Steel Frames, Dusty Roads.
Sometimes, an epic ride isn’t epic enough. Eight hours in the saddle is good. Rain is good. Climbing mountains is good. Taking the wrong turn and adding an hour to your ride, running out of food, is good too. You come home in one piece, legs up against the wall with a cold one in your hand, thighs humming with cement rivers creeping down and out of your body, and you wonder: Can I make it more epic next time?
You can. Just add gravel to your ride. Make it count. Twenty kilometres is a good number. Forty is great. Make it 60 or more and the layer of dust on your face, your shins, forks and downtube will tell the story of your conquest, the story of an epic ride you did on your own or with your mates.
Everyone knows how brutal cobbled roads are. You know this because you have watched all Paris — Roubaix video footage on the Web or even rode some European cobbled roads yourself. It’s a bashing festival. It’s like a boxing match against a guy you know you can’t beat because he is a machine, not a man. You fight back and try to stay on your feet and he keeps pounding you all over your body like he is spraying bullets at you from an assault rifle, round after round. Your only hope is for the cobbles to run out. This is how you stay upright. You hold on and wait for the cobbles to run out. They always do. You reach the bitumen like a shipwrecked sailor crawling to the shore and breathe. Until next time.
Riding gravel is nothing like that. Gravel doesn’t clobber you with an iron rod. It waits. It takes its time. You hit a white, dusty road at full speed and the first thought that runs through your mind is: This is fun. A whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on but it’s not too bad. Manageable. Stay away from big rocks and fallen branches and you’ll be fine.
Gravel is a pretender master. It lures you in with a promise of a mild challenge, something you can take on without wearing yourself down too much. It’s like playing touch footy instead of the real thing. You run with the ball, pass it around and no one is allowed to hurt you.
Except on gravel, you get hurt anyway.
The first time you get your wheels on a gravel road, you won’t see it coming. It takes about 20 or 30 kilometres and a score of steep hills to suck a large chunk of strength out of your legs. It’s a slow-brewing process. Think of beer. You need weeks to brew it, fermentation and all that jazz and when it’s ready, it blossoms in your mouth the moment you take the first sip.
Riding gravel is like that. It brews fatigue, not flavour. Stroke after stroke, one kilometre, two, twenty, thirty, it chews away your energy like a worm inside an apple. An hour or two ago when you’d stand up on the pedals at the top of a pinch climb and your rear wheel spun, you smiled. Fun with fresh legs, a woe when every watt you generate counts.
This is when you notice the jitter the corrugated surface sends through your bones wears you down one knock at a time. You look ahead and ask yourself how many more kilometres this dust and rocks carnival still has for you to celebrate. You want a break. You want to see good old bitumen. You want inertia back.
It’s hard to imagine now how riders of old climbed Europe’s high mountains on gravel roads. Many Tour de France and Giro d’Italia passes stayed raw as late as the end of 1950s. For Coppi’s contemporaries, unsealed cols were nothing to fret about and even Jacques Anquetil’s peloton had its share of lose rocks and dust. And now, if you’ve been following professional racing, the gravel roads are coming back in Grand Tours and one-day classics.
This is where the Noosa Strade Bianche gran fondo slots in. We no longer want to watch programmed road racing on television. We’re tired of the predictable race scripts and grotesque performances. We look back at the times of road heroes and we say, you know what, I wonder what it was like to ride for seven or eight hours through dust and rocks. I wonder how a steel bike feels like. I wonder if 10 or 12 gears is enough on a long ride. How hard is it to shift gears from a downtube? What if it rains? Can I make it to the end? Can I handle an epic ride?
Noosa Strade Bianche is not a race, not in a traditional sense of the word anyway. You can ride it like a race if you want to. Go hard. You’ll even find some comrades to race against. It’s cool, it’s the whole point of the gran fondos all around the world — ride as hard as you wish. Challenge yourself.
This racing yourself idea is at the heart of the Noosa Strade Bianche. It’s you, your steel bike, and hours of gravel riding. And the scenery, that lush, bursting greenery staring at you from both sides of the road as you wipe miles away with your legs and your own engine inside.
This is why we ride. We have a love affair with fatigue.
You pile up thousands of training kilometres so that from time to time you can do something epic, something you can remember and laugh about with your mates over a glass of beer. You want those rocks and dust to slow you down and suck your energy out. It’s fine. Give me hard time. Make me dig deep into my reserves. Shudder me. Make my bike rattle like a bag of bones. Bring on punctures, rain or sunshine. It’s all good.
Bring on those bloody white roads. I am ready for them.