Recently I spent some time in the French Alps, armed only with the new Pinarello F7, but with a craving to do some gravel riding. For those of you unfamiliar, the Pinarello F model is very much a racing-focused road bike; with 28mm tyres, deep carbon rims, road geometry, and a one-piece cockpit. Definitely not a gravel bike. Not even close. As first-world problems go it’s up there with the specialty coffee shop running out of oat milk and having to opt for almond, but it did give me an opportunity to test what has become a bit of a meme phrase: Any bike is a gravel bike if you’re brave enough.
Having tested many of the best gravel bikes recently, one of the key takeaways from that testing was that there really isn’t a ‘best’ gravel bike, just models that are better or worse given the situation at hand. As I’d grown bored of the only realistic road climb in the area, the 14km upper portion of the Val Thorens ascent, I decided to point myself in the direction of the 12km gravel climb from Le Chatelard to the Petit Col des Encombres and see how far I could go before either the bike or my legs gave up. The reward would be a hell of a view, but I’d have to gain over 1000m of elevation to reach it. Could it be done on a road bike? Would I regret not having brought a gravel bike?
No plan, besides a sandwich
I didn’t really plan for this to be something I would end up writing up for work, a holiday is a holiday after all; I just wanted a day out in the hills and the sunshine. My only concession to ‘gravel specific’ was a pair of Pearl Izumi Expedition Pro cargo bib shorts, though I wear cargo bibs on every ride. Not content with the capacity of the bibs and a standard jersey I threw on a Chrome Kadet sling bag, into which I stuffed some spares and tools, a little down jacket in case the weather decided against playing ball, two generously filled baguettes (roast chicken and salad in one, blue cheese in the other), a moderately ripe banana, and a pair of sandals in case I needed to walk. Besides this, everything else was standard road fare: 28mm tyres, butyl inner tubes, road pedals, road shoes, and a road groupset. “Will it gravel?”, I thought to myself in the style of the now vintage YouTube channel ‘Will It Blend?’.
The initial 1.5km of the route was paved, in the loosest sense, with tarmac. There’s a big disparity in the Alps between those main roads, especially if…