First, a bit of history: I started cycling in the 1990s as a mountain biker (discounting rides around the neighbourhood as a kid). I used to ride once a week in Dundas Valley before mountain biking was popular. When I joined the Waterloo Cycling Club in 2002, I bought a used road bike and joined the group rides, although my passion was still on the trails.
More years with the club led to more variety in my riding, and eventually, I discovered gravel riding (affectionately known as “Gravel Grinders”). These rides started in the fall, when road season ended and trails were often too wet to ride. I soon discovered back roads and trails that led me to beautiful countryside vistas, away from the city and away from motorized vehicle traffic (there are cars and trucks on occasion, but they can be heard and seen from a long distance, and they’re driving slower because they have to!). On these gravel rides, I’m more likely to see a horse-and-buggy than a car!
Another feature of gravel roads is that they’re better for winter riding. Again, less traffic, but also, on paved roads, snow piles up in bike lanes and on shoulders and cars fly by, leaving no room for cyclists. On gravel, the surface generally stays gritty because the snow mixes with dirt (although there are times after a though when the gravel surface can get icy).
I’ve started to compile a map of gravel roads from Waterloo in all directions. This will allow me to bikepack or just tour on quieter roads in the future. This year (2017), I rode my gravel bike a lot more than my road bike (to the point where I’m considering getting rid of my road bike).
You may ask… what is the ideal bike for gravel grinding? Well, that’s one of the beauties. You can ride just about any kind of bike. The first bike I rode on gravel rides was a converted hardtail mountain bike. I put on road wheels with cyclocross tires and a rigid fork. Eventually I bought a cyclocross bike, which, at the time, was ideal for gravel roads. I’ve since replaced that with a newer cyclocross bike.
Many bike manufacturers now have a line of bikes called “adventure” or “gravel” bikes which have different gearing and geometry than cyclocross bikes.
On the group rides I used to organize for gravel roads, people have showed up on road bikes (with semi-slick wider tires) and mountain bikes as well. I also ride my fat bike when I ride alone on gravel roads (it’s hard for me to keep up in group rides on my cyclocross bike, let alone a fattie!).
One final thought… on gravel roads, you get to see the coolest bridges!