As the world’s population grows, and the number of motor vehicles on our roads increases, we see alongside a rise in the number of cyclists, and with that, the natural growth and evolution of cycling genres and their types of bike. But, as the years tick by, less and less we find ourselves inclined to squeeze our vulnerable bodies onto traffic choked roads, jostling for position amongst the cars and trucks, on surfaces quite often as worn out and rough as any gravel track. This is reflected in the stock tyres found on the modern road bike, seeming to increase in volume every year. As we gaze at our 32mm road tyres, we find it funny how things come back around – just google ‘1920 Tour de France’, and you may (or may not) be surprised to see images of bikes from one hundred years ago, sporting tyres easily exceeding thirty millimeters! Amongst the images, you will also see grainy sepia photos of white knuckled racing cyclists, churning single speed bicycles over unpaved mountain passes. Images like these are enough to galvanise even the most dedicated of urban commuters into heading to the hills, on a hunt for an unnamed route across a seldom scaled fell.
An increasing chunk of our cycling community finds solace in hunting for that archaic feeling of conquering a cobbled hill in the middle of nowhere, being only at the mercy of the of the gods (and the amount of battery charge left in the GPS unit). This may be an escape from the chaos of modernity, but it is the modern age that allows access to information which has otherwise lain buried in the depths of local knowledge for years. Forgotten and historic thoroughfares, only to be unearthed by the power of the internet, and vehiculated by GPS systems and other mind bending gadgetry. This gadgetry comes in many forms and each example incrementally pushes the modern bike to new levels of capability – lightweight carbon forks with mountain bike tyre clearance, stems and seatposts with suspension built in, super efficient dynamo hubs. Some of these are not new ideas, but have reached a certain level of refinement that has allowed cyclists the world over to explore further than ever before.
This time, we look at what it means to ride our bicycles as ‘all-road’ machines, and see how what might be considered the oldest form of cycling is still very much alive and kicking (although back in the early days of cycling, there was no alternative).
We take the opportunity to talk to Gaëlle Bojko and Andy Cox. Gaëlle is a French adventuring wonder woman, who started her bike-life in humble beginnings, astride a second hand hybrid bike and armed with a disposable camera, she set out on a solo trip around the Scottish Highlands at the age of 20. Since then, she has traversed Eastern Europe’s Carpathian Mountains, and navigated her way across the frozen winter surface of Lake Baikal in Siberia, enjoying (and yes, she does enjoy it so she tells me!) daytime temperatures of -25°C and -35°C during the night. She now hand makes outdoor gear and utilitarian clothing from her workshop just outside of Le Mans, France.
Andy Cox is British trailblazer, photographer and wordsmith - a man of the bicycle. He rides some of the finest tuned, fit-for-the-job, anywhere and everywhere type bikes we’ve seen – having worked years as a bike mechanic, he knows what he likes. If there’s a man who knows about the importance of the right set-up, there’s Andy. He is responsible for creating the European Divide Trail, a 7,600km route running from the most North Easterly point in Europe to the most South Westerly point, designed to be a majority traffic-free route which primarily uses dirt roads and doubletrack. The route is more suited to day-in, day-out riding, as opposed to intensive mountain bike style bikepacking.
Once we are bitten by the bike bug, we notice bikes everywhere. It’s like discovering a new cuisine, or a genre of music - we find ourselves rubbernecking at every freehub sound that whizzes past. Doors are quickly opened and we soon become connoisseurs of our own riding styles:
SEIDO: “As you delved deeper into the world of bikes, what struck you most about the many different types of bike, and what features were you drawn to when thinking about gearing up for future trips?”
Gaëlle: “More than the different types of bikes, what struck me most was the relation people build with their two wheeled, quiet, versatile mode of transport. I’ve never really been fascinated by gear and technology – if it works, I'm happy. But seeing people carefully choose their components, frames, bags and equipment has been fascinating, as, contrary to most other transportation, it can be fine-tuned and even customized for a reasonable price. Every bike carries a story and I have been enjoying learning about people’s adventures and how they relate to their bike.
