They say you can tell the make of a man by what he keeps in his garage. Okay, no one says that. But in any case, Michael Hurley's freestanding garage in Venice, California, is a monument to the sport of cycling. And Michael Hurley is a monument of a cyclist. For one thing, he's six-four. For another, he's married to a former professional cyclist with whom he rides constantly. Michael Hurley joined Strava—a cycling tracking app where, instead of checking in to your local café the most times, you try to pick off your friends in fictional group rides—in 2011. Since then he's ridden more than forty thousand miles. This is at least thirty-nine thousand more miles than I've ridden in the same length of time, which is why I've asked Hurley for help.
I'm more of a bike commuter than a cyclist, which is a distinction having as much to do with gear and preparation as it does with mileage. I ride a single-speed, sometimes while wearing sandals. And yet I've been wanting to try a gravel ride, an increasingly popular hybrid between road and mountain biking. I could probably figure out how to do this on my own. (Bike + gravel = gravel biking? Am I close?) I just wouldn't do it well. I'd wear a T-shirt and gym shorts and end up upside-down in a bush with a flat tire and a bent rim. As it is, I'm sitting in Hurley's cycling store of a garage, dodging an array of questions I am ill-equipped to answer: "How's the height on the handlebars?" "Do you know your European shoe size?" "Have you ever ridden clip-ins?"
Clip-ins are cycling shoes that connect to a bike's pedals via little metal or plastic cleats so that the rider can use leg power on the upstroke as well as the downstroke. They're necessary for hilly rides, but can be downright terrifying if you have trouble untethering while coming to a stop. "The first time I tried to unclip at the end of a SoulCycle class I had to take off my whole shoe," I tell Hurley, who is lowering my tire pressure to provide additional grip on the grit. The man is a bike surgeon.
"How about gravel," he asks. "Done any gravel riding?"
"I accidentally rode through a construction site once."
I would describe the look on Michael Hurley's face as alarmed.
In Orlando, Florida, in the mid-1990s, which is when and where I was a preteen, the primary insult we used to hurl at other preteens was "poser." I say this by way of explaining the emotional discomfort I feel setting off down Ocean Avenue in padded bib shorts and a matching zip-up shirt—the whole "kit" in cycling parlance. I'm wearing gloves with thumb pads in a color that would be coveted by a six-year-old girl and stand-alone sleeve s to protect my arms from the gauze-light California air, which is clean and cool and smells faintly of hay. The sun will pop over the Santa Monica Mountains any minute now, at which point I will move a pair of Smith PivLock Arena sunglasses from the back of my neck, where I can barely feel them, to my face, where I can barely feel them. What do these things weigh?
Hurley and I speed through town and then huff up a set of switchbacks in the Palisades, past a glass house that Hurley believes belongs to Steven Spielberg. Landscapers nod and raise hedge clippers as we pass. This ride is slated to be about twenty-seven punishing miles up a mountain. So far, I feel unreasonably comfortable.
I should say here that what a "gravel bike" even is is only clear to people who really understand bikes. Hurley's on a Trek Domane SLR 6, and I'm riding the Diverge Expert from Specialized. Both have disc brakes, quick gear shifters, a vibration-damping frame and fork, and a longer wheelbase to aid stability. But basically they both feel and look like regular bikes, albeit ones with an extraordinarily smooth ride. Despite the gear, the first time we hit gravel—at an 18 percent grade—I panic. It feels wrong. I'm in a gear so low I'm pedaling like a maniac, and my clipped-in feet churn while the tires set into a nauseating skid in a lake of tiny rocks. The bike slows.
"Falling is generally the result of user error," Hurley says as I pedal frantically for purchase and imagine pitching wholesale onto my side like a top. "What you don't want to do is wrench the handlebars when you feel it sliding. You have to trust the bike. It's not going to fall over."
Like hell it isn't. But then I shift my weight back and switch to a harder gear and—wham—friction. The tires catch and the whole bike-body complex just crunch-slides up the side of the Santa Monicas.
"That's it. Good correction," he says.
According to my bike computer, we continue 2,438 vertical feet up into the hills. We pass a tree that stands alone in the middle of the trail, an abandoned ranch built by Nazi sympathizers, the lips of single-track mountain-biking lanes—adventures on adventures like a set of Russian nesting dolls. At the top is a former NIKE missile control site, a big metal structure that we climb on foot to look out at the city and the beach and the sprawl of the Valley. Normally I think of Los Angeles as a series of parking structures connected by ossified human misery, but from here, the canyons look like brain folds and the ocean has a natural Instagram filter. I realize that without Hurley and this bike, I would have no idea all of this even existed.
Then it's time to come back down, which is the part I've been dreading. If gravel + bike = gravel biking, gravel + bike + momentum = disaster. As expected, Hurley takes off like a cannonball while I clutch my brakes in terror. I'm yoga breathing to stave off hysteria as I careen around bends and past hikers with dogs and over holes and swimmy soft spots.
Then the bike drifts through a deep channel of especially jagged stones and bumps over a six-inch-deep chink in the trail. The handlebars jig like an old washing machine. "Trust the bike, trust the bike, trustthebike," I mutter quietly. And then somehow I just do, embracing the floaty feeling, like I'm rock-surfing an avalanche back down to sea level.
Do I whoop? I whoop. I look out at the horizon, where the ocean is now tipped comically off-center, and see clouds of dust and stone I've kicked up in my wake. And still, the bike holds.
In the end, we get doughnuts at a place in Santa Monica Hurley goes with his cycling buddies. It's called Sidecar, and it sells a savory doughnut filled with ham and a poached egg and basil hollandaise sauce. It's a doughnut that is as incredible as it is difficult to imagine.
So I'm sitting there, eating this doughnut, and I get this feeling like I have just pulled off a heist, achieving some feat that by rights I shouldn't be able to achieve—like driving way too fast over a high bridge, or asking for a ridiculous raise and getting it. And I realize that, for all my posturing about being a minimalist, what I actually am is afraid of gear—of looking stupid in a sporting-goods store, of having to ask questions, of seeming like a poser. And yet it's the gear that elevates a mode of transportation to an adventure. That allows a soft, delicate, unarmored human to sled down a mountain slope lubricated by tiny, treacherous rocks, and emerge, not just unscathed, but enraptured.
Specialized Diverge Expert
The Diverge adventure bike uses the same carbon fiber as Specialized's Tarmac and Venge race bikes, but it's shaped and layered for a frame with greater comfort and control. The lower bottom bracket and longer wheelbase improve stability and cornering. And the seat post's leaf-spring design cuts road vibrations. ()
Trek Domane SLR 6 Disc
Trek's Domane race bikes are built to be the fastest bikes on the roughest roads. The carbon-fiber Domane SLR features a more upright (and comfortable) riding position. But the signature feature is the frame tube decouplers that absorb road feedback, so the rider can focus on pedaling harder, not keeping the rubber side down. ()
Giro EMPIRE VR90 Shoes
Modern tech with an old-school aesthetic. The Vibram tread offers traction whether you're stopping for coffee or a creek. The lightweight carbon insole provides a solid pedaling platform. ($)
Smith Route Helmet
This lightweight helmet cools with 18 impressively large vents, and offers greater impact protection with a layer of honeycomb-shaped Koroyd material along the sides. ($)
Garmin Edge Explore 820 GPS
Preload routes, record new courses, and even track your friends (using compatible GPS). Better yet, the 2.3-inch high-resolution touchscreen responds to glove-covered taps. ($)
This story appears in the March 2017 Seniorhelpline.