Unravelling gravel with Caroline Livesey

Until recently, I had never ridden a gravel bike. In fact, I hadn’t really taken much interest, preferring the silky-smooth asphalt of Mallorca for my riding fixes. You can hardly blame me; Mallorca has miles of roads I have yet to explore despite doing my damnedest to ride them all since moving here 3 years ago. But I recognise that not everyone lives in cycling paradise and having spent most of my cycling life in the UK, I can understand the increasing appeal of getting off road. Drivers are not getting friendlier.

I will come clean. I did venture off road up in the highlands of Scotland on an old cyclocross bike last summer. At first, I hated it. But with little choice I persevered and eventually began to enjoy it a little. I even had a small breakthrough when Mark and I rode Lairigmor, a 100km route mostly on an old military road that is as technical as they get without a MTB. The fear was ever present, but I was able to ride quite fluidly for the most part.

So when Mark suggested that we go to Costa Rica for 6 weeks of gravel riding, I was torn. Costa Rica? Sounds epic. Riding mostly off road for 6 weeks? Mmmm. Not sure if one successful ride qualifies me.

But then Orbea offered a TERRA gravel bike to take with me, and Parcours quickly got some Alta wheels in the post.  I could hardly say no. The bike arrived just two days before we flew, and I barely had time to give it a ten-minute test drive before packing it. I vaguely clocked some of its features, but I was distracted by a tide of COVID travel paperwork.  I figured with no races on the horizon, I would sink or swim.  If a (perhaps inevitable) crash put me out of action for a few weeks it would still be worth it for the adventure.

During the first week in Costa Rica we made a few horrendous map deciphering errors, ending up on trails that were not ridable even for the likes of Danny MacAskill. It was a baptism of fire. On one occasion we were stuck out far too long in the searing heat, hiking in cleats up a never-ending hill feeling dwarfed by the vast expanse of jungle around us. We ran out of water and food, but in the end there was a positive outcome.  We were so depleted we needed instant sugar and water. We stopped at the first tiny shop we saw, and I grabbed a homemade dark coloured “thing” at the checkout. It turned out to be a “cajetas de coco”, the sweetest coconut/dulce de leche mix you will ever taste. From then on it was nicknamed the “Costa Rican power bar”. Essential jungle food.

Spending a night in the jungle was not high on my agenda so through necessity I figured out how to combine the satellite imagery of the area with the dodgy mapping on the Gaia app. I was able to start putting together some decent routes which were (mostly) ridable. Despite some horrific gradients, the surfaces thereafter were generally quite good.  Acclimatising gradually, and improving my bike skills, I began to discover the pleasure of riding gravel.

Paved roads in Costa Rica are quite limited. Main roads are mostly narrow and packed with vehicles which makes them dangerous. To find quiet back roads you generally have gravel sections of road along the way. It is not unusual to be riding along on pavement one moment, gravel the next, and then back to pavement. There was a mishmash of surfacing which is perfect for a gravel bike. Imagine, the complete freedom not to have to worry about what surface is around the next corner.

This versatility astounded me. I was riding 38mm tyres (Vittoria Terreno Dry) in a tubeless set up on the Alta wheelset. We had invested in a handheld electric pump  before we travelled, and it was a total revelation. The thing is, on gravel you need a much lower pressure. The difference between 45 PSI and 30 PSI is worlds apart. It is the difference between absorbing most of the vibrations in the bike, or absorbing it in your bottom and wrists. In fact, I was able to ride as low as 25 PSI once I gained confidence in the tubeless set up. At that pressure with innertubes you would suffer pinch punctures every 5km. But 25 PSI might be fabulous on surfaces demanding your full attention to stay upright, but when you get back on paved roads it is slow and cumbersome. The electric pump meant in the blink of an eye, with zero effort, I could adjust the pressure in my tyres to within 1 PSI at the touch of a button. It made riding multi-surfaces so much more efficient and enjoyable. I have no idea how you would cope without one.

The reliability of the tubeless set up on the Alta was faultless. In 6 weeks of gruelling riding on every surface you can think of, I had not a single issue.

The Terra was equipped with the Shimano GRX system, with a 40T single drive on the front, and an 11 speed 11-40 rear cassette. This might sound like pointless tech-geekery but here is the thing. I did not drop my chain once in 6 weeks. Despite massive and unexpected changes in gradient, a lot of banging about and ample user-error opportunity (and swearing)– it stayed firmly in place when many a road bike set up would have ejected multiple times. The GRX has a clever clutch system which always keeps the chain tight, and the rear cassette has offset teeth so that there is less chance of the chain bouncing off. You also never have to change gear at the front suddenly and you have a huge range of gears. It’s a winning combination.  It is also easy on the brain when you are on varied terrain and concentrating hard to avoid crashing. I found riding on gravel mentally exhausting.

A tough lesson I learnt was that oiling your pedals is a necessity. I know…who would have guessed? But on about day three I had a painful trip to the deck when my pedal refused to release my foot on request.  You have a millisecond to get this right when you pull on the brakes and anticipate your foot popping out.  When it doesn’t there is not a lot you can do other than topple over. It was more embarrassing than painful, and there was more swearing, but my oiling admin was rectified after that.

Descending, well that is a whole technique of its own and one I don’t have fully sussed yet. But after six weeks, a couple of spills, and a badly bruised intercostal, I improved significantly. One thing that made a big difference on the long descents was an extra layer of bar tape. The handlebars on a gravel bike are already angled differently to put less pressure on your wrists. But despite this, the endless braking and banging over rough ground on some of the super long hills was painful and scary. The extra bar tape was a big improvement.

Swearing aside, once I was acclimatised to the 30+ deg heat and more used to the 30+% gradients, I completely embraced gravel life. The gravel roads in Costa Rica can be smooth and fast and flattish as well as gnarly and muddy and scary. They were generally an unpredictable mixture. While I find riding gravel exhausting, it is also extremely rewarding and I returned home after six weeks and recorded a new 5 min power PB. Turns out it is also good training. We spent our days exploring in deserted valleys, along endless stretches of coastline, up steep mountain passes, and through deep river crossings. The noises of the jungle close in on you when there is no traffic to distract you, and I loved the freedom we had to go almost anywhere. We saw wildlife you would never see on the main roads and passed through small mountain communities that are rarely visited. Costa Rica was completely captivating, and we had a lot of fun. We were well and truly off the beaten track, especially when we decided that riding cost-to-coast from the Caribbean to the Pacific in two days was a challenge worth attempting. But that is another story…