The date was sometime in the summer of 1987. The place was Big Bear, California, and the event was the NORBA National that was annually held in the high-mountain hamlet overlooking the greater Los Angeles and Riverside lowlands. I have to say, if ever there was a photo that represented a “Back to the Future” theme as well as this one, I’d be surprised to see it!
As I looked at the shot of SoCal mountain bike icon and Ross Indian rider Joe Sloup leading a WTB/Cunningham rider (possibly Roy Rivers) up the dusty fire-road climb, I couldn’t help but think that a modern version of the photo could have just as easily been shot a week prior. That was when I was pedaling up the local Brown Mountain fire road on my gravel bike amid a sea of mountain bikers.
THE BIG DIFF
Friendly as most everyone is, I always seem to encounter a few overdressed mountain bikers who appear to take umbrage at my easily passing by wearing nothing but Lycra and pushing a 40×36 gear. Something along the lines of, “Oh, look at the racer go!” is what I frequently hear as I do my best to get to the top of the four-mile climb in less than the two hours I’m guessing it must take them as they stay stuck in their 34×50 gear.
More than a few old friends of mine seem to enjoy pointing out the irony of how 30 years ago I was a devout flat-handlebar kind of guy who generally eschewed all things with a “curly” bar. These days, it’s just the opposite. My how times have changed!
Is it just because I’m older and slower that I now prefer what’s popularly known as a “gravel bike” as my sole ride for my off-road endeavors? Possibly. Still, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve stayed glued to the rear wheel of a full-suspension bike descending a fire road at speed. Sure, the stutter bumps are tough to handle in the drops, and most often the only suspension I have is the air volume in my 40mm tires. But herein lies the appeal of riding a gravel bike off-road—the challenge.
AGE IS JUST A NUMBER
Yeah, I admit it. I’m old. I was around before Tinker Juarez rode his first mountain bike race, when Ned Overend still rode for Schwinn and, well, you get the point. I grew up riding rigid bikes back when the thin-wall Easton Hyperlite handlebar was the greatest invention ever, thanks to the small amount of comfort it provided over a rigid fork.
Now, don’t get me wrong. When I raced the Mammoth Mountain Kamikaze for the first time with a RockShox fork (in 1991), I was sold on front suspension. And a year later when I rode the Porcupine Rim Trail in Moab for the first time on a Gary Fisher RS-1, I was sold on full suspension.
In fact, even now, with the advent of short-travel (30mm) forks for gravel bikes, I appreciate the extra speed and control they provide over the stutter bumps. But for me, that’s all I need. Everyone is different. I get it. But to me, it is no different from sailing across the English Channel in a dinghy versus a 60-foot cabin cruiser. I just don’t see any inherent challenge riding a bike with 6 inches of travel, along with a 160mm dropper post and 2.4-inch tires.
Equally irksome to me is the number of mountain bikers I’ve met in the JPL parking lot (that acts as the start of the Brown Mountain climb) who’ve all driven their bikes to the trailhead despite living within a 10-mile radius.
GET OFF MY LAWN!
I know, I know. My OMOTP (old man on the porch) syndrome is once again rearing its ugly head. The thing is, just as I frequently tell my daughter when she reminds me that I can eat more than one graham cracker for dessert, it’s okay to try to get by with less. For me, it’s not the equipment that makes the experience; it’s the experience that makes the experience.
Sure, I may have to go slower through super-rough sections on a gravel bike, but each section also represents a delicate and technical challenge that anyone riding an SUV-like mountain bike would never experience. I also enjoy riding to the ride, which an 18-pound gravel bike is much more efficient for. In fact, one 60-mile gravel ride I do actually includes only about eight miles of dirt.
Thirty-four years ago, I watched these two riders battle it out on two different types of off-road bicycles. Never in a million years would I have guessed that someday in the future history would be repeating itself on my local ride.
Back to the future indeed!