As I rode more and spent more time on my bike, it was clear to me that I wasn’t after the latest technology, rather parts that I could trust and rely on without giving them much maintenance. I see the bike as a tool and a companion to visit places: it’s a practical item. Being able to use it for a variety of situations has been my main mission. Its setup today fits my needs for now, as I can quickly load it for a bikepacking trip, use it to commute in the winter’s darkness or strip it down for day rides. It’s not the lightest, or the fastest, but I'm not looking for that.”
SEIDO: “Comparing your second hand hybrid bike to your Bombtrack Audax AL, what differences can you pinpoint in regards to how they cope with the rougher types of road?”
Gaëlle: “Within a week of having the hybrid bike, I broke the rear axle and a few spokes on a bikepacking trip in Scotland... the Audax AL and my former hybrid bikes have two very different geometries, and the Audax AL is more suited to my likings and needs. It has bigger tyres mounted to super durable SEIDO Magnon 650b wheels, drop bars, a sportier geometry, and it just takes whatever I throw at it. I know I can rely on it and that’s what I’m looking for in a bike.”
SEIDO: “If you could spec out your dream bike, what would it consist of, and why?”
Gaëlle: “My dream bike would be a practical, reliable build that would cover most of my needs. I don’t like the idea of having different bikes for different needs as I’m not after performance. I’m quite happy with the Audax AL as it is now, although next time I would go for a steel frame as I tend to damage all the threads that get in my way. But a dynamo hub, good lights, a front rack, wide, slightly flared handlebars, a double crankset, 650b wheels and a rather sporty geometry seem to suit my style of riding well. It would be a down-to-earth, utilitarian companion that can do everything, even if it doesn’t do it perfectly.”
Bike genres have seen the lines of their definition become more blurred in recent years. We see drop bar gravel bikes with suspension forks and cross country mountain bikes with rigid carbon forks to name a couple of examples. As previously mentioned, these are not necessarily new ideas, but have undergone great refinement in the past 10 years. We can now mix and match parts to make splices of bike types that tick more and more of our boxes – bikes that roll quickly and efficiently on pavement, but still handle well on rougher terrain, or a bike that we can confidently shred the gnar upon, but not find ourselves ‘riding through treacle’ when we hit the tarmac again.
SEIDO: “In terms of equipment and componentry, how have things moved along since you first started bikepacking? Are there any products on the market today that you would have loved to have seen available back then?”
Andy: “When I first started bikepacking, 29ers were only just becoming more than purely out and out race machines. 27.5 inch wheels weren't really a thing, and plus tyres, (2.8/3 inch), weren't available. Then there's the fast rolling yet wide, strong and supple gravel tyres, that I feel have changed the way we ride bikes nowadays. All three of these developments, mostly revolving around tyres and wheels, have really changed how capable our bikes are now. That has also bled into frame design, incorporating greater clearance and better angles for off road and loaded riding.
Luggage systems have changed a lot as well, and this has really helped to push boundaries to a certain degree. Not to say that racks and panniers are bad, it's just that they're not great for off road touring. Also that extra capacity in a pannier bag is just begging to be filled, so it's easy to over load them and carry too much, making travelling harder.”
SEIDO: “We see a lot of ‘what goes around comes around’, what kind of tech are you surprised to see making a reappearance?”
Andy: “Honestly, nothing really surprises me in the bike industry nowadays. Trends come and go, with suspension or rigid forks, carbon or not, larger diameter or smaller wheels, broader or narrower tyres, all seeming like fads throughout the last 20 years.
Suspension on gravel bikes is great, just like it is on any off road bike, with suspension seatposts and stems being a worthy upgrade for rougher terrain. The evolution of bikes is fascinating to see and experience, as long as it helps to make bikes more capable and opens up more terrain to comfortable riding. I feel it's a shame that so much in the industry is driven by racing, because proportionally, not many people actually race bikes, and racing bikes and their equipment aren't all that great for comfort and longevity.”
SEIDO: “If you could spec out your dream bike, what would it consist of, and why?”
Andy: “A titanium Bombtrack Beyond is my next bike, swapping between a SEIDO MGV carbon fork and a Rockshox Rudy fork, faster or grippier tyres, and always, Hunt 42 Limitless Adventure Wheels. I've not found a better set of bars than the Redshift Kitchen Sinks and their Shockstop seatpost, then it'll be SEIDO cranks, chainring, and stem. SRAM Rival AXS mullet drivetrain, a Specialized Power saddle, and various Schwalbe G-One tyres depending on conditions.
