Transitioning from the WorldTour to the North American Backroads
By Kiel Reijnen
“Whatever we experience on that day of the event is a good experience”
Place one of the individuals on your team as far up the results sheet as possible. That’s the goal in professional road racing. It’s simple, clean and easy to measure (of course doing so is complicated, full of variables, some controllable, others less so). That was my default mindset as I transitioned from road racer to gravel privateer. It wasn’t until some “bad luck” struck during Unbound last year that I realized how flawed dragging that approach around with me really was.
Early on in the race I exploded my rear wheel. It would be really easy to say “oh, you know, unlucky, hit a rock or picked the wrong tire pressure.” But the reality is, I wasn’t strategizing in a way that was conducive to getting through the race. Unlike on the road, I didn’t have a follow car ready with a spare wheel, so I was pushing the bike at moments in the race where it didn’t make sense to push the bike. I paid the price for it. I broke my bike, and the race was disappearing up the road.
Immediately, I was filled with frustration. So much effort and preparation that goes into an event like that and in an instant it can all feel like it was all for nothing. I was gutted, not just for myself, but for the team of people that had worked tirelessly to get me to the start line. So, I decided to start running. The aid station was still some 40 miles away, but if I could just get there somehow, I thought, I can swap out the wheel and still finish the day. Hopefully lessening the disappointment the team would feel.
As I ran, a few riders who had been dropped early on begin to catch and pass me. Then a few more. Then a lot more. I began to notice a gradual shift in the event’s atmosphere. The closer I got to the back of the field, the more people offered to help in any way that they could. I was blown away at how positive and genuine everyone was. These were people just hoping that they would be able to finish the ride, even if it meant pedaling after the sun went down. And here they were offering to stop and help me. Of course, despite their enthusiasm, there was nothing anyone could do to get my bike ridable again short of lending me a replacement wheel. But in that moment their support meant everything to me.
In the end I trudged on for about 18 miles before lack of water and an impending time cut off forced me to stop. No, I didn’t save the day and arrive at the finish triumphant. But, I did discover that in gravel, unlike road racing, every outcome can be a positive one. The results sheet doesn’t tell the whole story, nor does it convey the shared experience we are all having out there. Results are quickly forgotten, but the way we conduct ourselves in the gravel community matters and will be remembered.
My takeaway from that day was simple: Don’t get too fixated on one version of gravel because you’ll miss out on all the other versions, they all have merit. I look back on that day and remember the lessons learned frequently. There are no bad outcomes, every experience is a worthwhile one in gravel.
THE LAMBORGHINI AND THE ICE CREAM TRUCK
I didn’t grow up mountain biking. I dabbled here and there. But really road biking was the thing I did the most, and so for me, with limited technical abilities, it’s really hard to push a modern full suspension mountain bike to its limit. I have to go way out of my comfort zone to even get close.
On a gravel bike, it’s a whole different story, it’s a more familiar platform for me. I can take the bike to the razor’s edge and hang out there all day long, and that’s what’s fun. It’s sort of the equivalent of going out in an ice cream truck on a race track. If you took a Lamborghini out, you’re going to run out of skill and ability before the car does. You are going to scare yourself shitless before you ever see the limit of that car. But if you go out in an ice cream truck, you can take that corner on two wheels, you can turn the brakes red, you can push it to its absolute limit without leaving your comfort zone.
I like to think about gravel bikes that way, it’s a bike that allows me to kind of hang out on the ragged edge all day long with relatively low consequences if I screw it up. The gravel bike is like a Swiss army knife, you can go out and you can try a little bit of everything. You can ride to the trail head, connect the dirt roads, or loop a paved ride on terrain a road bike can’t handle. Where I live especially, there are lots of fjords, bridges, and waterways – it’s really complicated to get to places, especially by car. A gravel bike allows me to connect routes that previously weren’t possible.
ON THE STONES
Imagine the worst surface you can to ride a bicycle on. That’s cobblestones! It doesn’t make any sense. They’re horrible in every way for a bicycle. The gaps between the bricks, the unevenness of the surface, the slickness of the surface when it gets wet – all of those things combined make it one of the worst surfaces on earth to ride a bike on, and yet we do it. Not just occasionally out of desperation either. There is an entire portion of the professional road racing season built around doing it.
Not only are cobblestones a terrible surface for a bike, we do it with the wrong tires, the wrong equipment. We’re doing it on 26 maybe 28c tires with way too much pressure, on rigid carbon bikes built for speed and aerodynamics. But these iconic sectors of Flanders and Roubaix are the infamous roads where racers past emptied their tanks in pursuit of glory and fame. Even though it’s impractical, it’s beautiful in its own way. An ode to a bygone era.
Riding cobblestones is a very specialized skill, and there’re not a lot of people in the world who can do it well. So why bother?
The fans. The fans are the reason I do it. Or rather, did it. Belgium is the heart of cycling and you can’t go anywhere else in the world to race a bike and feel that energy.
I would say that the terrain I rode growing up was well suited to the terrain I ended up ultimately racing on in the spring classics. My home, like Belgium, is not the first place you’d think of when you think about going out and riding a road bike for fun. The roads are rough. The chip seal is definitely unkind to both back and bike. The corners are slick and off camber. There’s not a lot of shoulder. The roads are twisty and up and down and often dead end at the water’s edge. But that’s one of the other beautiful things about bikes: they’re versatile and adaptable just like humans. Use what you have and ride the roads you have access to, even if they’re riddled with “local character” like slick PNW chipseal or Belgian cobblestones – just make sure you’ve got the right bike and tires.