Riding Gravel: Get lost. Get dirty.

By Bill Plock

Get lost. Get dirty. Go where cars are scarce, horses run and the sound of the dirt and pebbles squishing and grinding under your tires is almost deafening. Where breezes ruffle leaves, birds squawk and a distant plane buzzes overhead. Here the sky touches the horizon, the sun casts long shadows and miles slip by like the time passed on these lands settled by farmers, ranchers and miners. The dusty, pebbly roads with no paint and few sign call you, the adventurer, to explore. To make an ordinary ride an adventure.

Yes I’m talking about gravel roads on “gravel bikes”–essentially road bikes with slightly larger tires and disc brakes typically, but with a frame and headset just like your road bike. Visually the tires instantly set these bikes apart with widths ranging from 30 to 38mm as compared to a road bike with 23 to 25mm tires. Often a more aggressive tread pattern accompanies the width for handling and traction on dirt and they are inflated to about 60psi vs 110psi on road tires. Normally equipped with disk brake, they offer better stopping power when rims are coated with dirt and grim not so friendly to caliper brakes.

Otherwise for us roadies not always comfortable with mountain biking or wanting to keep some speed but still wanting to find roads less traveled, gravel riding offers miles of new experiences. Gravel road riding is growing steadily and is bringing new customers to bike shops, helping to offset falling sales in traditional road bikes.

Elorie Slater, owner of Sports Garage (SG) in Boulder is offering many clinics to help customers try this rapidly growing discipline. She says, “I have to admit I’ve nearly abandoned the pavement. My road bike is a gravel bike. It’s become a game to head out on the bike, take a look at the dirt and wonder where this road goes!” She continues saying SG is “working with more and more cyclists who want to tailor their riding experience. They are looking for new adventures and a way to get out of traffic.”

Gravel bikes and cyclocross bikes are very similar and either can work in the place of the other in reality. Cyclocross bikes typically have a steeper slacker angle and slightly shorter wheel base for quicker turns and a more “race” position. Both offer the same adventure and the key to new roads and experiences and racing venues.

Says USA Cycling, Rocky Mountain Junior Development coach, Jon Heidemann, “If you love bike racing the way it was intended, this is it! Just bikes, road, nature, elements, human effort and the will to do your best. If you win or not, it doesn’t matter!”

Garages and budgets typically restrain many from having a full quiver of bikes for each and every type of optimal riding experiences and choices. If I had to do it all over again, I would choose to have a mountain bike, a triathlon bike and maybe a gravel bike instead of a road bike. A gravel bike on the road isn’t much slower than a road bike and much more versatile. Sure if I’m racing road bikes, that is different, but for the average weekend group ride, a gravel bike would be just fine. No doubt a road bike can go off road, but with the wider tire and lower tire pressure, the gravel bike is much more comfortable. Its not a matter of durability, but comfort and handling that truly separates the two.

So head out, find a road without paint, a new place, a new vista, discover the hundreds of miles of roads on the other side of that ridge you always thought was a boundary.

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