So it seems that my dream bike is pretty much the same build as my Bombtrack Hook EXT C, just with a different frameset. Bikes are amazing things, but the right mindset is way more important than the latest kit, so in the end, bikes are just the equipment that enables an adventurous mind to find happiness and contentment out in the world. I'm very fortunate to have some great equipment given to me by my generous sponsors, but if I didn't, I'd still be out having fun on whatever bike I was riding at the time.”
When brands design their bicycles, they look to riders like Gaëlle and Andy because they push their bikes to the limit, helping to pave the way for new ideas in design. Gaëlle recently took her Bombtrack Audax AL over the Montañas Vacias, in Spain, during the winter. Parts of the route could be considered to be in the bikes element, but other sections demanded a struggle harking back to that endured by the riders of the early grand tours. Winter in the Montañas Vacias region sees gravel roads turned into sticky muddy tracks covered with potholes filled with icy water, snow drifts that obstruct the roads, and sheer isolation - as much mental strength as physical endurance is required to conquer these passes, but there is a prize that is more than worth this trade-off:
SEIDO: “When you find yourself alone with the bike in these kinds of environments, what kind of feeling is it that you are searching for?”
Gaëlle: “I really enjoy solitude. It’s different from being alone, I rarely feel alone on my bike. I like the quietness and peacefulness and I find that these feelings are enhanced by being on my own in wintery settings. The Montañas Vacias route is beautiful in summer, it’s calm. But when the temperatures drop well below freezing, it stands out even more as life slows down. Ernesto Pastor, who created the route, named it the Montañas Vacias, meaning empty mountains, for geographical and social reasons as this area has a very low population density. But areas are never empty, there is always something that stands out. And from what I’ve felt when riding the Montanas Vacias, it’s a majestic place. Not quite the same grandeur as the Alps, with big views and impressive mountains, but it felt serene and whole when I rode there.”
SEIDO: “Riding routes like this, do you get the sense that you are pushing your bike to its limits?”
Gaëlle: “Routes like these certainly take their toll on the bike. Riding every day in mud and snow and ice is tough on it, and that’s why my main concern is the bike’s reliability. But it never felt like it had reached its limits, probably because mine are much lower!”
SEIDO: “What did it feel like to ride these undoubtedly ancient passes? Did you feel yourself being transported to an older and simpler time?”
Gaëlle: “Ernesto did a wonderful job when putting the Montañas Vacias route together. It doesn’t take much researching to understand what it’s about, and it became clear quite early on that this route isn’t nostalgic, or melancholic. It felt to me that it’s a way to show the world a part of Europe that isn’t well known, in a way that seemed pretty objective to me. No positions are taken, and no judgment is passed on the socio-economic situation of that area of Spain.
On the contrary, instead of being transported to older times, I felt the problems the villages face today: the population declines; young people leave, the elderly are getting older. Villages are slowly emptying, and I was struck by the number of abandoned houses and ruins. At the same time, I could witness the impact the Montañas Vacias route had on some parts of the local economy, and it brought me some hope for the future of these places, even if riding bikes won’t solve all the problems. As much as I love learning about the history of the places I cycle across, I find it fascinating to learn about their actual social situations and how they navigate through them. The bike allows me to spend some time in these places and learn about them, and that’s why I ride it.”
Although it seems to be that the ‘new’ movement of all-road cycling has its roots in the very earliest forms of the sport, there is no denying that its progressive nature may be doing a great justice to parts of the world that might have otherwise have remained relatively unseen by modern tourism. Combined with the ever expanding range of products we see available on the market today, this very original and bare-bones approach to cycling still continues to progress and refine itself. The all-road and bikepacking movement continues to push the bicycle’s level of capability of discovering and rediscovering our world. It is a simple but very modern tool that allows us to go further, in possibly the noblest way we can as humans.
SEIDO Components gives the warmest thanks to Gaëlle and Andy for their valued input on today’s subject, and for generally doing what they do best, in the awesome and inspirational way they do it. It’s riders like Gaëlle and Andy who keep the alternative and adventure cycling spirit alive and kicking.
Thanks for reading!
By Peter Skelton