Riding the Tuscany Trail with ASSOS
We speak to Dalany Watkins of ASSOS about riding her first gravel event and picking the right clothing and equipment for gravel adventures.
Gravel riding has quickly grown in popularity in recent years and the latest evolution of gravel events and the accommodating nature of the scene mean it’s easier than ever to find a suitable bike and mix paved and off-road sections on your rides.
With equal appeal to road cyclists and mountain bikers, it’s not unusual to see a mix of gravel bikes, mountain bikes and cyclocross bikes lined up at events. The diversity of bikes is often more than matched by the diversity of clothing and equipment – with riders from a road background often favouring lycra, mountain bikers in loose-fitting clothes and, quite often, a small group of gravel-hardened enthusiasts in their lumberjack shirts and sandals.
Bike and clothing choice can also reflect how seriously you are taking an event, with a growing trend for gravel events to be considered ‘mullet rides’ – business up front, party in the back. A truly diverse discipline then!
Whether you come from a road or off-road background, intend to race or want to soak in the experience, choosing the right kit can make a huge difference to how you experience a gravel event. Much like our Backcountry Series is designed to survive the tough environments you’re likely to find at a gravel event, your clothing and equipment needs to be a little bit more robust to stay in one piece and keep you comfortable for the duration.
We talked to Dalany Watkins at ASSOS about taking on her first gravel event and how to pick clothing and equipment that’s up to the challenge of surviving long days in the backcountry:
Which event did you ride and how did you choose it?
I moved to Italy two years ago and spent most weekends of the first summer racing gran fondos and road races which was great fun. However, after the racing season finished, I decided to try something new which was when I started enquiring about gravel bikes.
Once I was all set up I needed something to set my sights on for summer 2019 which would also allow me to explore more of Italy. I toyed with the idea of Italy Divide but on further research decided it was possibly a bit ambitious for a newbie to both gravel and bikepacking! I then stumbled across Tuscany Trail which had a more relaxed vibe and there was much more focus on enjoying the amazing Tuscan scenery, food, and drink. This suited me well, so I signed up there and then.
What did your preparation involve?
I’m fortunate enough to live on the Italian/Swiss border which means being surrounded by great trails. I enlisted the help of my colleagues at ASSOS who do a lot of mountain biking to show me the best places to ride and give me some pointers on getting off-road and building up my confidence. I also scoped out websites that list local gravel rides and spent the weekends heading here, there, and everywhere with my bike secured to the top of my Fiat 500 in search of gravel.
I strapped my bikepacking bags onto my bike pretty early on in my training because I knew the weight and balance would be totally different to my usual style of riding (I definitely got some strange looks when I told my riding buddies the bags were filled with old clothes and blankets off my sofa!).
Leading up to the race I packed and repacked my bags multiple times to try and figure out what should go where, how the weight would be best distributed, establishing what I really needed to take on the trip, etc. In hindsight, you only really know the answer to these questions once you start the ride.
With gravel riding being influenced by both road cycling and mountain biking, which side influenced your clothing choice most? Did this reflect wider trends you’re seeing at ASSOS for gravel-specific clothing?
The fit of the ASSOS TRAIL line is much more relaxed compared to the close-fitting road collections which we are well known for. Having said that, the fit remains trim when compared to majority of the mountain biking kit out there and the materials are all super lightweight too. For me this was a great combination for multiple long days in the saddle at the start of summer in Tuscany where we knew the temperatures would be high.
In the hot weather the looser kit meant added airflow and made me just that bit more comfortable on the bike.
With the impact pads on the shorts and the abrasion-resistant knee and arm protectors, I was as prepared as I could be for any crashes … of which there were a few!
Do you think gravel has already borrowed the best elements from both road riding and mountain biking, or are there further elements you would like to see the gravel community adopt from either discipline?
The element that attracted me the most to gravel riding and bikepacking was the focus on the journey rather than getting from A to B as quickly as possible. I find with road riding, this can often get lost.
There were 700+ riders taking part at Tuscany Trail, and all along the route the cafés were dotted with riders who were taking long, extended breaks, shoes and helmets off, pizza in hand, relaxing. I loved this!
It’s exciting to see more and more gravel events popping up and perhaps as a category it’s more inclusive for riders of all abilities. Turning up to a gran fondo/sportive can be daunting if you’ve not raced before, but gravel races seem more accommodating for less-experienced riders. There’s also a real element of fun involved in gravel races and there always seems to be a couple on a tandem!
When you’re riding long days in the backcountry, without access to a washing machine, what steps can you take to clean and care for technical clothing?
Of course the cleaner you can keep your kit, the better. If you don’t have access to a washing machine, use the resources you have around you—it’s always a better solution than leaving your kit sweaty. If you’re in a hotel room, rinse the kit in the shower and hang it to dry overnight. The most important thing is to try to get the sweat out of your kit, as this eats away at the material after prolonged periods.
How many layers and/or spares did you take with you?
Personally, I wanted to have a fresh chamois for each day, so I took one extra pair of liner shorts and washed the second pair in the evenings. I took a waterproof jacket which I didn’t end up using but would have been lost without it if the weather had turned.
I took all manner of tubeless replacement options and two tubes just in case; it was heavy to lug around but necessary. The inevitable puncture came at the hottest part of the final day where spirits were definitely not high!
What recommendations would you give a first timer for dressing for a multi-day gravel event?
There are so many variables on a multiday event which are beyond your control, so take care of the parts you can manage and make sure you’re comfortable in your kit before your trip.
Opt for kit that is breathable, fits you well, and doesn’t cause discomfort. If there is something uncomfortable on a short training ride, you’ll certainly know about it after a few long days in the saddle.
If you’re going to be riding in hot weather, consider kit with UPF protection and just make sure you’re prepared for all eventualities—sun, rain, and cool and dark mornings and evenings.
My final tip: Don’t forget your Chamois Crème!
You can read more about Dalany’s Tuscany trail adventure here
If you’re interested in trying a gravel event, why not take a look at our bikepacking events calendar?
For her Tuscany Trail adventure, Dalany used: