The catalyst for a recent road trip was to join Nathan Haas on a ride around the trails of Canberra. He mapped out a course that was “never further than five minutes from a cafe” and “90 percent gravel”. This is the story of my ride… on a new bike.
– A blog and videos by Rob Arnold
Colnago recently announced that it would partner with Nathan Haas for the 2022 season as his bike supplier at a time when his career had taken a dramatic change in direction. After 10 years on WorldTour teams, the 32-year-old is now committed to racing gravel events. It was a decision made based on numerous factors, key amongst them being the lifestyle / adventure / challenge gravel riding provides.
He had offers from several road teams, but the emerging gravel racing scene appeals to a versatile rider who enjoys doing things a little differently.
For starters, Haas has always ridden bikes on and off the road. When he started racing, it was a mix of MTB and road – downhill, cross country, road races, criteriums, time trials… etc. Put him on two wheels and his competitive urge takes over, but there’s more to it than the need to win races. Nathan also likes to have fun.
When he raced the Tour de France in 2015, Haas reminded himself why he was there by writing a couple of words on his arm in permanent marker. “Have fun,” was his message. And that’s been his mantra throughout his cycling life.
Being a pro cyclist might be a serious business, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be fun.
Haas is an entertainer, a motivator, a free-thinker, and a bloke who knows how to ride a bike, have fun and get the most out of life.
When I was near Canberra recently for a brief getaway with my family, I heard that Nathan Haas was also in town. His mother lives in the national capital (he grew up in the ACT) and he was visiting her during a relatively brief return to Australia over summer. I sent a text and asked if he wanted to catch up for a ride, or even just a coffee.
His reply came, albeit a little late – a day after I’d returned to Sydney – but it was a promising message that has ultimately served as a catalyst for me to try something new.
“Do you have a gravel bike?” he asked, adding, “Maybe I can take you on a ride that will turn your mind inside out.”
My reply was simple – “I’m ready for my mind to turn inside out. And I’d have a blast riding gravel with you” – and it set things in motion. A few weeks later, with a huge thanks to Canyon, I did have a gravel bike… and I was ready to return to Canberra to catch up with Nathan.
Canyon Grail: a review in progress
Over the years I’ve ridden a few bikes, quite a few in fact. Of the list of almost 400 review bikes that have featured in RIDE Media magazines, I’ve ridden a large percentage. It is, therefore, not uncommon for me to source a bike for a few weeks, go riding, and send it back once it’s dirty. But in 2022 it’s not so easy.
Bikes are in short supply and gravel bikes are even more difficult to find than most. Why? Because gravel riding is all the rage… or course!
Supply chain issues are slowly but steadily being resolved and it seems the cycling industry will soon get back to ‘business as usual’, albeit with a glut of new interest from the many who have come to bike riding during the pandemic. Still, in early-2022, it’s difficult to find The Bike You Want when there’s such strong market demand.
Thankfully, Canyon had a media bike available, a Grail CF SL. Built with SRAM’s relatively new eTap AXS Rival groupset (1x configuration, wireless shifting, etc) it retails in Australia for $6,099. Stock is currently limited but my review bike was arranged on a Friday and it turned up the next Monday.
It was built within an hour and, once the pedals were put on and measurements adjusted to match my road bike set-up, I set it aside and didn’t ride it more than a few hundred metres.
This was going to be a test with a difference! New bike, new style of riding, new trails (for me), and a host who knows his way around Canberra and likes to ride fast.
In my estimation, it was going to be a true test of the product… trying to match a gravel racing professional on his terrain, in his hometown, while he was riding his race bike and trying to showcase all that’s beautiful about this new style of cycling. If the bike didn’t perform well, I’d miss out on seeing ‘The Bush Capital’ the way that Nathan had planned.
All’s well that ends well, and I’m pleased to say the Grail was more than up to the challenge. It is a most intuitive bike to ride, but before our adventure, I really didn’t know what to expect.
Although I’d seen the press releases when Canyon launched the Grail in 2021, I wasn’t part of the original media call to review the bike. I noted the ‘double-decker’ handlebars and, I confess, had a little giggle to myself. ‘Oh, what now…?!’
That was my early reaction upon sighting photos (but never having used the arrangement). And I was ready to scoff at the idea. Honestly, I resisted any urge to even read the explanation of the design until it was time to ride the bike myself. I didn’t want any corporate-pitch preconceptions to interfere with my appraisal of what was an entirely different kind of bike for me.
I wanted to go to the trails, get on the bike, ride it… and then make my judgement. I’ve done that now, after a hectic couple of hours following Haas around his gravel circuit near the heart of Canberra, and I can say – with absolute sincerity: it is a wonderful bike to ride!
(There is much more to explain about the Grail, but this is a #RideDiary and an explanation of how it came to be that I was riding gravel with Nathan in Canberra on a random Thursday in February 2022. The complete bike review will be published after a few more hours of riding the Canyon. Stay tuned.)
Haas’ “Urban Gravel” experience
“Sort yourself a gravel bike,” continued Nathan in our text message exchange. “Let’s keep in touch for when you might be able to come down and we will have a great day out on the trails.”
He wasn’t in town for long. There was a trip to Adelaide for around a week, followed by a flight back to Canberra, and there would then be 10 days before he was due to fly back to his European base near Girona in Spain – “which is gravel riding heaven”, he later told me.
