Having attended the first ever Grinduro UK on the Isle of Arran last year, we decided to send our Benedict again. We thought it only fair to give him a chance to ride the course in dry conditions and after the mud-fest of last year we thought we’d give him a fighting chance with a different bike.
Grinduro — what’s it about?
Grinduro bills itself as a “celebration of cycling with as much emphasis on the party as the ride.” It’s not just about hurting yourself silly getting as quickly as you can around the course, but about enjoying the chance for incredible riding in a very special place.
The riding takes you on an 80km loop with a respectable 1800m of climbing. Though officially it’s a race, there’s not too much racing to be done. Similar to mountain biking enduro, there are four timed stages where it’s no pain no gain and you have to give it your all.
The rest of the route lets you stick to the Grinduro “maxin’ and relaxin’” mantra of riding at your own pace, enjoying the spectacular views of Arran as you trundle along to the next stage.
But along with the riding you also get food, drinks, goodies, awards, a party and even some free brazing demos. Cliché maybe, but it's very good vibes.
Just like last year, Grinduro offered a relaxed atmosphere with camping, food, drinks bikes aplenty. The island is a short ferry ride away, on the west coast of Scotland, and easily accessible. This year, the welcome was significantly sunnier than last, so I set up camp and went for a little wander about the Grinduro village.
37336512_842953292563945_3681431003018035200_o.jpg, by Elliot Layda
37336519_842953375897270_4854126451156320256_o.jpg, by Elliot Layda
37410782_842953749230566_2723513061032853504_o.jpg, by Elliot Layda
37547988_842953262563948_4170003410046681088_o.jpg, by Elliot Layda
37362840_842953142563960_1799892666289225728_o.jpg, by Elliot Layda
Grinduro hosts several builders each year who are invited to construct their idea of an ideal bike for the event. This year there were some exemplary machines with ‘traditional’ gravel bikes from August, Field, Lapsley and Quirk, a steel hardtail from BTR, and something altogether a bit more… unique... from Dear Susan.
37365027_842953115897296_4384866892855115776_o.jpg, by Elliot Layda
My own bike this year was a Stevens Sonora RX, a carbon cross-country hardtail we’ve taken a first look at here. My conclusions at the end of last year’s Grinduro were that the course would be rather well suited to a mountain bike.
With conditions as wet and muddy as they were, I was definitely missing some much-needed grip. More importantly, whilst there’s a large chunk of gravel and some tarmac, there’s also a significant amount of riding on lovely, fast, flowing singletrack perfect for a mountain bike.
Of course as is typical of the unpredictable Scottish weather, this year was absolutely cracking with conditions as perfect as you could want them - no problems with grip then. However, I was still looking forward to seeing how the mountain bike would handle things in comparison.
It was nice to recognise some of the sections from last year, as this time it was actually possible to enjoy the views. That said, the route still took in lots of unknown sections too and all the timed stages were new.
With some climbing to start off the day and warm up, the rolling start into Stage 1 involved a blazing fast, all-out pedalling fire-road descent with a few tricky corners where I had doubts if I was going to be able to hold my line.
Whilst the gradient was mellow enough to require mashing the pedals the whole way, the going was fast enough that a crash was going to hurt, and the loose gravel surface warranted a few foot down moments along the way.
Some lovely single-track and 15km later, Stage 2 involved an overgrown fireroad ascent punctuated with numerous sharp ramps along its length.
This was a tough one, and I found it difficult to judge my effort with the climb ending up much longer than I had anticipated. Nonetheless, I still managed to churn my way past several other riders on the way up, but was also thankful for the wide gearing range on the punchier ramps.
Followed again by some lovely singletrack, a further 15km took us back to the Grinduro village for lunch. Setting out towards the south of the island we headed back up into the hills before the long and tough 5km Stage 3.
This stage featured rolling terrain on a long fire road ascent. This was the killer for me and my legs definitely started to run out of steam before the end. Given the smoother rolling nature of the gravel here, I imagine I would have had a slightly easier time of it on a dedicated gravel bike, though I can’t really claim that the mountain bike held me back.
From there we ended up on some incredible switchbacks over dry, rocky ground followed by technical singletrack (that made up one of last year’s descents) through a forest. The mountain bike was starting to feel very much in its element.
Stage 4 began with a rather horrible bumpy downhill section, where it would have been impossible to maintain momentum on any bike. That turned into an unexpected gravel uphill before finally pointing down some flowing, rooty, singletrack. And it was here that the mountain bike I was riding was finally completely in its element and I can without a doubt say that this was the right bike for the job.
With that a downhill roll back to the Grinduro village to some food and drinks and rest. Stage 5 (the party stage) was here!
So how does Grinduro compare on a mountain bike? Given that last year I rode it on a Santa Cruz Stigmata with 32c CX tyres, the experience was a little different. The conditions were admittedly rather different too, but I still think it’s possible to draw some conclusions.
