I love the freedom of roaming on any given mountain-side that mountain biking offers. You just look at a mountain, find a trail and go explore. Even though you spend hours studying a topo map, there is always the uncertainty of the trail being cleaned, some farmers decided to park his livestock up there or nature taking back its rights which will make for a good laugh afterward.
While I enjoy riding the road bike on the smooth paved roads, the safety of knowing that you can be easily rescued if you get stranded is comforting and knowing at what time I will be back home is reassuring. I feel myself a little restricted though, sticking to the pavement, on what I can access and it feels less of an adventure than when I ride my mountain bike.
Living close to the border with Italy, I have discovered the Alpine line or Little Maginot Line: it is the fortified sector of the Maritimes Alps where every mountain top by the border has a fort at its top to prevent the Italian invasion during WWII. To access those forts, dirt track where built – those roads could not exceed the 8% grade, otherwise the horse carriages or truck carrying the ammos and canons would have slide back down. All these roads and forts have long been decommissioned. They are now unpaved and a perfect playing ground for gravel bikes.
What makes gavel bikes also appealing to me is that you do not need a specific bike to try it out at first or even to carry on doing it: go either for your road bike with slightly beefier tires, your cyclocross bike will do too, and even an old MTB with sleek tires can do the trick. I am no die-hard roadie but a MTBer thru and thru who likes to put some kilometres on the tarmac from time to time. I do not see the point of having a road race geometry n my bike when I have no use for it.
A more “relaxed” geometry that will be closer to my MTB geometry made more sense. That is why the lower BB, longer wheelbase and longer top tube of my Genesis Datum fit me like a glove. Setting it up more like a MTB than a road bike, with disc brakes (with the long and steep descends around home it was a no brainer) as rim brakes look cookie, and a 1x11with a 44T narrow/wide chainring and a clutch (MTB) rear derailleur, to avoid any chances of having the chain dropping.
If I am in riding a mixed terrain kind of mood, I will slap my aluminium wheels on with an 11/42 cassette and 35mm Schwalbe G-one Allround tires while if I go full roadie, I will go for the carbon wheels with 11/32 cassette and 30mm Schwalbe G-one Speed tires.
My favourite loop is like a gravel sandwich with buns of road. I call it my Tour des Cols, as I pass Orme, Ablé, Braus, Farguet, Ségra, Banquettes, Castillon and St Jean. It can be done both ways but I favour the counter clockwise option. Starting from Sospel, you take the winding Gorge du Piaon road to Moulinet where you will pass the loveliest perched Chapelle of Notre Dame de la Menour. It is a nice 12km of road to warm up and spin the legs before attacking the dirt road. Once in the village, you get onto the Beccas track for 15km to reach the bottom of Col des Cabanettes and the road which will take you to Col de l’Orme . Effectively, you are not far from the road but this valley seems so far away from civilization that it is an absolute breath of fresh air and gorgeous scenery. Between there and Braus, you will be on and off road for a handful of kilometres at a time and mostly in the forest but you will have your first pick at the Mediterranean Sea. Col de Braus to Col de Ségra on the dirt road may be the easiest part of the loop. While you have a punchy climb before attacking the last stretch of dirt road that will take you around Mt Ours, from col des Banquettes to col de Castillon and all its Forts. You finish by a nice descent to Sospel by Col de St Jean on the road.
Full loop here: