In the saddle! Between sky, sea and land, CC Everybody set out to survey the roads, tracks and steep paths of the Préalpes d’Azur, to meet the phenomenon Gravel. This “gravel bike”, which is to cycling what trail running is to running, is the big summer trend in France. What to ride at the pace of adventure (s).
By Charles Brumauld
Meet the Gravel phenomenon
Like CrossFit, food trucks and pancakes, the concept of Gravel Bike comes straight from the United States. The term “gravel bike” (literally) refers to a specific practice, philosophy and type of bike. However, Gravel is not an invention. Just an adaptation of the desire to ride, which goes back to fifteen years, explains Patrick Van Den Bossche, former cyclist converted to the discipline. ” Mountain bikers were tired of making circles in pebbles while some truckers were tired of road circuits and performance. The bicycle has therefore adapted to this demand, by offering a machine capable of cycling (basically, to go to work by bike, therefore to serve as a daily means of locomotion, Editor’s note) up to 30-35 km / h, but also to venture on more committed trails, by hanging saddlebags (saddle, frame, on the handlebars) bikepacking style, to stay or bivouac to the extreme. ” Vélotaf, rando, but also competitions. The 34 pioneers of the first Gravel Bike race know something about it. In 2006, the Dirty Kanza was held in the Flint Hills, on the American Great Plains of Kansas. From 20 terminals to 560 km for the XL version of the “DK”, there was plenty to ride like a rough all weekend on the paths of the high meadows. A concept which quickly ignited the fans, since the 2019 edition, which ended on June 2, attracted no less than 2,750 adventurers! And in France, then, is it for today?
Breaking the rules
In our Land of plenty, it shudders. Even a little more, even if the differences remain between the Northerners, “devourers of kilometers”, and the Southerners, “eaters of uneven”. To each his own Gravel. The market is admittedly still low in volume, but a certain enthusiasm for the discipline is emerging, since dedicated events are flourishing at national (such as the Gravel Tro Breizh in Brittany, etc.) and international events (such as the Gravel Origins 83 du Roc d’Azur…) and that more and more consumers are positioning themselves on the purchase of a bicycle, confides Pascal Caré, press relations manager for Lapierre bicycles. ” Gravel is for those who hesitate a bit, while still knowing what they want: to ride the road, the trail, but not as committed as mountain biking. Practitioners break the usual rules, go on an adventure, do not know everything, but go anyway. There’s a path at the end of the road, I’m gonna explore, see where it leads because I can afford it“. Ok, but should this be seen as a marketing intervention to buy another bike, or a real need for a specific practice? Let’s get our hands dirty. Its endurance geometry road bike silhouette, bottle cage and race-style handlebars slightly flared down would bring it closer to the road. But its widened tires with small studs to roll on pebbles, its higher head tube (putting the rider in a more raised position) and its longer wheelbase make it more stable, at ease in more technical parts, such as descents on gravel paths. And I can attest to this, after having swallowed sometimes very steep kilometers in the Préalpes d’Azur: versatile, this all-in-one bike did the job on arduous descents as on sections of road, where the performance was good better than with an ATV.