We agreed on a loose plan to find a day early in February when we could ride around Canberra – him on his new Colnago CX-3, me on the Canyon Grail – and discover parts of the capital that are not listed in the typical tourism brochure.
“Canberra is very wow for inner-city gravel,” Haas explained. “We won’t go beyond a 15km radius, and you won’t know we didn’t go way out of town.”
It was clear he was buzzing at the idea of showing off parts of Canberra that he’s known since he was a teenager, places that aren’t often seen by visitors. Furthermore, he could do so while riding his new race bike and giving me a taste of what kind of riding he’ll be doing now that he’s no longer on the road pro program.
Once the bike had been arranged and a date agreed on, he offered a little more insight into what I could expect from our pending adventure.
“I’m excited to ride,” he wrote. “I’m calling this form of riding ‘urban gravel’ – ie. how to use a city for gravel riding, without even realizing you’re in a city!”
Exploration and a new experience
The bike was packed. The rendezvous point was arranged: Parliament House, Canberra. And my enthusiasm grew as the prospect of riding into the unknown got closer.
When I rolled into the carpark near the centre of the city, Nathan was there waiting on his new Colnago, wearing freshly unbagged Castelli clothing (as part of another sponsorship deal for the 2022 season), and sporting a Cheshire grin that offered a little hint of the mood he was in.
He’s a ball of energy who likes to unleash when he’s on a bike. And, while I pulled the bike from my car and got organised, he fiddled with the Canyon and insisted that I hurry up… he wanted to ride, and he was raring to go.
There wasn’t time to waste. Kit on. Shoes on. Click in… go! Within five minutes of pulling up, I was on the bike – an entirely new bike, one I’d only ridden 100m before setting off with Nathan on his ‘urban gravel’ adventure. Then came the only slow part of the ride: a short idle up past the front door of Parliament House, a wheelie and a skid on the gravel in the forecourt, and then: baaam – it was go time!
Across the State Circle, riding away from Parliament, then south-west along Melbourne Avenue (a rare patch of bitumen for the ride), across Stonehaven Circuit… and then onto the dirt / gravel / mud that leads to Red Hill.
A few skids, a couple of jumps, and a test of the brakes and we were on our way, chatting and riding without any hassles from traffic. The first off-road portion of the itinerary was a fire trail running parallel to Mugga Way, then a dog-leg onto the Tamar Track before a sharp right-hander onto the Hindmarsh Track.
That’s enough of the tame stuff, Haas hinted, sufficient time for me to have adjusted to the new bike. Now, his body language suggested, it was time to dance! The pace lifted. He was in his element. It was about to start being fun. The road was behind us, hills and gravel trails awaited our arrival, and he didn’t want to delay getting to the funky parts of the ride any longer.
I rode on the hoods of the Grail’s strange handlebars while adjusting to the shorter-than-usual frame set-up. He kept his hands down in the drops most of the time, power sliding around dirt turns and jumping over water channels or puddles along the way.
The Hindmarsh Track led to a little patch of bitumen, roads that led us towards the Isaacs Drain Fire Trail… then up, and up, and up to a lookout I never knew existed.
I’ve ridden often in Canberra. I eventually find my way around the confusing (but extremely convenient – and plentiful) network of bike paths and trails, but Nathan took me somewhere that was entirely new for me. He generously eased off the pace when I asked, but always insisted on a speed that showcased why gravel bikes aren’t just mountain bikes with drop handlebars. Wasting no time, we got to the top of Isaacs Ridge with relative ease.
He talked, I listened and followed. He knew the trails, I was discovering them for the first time. He was in a hurry, I wanted to film and at least try to document some of the ride.
He wanted to ride, that was the priority. And I wanted to take it in and at least try and understand where we were. But it was all unfolding so fast that I couldn’t figure out where we’d been or where we were going.
There were steep rocky uphills leading to spectacular views of the nearby city and the Brindabella Range in the distance. There were loose-stone downhills, some switchbacks here and there, and – in all honesty – some tricky terrain that is probably better suited to dual-suspension mountain bikes. But, Nathan later asked, where’s the challenge in that?
Yeah, you can ride a bike that will absorb much of the rough stuff and allow you to go places that once seemed inaccessible, but when you go uphill you have to lug that extra weight with you.
With a gravel bike, you can learn bike craft while carefully considering your line over the rocks and stones. And when the trail smooths out, you can surge along at a rapid pace and get to the next climb faster than you would on a MTB. Then, when the ride is over, you can roll up to a coffee shop and reminisce with mates about what you’d seen and done.
That’s how it was when I got my first taste of ‘urban gravel’ riding in Canberra with Nathan Haas. It was a blast. It was liberating. It was challenging and exciting. And, of course, it was a hell of a lot of fun. I can’t wait to do it all again soon… somewhere new, somewhere different, somewhere I’d not have considered riding my bike before.
Gravel riding – I’d conclude after that adventure with Nathan last week – it’s the same but different, and a great deal of fun.
– By Rob Arnold
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Later (see RIDE Media’s YouTube channel for more…)
The features about the 2nd ride on the Grail (below) form part of what will be an ongoing series during February 2022. A review bike from Canyon, and a chance to explore different terrain using an all-purpose vehicle – made for gravel, and capable of taking you to amazing places.