Somerset Levels Gravel

Lockdown has given all us of time. Most people have filled this with important things like spending more time with family and staying healthy. Whilst doing this to an extent, a big focus for me has been riding locally. With big bike riding off the cards, I turned to my road bike. I say road bike but strictly it is a gravel bike. What does that even mean? A mountain bike from 20 years ago? A heavy road bike with fat tyres? The only way to find out was to ride it.

England has a fine selection of road riding. The endless criss crossing country lanes mean you can ride almost anywhere without having to grace an A road, as long as you’re not concerned with taking the direct route. But UK gravel is more of an enigma. According to some well informed corners of the internet, the UK has no gravel. Not believing everything that was written on the internet, I was sure there was gravel out there (not least because I’d ridden bits of it on my big bike). So, armed with OS maps and ambition, I set about finding the illusive kilometres of gravel.

There is no hiding from the fact that I use roads. Very few people are lucky enough to be able to roll out of their door and be straight onto off road trails. On my enduro bike, pretty much all my routes have stints on the road to get from one place to another. Here the gravel bike makes it’s first benefit known. It can munch miles on the road. It’s not going to be claiming any KOMs or being holding wheels in the local chaingang but you can quite comfortably ride for a few hours on the road, freewheeling along the lanes, enjoying the view.

But after a bit, I’d had a few close encounters with cars, my legs started to hurt and my inner mountain biker took over. The time has come to venture off-road.

This is were the fun supposedly starts. Switching from tarmac to dirt, the speed drops and I found myself having to pick a line through puddles, tractor tracks and dried horse shoe prints. I inevitably had to ride over some of this and it was a bone shattering ride. 5 minutes into my first gravel sector I’ve got arm pump and I am covered in mud. This isn’t ride the marketing said I’d have. This wouldn’t be fun on any bike. Maybe the internet is right, there is no gravel in the UK. 

After another 5 minutes of this I come to a stop to give my arms a rest. Glancing at the map, there is no way to tell if the rest of the track is the same as this. My optimism says it won’t be but realism says it will be. Gravel riding sucks. But I kept going. You don’t know if you don’t go. Another 10 minutes of bone shaking passes and I’m amazed my bike is still going. I haven’t flatted and my wheel hasn’t collapsed. It might be heavy but this gravel bike certainly can take a beating. I don’t think I’d want to do this on a carbon road bike. The end of this off road section was coming to an end, and as I rolled out onto the lane, aching and sore, I was happy to be spinning the legs without being thrown around. 

After this, my enthusiasm for the next off road section was low. I’d give it one more chance I decided. I’d already learnt that the first couple of hundred meters off road can be misleading. Often they’ll be smooth before descending into chaos. With this in mind, I reluctantly rolled into the next sector. With the smooth start done I awaited the battering I was expecting. It didn’t come. Locked on the hoods, I was moving fast. The double track was undulating and not very “gravelly” but I could hold speed. Every now and then there would be a rough patch, but only long enough to make line choice exciting. Looking up in a brief respite I was completely alone, unable to see any sign of cars. A second later, I was back into focusing on what I was riding, I was concentrating hard, given one wrong line choice would stop the bike and send me over the bars. This was starting to make sense. Coming to a stop after 10 minutes, I was buzzing. Who knew that 2km of flat double track could be that exciting.

Throughout the rest of the ride, I experienced more highs and lows of riding gravel. I found a kilometre of pristine gravel, interrupted only by gates and I was stun by overgrown plants on another section. Rolling home after a few hours of this though it was a lot clearer. UK gravel is its own thing. There are sections you’d never ride again, sections that are very much type 2 fun and sections that could rival anywhere in the world. And this was just in a 50km ride around the Somerset levels.

Had I answered my questions though? Well I’d found gravel so I think that one is a categoric yes. But what does having a gravel bike mean? Well that’s one is a bit harder. What I found out on this ride is that it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just another bike. But it proved that the freedom of riding a bike is what matters. Whether you’re riding for transport, fitness or pleasure or all of these things, what matters is riding a bike not what bike you ride or where you ride.

So now go ride your bike, wherever you want. 

This is the route with some extra photos.

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