What *Is* Gravel?

Since the beginning of recorded history, humankind has pondered the eternal question:

What is gravel?

Great thinkers have put forth compelling answers over the centuries and millennia. Plato said the gravel around us is merely a reflection of a higher truth. Maimonides wrote that gravel is indivisible, each pebble and secteur merely a component of an eternal whole. More recently, Sigmund Freud famously noted that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, though having said that, he also added that a gravel bike is totally a penis.

Now, however, we may finally have a conclusive answer, thanks to the marketing prowess of the SRAM/Truvativ/RockShox/Zipp/Time/Have I Forgotten Anything? All-Consuming Fredly Bicycle Componenty Conglomerate and this week’s big media push for their new “XPLR” components. As it turns out, everyone I mentioned above was totally full of shit, and the correct answer is that gravel is “whatever you want it to be:”

In 2021, not only did we put the idea of gender to rest, but we also finally liberated ourselves from our reductive view of riding surfaces. No longer is “gravel” merely a bunch of very small rocks:

Now it could be this:

Or this:

Or even this:

Because when Jesus walked on water, he was also riding on gravel:

Yes, we may be free from the traditional constraints of what “gravel” is, but not from the idea that Jesus was somehow a white guy in Bedrock sandals.

As for the “XPLR” stuff, I haven’t really looked at it, but I do note it includes a suspension fork:

While I’m personally not a fan of suspension forks, I’m also way beyond caring what parts people put on their bikes, so try as I might I simply can’t muster up any outrage over this umpteenth attempt on the part of the bicycle industry to push them beyond the mountain bike market. In fact, I take it as a sign that all is right with the universe, since as the mountain bikes get squishier and squishier it was only a matter of time before short-travel forks came back. You know, cycle of life and all that. Also, for all my cynicism, I’m strongly in favor of the buying and selling of bicycles and bicycle-related products, and as a lover of the bike it is my sincere hope that all who dedicate their lives to this wonderful machine may prosper.

As for the name “XPLR,” I have no problem with it, either. (Apart from the fact that I read it as “XPLD,” which seems like something the fork might do.) However, this being 2021, I did note that at least one bike media person expressed concern over the colonialist implications of evoking the word “Explore,” which seems like an exhausting way to go through life. At that point it seems like it would be easier to abandon English altogether and try to find yourself a less-fraught tongue, though at that point you’re engaging in cultural appropriation, so unless you’re prepared to express yourself entirely in emojis (which is probably where we’re going, come to think of it) you just can’t win. In any case, speaking of the English language, the etymology of the word “gravel” is pretty cool:

Rubbing and grinding…maybe Freud was right after all.

Anyway, contrarian that I am, as the cycling world goes gravel crazy I’ve gone in the complete opposite direction and have been riding a rigid bike with a fixed gear ratio and no coasting mechanism on a closed circuit. Here is my Midlife Crisis Fixie Mark II (aka “Soma Rush“), which I recently put into track mode for another run at the Kissena Twilight series:

Like last week, I was there primarily for my son, but couldn’t resist racing myself. However, unlike last week, I was on a bicycle with a proper gear ratio and a bottom bracket that was happy to remain in its shell, and so I managed to more or less maintain contact with the other riders:

[Photo: Elliott Weiss]

I’m the guy in the sweat-soaked grey jersey trying not to throw up, in case you were wondering.

In all my years of racing, I can’t believe I didn’t spend more time at the track–well, actually I can, because when I used to have a real job it was much easier to do road races in the parks on weekends than it was to get to Kissena during the week. But now that I’m a semi-professional bike blogger with an actual reason to be at the track, I see that short, fast and fun races where your kids can hang out is a total no-brainer. That’s not to say I’m going to become a track racer, mind you, it’s just me acknowledging what I’ve been missing all these years.

Next time I’ll try it with one of those XPLR forks. Gravel is what you want it to be, after all…

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