Doing it all the hard way...

Saturday, May 3, 2014

A Diamond and the Rough: Gravel riding tips and a wedding

Apparently this is how they roll (or not) on San Juan Island..
First the musings…

Hottie and I attended a wedding this past weekend.  In speaking with the mother of the bride she commented that weddings are often a place where you can look across the room at your ex-spouse and ask yourself what the hell you were thinking those many years ago.  For me it was a time to give thanks and realize that I am so lucky I found Hottie and tricked her into marrying me.  She is awesome.

Incidentally; Hottie went to the wedding locked and loaded and was able to capture her targets.
Hottie knows a thing or two about wedding photography..

The weekend had enough free time that I was able to sneak off and ride around San Juan Island.  I went from end to end and back again accumulating over 3,000 feet of climbing.  Here is the journey in photos:
 Lots of rolling farmland
 Awesome views
If I had a better Camera you would recognize that this is Canada.  
Can't you just smell the Tim Horton's ?
 Son of a Beach
 These reminded me of the Dutch buildings around Cape Town South Africa
 Nearing the end of the world
Evo Selfie
 Lighthouse at the end of the world
 Roche Harbour (getting my British on !)
 Hottie !
 I knew I was close to paradise..
 Someone found a way to mitigate the high gas prices on San Juan Island..

After returning home Sunday I met with McWoodie and KB and we hashed over some of the logistics for our summer odyssey.  Like recovering addicts we held out as long as we could before the conversation turned to bike equipment and our hands were dirty from the tires and wheels we were examining as we passionately exchanged opinions on tire selection.

Time constraints provided a timely end to our potentially perpetual prognostication. Only afterwards was I able to organize my random thoughts on tire choice for our road/gravel/dirt epic.

I have found that almost anything will work when climbing on dirt, gravel or pavement.  I’ve ridden everything from 23mm road tires to 3.8” fat bike tires on dirt and have a few observations. Realistically, loss of traction on a climb is pretty rare.  Even when it happens the correction is usually body positioning rather than tread choice. Riding on rolling or level surfaces isn’t too difficult and in those situations, tire selection is seldom a life or death matter.

The spectrum that has low rolling resistance on one end and comfort on the other is pretty predictable. Wide is comfy and narrower rolls faster. I realize this statement has a relevant range and for our discussion you can assume that the spectrum is bounded by 25mm on one side and 45mm on the other.  

Riding downhill is where the rubber meets the road, or lack thereof.  This is the situation where bad tire choices don’t just impact your level of effort, but can be the difference between a secure descent and unwanted excitement and scar accumulation.

The challenge is to find an optimal tire for the mixed conditions you encounter on your holistic ride.  You must first admit there will be compromises. Fat tires run at low pressure means comfort- but if you go too low you will get pinch flats and they will be slow on hard surfaces.  If the pressure is too high or the tires get too narrow then you get beaten to a pulp from vibration when you ride as well as losing traction thus sacrificing control.   

In the interest of brevity I’ll skip the whole tubeless topic for today. 

For most road/off road combination applications the ideal tire width is somewhere between 30-40mm.  The rest depends on the conditions that you expect to encounter.  If the route has more paved or hard packed sections then some high center tread is preferable to open knobs and a narrower tire will serve you best.  If your route is mostly off road the wider tires aren’t just softer and more comfortable, they get better traction and are therefore safer.

Bicycle touring tires can range from slicks to knobbies or crosshatched and even patterns that look like automobile tires.  Many tires include combinations of these options such as auto-like tread down the middle with knobs on the sides.  What is a boy to do?

A gravel tire is supposed to be a do-it-all tire. That sounds so simple.  It makes me crazy that the do-it-all tires are all so vastly different.  If tire makers can’t agree on what a do-it-all tire should look like, how am I supposed to choose?

One more variable to further your confusion is tire pressure.  The simple take is higher on the pavement and lower on the dirt.  I doubt I’ll see anyone stop and adjust pressure during the trip, but we’ll see.

Among the few upsides to the gravel grinder tire conundrum is that touring tires are typically pretty inexpensive and usually last a good while.  One of our happy throng was lamenting that he had three sets of slightly used Cyclocross racing tires and was reluctant to buy a fourth set for this trip. CX racing tires are expensive and would likely be bald after this trip so buying an inexpensive set and loading them with miles ultimately sounded more palatable to him. 

With the expanding popularity of gravel riding I expect it is only a matter of time before we see crazy high prices as they convince us that the do-it-all classification is actually so specialized (note the irony of the statement) that it justifies a higher price tag.  Sadly, there is little doubt I will drink the propaganda kool-aid and end up with a set in the years to come.
I rode this on road tires (28's) and lived to tell the tale !
On my ride a bit ago I was reminded of a fact that we all too often ignore.  The only labels that are on bikes (and tires) are the ones we place on them. We are the ones who label a bike as a road or mountain bike or call something a Cyclocross or cruiser bike. Then we stop at the edge of the grass like Moonlight Graham to avoid using a bike beyond our self imposed notion of its anointed purpose and limitations.

A bike wants to be ridden and generally it knows what to do when in motion.  When we were kids we rode stingray bikes on the roads for hours in blue jeans without a second thought.  Then in high school we took short cuts across dirt fields riding our ten speeds.  Those bikes didn’t balk at changes in terrain because they were meant to be ridden. 

A few years ago I was riding on remote back roads in central Washington with a group and we came to a section of road where the pavement had been torn up and there was gravel for an unknown distance.  Several of the group flat out refused to ride their road bikes on the gravel and ultimately we all turned around and backtracked.  To this day I feel that we made the wrong decision and that we imposed an unnecessary label and corresponding restriction on our bikes.  I have no doubt we could have ridden that road and our bodies and bikes would have been better for it.

That is part of what our trip this summer is all about.  Cyclocross is all about getting through a course with varied terrain and obstacles as fast as possible. The trip this summer is about travelling remote and beautiful roads on our bikes without flinching when the terrain and topography changes.  

After all this rambling what is my gravel riding tip? 
It is simply this:
Go ride.

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