Bikepacking and gravel bikes: new concepts in off-road cycling or marketing craze? | Cycling


The world of recreational cycling is nothing but inventive when it comes to selling bicycles and related kits, and two of the most popular – or theoretically new – concepts are bikepacking and bicycles. gravel.

As with all of these ideas, there is the inevitable marketing blunder, but both are nonetheless interesting, if sometimes misunderstood. Earlier this week, still on trend, I pulled off both, with a four-day ride around King Alfred’s Way, a 218-mile mostly off-road loop through lanes, trails, woods and ridges. from Hampshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Surrey and West Sussex.

The trail, set up by Cycling UK and hiking parts of the Ridgeway and South Downs Way is highly recommended, but what I want to relate here is more of the mechanics of how me and a friend did it – and describe the ideas behind such trips .

what ride a bike? Is this just a rebranded tour?

Yes and no. Tourism traditionally sticks to the roads and involves a rugged road-type machine, normally with a luggage rack, even racks and panniers. Bikepacking is also self-supporting, but tends to mean lighter loads, with bags connected more directly to the bike, allowing for faster speeds and greater ease on off-road routes. Of course, it’s not a new idea, but it’s getting more and more popular.

What bike do you use? And what is a gravel bike, anyway?

Warning signs on the road across Salisbury Plain. Photography: Peter Walker

You can cycle on any bike including a road machine for high speed rides on the tarmac. But straying for too long on rough, slippery surfaces requires wider, grippy tires and possibly disc brakes. ATVs have, of course, covered this area for decades. A gravel bike might be the kid in love with a road bike and a mountain bike, and therefore a close cousin of the cyclocross bike. As generally marketed, a gravel bike is a drop handlebar machine with disc brakes, clearance for wider tires, no suspension, and a relatively forgiving ride geometry. In reality, it can vary. For example, the bike I was riding had straight handlebars. Why? Because I prefer them.

But what are gravel bikes for?

King Alfred Road cycling map
Illustration: Guardian design

The point is to combine some of the best elements of road riding (a light, agile, and fast bike) and mountain biking (taking dirt roads, muddy trails or whatever comes along). Some modern mountain bikes, with lightweight frames and 27-inch wheels, cover a lot of the same ground, metaphorically and literally. But gravel bikes are fun for a reason. Mine is almost as quick and nimble on the tarmac as a road bike, but it will bounce confidently off a rocky hill.

What equipment do you need for bikepacking?

The short, simplistic answer is: it depends on what you plan to take and how you want to take it. On the King Arthur’s Way, you see all kinds of solutions (some also involving mountain bikes and e-mountain bikes), including a man whose main luggage was a waterproof bag simply attached to the seat post of his bike. We camped for part of the trip so took tents, sleeping bags and rugs along with everything else. For me, that involved a sizable handlebar bag and an expansive saddle bag, both with a roll-top closure that made them – and they’ve been tested a lot about it – fully waterproof. I also had a small bag attached to the frame triangle.

Can’t you just use saddlebags?

Of course. And we saw people with them on the road. But the concept of bikepacking luggage brings some advantages. First of all, it makes the assembled bike no wider than your handlebars, useful for crushing single track hedged roads. Additionally, the bags are attached so well that there is almost no wobble and virtually no chance of anything coming off the bike in the middle of a faster than expected descent into a rocky valley. I could feel the weight on the bike during the climbs, but most of the time I felt as balanced and nimble as if it was unloaded. I rode a lot with saddlebags, and it’s not quite the same.

Cycle along the Ridgeway, which is part of King Alfred's Way.
Biking on the Ridgeway, which is part of King Alfred’s Way. Photography: Peter Walker

Can we have details on what you used?

My bike was a fairly old carbon frame On One cyclocross bike that I used to use for daily commuting. To make this a usable gravel bike, all it takes is a longer cage rear derailleur and a plate-sized cassette. My friend rode a ready-made Planet X gravel bike (Planet X and On One are actually the same company based in South Yorkshire). My bike was £ 1000 new, which to many people might seem like an absurd amount, but in the realm of hugely versatile hobbyist bikes it’s pretty good. We both used Panaracer GravelKing tires which were excellent.

Finally, any advice for the King Alfred’s Way?

I would mainly say: allow enough time. Some people sprint around in three or even two days, and if you’re happy to do that, that would be exciting. But keep in mind that there are a lot of hills and some trails – especially along the Ridgeway and South Downs Way – can get very slippery in the rain, requiring a slower pace. If I take the route back, and would love to do it, I would be tempted to take five days, which would allow more time to properly stop at places along the way, like Stonehenge and Avebury.

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