Find without searching
That was the whole issue of this very sporting June weekend, since the Côte d’Azur Regional Tourism Committee, the Alpes-Maritimes department (whose president is keen on cyclo) and the city of Vence had clearly changed gear. Objective: to test the trails, the tracks, the routes of the zero edition of the Gravel Trophy, which will take up residence in May 2020 in the hinterland of Nice. A life-size recce of the future competition, in a way. “Initially, it is a desire of the president of the department to link with all these villages, perched on rocky peaks, which no one crosses. Make connections and explore little-known terrain, ”pleads Alain Santi, head of the Valberg sports department. Then, the a little crazy bet of two guys who cross this beauty (bio) diverse in trail and who say to themselves, after 7 hours of effort: “Nah, but you imagine, you are there, you go through all these villages and these mountains? “. The foundations of the Gravel Trophy were laid. Well almost. It remained to determine the route and redevelop the inaccessible coating. It is up to us to test the waters, therefore, for the future participants. Not sporty enough, not as engaging as mountain biking, do you think? Do already the 52km from Vence to Roquesteron, to start. Because before picnicking in this village bathed by the clear waters of the Estéron, you have to climb, ride and descend. Cradled by the scents of broom and Scots pines, I swallow a few kilometers of asphalt. My Bergamont behaves well, but maybe not as smooth as a road bike. Hop; here are the first trails. Then the ultra-traileur Sébastien Camus gives me a thumbs-up sign. Dry turn to the left, small plateau, and it climbs! Let’s go for 2200 meters of non-stop climb, with slopes of 8-9%. No choice. In the hard, fast? You have to wait until “it passes”. Between gravel and large pebbles, the less grip on the track forces me to stay in my saddle to keep traction. Thighs on fire. On this point, my bike computer gives me valuable information, such as the distance or the difference in height that I have to cover until the end of the hill, to the nearest meter. Convenient to manage your effort. Or to die of despair in front of the remaining drop …
The following ? An adventure, a real one. Pleasure to unwind in this Middle and High Country of Nice. And for good reason, travelers clustered on the coast of the big blue do not imagine that a stone’s throw away raw, discreet and unspoiled nature reveals its splendours. It is precisely in these circumstances that the practice of Gravel takes on its full meaning. Stay wisely on the road to admire the limestone rocks, listen to the silence of the mountains, why not? Take a less familiar, more arduous path to seek the heart of nature? To go find what you are not necessarily looking for. Why not, too. In any case, this is what my tubeless tires allow (without inner tube, therefore), which throw stones outside the rim like a catapult. I also enjoy the flat portions of the trails and tracks. Between two lush greenery, a bumblebee hits my knees, butterflies brush my forearms before twirling around. Something to be reassured, for a moment, about the state of our pollinators, even if the region, a combination of Mediterranean and Alpine influences, is one of the areas with the richest biodiversity. The downhill sections are more difficult, not being a specialist. I quickly tense up on the handlebars. It is only at the end of the day that I relax more to follow the track, follow the tire tracks, drive my machine. After a day on the biclou, bivouac with individual tents, groundsheets, and above all, the beers that toast, the tasty pissaladière and the fondant gnocchi with pesto. Schoolboy atmosphere. Debriefing of the day, the routes, the falls of each other. Enough to lower the pressure before dark. And leave at 8:30 am the next day for 25km of slopes from Beuil to the red lands of Valberg. I find the fartlek side of running with alternating intense and energy-consuming climbs on trails and moments of recovery and adrenaline drop on the road sections. A practice that will appeal to trail runners for their long-distance preparations, with a perfect mix of cardio work, muscular resistance and endurance in a natural environment. As long as the effort is well balanced. ” The hardest part is to plot the ideal course with the alternation of road parts and paths. We can say to ourselves that it is hard for a little while and that we must live it fully. OK, but not too much either! Gravel is also the practice in the beauty of nature and the spirit of camaraderie. If you spend your time with your head in the handlebars enjoying nothing, you wear out ”, explains Patrick Van Den Bossche. A good hearer.
Driving Gravel can be learned!
Good advice from Patrick Van Den Bossche, former cyclist and founder of Bike Café.
Stay modest in your physical commitment. Save yourself when you can, especially on road sections, to be able to engage when the slope requires sustained effort.
In the hills, no dancer, the rear wheel may turn in the void. On the contrary, limit loss of grip as much as possible by putting weight on the saddle.
Downhill, arms bent, elbows wide, relaxed at the bottom of the handlebars, even on stones give way to gravel. The wide handlebar gives a comfortable riding position, use it!
Even on the flat, the trails include bumps, holes, stones, which may surprise you. Look ahead as often as possible.
Keep the Gravel spirit. Solidarity, contemplation, discovery, adventure, which can not be extreme. Behind you, there are paths you have never taken. Go!
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