Riding a dumb fixed gear gravel bike has given me unexpected lockdown freedom

Exploring new trails, dressing down and making great Instagram content on my daft new bike is keeping me sane during lockdown

Surly Steamroller Gravel Bike-1

While the ongoing lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic has seriously curtailed freedoms in many aspects of our day-to-day lives, I have found myself, and my riding, liberated in ways I never expected. 

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Shortly before the UK lockdown came into force, I built a daft new bike. It’s a flat-bar fixed gear gravel wagon based on a Surly Steamroller framesetone of my all-time favourite bikes

This new Steamroller fills a niche in my collection of primarily road-focused bikes that couldn’t have been more timely.

It’s ludicrously good fun to ride and takes essentially no maintenance to keep running.

Fitted with 40mm-wide WTB Raddler tubeless tyres, it’s also capable enough to take on any local gravel byway. 740mm-wide riser bars (previously 800mm-wide before I quickly realised that was ridiculous) also improve off-road control and hoof-ability on climbs compared to drop bars.

WTB Raddler tyres
40mm tyres are more than chunky enough for most terrain… but not all.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

This has encouraged me to explore formerly disregarded gravel roads, shady singletrack trails, suspiciously grotty paths and pointless dead ends close to my home. 

All of this exploring has revealed a whole web of previously undiscovered gems, and linking them together in increasingly creative ways has kept me endlessly entertained.

In keeping with my rediscovered back-to-basics fixie fetish (remember my hill climb fixie?), I’ve even gone as far as leaving my bike computer and Strava behind for the time being. 

New gravel trails Surly Steamroller
From the grotty to the idyllic, the Steamroller has encouraged me to try out tons of new trails.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

To begin with, this was unintentional (I just forgot to charge my Garmin for three consecutive rides, and eventually gave up trying), but not having any mapping or segment data to hand forces me to try out these new trails blind and without expectation.

I genuinely adore obsessively planning routes ahead of a ride, but this free-range approach has been a welcome change.

Introducing even this tiny bit of once-common peril into my otherwise cushy urbanite media-person existence also awakens a base adventurous hunter-gatherer instinct that keeps me going. 

Trendy gravel bike amidst wild garlic
This whiff awakens a base instinct within me to create sweet, sweet Instagram content.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

That said, all I’m hunting or gathering is inspiration for #inspirational columns, wild garlic for artisanal homemade pestos and new vistas for Insta-snaps. 

While the bike’s 40mm tyres are fine for most terrain, I still find myself hilariously under-biked when taking in these cheeky singletrack detours, keeping otherwise tame – or familiar – trails interesting. 

Don’t forget that this bike is a fixie, pushing comedy levels higher still as I approach a log hop with my pedals at the completely wrong orientation.

Keen to get out of the door and maximise my government-sanctioned outside time, I have also found myself heading straight out in a mere pair of fashionable cut-offs and a T-shirt. 

There’s no doubt that dressing down on the bike is efficient, but it also genuinely makes a difference to how I approach my riding. 

Wearing stretchy go-fast clothing encourages you to stretch yourself and go fast.

Jack Luke looking extremely trendy
Trendy wool shirts, bandanas and jorts have been a total game changer for my riding – pilfered rosemary optional.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

On the other hand, taking the phrase hair-shirting to the extreme, donning an itchy wool overshirt for a chilly, windy post-work ride demands you go slow, lest you become a sweaty mess on the first inevitably over-geared climb. 

This more relaxed pace has only increased my enjoyment – and ability to take no-hands photos of my handlebars – of time spent in the woods. Stop and smell the wild garlic, man

None of this will sound revolutionary to the Grant Petersen-inspired Rivendell-riding nerds of this world, but for me, going back to my absolute basics in both bike and clothing has been a delight. 

Riding along the same section of trail – the Bristol to Pill cycle path, if you’re interested – most days of the week to get to the majority of my new favourite trails has also become an almost meditative experience. 

Focused solely on mashing my 48/20 gear as fast as my pale legs can propel me and dodging half-remembered puddles is a welcome mental relief after a day spent penning great bicycling wit.

If all of this sounds like I’m living out a perfectly-curated hip-as-heck lockdown existence, crafted solely for the media to project an unrealistic ideal of how the fixie-fabulous lifestyle should look, you’re absolutely right – I am a part of the problem.

I mean just look at how cute I am in that neckerchief! 

Of course, all things considered, I’d rather be out riding with my pals. Likewise, the circumstances that have forced the change in my riding habits are truly devastating, but I’m making the most of it, and, as far as riding is concerned, I suspect I will fondly remember this sun-kissed spring for years to come. 

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(Please remember that I live in the UK, where local, short and responsible exercise is still encouraged. Don’t ruin the fun for everyone, and follow all local guidance in your area. If we can all do that, we’ll be back throwing down sweet fixie skids in no time at all.)