Liam Yates: ‘Imagine thinking that you’ve completed GTA, but then all of a sudden, you open up a completely new area of the map. That is what gravel has done for my riding.’
Gravel Alliance rider Liam Yates traces his route from BMX through road and fixed gear and onto gravel, where he’s found ultimate freedom on two wheels.
Liam grew up around bikes, with a father who was a professional road rider. One of his earliest memories is having fun with friends on mountain bikes in his local woods. From there, he turned to smaller wheels and started riding BMX. So far, no slicks in sight.
As a BMXer, it was all about flow and pushing his limits on a small set of jumps down the road from where he lived in Southern England, channeling inspiration that he’d caught from watching the X-Games.
When he finished school, the well-rounded creative started an apprenticeship in a local bike shop with a rich history of supporting some of the best road racers in the country. Liam became fully immersed in road cycling, from fixing and selling bikes to watching races non-stop in the store, which triggered an interest and before Liam knew it, his 30 km commutes turned into local time trials.
‘Once I started showing a bit of an interest, my dad (Tour de France stage winner and Yellow Jersey holder, Sean Yates) said, “Ok, we’re going on a training ride tomorrow.” It was hard! It took a long time for me to become a cyclist and not just a person riding a bike,’ Liam recalls.
From there, the natural next step involved more serious racing on the road, even with a stint in France. But by the end of Liam’s fourth season – even with the progress he had made and the potential he had shown – there was still no team on the horizon.
‘A bit lost, I rocked up to the London Nocturne fixed gear race to see what the hype was all about. I flatted with one lap to go but was still marked as one to watch at the following week’s Red Hook Crit by the race organizer,’ Liam explains with a grin.
The connection to the laidback vibe of fixed gear racing was immediate for Liam: ‘At road races, you’d turn up and rarely talk to other riders. All that matters is your result, and then once that has happened, you all go home. Fixed gear focuses much more on community and hanging out; whether you came first or last is irrelevant. That was eye-opening, and I find it similar to the gravel vibe you find at events like Grinduro.’
From fixed gear racing, the next step that took Liam closer to the freedom of gravel came in the form of bikepacking: An impromptu, ad-hoc plan to ride with a teammate from the Brooklyn Red Hook Crit down to Miami. ‘We planned on riding our fixed gear track bikes. I didn’t have a computer or any experience on bivvying out, but two days later, we set off.
‘We didn’t make it to Miami and instead rode inland to South Carolina. I think it was around 1,000 miles in the end. We didn’t even have bottle cages, just refilled Sprite bottles in our backpacks. It was amazing. And from then on, bikepacking has stuck with me.’
Something of an early adopter, getting a dedicated gravel bike was the next step – and a move that Liam admits took his freedom to the next level. ‘It blew me away. Riding locally, there were many new areas to explore. You’ve ridden past an entrance to a bridleway 200 - 300 times and never ridden down it. Gravel still gives me the inspiration to take all those tracks and see where they went,’ Liam adds, still riding the same high that he felt the first time.
‘Riding took such a huge turn for me from that point on. If I were to go out for a solo road ride, it could feel like training. Whereas if you go out alone on a gravel ride, it feels like exploring. You’re away from the cars, free to ride where you want, and you don’t have to worry about being in the wrong place,’ Liam continues, gesturing over the countryside that circles his home.
For Liam, like most gravel enthusiasts, the sport is more than just a bike classification. It is a vibe. And sharing that vibe with others by giving back to the gravel community is how Liam fell into the world of event organizing. ‘There were no events during lockdown, so I thought I’d make a cool route for us to ride. Basically, I came up with a really hard route for my brother and mates, which I shared on social media. People were super eager to know where all the points were, so it got me thinking that I could perhaps make a full event out of this.’
That is where the SSX [Sussex] Mystery Tour began. ‘The entry fee for the first edition was £4, which was roughly the price of a drink at the finish. There was a community that grew around it almost immediately. Every year the route seems to get harder. I take inspiration from the hardest sections I’ve experienced in other races, like the Silk Road Mountain Race. Those sections push you so much that they give everyone who has done that a shared experience – even if ridden alone – that they’ll always remember.’
With its underground vibe and origins in a nondescript field with a park bench, the SSX Mystery Tour is heading into its 4th year, and the organization is getting a little sharper. While the route concept remains the same – think agonizingly hard trails, nice shops, and cafes, linked by faster, smoother sections – this year, Liam has enlisted a specific venue for the start and finish. ‘The 150 starters will experience this area like a local, rather than just hitting the iconic South Downs Way.’
Unsurprisingly, Liam also leans into freedom regarding his bike build. ‘My Canyon can take 2.1” tires; It’s not recommended, but I always ride them. Depending on the tread, I have to shave some knobbles off, but it allows my gravel bike to ride anything. I also run an aero cockpit—something even the Canyon engineers look at in disbelief. This year I’ve switched to Pro aluminum pursuit bars because they are aero and flared. I’m also running full GRX 2x11.’ Liam explains in a matter-of-fact way, there is little geeking out about specifics. Instead, he focuses on how the setup increases the capability and ride options. In short, the freedom it unlocks when it comes to route choice.
For Liam, it’s clear that gravel is a mindset and that freedom is his way of life, a vibe he embraces and shares. ‘You know, I’ve ridden all over the world and realized one thing, you can be riding in the most amazing locations, but not even be aware of what you’re seeing. But when you find a hidden track, even in the most mundane location you’ve seen 1,000 times before, you can still feel a massive sense of adventure. That’s why I can’t keep off my bike.’
Words: Phil Gale
Photos: Ollie Adams