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The Road Less Paved
On transitioning from the tarmac of Europe to the gravel of North America.
By Rob Britton
In 2022, First Endurance ambassador Rob Britton made the change from the European road scene to the road less paved. As his first season racing gravel as part of the newly minted Life Time Grand Prix wraps up, Rob shared his thoughts on tires, tech, why the change made sense for him, and his own general theory of gravel as a metaphor for life transitions.
Taking the scenic route
I think the reason I ride my bike is it’s kind of turned out to be the adventure of my lifetime. It’s taken me places I would’ve never been able to go otherwise, it’s helped me meet people I never would’ve met, and it’s been the most influential part of my entire life. I would’ve ended up somewhere completely different – literally and figuratively – had I never started riding a bike.
As for transitioning to gravel? We used to just call it riding a bike, getting out and experiencing new spaces, new sensations on the bike, but now it’s called gravel cycling. I think it’s awesome to be able to share this with the rest of the cycling world, for them to see they’re not necessarily confined to just doing the same road-only group ride every single Sunday for the rest of their lives. There are a whole bunch of other options out there beyond the road, especially since the tech has caught up to the terrain, so we’re not just smashing around on 28c ‘cross tires.
My whole career, I’ve sought out a different way to get to the same place as a lot of other people. There’s not necessarily one path that’ll take you somewhere, and a lot of guys are pretty content with just taking that point A to point B; but you can mix it up and still get to point B – you just might go through C, D, E, and F to get there. I like this as a literal comment on taking gravel shortcuts but also as a comment on career transitions, both of which definitely apply to me now.
For me, the actual adventure is just finding these new places – those C, D, E, and F points you can hit before arriving at B – and not necessarily the trip itself. Finding the next new thing and being one of the first people that’s ever ridden a bike over different trails, different bike roads – that’s pretty enticing to me. It might just be a couple of miles over from my normal path, but now I’m in the trees, and it’s quiet, and it’s this magical new place that I didn’t even know existed. That happens all the time with gravel. Seeking out these adventures keeps it fresh for me. It’s the experience, not just the achievement.
An essential difference
On gravel, there are both a lot of similarities to road and a lot of differences. Needless to say, it’s been an interesting year.
One of the biggest essential differences is that no one really has teammates in gravel, so even though you end up racing in these small packs, it’s a lot like being in a breakaway in a traditional road race. Except that’s kind of how it is from the gun, so there can be a lot more tactics with how you want to race the day, and there are no teammates to help fix things for you.
The biggest similarity to road racing is maybe the obvious: the terrain and distance massively affect how the day is raced. Thankfully these races are pretty long, which helps me. For example, Unbound is nine hours. That’s longer than some stage races I’ve done! No one knows how to train for that, really, besides doing a bunch of nine-hour races.
A material difference
The most obvious material difference between road and gravel, which I alluded to earlier, is the tech. Of the different tech, the things I think about the most are, of course, tires. Despite Schwalbe’s huge selection of gravel tires (BY FAR the widest selection of sizes and casings on the market), I’d say I’ve probably done 75% of all my races on one model, but within that model I’ve swapped through 3 different widths: 35, 40, and 45c. That’s not a thing in road cycling. There’s one tire. (And it’s usually glued to your wheel!)
A less obvious piece of tech that came to me late in the spring is my Classified power shift hub. It basically allows you to run a 1x system with a virtual/internal gear similar to the ratio of a standard 2x system. If you count the teeth, my go-to gearing this year has been a 1x 50t chainring paired to an 11-34; however, with the internal drop-down gearing, that 1x setup becomes the equivalent of a double crankset: 50/34t!
Memories – and lessons learned on the gravel
The most memorable event or ride I did this year was the BC Epic 1000 FKT. Hands down. It’s hard to compete with something that took me nearly 2-1/2 days to complete while resetting the bar on what it means to challenge myself on just about every metric.
That’s not exactly a true race, though, so if I limit myself to that category, then I think Unbound probably takes the cake. At 200 miles there’s just so much that happened…
Even now I’m pretty sure I don’t remember a lot of that event – I mean, it was nearly 10 hours. That’s just wild!
The call of the backroads
If I’m totally honest I think I would’ve liked to have swapped over to gravel even sooner, but with the pandemic, things were pushed back by a year or two. It was probably sometime around spring 2021 when I decided it was time to make the switch.
I knew it would be a big risk both professionally and financially, but the attraction to it is just way too much to ignore – and right now, looking back, I’m so glad I took the opportunity and jumped in with both feet.