Doing it all the hard way...

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

There are no rules in a knife fight; Yet more gravel riding lessons

Up there !

I am really enjoying dabbling into the world of gravelriding. Each adventure is a revelationand every time I learn something I didn’t know before. On my most recent foray I was accompanied bylegendary epic aficionado KB. He too suffers from the juxtaposition of both a tendency to over analyze a topic and the tenet of trying to keep it simple.


We combined an assortment of roads that had been recon’don earlier adventures into a near perfect off pavement smorgasbord of fun.


On the paved approach we were like a couple of Cyclocross racers sitting in the starting grid checking out each other’s bike set up. I was checking out KB’s tires and he waseyeing my crankset.

The paved road turned steep which served to take the chill off the morning. The blue skies promised warmer temperatures as the ride progressed. We hailed our two favorite road signs; first the PAVEMENT ENDS sign gives notice the fun is about to start. Then we passed the PRIMITIVE ROAD NO WARNING SIGNS (which is in fact a warning sign) and we knew we were entering the kingdom of Oz.

When the pavement ends, the fun begins !

I was riding the bike I intend to take on the Gravel Odyssey which is my Curtlo Cyclocross bike equipped with some 35mm ClementX’Plor USH tires that are 35mm wide. KB was on his adventure bike set up with Clement X’Plor MSO in 40mm. I had installed a 2x10 38/24 front crank that I have had in my garage since I don’t know when. I had been commuting with this setup for a couple, weeks and it still isn’t dialed in. I expect I will change out the big ring to something with more teeth in June.


As the dusty climb kicked up I dropped into the small ring (and I do mean small) and kept spinning. KB dropped into his lowest gear and had to get out of the saddle. We agreed that the ability to downshift and maintain an “All-Day” cadence could be a life (or at least a knee) saver on our upcoming epic. We discussed low gearing options for KB.


Having previously ridden this road on my 28mm Hutchinson Sectours I took note of how much more traction I had with the 35mm Clements. KB likewise had good traction as we climbed up the loose sandy road. One of the benefits of this improved traction is it freed my attention to focus on other things. Birds singing and seeing a deer running in a field below were my reward.


Occasionally we would get out of the saddle for a short steep hump and experienced a bit of rear wheel slip which was cured by shifting our weight back over the rear wheel. The ability to stay seated had abig advantage traction-wise and the low gearing made that possible. Lesson learned.

On our descents the fatter tires made all the difference in the world. Balky Hill road had been a nervy experience a few weeks ago on my 28mm wide tires but was nothing special on the 35’s. We still found it wise to manage our speed on curvy descents. You can’t steer when you are in the air and severe washboard means a lot of the time you are in the air and thus compromises your ability to turn or even slow down. Earlier lesson reinforced.


We found that smooth lines were often elusive and if we were descending side by side on tire tracks we would shout to each other if we found a smooth line and could see the other person oscillating, or as wecame to refer to it, “Doing the washboard shuffle.” We jumped back and forth across the road chasing good lines. Communication was good. Lesson noted.

It is all here. Steep, washboard, cliff, rocks, loose. Nirvana.

If you sliced a cross section of road into five equal pieced and numbered them one to five you would have something like this. Sections one and five are the edges of the road and can at times be the smoothest and best line and at other times be strewn with rocks or soft sand. Plus there is that whole mountain cliff over the edge thing. Sections two and four are the tire tracks but often have washboard to one degree or another. Potholes are another feature that makes these sections “interesting.” Section three is the middle of the road which can either be smooth sailing or a rocky nightmare.


At different points during the day each of these sections provided refuge and at other times the whole road was strewn with rocks and we found ourselves weaving through what felt like a mine field. Adapt your speed and technique to the terrain. Lesson noted.


Once again one of the truths of combined adventure riding emerged loud and clear. Tire choice is about accepting compromise. At sometimes the tires didn’t matter. At other times the wider the tire the better and at other times the reverse was true. No tire works well all the time. Deal with it. Lesson accepted with minimal angst.


If our group eventually managed to agree on a single winning tire for a particular portion of gravel (universal agreement is highly unlikely) and we all rode that tire then we would all experience the same strengths and weaknesses on our trip. What a boring experience that would be. I think part of the attraction of this trip will be the texture of constant dialogue along the lines of, “what is working for YOU?” that has the potential to entertain us geeks all day long.

KB says you can do it all with Wool and Titanium

What if someone shows up with 23mm road tires and someone else has 45mm monster cross tires? It could happen. I can envision me being slow on the paved descents (not much of a top end gear) and someone else being slow on the gravel climbs (I’m hoping that isn’t also me). I can picture KB flying on the loose down hills and McWoodie sailing up the loose climbs. I imagine everyone will need to exercise some patience at one time or another.


I am beginning to think that the biggest challenge we will face will be accepting the mix of strengths and weaknesses during the day’s ride. Those with tires on the narrow side will be faster on the road and slower on the rough. Those with fat tires will be sure footed thus faster on descents and loose climbs but will lag on the pavement. In addition some riders are just stronger than others. How do we keep that mess together?


The answer would seem to be to adopt a team philosophy and just solider on as a group. This will be a challenge as our band of merry men is composed of about a dozen racers who all live to get to the top of the hill first. We pin on numbers and race. Even our weekly “friendly” rides are in fact throwdowns that only fuel our competitive nature.


For almost all of us, these epic adventures are the focus of the previous six months of training. The idea of “Ready, set, wait for the slow guy” isn’t what fueled the fire during those long wet base mile slogs in March. It was the thought of getting to the top first and riding strong. This could be a challenge.


My approach has been to treat the challenge of riding as a group as a problem to be solved. We are problem solvers by nature and that is part of the attraction of Cyclocross. Cyclocross racing is a complex problem with numerous and ever changing variables that makes for an almost never ending learning experience. When you get it all dialed in it is very rewarding.

Let the good times roll

The challenge will be to get a gaggle of alpha males to function as a team and get everyone across the finish line. We could approach our ride as if it was one of the Rapha Gentlemen’s races. In those events your whole team has to finish together.


As I learn this and that about gravel I guess it gets back to the same place as the rules for knife fighting. There are no rules, just make it up as you go. Unlike a knife fight though, you can have multiple winners.


When the road ends, keep riding.


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