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The New Forest… England’s best gravel?

UK Gravel... For those new to cycling — this is the buzzword in the industry right now. For those of us who have been riding for some time, its just another surface that we all ride on (well, may be not the hardcore roadies). Usually reserved for towpaths, fire roads and old country trails, is the New Forest really the mecca for all things gravel?

I’ve been wanting to ride the New Forest for a few years now, and after a failed attempt last summer it was finally time to see what all the fuss was about.

Distance: 36km
Total Climbing: 456m
Surface: Road / Gravel / Dirt
Counties: Hampshire
Suggested Tyre: 35mm+ Tyre size with a some tread
Difficulty: Great for all levels of ability
GPS Route: Link at end of article


Due to poor health it was rather depressing to realise I hadn’t actually been able to ride for nearly 3 months. The Woods Cyclery had been on my radar for a while after initially scoping out the area and seeing that they were the guys with all the local knowledge so I knew I’d have to pop in. I’ve been keenly following them on Instagram (@thewoodscyclery) and recently their local shop rides have been making me keen to get out of this rut.

When my local buddy Katherine mentioned she was heading down there for the shop ride to kick off her new project Unpaved Podcast with Tom, this seemed like a perfect opportunity to go ride somewhere unfamiliar with familiar faces. Fellow Clwb Araf member Daniel (who also accompanied me on the Summer Solstice Ride) was up for keen to join too. So it was all set for some South West representation!

Early Starts & Cinnamon Buns

One thing with shop & club rides is they are always really fucking early starts! Well for me at least. I’m not a morning person and really struggle with early starts. Araf rides are rarely before 10am. The Woods shop ride was due to leave at 9am, with 8.30am meet for coffee and buns. Since we weren’t staying over night (although some people braved the January weather and camped) we’d be driving down in the morning, this meant we needed to be on road for 6am from Bristol. As you can imagine I did not have much of a Sunday lie-in!

Daniel keen to shred his new On-One. Cinnamon bun courtesy of Bakehouse 24 and some people on bikes in the wet.

This was the largest shop ride turnout they have had, with over 50 cyclists. It wasn’t just locals, riders from all over the South including Bristol, Oxford, Southampton and London joined.

British Weather

As the age old saying goes.

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad preparation.”

It’s January, winter and we’re in the UK, of course there is a high chance it’s going to rain. Fingers were crossed as a look at the forecast showed that although heavy showers were due, they weren’t expected until after the ride… that said, we prepared for the elements. The moment we stepped out the car it started raining, classic. Luckily it was just a shower and it held off for most the ride, only giving us one little shower while we were in the woods near the end.

Setting off

As we peeled out of the village, we were quickly away from any signs of civilisation. After a brief stand off with some local donkeys we made our way through rolling paths and then started a long steady climb.

I’m not unfamiliar with being dropped from club rides and so found myself at the back of the pack once we were into the climbs. Having not cycled for a while also didn’t help with my pace, but it was really feeling like hard work as I climbed up the last bit where everyone had grouped up.

I’m quite happy going at my own pace, and usually try to get the route before so that I can find my way solo if needs be. Luckily everyone was super chill and there wasn’t even a rush to keep moving once I caught up, I even had time for a snack and drink. It’s all too easy for a group to head off straight away once the slowest person catches up — if you’re guilty of that, try and see things from their perspective if you have this attitude—they’ve been riding longer and harder than you have so will really appreciate a quick breather, otherwise they’re trying to catch their breath while trying to keep pace again straight away as everyone sets off freshly rested.

Luckily this was not the case with this ride. I have never been surrounded by such a hospitable bunch… as I was about to discover even more so.

For flints sake

Part of my illness is that I suffer from chronic fatigue. I’m pretty good at managing it when riding, but I definitely got hit a few times on this ride. However as we pulled away at the top of the moor, my steering starting feeling soft. That horrible feeling of a slow puncture hit… Literally as we had just all grouped up, rested and set off… I was going straight to the back!

The New Forest’s equivalent of an F1 fit stop. No levers needed!

As with any ride, I came prepared to be self supported and had my trusty puncture repair kit on hand. As I had literally just changed this tube before the ride I didn’t have a spare with me as I normally would…

Fear not, quicker than I could get my front wheel off, the local shop lad had whipped round with a spare tube in hand, keen to show how quick the woodland folk can change a tyre. Turns out it was a bit of flint that looked exactly like an arrow head which had given me a nice slow puncture. Needless to say I was impressed with this hospitality and and back in the saddle within minutes.

Luckily this was my only one on the ride but there were 4 more from other riders including Daniel, while he was descending! In all honesty it didn’t effect the pace or attitudes on the ride in the slightest.

Back with the pack.

England’s Best Gravel?

To be honest, I don’t really have the experience to call this. Having only ridden the South of England I’m sure the riders from the Midlands and Lake District would probably want a word about that. With my usual haunts of Wales, Forest of Dean, Mendips and Cotswolds on my doorstep, my response to anyone unsure would be to come and ride here and see what the fuss is all about.

I only had a very small slice of the cake but it was certainly delicious. We’re so lucky to have wild space like this and location wise (for the South) its ideal. It’s under a 2 hour drive from London and Bristol and with Southampton just round the corner, a train ride down is super easy.

The group was a super wide spectrum of bikes and abilities, ranging from tracklocross fixies all the way up to enduro bikes. The New Forest is ridable by all.

I have never cycled somewhere where everyone has been so nice too, so be sure to pay the Woods Cyclery a visit or better still join them on one of their rides!

Will I be back?

Hell yeah! Cass from BikePacking shared a superb route last year for a longer 100km ride. I’m super keen to go back, camp and ride in the summer with hopefully some more favourable conditions?

Wild Horse and Donkeys are common place in the New Forest. I can’t wait to get back.

The Woods Cyclery are actually holding their Gran Rando in July which seems like a perfect excuse. Hit me up if you’re keen to join and tackle it at a bit more of steady as fuck pace!

Unpaved Podcast

Since this was what initiated us coming down, it’s only fair to give Tom and Katherine a shout out. They were busy throughout the morning interviewing people and recording the general vibes of the ride. The first podcast is due to drop in mid February so give them a follow in Instagram (@unpavedpodcast) to stay posted and check out their site when it’s live.

Brothers Cycles and The Woods Cyclery honchos both got interrogated.

End of an era

One of the main reasons I wanted to come down for this ride was because I’m actually in the process of building my dream forever bike. Project Forever Slow!

Snack canons from the ever talented Envelope Bagworks.

I will be parting with my current Planet X XLS carbon frameset and wanted to give it a proper send off! This bike has traveled thousands of kilometres in the years I’ve owned it and given me endless smiles. That said it’s really helped me hone in what I want from my bike.

More to come on that shortly…

Route Credits:
The Woods Cyclery

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