In the Explorer Primer Part 1 we reviewed the type of roads you can expect to find on an ExperiencePlus! Explorer tour as well as the bicycles we provide. Primer Part 2 discussed how to outfit yourself with a gravel ride for U.S.-based rides. This final installment of the Explorer Primer offers suggestions for finding off-road terrain to begin exploring, planning rides using a variety of digital resources, and preparing yourself for successful off-road riding.
When I first started gravel riding, for some reason I thought I had to be on ‘gravel’ the entire time. I don’t know where that misperception came from, but likely from the little I knew about cyclocross racing, which is primarily, if not exclusively, on dirt track. Now I think of gravel riding as a means to explore off-the-beaten path, a way to challenge myself if I so choose (by entering gravel endurance events), and most wonderfully as a way to travel. My gravel highlight to date has been riding from Fort Collins to Steamboat via as much dirt as possible over four days with 20 friends.
Whether you want to just ride dirt a few hours now and then or you want to join the fall departure of Cycling Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula on an ExperiencePlus! Explorer Tour, getting started with the gravel riding doesn’t have to be a daunting task.
DIY: Finding Soft Surface Roads and Trails
If you are new to venturing off-road and feel a tad nervous, you can likely experience off-road riding without having to leave town, and you don’t need to follow a designated ‘gravel’ route. Your objective at this level is to go in search of a variety of off-road surfaces, from unpaved back alleys and unofficial trails alongside ditches, to designated soft-surface paths adjacent paved bike trails and open space multi-use dirt trails. You want to get comfortable knowing how different surfaces feel and learn which surfaces you like most.
For instance, from my house I can ride a narrow dirt footpath across an empty lot to a paved road that ties into a paved bike path system that includes miles of adjacent soft surface trail that intersects with city streets that connect to natural areas featuring single track dirt trails as well as abandoned two-track dirt roads. I can hop back and forth between paved and unpaved surfaces to suit my preference. Some of the off-dirt trail is purpose-built, but a lot of it evolved alongside the pavement, especially on sections through ‘right of way’ power lines, or as social trails that parallel our local river. Lucky for me, I can loop the entire city – some 25 miles – from my house and on at least 50 percent unpaved surfaces.
If you’re ready to explore gravel roads, you likely need to pedal beyond town (or drive somewhere to begin riding). Gravel roads are not created equal. “Gravel” is a term used to describe any type of off-road surface that is not used primarily for the purpose of mountain biking. Gravel bikes don’t typically come with front or rear suspension for navigating rocks and technical terrain features. Here in Northern Colorado we link mile upon mile of unpaved county roads that cut through corn, alfalfa, sod, and wheat fields plus sheep, cattle and dairy farms.
Basically, options for riding gravel in the states are bountiful from Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management dirt roads to unpaved county roads, ditch foot paths and local natural areas trails – just be mindful that you aren’t trespassing and that you do follow all posted regulations for road and trail use.
Let’s say you love the idea of getting off-road but you truly don’t want to explore on your own. Not to worry. There are plenty of resources that can help you discover and plan your first or next gravel ride. Here are a few to get you started:
- Your local bike shop: Go to talk to people who ride! Undoubtedly there’s someone at your local shop who has some beta they can offer, whether a printed map, a local group ride, or other helpful bit that can help you get started.
- OpenStreetMap (OSM): This user-generated online map can be used to explore the world. Specific to biking, OSM includes a cycling layer that shows unpaved roads and can highlight recorded tracks.
- Organized events: This website offers a list of gravel ‘races’ in states throughout the country. These events are excellent opportunities to try out different distances – and to truly not worry about your speed. The route is planned for you and while there’s almost always a cost, the price of entry is usually worth the motivation required to show up and ride.
- Google or your preferred Search Engine. Do a simple search for “gravel routes near me,” “gravel events near me,” or “gravel rides in (your state)” and see what comes up.
- Colorado Gravel Roads is an impressive compendium of dirt routes throughout the state and includes a filter for past designated routes and events.
- WikiLoc – Search among 98,000 gravel routes from around the world. You have to create an account, but you can access a lot of information for free.
- Apps like Strava and RideWithGPS that offer paid subscriptions have search filters that can let you search for recorded gravel routes others have posted.
Pace & Prepare Yourself
There’s no denying that riding off-road is not as smooth an experience as pavement riding. Consider time in the saddle versus distance you choose to travel when first starting out. Due to tire width and rolling resistance, the same distance that you ride off-dirt versus on pavement will take longer.
Let’s say your pace typically averages 12 miles per hour on the road. Your average will be naturally slower when you ride off-road. As you start riding off road, stick with a time limit that is a bit less than what you normally enjoy. That means the mileage you cover every hour will be shorter than what you achieve on the road. Your bum will likely feel the terrain more than usual and your hands and forearms might also get a tired a bit more easily. But don’t be discouraged. You can build up your strength over time by increasing your time in the saddle slowly, by say 15 to 30 minutes per week.
As on any ride, you’ll also want to make sure you keep yourself properly hydrated and nourished. Many gravel riders like to outfit their bikes with a top tube frame pack, handlebar bag, feed bag, or extra water bottles mounted to the front fork because typically they are riding a bit further away from convenience stores and urban centers. Some ride with hydration packs that can also store food, a rain jacket, tools, and phone/GPS (unless it’s mounted). Just keep it simple. Snacks in your jersey and two water bottles will be sufficient for an hour ride. As you increase your mileage, consider expanding your gear, but only if it makes sense. And, don’t forget to be prepared for flat tires, bad weather, intense heat, extreme cold, and a bonking friend who needs a boost.
Here’s to hoping that your time in the gravel saddle becomes a new endeavor that creates unexpected possibilities for seeing the world by bike. If so, we want to hear all about it! Please drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your ‘dirty’ news!