This old book was my favorite find from our most recent annual summer trip to Manitoba. In a little museum in Carberry, near Brandon, I spied this anachronistic cover on a shelf of books for sale. The color scheme, fonts, and, most of all, the photograph–of two rigid-fork mountain bikes being ridden across what appears to be a sunny field by a good-looking man and woman (helmetless) wearing semi-cycling attire (check out the gloves!)--mark this volume as from the late 80s/early 90s.
But what really caught my eye was the phrase in the bottom right corner: “Gravel, paved, & off road routes.” Gravel? Really? And not only is the word gravel included in this list, it’s the first item in the list. Turns out this Manitoba Outdoor Adventure Guide: Cycling was published in 1989 by Fifth House (Saskatoon) and written by a then 32-year old Ruth Marr, who’s listed on the back cover as “a Winnipeg writer and ecologist.”
The late 80s were still the early days of mountain biking, at least outside of California. Heck, I remember buying my first mountain bike–a shitty pink and yellow Miele, of all things–in Hamilton in the summer of 1988, and although I only used it for commuting and on the occasional city gravel path, it felt, at the time, like a necessary complement to my Bianchi road bike. But I’m not sure I or any of my friends really knew what to do with a mountain bike, where to ride it, and books like this–targeting road cyclists and those keen to explore the new off-road world–would likely have had a wide audience.
But if I had picked up a book like this in 1989, would I have even known what to make of the gravel section? I was a pure roadie back then; my real riding was done on skinny tires. My friends and I would have gone to considerable lengths to avoid gravel roads.
This book, however, suggests that not everyone thought that way. Marr, treats gravel riding in Manitoba as a legitimate, if new, option. The gravel section of the book is the shortest, true, featuring just seven routes, compared to the parts on paved-road riding (15 routes) and off-road (20 routes), but that it’s there at all is remarkable:
Cycling Manitoba’s gravel roads adds a new dimension to the province and to the sport. Reaching into unusual corners of Manitoba, gravel roads offer little traffic, surprising scenery, and enough variety to fill years of cycling. Mountain bikes have renewed interest in cycling these roads, although sturdy touring bikes manage well too. Cycling gravel roads leads you down steep river valleys, up into remote forests, past hamlets and ghost towns, and into kilometers of exploration.
Sing it, sister! Marr pretty much articulates what would become the mission statement for the gravel-cycling movement some twenty-plus years later.
We sometimes forget that gravel cycling was not invented in the 21st century. In fact, gravel cycling, in the sense of non-asphalt road cycling, was the original cycling in the nineteenth century. Before the widespread adoption of macadamized and later asphalt roads in the early twentieth century, most cycling was done on dirt and gravel. Period. And throughout the history of twentieth-century road touring and racing, forays onto gravel roads were not so unusual.
Pavement is relatively scarce in Manitoba, even now, compared to say Alberta, where I live. Even Manitoba’s paved secondary highways tend to have fully gravel shoulders. Cyclists there probably figured out long ago that you might as well take advantage of what you’ve got. And what Manitoba has got is tons of gravel. The invention in the 1980s of wider-tired bikes just made it easier to ride on what Manitobans had already been riding on.
I’d love to talk to the now 65-year-old Ruth Marr (if she’s still around) about what she recalls about writing this book, about the cycling scene in Manitoba in the late 80s, and about what she thinks of the recent explosion of interest in gravel cycling, not just in Manitoba but everywhere.