7 Things I learned on my first gravel ride

Joe Fleming from Bike Market heads off the beaten path for his first out-of-town gravel adventure and shares a few lessons learned.

| WORDS: Joe Fleming, IMAGES: Alex Bramley |

I picked up my first gravel bike from Bike Market in the latter months of 2020 and had huge aspirations of doing weekly gravel rides outside of Johannesburg. Until now, I’ve been using the gravel bike’s versatility for other types of riding too. The odd commute, training at the coast, a morning ride here and there with the very handy option to jump onto the payment or the shortcut down the gravel path. My first real gravel ride finally happened early in 2021 when Jared from Bike Market and I committed to a sunrise start and adventure somewhere south of Johannesburg. Jared, my riding mate, and guide for the day, has a lot of experience on the road and on long-haul gravel rides with particular knowledge of the plethora of smooth gravel roads we were heading to.

On the drive out towards Kliprivier I was greeted with the most amazing sunrise I had seen in a while, and I instantly knew our timing was perfect. Thankfully after three weeks of rain in the area; the morning was crisp and the forecast indicated full sun. We cleated in and set off on our epic gravel mission. The roads had dried out, dust was non-existent and we enjoyed the cool fresh air as we settled into the rhythm of the gravel. This is what I learned on my first gravel ride.

1. It’s one hell of a way to see the sunrise

joe fleming gravel ride south africa with bike market
Whether you load the bike up onto your vehicle or head out from your home in the morning, it’s highly likely that the sunrise you see will be much better than the one you would normally witness on your typical ride from home. All the life-stress quickly dwindled away as I rode into the sun rising over the local farms of the south. Looking left, looking right I kept examining the beauty of the sunlight connecting with all of the local vegetation. What a country!

2. It’s better with friends

joe fleming gravel ride south africa with bike market
Sharing an experience like this with others is the way to go. Jared is younger than I am and I’ve seen some of his Strava times so I know he is a strong rider and to be honest I was a bit nervous of riding with him. We decided to keep a decent pace, share some stories and just enjoy the ride.

3. You’ll explore more

joe fleming gravel ride south africa with bike market
I know the roads around my suburb extremely well but I have been wanting a change of scenery in the morning. Making the most of a gravel bike means you have the ability to not just head out on long tar roads, but it also gives you the freedom to get off the tar at any point to go see where that dirt road or trail will take you to. Out in the South of Johannesburg, there are unlimited amounts of routes to take if you’ve got the time to do so. I’ve spoken with a few buddies who took part in the SouthXSouthEast Race last year and they told me of river crossings that they’ll do with the bikes from time to time. I’m looking forward to that.

4. Run the right tyre pressure

joe fleming gravel ride south africa with bike market
I tend to run a higher tyre pressure on my bicycles and motorcycles. I weigh 90kg, and my theory behind running a higher pressure is that I’ll run less risk of getting a flat. That theory works great for tar. When it comes to dirt roads though, I’ve found it to be a bit different. In the first part of the ride I felt myself bouncing around quite a lot, I was very aware of it, but just planned to see it through and stick to my theory. At one point we took a break for refreshments and Alex recommended I try letting some air out of the tyres to allow for a bit more give and a softer ride. At first I was hesitant, but I trust Alex and took his advice. Within the first 10 meters of riding I could instantly feel a massive difference and a much more enjoyable ride on the bike.

5. Choose good lines

6. Speed is your friend

joe fleming gravel ride south africa with bike market
I learned this in my truck while on dirt roads. If you go slow, you’re going to feel every bump out there. If you pick up the pace a bit, you’ll benefit from the momentum and you’ll be carried down the road and over obstacles. Doesn’t mean you have to go all out and push yourself the entire ride, but if it’s getting a bit too bumpy and your bouncing around, pick up the pace a bit. You’ll see!

7. There are endless opportunities

joe fleming gravel ride south africa with bike market
I’ve got a passion and endless search of adventure. For me, a gravel bike is the perfect tool for exercising and exploration to see what all is out there. Yea it may not be great on single tracks, and technical terrain but you can still do it.

I absolutely love that I can hop on a gravel bike, cruise out of town on the tar and bomb down any dirt road or trail that I see. That’s where you’ll find the goods and I believe that is where you’ll find your next adventure! – Joe Fleming.

With thanks: bikemarket.co.za & Alex Bramley

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