My whole life I’ve been a road cyclist. Even when I had a mountain bike back in Bosnia, I only really rode it on the road, and it was preceded by various kids’ bikes and succeeded by adult road bicycles.
In 2020, right after I bought a brand new—and somewhat pricey—road bike, I learned about gravel cycling, and have ever since been more than a little curious. A few months ago I was changing bikes again, and opted for a gravel bike this time. I’ve ridden it almost exclusively on the road since then, but a few weeks ago that changed.
Exactly three weeks ago, on Saturday, June 3rd, I took part in Rebound 2023. Rebound is an asynchronous DIY event for those who aren’t taking part in Unbound but still want to go on a gravel adventure. I had initially planned on doing 50 miles, but the weeks in between my signing up and the event provided a harsh reality check, so I dropped down to 25 miles in order to be able to actually finish. Even with as little elevation gain as I could possibly find—a bit over 1,000 feet up Big Sycamore in Point Mugu State Park—it was an immense challenge to both my physical fitness and mental fortitude. The Strava route is here.
The morning started early, with a 4am alarm. My chosen route started an hour away from home, and I had to feed the cats and get ready before setting off, so I really had few to blame but myself. I loaded up my bike on the rack and left.
My parking spot was itself a bit of a destination: Point Mugu Rock in Malibu. I picked it as the start/finish line because I could get just about 25 miles by riding into Point Mugu State Park and back, and I could only be so mad if I returned exhausted to this view.
After a few road miles along the Pacific Ocean and through the campground, the paved road ended and gravel began.
It may seem silly, but I was giddy with joy—I was doing the thing! I really was!
My joy quickly turned to uncertainty as I arrived at my first ever water crossing. It was just a few feet long and a mere few inches deep, but…I’d never ridden through anything deeper than a puddle, and it was quite chilly. Unwilling to pack it up only six miles in, I slowly rode into the water. If you actually know how to ride through water, you probably immediately noticed the “slowly” part, and all I can say is that I was woefully unprepared.
I gave it an honest go, got stuck midway through, put my foot down, and the rather cold water quickly reminded me that it was also 55°F and I was in the shade. I had a brief moment of reconsideration right on the spot, and then decided that I would carry on unless I felt unsafe, so I put my other foot into the water as well and walked through.
What I lacked in preparedness I made up for in willingness to go headfirst through the wall, so I bravely forged through another water crossing, and then another, and then another, and…you get the picture. After the first few it became genuinely funny, so I laughed as I figured out that carrying some speed is extremely helpful. I tried counting, but failed to remember the numbers as I struggled to ride up short, steep inclines following each splash. I was having a blast.
Shortly after I spotted a picnic table and remembered I stopped taking pictures once I got wet, so I fixed that.
As I got back to pedaling, I saw my first wilderness human! It was a park employee in a truck, and he gave me the widest berth I’d ever experienced as a cyclist, even as I moved several feet off the road to make it easier on him. How do I get this all the time? (Answer: stop riding on public roads.) The truck kicked up some dust and it looked pretty for a moment in the early morning sun.
I’d genuinely forgotten that my Y-shaped route actually had some pavement along the northeast fork, but it turned out to be pretty rough, so I didn’t feel cheated.
As a bonus, I encountered some proper terrestrial wildlife: a bunny!
On the paved road I saw my first hikers of the day, since the sun was up and the shade was now significantly more hospitable, something others clearly knew to wait for better than I did. I also encountered some mountain bikers, which was my first real hint that I was underbiked. Not far from here came the end of this fork on my route, and I found another picnic table. I really should’ve packed a picnic.
From here, heading back to the fork was almost entirely downhill. It was my first off-road descent, and I thought it wouldn’t be that big of a deal if I held my speed to around 25 mph, having descended at 40+ on the road before, but it was far more exhilarating than I expected. Any decent speed feels like flying when the surface is loose and the bike moves around. It took me almost no time to get back to the fork, where I could see a plethora of tire tread marks. The tiniest ones are mine, another hint that I was underbiked.
