We meet in the forest in the dark. As dawn breaks, the evergreen trees all around us, a mixture of ancient conifers, giant sequoias and Douglas firs, are so tall and dense that they firmly block the light.
Getting up early to exercise in the winter is never easy – it feels like being pulled out of the womb – but as we pedal and see the first rays of sunshine, golden, slanting lines run across. the mist on the trail ahead, that already seems like the right call. We have the forest to ourselves; the only sounds are birdsong and the creaking of our tires on the stony track.
I’m in the New Forest on a guided gravel bike ride with Tobie Charlton from Gravel Kings. Over the past few years, gravel cycling has grown from relative obscurity to one of the hottest cycling disciplines, and I’m curious to see what it’s all about. Tobie tells me that I am in the right place because the New Forest is “the place for purists to ride on gravel”, thanks to the high quality stone tracks, used by the Forestry Commission, which loop and meander around the park national.
Gravel bikes are like the adventurous cousin of road bikes. They have slightly thicker tires and a lot more grip than a road bike, so they can be used on any surface, from rock to grass or dirt. But unlike an ATV, they are pleasantly efficient for riding on the road, which opens up a wide range of route possibilities.
There are over 100 miles of off-road and bridle paths in the New Forest, mostly gravel but some cobblestone, and Tobie, who has lived locally all his life, rode them all. He grew up mountain biking with his friends, but in his twenties he started experimenting with cyclocross (designed for cross country racing) and then gravel bikes. “A lot of the trails here are pretty flat, but the gravel bikes make these tame trails fun. You can ride more aggressively, but you still have control, ”he says, as we hurtle down a gentle slope.
I know what he means: the bike behaves surprisingly well considering the hardness of the track, especially in the corners. And it gets a good buy in the field, rather than sinking into it like you often do on a mountain bike. This means that you can ride at a decent pace without much effort.
We don’t hang out, but we can still easily chat and enjoy our beautiful surroundings. This, Tobie tells me, is the main point of gravel riding. His clients are often city cyclists like myself, who want to get away from traffic and get into nature, or road cyclists who want to try something different. “It’s more a matter of time on your bike and experience, rather than personal bests or [ride-tracking app] Strava, or even the distance, ”he says.
I have no idea how fast we are going or how far we are going, but I do know that I saw ponies and wild cows and at one particularly magical moment a doe and her fawn crossed our path . I spied poisonous mushrooms, watched the autumn leaves spiraling slowly towards the earth, wondered what was hibernating under the carpets of rich brown ferns, and enjoyed the contrast of the ride through the open moorland followed by a thick forest.
We crossed rivers and streams and skirted a swamp of flooded forest inundated with dead trees, their skeletons silhouetted against the bright blue sky. As the morning progresses I even become a gravel geek and notice how the varying consistency of the stones on the trail affects the way the bike rides, more wet and sticky gravel, which is sticky and adheres very well, the softer the dust, which is not the case.
Gravel is resistant to bad weather. It rained a lot the week before I got here, and the bogs next to the trails are soggy but there is hardly any water on the trails themselves. “They stay in great condition for driving 365 days a year, which is why it is good to come in the winter,” says Tobie. The park is also much less crowded. The fact that the New Forest has sections of lush evergreen and deciduous trees also means that it can choose its routes depending on the weather and keep guests safe from rain or high winds. “If it’s really going down, we’ll factor in more coffee shop stops,” he says.
Our coffee stop arrives towards the end of the journey in the village of Brockenhurst; this is the only time I will see traffic on the way. We have coffee and cakes at Rosie Lea Bakery, then walk back through the forest from Blackwater Arboretum, which now I can see in the light of day evokes a very peaceful Northwest vibe.
Our route focused on the center of the New Forest and was about 45km, but Gravel Kings does longer hikes, up to 85km, including routes to the sea and back, or shorter tours from 20 km, depending on needs and group fitness levels.
You can, of course, rent bikes at various places in the New Forest, but not the kind of high-end gravel bike I’ve been on today, which would cost around £ 1,200 new. It’s so much fun to ride that I’m seriously considering buying one. But there is something special about being guided by a knowledgeable local, who knows how to make the ride run smoothly. It lets you make the most of your day and connect with the natural surroundings, instead of constantly checking the route on your phone – the last thing you want to watch when you’re trying to turn off. It was certainly worth being alerted early.
the trip was provided by Gravel Kings. Dawn Patrol guided gravel walks including bicycle rental, cost £ 135, or £ 85 if you bring your own bike.