smooth everything felt, how I could charge the downhills with a lot more zest, and how mentally I could relax sometimes instead of constantly having to scan ahead and choose the smoothest lines. Hmmm. I don’t know if I’ll ever love gravel biking, but I’m out there trying!

After plenty of hits and misses, my husband and I became expert gravel route planners. In the last two weeks leading up to the big day, we were able to knock out 100-mile rides on the gravel bikes and realized we were actually having fun. I began to think the BWR would not only be “crazy,” but also would be a lot of fun.

I completed the Belgian Waffle Ride on April 30, racing 137 miles and roughly 11,000 ft of elevation on my gravel bike fitted with 32mm tires. I placed 13th in my age group and 45th overall. I dare say I enjoyed myself and the challenge of finishing the longest ride I’ve ever done. I did appreciate having the gravel bike to get me through the wide variety of terrain, especially the long paved sections where I could keep up with the roadies. I also appreciated having mountain bike skills in my pocket to navigate the tricky dirt sections. In the back of my mind though, on all of the dirt “unroad” sections… I wished for my XC bike. Sigh.