The northwestern leg was a lot more challenging. I wasn’t particularly thrilled about this, as I’d been out for about two hours at this point, and was really starting to feel it. I also wasn’t thrilled that the water crossings were back, something I’d gotten a reprieve from for a little while. The inclines leading away from them in this area almost all required some hike-a-bike.
But the views—oh my goodness, the views! I don’t have nearly the pictures to properly share, but I was surrounded by coastal California’s trademark blend of green and yellow.
I eventually found a sign that accurately described how I felt about my energy level by now.
I spent very little time at the end of this second fork leg as I was nearly completely out of hydration. I did, however, manage to have the presence of mind to notice that my drivetrain was in horrendous condition, since I’d basically washed it in all those creeks, dried it in the sun, scraped it with all the brush I rode through, and then covered it with dust. Since I’m a habitual overpacker—more on that in another post—I had plenty of chain lube to give it enough life to get me back, so I applied it and braced for another descent.
This one was decidedly less satisfying, courtesy of all the water in my way. Fortunately, by this point I’d gotten quite comfortable riding through basically all of of it, and the cold splashes had gone from frigid to welcome, thanks to the rapidly rising temperatures. I also now knew they were all pretty easily fordable, having gone through each once.
I tried counting them again, and also lost track again, but I’m reasonably comfortable claiming there were at least 15, meaning I’d gone through 30+ total on the roundtrip ride. Does that make me an expert?
On this last section through the state park I saw many, many mountain bikers—upward of 40. Every single bike I saw had at least front suspension, and I think just about all had rear as well. And here I was, riding the same stuff on a rigid gravel bike, and having the time of my life. Underbiking for the win!
I stopped at the campsite to use the restroom and get a picture of my disgustingly filthy bike.
I don’t think the photo does the filth justice, but you get the idea.
As I was riding through and out of the campsite, there were a lot of kids riding their own striders and mountain bikes, and they were all excited to see me. It was a nice “you’re almost done” of sorts on my way to the last few miles standing between me and my car.
The last PCH section was brutal. It was pretty flat, but was completely gassed at this point. The bike’s drivetrain was parched as well, but we both eventually made it all the way back, and were greeted by a squirrel.
I documented the whole adventure on Strava, but we can cover a few things here as well for those who can’t see the details.
Let’s start with the basics:
The thing that immediately jumps out at me is the vast difference between moving and elapsed times, a whopping 1:13:06. Out of the four hours I spent out there, I was parked for well over one, or about 31%. I wasn’t exactly in a rush, but it definitely didn’t feel like a lazy ride, so I bit off quite a bit more than I could comfortably chew.
The other thing that stands out is the average speed of 8.7 mph. I’m no TT champion, but that’s quite low for what I expected, further reinforcing that this was a solid effort.
Here’s a map with the elevation graph:
The two climbs correspond to the two fork legs—fantastic out-and-back route.
The fancy charts are also fun to look at, but the data is somewhat obvious:
In addition to being a first-class pun, it’s true. Gravel is fantastic.
You might notice I didn’t really mention cars a whole lot. There were some on the PCH stretch at the beginning and end, but in between I spent hours riding effectively completely away from them, with no need to worry about them coming up from behind me and startling me or running me off the road. After a lifetime of cycling almost exclusively on public roads, it was indescribably refreshing to feel this safe.
That said, I still like road cycling, and gravel usually mixes some of it in, so it’s perfect for me. I can ride some pavement and some off-road and have a great time without always having to commit to transporting my bike to a trail with my car. It means I can ride on weekday mornings, when I definitely don’t have time to drive anywhere.
I also found a lot of joy in the technical aspects of riding off-road. Even just pedaling along a clean gravel road requires more involvement than a paved street or bike path, and it’s just plain fun. The tougher parts are especially engaging, and I also felt the ride in my arms, shoulders, and back the day after—not just legs.
I’ve never been one to spend a ton of time in nature. I don’t like hiking or camping, so my exposure to it tends to be from inside a motorcycle helmet or car cabin, on a paved road. Cycling off-road opens this up for me, and it was just so pleasant to be far enough from the city to hear nothing but birds.
So yeah, gravel rocks.