Scott’s not waving anymore. This is a problem. Normally he waves at everyone – other cyclists, motorists, pedestrians, farmers. But right now he has the bit between his teeth trying to close a 6 minute gap in the next 30miles. Scott is crushing it. I am hunkered on the nose of my saddle, tongue hanging on my stem, forced to emotionally prepare for the suffering each new roller will bring as I try to hang onto his wheel. Taking a pull is out of the question. Welcome to Minnesota gravel.
We are 55miles into a monster 117mile day of which more than 50 percent is gravel. A day that will finish with over 7000feet of climbing gained in 200foot chunks on pitchy gravel rollers. There may not be any mountains in Southern Minnesota, but there aren’t any flat roads either. After two flats and a wrong turn the lead group has rolled on leaving me and Scott in no-man’s land. I tell Scott there is no need to wait as I pump a few more PSI into my tire. He simply says, ‘We can catch them’. We did. Well, he did, I was a passenger.
This is day two of what the folks at Eric’s, a chain of 20 bike shops in the Midwest, euphemistically refer to as a ‘manager’s retreat’. Four days of epic, and I don’t use that word lightly, Minnesota and Iowa gravel. Eric’s has been taking their shop mangers on these trips for years. The managers are told to turn up at HQ and, other than a short packing list, they have no idea what the next few days will hold. They have braved chilling rain in the Pacific Northwest, climbed big elevation in Northern California, and even navigated New York City traffic.
Scott Hebel is one of Eric’s regional managers and in addition to being a next level talent on the bike he is our group’s unofficial tour guide – Northfield is the home of Malto-Meal and a bank once robbed by Jesse James, Lake City has no lake but is the birthplace of Waterskiing. Our official tour guide is Dave O, president of Eric’s. These manager’s retreats are his brain child and he posses a diabolical glee in dishing out equal helpings of suffering and bliss. He tied together almost 400 miles of gravel and scenery so breathtaking Tuscany and the Strada Bianche should be jealous. Dave O created this route with a black magic mixture of pre-rides on his Ducati, Google Earth and what must have been an ancient county farm almanac. Managers with years of experience riding in Minnesota found themselves lost, on gravel roads they never knew existed. The title for this story, Tamland and the Holy Gravel, I brazenly stole from Dave O and the event T-shirt.
Each rider was given a GPS with the ride’s preloaded. Dave O would lead the group out each morning with simple marching orders, ‘Trust your GPS.’ It became our refrain on the road, ‘Trust your GPS!’ Minimum maintenance road ahead? Trust your GPS. Road closed ahead? Trust your GPS. Bridge out? Trust your GPS. When we did find the bridge well and truly out, after one rider was chased from a water crossing by an angry steer protecting his harem, after riding across slick river bottom, clambering up a muddy bank and climbing over barbed wire, we were sure Dave O had finally made a mistake with his route. Nope. He just thought it would be fun to send us down that particular gravel road and see how we managed. Diabolical bliss.
While the managers are here for team building, riding experience and big dose of inspiration, I am here at the invitation of Raleigh Bicycles. A close relationship with Eric’s led them to fly in 40 of their brand new Tamland gravel bikes for the adventure. Three months ahead of official scheduled delivery we are getting a sneak peek. The name Tamland doesn’t refer to a national park in Washington, it’s not the name of an estate in England, it’s a weatherman, and a fictional weatherman at that. Knowing what weather is coming is especially important on gravel, so why not name the bike after Brick Tamland, mentally challenged weatherman from the Anchorman franchise? This bike is about having a fun, period.
The Tamland isn’t a cross bike, although it wouldn’t fair too badly on a cross circuit. It is tailor made for riding gravel. Working with Iowa gravel racer, Guitar Ted, Raleigh set out to give the Tamland characteristics that make it eat up tough miles on gravel. They began with a steel frame using Reynolds 631. Specifically butted for the Tamland, 631 is legendary 531s tough big brother. To maintain compliance with that strength it was drawn with a narrow diameter. The bike’s geometry was then laid out to ensure stability on squirrely gravel. The chain stays are nice and long, the bottom bracket is very low, the seat tube is laid back. Maintaining a relatively nimble feel at the bars resulted in a 71.5degree head tube angle with a gusset at the down tube joint for stiffness. To ramp up the compliance the steel fork’s rake is a generous 50mm.
Raleigh is well aware that a bike like the Tamland is rarely someone’s only bike and it will likely due double duty as a commuter. To that end the spec of the Tamland One is very budget conscious – Shimano 105, Avid Spyre mechanical disc brakes and Weinmann K-Max Pro wheels fitted with Clement XPlor MSO tires. Like the bike’s unique angles, the wheels are another feature tailor made for gravel. The rims are ultra wide and the Clement tires are a whopping 40mm wide. It’s a size and tread pattern that rolls amazingly well on tarmac, but truly shines on gravel. Gravel riding is almost a misnomer, it’s more Iike gravel avoiding as you try to pick lines on the hardback left behind by tire tracks. The Tamland stably rolls across deep wells of gravel as you criss-cross the road trying to find those smooth lines. When their are no lines to find, the 40mm Clements are like powder skis, guiding you over the top.
The Tamland surprised me as much as all that gravel hiding under their noses surprised Eric’s shop managers. It took about 5minutes to forget the Tamland was an entry level, fairly heavy, steel bike and get on with enjoying its abilities. Raleigh has managed to preserve road feel and spirited handling, while giving the Tamland much of the capability of a rigid hard tail 29er. More than gravel racing, the Tamland is truly about exploring what is out your backdoor. After three days, 280miles, 17000 feet of climbing and burning almost 15,000calories, the Tamland already has me picking out routes back home I would never tackle on my cross bike but would dread on a mountain bike. Forget materials, forget spec, forget price tags and just enjoy riding.