All hail to the gravel kings

LAST week, I did something that I never thought I ever would dare – I became a gravel biker. Yeah, I am one of ‘those people’ now, but hear me out.

Right about now, you’re thinking ‘is that it?’. You see, I have been a dye-in-the-wool roadie for most of my life and, if you’d mentioned to me a year ago that I’d ditch the road for some muddy footpaths – let alone buy an entire gravel-specific bike – then I would have called you bonkers.

To understand my change of heart, we have to go back a few months to October 14th. Like any other day off work, it started with my normal routine: get up, breakfast, drop my wife off at work and my two-year-old at his nursery.

Once that was done, it was time to get out for a quick blast on my winter bike via my favourite training loop, which I have ridden a million times before in all-sorts of weather. The only thing that was different this time was my over-cautiousness.

Little ol’ me venturing out on Liverpool’s Loopline

You see, a few months even before this faithful day – when we actually enjoyed some sunshine – I was knocked off my summer bike by a hit-and-run driver. Thankfully, it wasn’t too serious – just some nasty road rash, few bruises and cuts. I even managed to ride the final 10-miles home and brush it off as “once in a million chance” to my wife. That was in August 2019.

Any cyclists who has ever had the misfortune to be struck by a car will tell you the same thing – it hurts. Like a lot. Worse than the injuries are the mental scars. It takes time to get used to riding on the road again – especially when it’s a hit-and-run collision.

Since the hit-and-run incident (sadly, the police never did track the driver down), I was, quite rightly, over cautious whenever I ventured out on two wheels again. This day was no different.

Sure, the sun was shinning and it was lovely crisp morning in October, but I never imagined that this would be a huge turning point in my life. Despite the nice weather, I pulled on my brightest day-glow high-vis kit and even stuck lights on both front-and-back just to make sure that I was seen as much as possible.

My new gravel bike – a second-hand Planet X On One Space Chicken

Setting out, it was no different to the hundreds, maybe even thousands, of times that I have headed out on my ride. However, at the half-way point, I decided to change my route back home from the one that I’d normally take.

At precisely 10.03am, I was struck by a motorist on the A59 in Maghull near the junction with Dodd’s Lane. Why do I know the exact time? Well, that’s when my Garmin later told me that I’d gone from riding 21mph to exactly zero.

The car struck me on the right-hand side in about a 1’o’clock direction. My head struck the windscreen in a manner that I later learnt is called ‘bullseyed’. Take it from me, there is nothing more sickening to hear – and let alone feel – than your head cracking a car’s windscreen.

For a split second everything went black as I hurtled through the air. However, that split second lasted an eternity. When people tell you that your life flashes before your eyes in near-death moments, it really does. In that instant, I thought to myself ‘this is it’. My only thought was that I’d never get to kiss my wife or hug my baby boy again.

Obviously, you’re reading this, so the outcome wasn’t as brutal as you may have first thought. Somehow I escaped with a broken right ankle, damaged left rotator cuff and a knee so badly mashed that I’ll never win a sexy knees contest (not that I would have previously, anyway).

God must have been watching over me because in one of the first cars stopped at the scene was an off-duty nurse and, three cars back, an off-duty doctor.

Even in the trauma ward, the doctors couldn’t believe the damage to my left knee wasn’t as serious as it looked. No breaks, no tiny fractures – just mangled as if a dog had decided to have a good chew of it.

So, as I lay there in the trauma ward with blood still pouring from my patchwork-looking knee and my right ankle in a boot, I vowed to my wife that I’d never ride on the road ever again.

Fast-forward three months, I am walking and can even ‘dad jog’ a bit on a treadmill. It’s taken a lot of hard work and physiotherapy to get my body moving again, but another pain still niggles at me deep down inside – I miss the bike.

Not the bike I was riding – that was a write-off. The impact bent the aluminium frame and wheels, snapped the chain-ring and the only things worth salvaging was the saddle and bottle cages.

Two collisions in less than six months is about as much of a sign as you can get, so I haven’t dared venture out on the road since. Admittedly, I have taken advantage of my physiotherapist’s blessing to use a static indoor bike to jump on Zwift, but it’s just not the same. I miss being outdoors.

But last weekend, I ventured out for the first time on the bike – albeit a strictly gravel-only ride. To say that I was a bit anxious was an understatement. I had spent months meticulously planning my route to ensure there were no or very little roads. It became a bit of an obsession. How to get from one point of my route to the other without having to ride on a single stretch of road.

In Merseyside, it’s a bit impossible. We don’t have the cycle network. Sure, there are paths or tracks here-and-there, but none of them are linked up. Especially in north Liverpool. There’s a real north/south divide.

In a strange twist, the Covoid-19 lockdown offered a rare opportunity last Sunday. The roads were deserted and the tiny stretch of highway from my front door to get to the loopline – a former railway-line converted into a footpath/cycle track, which runs continuously from near Aintree in the north to Halewood in the south of Liverpool – suddenly gave me less anxiety.

So there I was, all dressed up with all the gear and a gravel bike ready to go first thing on a Sunday morning. It was like old times getting ready to go out on the clubrun or for a solo jaunt around the lanes of West Lancashire. It felt good. It felt ‘normal’ again.

Sure, there were quite a few dog walkers – actually loads – on the loopline and all of them greeted my shouts of ‘morning’ or ‘thank you’ as they moved to the side with a miserable sneer while putting their dogs back on their leash, but I literally didn’t give a hoot. I was out at long last in my (almost) natural habitat, on the bike.

Five-and-a-bit-months off the bike started to show on the return leg. My thighs started to scream through lack of exercise and I was just thankful that there were no hills, as I’d have to lug my now quite tubby backside up them.

My homewards bound route took me through Croxteth Hall Park, which was eerie being completely deserted. If anyone recently watch the BBC’s mini-series adaptation of War of The World, the scenes where they were stuck in an old country estate house were filmed within Croxteth Hall. Making my way through the grounds, I half-expected some alien to come rushing at me. 

After that, it was across a farmers field on a dirt track before taking on a really muddy up-and-down route that followed Knowsley Brook. Trust me, it really wasn’t suitable for a gravel bike, as it looked to have mostly been used by the local scallies for riding their scrambler bikes. That aside, I tried my best to keep pedalling. Needless to say, I have a new level of respect for cyclo-cross riders now. It was bloody hard work.

A few twist-and-turns later, I was back home. Although the ride was only 22-miles in total, it felt great to be out again and turning the pedals. I have truly missed this. That aching-burning sensation in your legs as you battle to keep pedalling; the soreness as you walk downstairs after a shower due to the effort  few hours later. It’s been too long, but it’s nice to meet you again. Be gentle, my old friend.

Special thanks to everyone who have kept me motivated during my recovery. It’s a long list. Too many to name individually, but you all know who you are. From the bottom of my heart, thank you sincerely. 

 

About james 65 Articles
Editor of Spin Cycle Magazine

1 Comment on All hail to the gravel kings

  1. James –
    Just discovered your content today – and it’s great. I have to say gravel bikes (or at least road bikes with wide tire clearances) somehow make rough roads admirable and satisfying to conquer. The bikes just beg to keep going, especially through rough farmland, wind, and rain. Cheers to your recovery and getting back out there.

    Luke fr/ NW Ohio

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