The first thing to talk about is speed. I have to say, that I felt a lot stronger this year and definitely did better in the overall standings. But I’m inclined to say that given the very gravel-centric nature of the timed sections (it is a gravel race after all) that a gravel bike would have had a slight advantage. There’s not much in it though.
However, overall I felt a lot more comfortable being on a big cushy bike with suspension and fat tyres. I guess that’s not hugely surprising but it bears saying anyway. Given that Grinduro is a fairly relaxed event it was pleasant not to be pummeled by bumpy terrain on a fully rigid bike.
The Stevens Sonora RX performed admirably throughout the race. I’ve been using this XC bike as my long distance off-road machine recently and feel more and more like XC bikes may be the way to go if you’re riding off-road.
Whilst I’m seduced by the idea of a gravel bike that can do it all, for the kind of riding I’m doing I’m starting to come round to the idea that a lightweight mountain bike is the better choice. It’s almost as fast on the roads, pretty much the same speed on gravel, more capable of climbing stupidly steep terrain and excels at descending.
There’s an increasing trend to mountain-bikeize gravel bikes, which I can appreciate and enjoy riding but you have to consider at which point you should just cut your losses and get a proper mountain bike.
Of course, it completely depends on the riding you’re doing. In my view, a gravel bike will span a lot of disciplines and not do all of them particularly well. There seems to me to be a narrower niche where a gravel bike feels completely at home, versus a mountain bike which whilst more dedicated to off-road use can turn to a wider range of things within that. I just keep on finding that where I’m going on a bike, it feels like a mountain bike can do more.
The point being is that I don’t feel at a huge disadvantage on a mountain bike - much less than I had expected if at all — and can also enjoy the pleasures of plush, grippy tyres and suspension. At just under 11kg the Sonora is hardly heavy and lighter than some gravel bikes that I’ve ridden.
A mountain bike simply makes it lot easier to cruise and likewise I’m inclined to say that I had more fun riding a mountain bike on the Grinduro course than I would have had on something else.
It may not have been the absolute optimum for the timed sections (aside from the last rooty descent) but I simply felt less fatigued at the end of the day than I would have on a rigid bike. Of course where a mountain bike should and does excel is on the way down. For the multitude of singletrack descents featured on the Grinduro course this was perfect.
So what should you choose? To state the obvious, it depends on what kind of riding you want to do. Choose something like the Sonora and you have a machine you’ll be able to turn to basically anything off-road, but you’ll likely be sacrificing all out speed when you’re on smooth surfaces.
A gravel bike will likely be faster on, surprise, gravel but seems to me to have a narrower range off-road where it truly feels at home. It’s a versatile machine but one that comes with compromises.
37085174_842957305896877_135857172851458048_o.jpg, by Elliot Layda
What I’m saying is that depending on where your riding is taking you a mountain bike is worth considering as a long-distance machine as well. One bike to do it all is no doubt best served by a gravel bike but if your bias is towards off-road antics then consider that a lightweight mountain bike may serve you better.
For me personally, I simply am having more fun on this hardtail because it lets me ride faster on the way down the hill, lets me ride up anything I aim it at and feels capable on most things. It’s even ok for short stretches on tarmac.
Mountain bikes are lots of fun, so are gravel bikes, but then so are all bikes. Just don’t feel that a gravel bike is the only thing you can ride to fulfill your gravel cravings.
One thing is for sure though, for anything but the smoothest of surfaces, large tyres are the way to go. Having ridden last year’s event on skinny 32c CX tyres, I’m fully convinced of the advantages of high volume tyres.
Put some 650b mountain bike tyres on a gravel bike, or ride a 29er hardtail and that extra cushioning makes for a much more comfortable ride, with better rollover on rough terrain as well. Whilst the difference will be marginal on smooth gravel, for everything else the high volume option quickly starts to win.
So much of what I’m describing is completely dependent on the kind of terrain that you are riding on. For a lot of UK riding I would argue that the going gets rougher quite often and that a skinny tyred CX or gravel bike isn’t going to cut it. After that it simply comes down to your personal preference.
Grinduro: should I go?
Grinduro takes place on the Isle of Arran with a route and riding that are incredible with enough variation to keep you interested throughout. It’s a brilliant loop that has given me a lot of inspiration for doing my own exploration on Arran.
Arran is undeniably beautiful (in rain or sunshine) and is fondly know as ‘Scotland in miniature’. There’s a little bit of everything here and I am glad to have had the opportunity to go back and see a bit more. It is absolutely worth a visit if you ever have the chance.
Grinduro has the most relaxed atmosphere that I’ve experienced at any event. You can push as hard as you want on the timed stages but equally have the chance to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride for the rest of the route. But remember that it's not just about the riding — enjoy the beautiful place you're in and the people you'll meet along the way.
It’s impossible not to recommend Grinduro as an experience to remember and I very much look forward to riding again next year!
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