Doing it all the hard way...

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Lessons I learned on Gravel in 2014

When Big John lost his balance KB thought it might be in this bag.
It turns our Einmotron just pushed him over.

It is said March comes in like a Lion and goes out like a Lamb.  I began gravel riding almost on a lark at the end of March and at the time there was much that could be likened to a lamb. The roads were mellow, the climbs short and we were wearing wool. As the snow receded from the dirt roads surrounding the Methow Valley KB and I explored here and there and a passion was born.  When wildflowers took over from snowdrifts I went higher and higher and farther and farther.  By early June I was going on four and five hour adventures that culminated in the Winthrop Fondo on Solstice weekend.   As the summer has come and gone I feel more like the Lion of Gravel compared to the newbie I was six months ago.

I’ve logged about as much gravel time as a guy who works in the city can manage. I would like to think my season of gravel has taught me a few things.  For the benefit of all, here are those things:

Just do it. 
We all get to define our gravel riding any way we choose.  It doesn’t have to be fast and it doesn’t have to be far or steep.  Like everything else, you gain experience by doing.  I encourage you to do it and find what you like. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  If you don’t like it that is fine, we just don’t get to be friends any longer.
Experience doesn’t come in a can
Riding gravel is how you get good at riding gravel. The more you do it the faster and safer you become.  It just takes time. A point worth making over and over is your Cyclocross experience does not translate here.  This is different.
Equipment doesn’t matter
 I started out on a road bike with 28mm tires and then went to a cross bike with 35mm tires.  Both configurations had their benefits and drawbacks.  For the routes I was riding and the way I wanted to ride them, the cross bike proved the better choice.  Tom Ritchey is quoted as saying, “I thought all road bikes were gravel bikes…”  You may prefer smoother or flatter gravel roads and a road-ish setup might be better suited for that task. What is important is that you just go and do it.  Since nearly all rides are a combination of surfaces and grades any configuration represents a compromise. Go and do and learn and adjust accordingly.
Road bike on gravel...
If you up the ante, equipment does matter
As my tastes took me further and further from pavement, I adjusted my equipment to be more specific to my preferred adventure.  At that point fatter tires, flat prevention and good brakes took on greater importance. The ability to carry more water and food comes into play. There is a continuum that includes safety that must be considered if one chooses to get further and further “out there.”   

At least right now gravel tires aren’t crazy expensive so gravel riding is pleasantly unlike most cycling variants in that it does not have a high cost of entry.
Cross bike and 35mm tires
On gravel Speed and Safety are on the same end of the spectrum
Speed and safety on gravel are functions of experience and to a much lesser degree, equipment.  Despite years of racing Cyclocross and a smattering of mountain biking adventures I was an absolute greenhorn on gravel last March.  There is no substitute for experience and I got plenty this spring and summer. Learning what you can ride over, what you need to avoid and picking good lines both uphill and downhill just takes time. After experience the second most valuable asset is terrain appropriate equipment.  Disc brakes and tubeless wheels are amazing if you ride where I do.  They are not, however, in any way a substitute for real riding experience. Once you have the experience, upgraded equipment just lets you go faster and safer.

Small in front, big in back
Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight and don’t bring a standard crankset or a standard road cassette to a gravel climb.  While you can muscle up something short with a 39 tooth up front OR a 25 tooth in back your quads with explode and make a bloody, pulpy mess if you try a sustained gravel climb on either.  If you try a climb on a 39x25 you are quite simply a maroon.

Gravel climbs often go on for miles at grades around ten percent.  Loose surface means out of the saddle efforts can result in a dangerous loss of traction followed by a stop of forward movement and an awkward tumble to the side.  You need to be able to stay seated and spin indefinitely. My lowest gear is a 34-32 and I know that the final click between a 28 and a 32 tooth rear cog makes all the difference in the world.  A mountain bike double is worth consideration if your goals include significant numbers of summits or lookouts.

IF your gravel environs don’t involve thousands of feet of elevation changes then the gearing isn’t life or death. 
If you fight the washboard you will not win
There are four ways to ride washboard.  These rules apply both on uphill and downhill washboard. The first is to ride slow enough that you just roll over the highs and lows and you keep your momentum.  The second is to ride fast enough that you just hit the tops and the vibration is more of a hum.  The third is when your speed is in between one and two and your bike wants to buck like a bull on an eight second mission and you fight it.  Your grip tightens, you stiffen up and your vision gets blurry.  You can’t help but put on the brakes but because you are holding on so tight your bike isn’t making a lot of contact with the ground and it takes forever to slow down.  The last way to ride is the hardest to learn.  It also takes place at “in-between” speeds. Instead of grabbing tighter, you open your hands and let the bike jackhammer while you float and pilot your rig onto calmer terrain.  When you master this you can rightfully claim your Zen master status.
Up there...
As the distance from the pavement increases your bike and repair capabilities must adapt accordingly 
If you are going several climbing-filled miles from the pavement ends sign your tires need to be robust and your repair kit needs to be able to deal with broken spokes, chain, and derailleurs as well as multiple flat tires. Two tubes, levers, a good pump that you know how to use along with patches, spare chain links, a tire boot, zip ties and a tool that includes a chain tool and spoke wrench are a good start.  Water purification tablets weigh almost nothing and can make water potable in an emergency.  A Road ID is always a good idea so when they dissect the bear that ate you your friends will know that despite having the KOM on the climb you weren’t the fastest mammal out there.

Food is the currency of long rides and first aid supplies can keep a bad day from getting worse.  If there is even a slight chance you could get caught in the dark or rain a light and a layer are worth their weight any day.

Tell someone where you are going
I typically didn’t tell Hottie where I was going because I thought the names like Forest Service Road 4225 didn’t mean much to her.  Then one day I went on a four hour ride and wasn’t back five and a half hours later.  She was worried and even though I was okay (albeit totally trashed) I learned a lesson.  I now tell her where I am going so they at least know where to look.  It sounds silly but I will either write it down or text my destination so there isn’t any confusion.  Road 42, 43 and 47 may sound the same but are in fact east, south and north of us and a thousand people searching road 42 would never find me if I was on road 43. Agreeing on an amount of time before people should panic beforehand is a good idea as well.
GPS can be great
I can plot a course using the Garmin Connect website and send it to my little device.  Then I ride and the little machine tells me if I am on course or not.  Mountains and trees make the device work harder than it should and it sends out dozens of incorrect “Off Course” warnings but once you understand and accept that- the works very well.

GPS can be dangerous
I did load a course once and while on the ride the little device freaked out and became useless as a navigation device. This was an anomaly but I do strive to commit key route features to memory before setting out for unknown environs.   You are already taking your brain and it doesn’t weigh any more when full as compared to empty.

Baby’s got Base
Without intending to do so I found that my Gravel riding added up to significant saddle time and I had built up some reasonable base miles.  It wasn’t quite like discovering that eating ice cream burns fat and builds muscle, but it was an enjoyable way to get geared up for the Cyclocross season. Just the other day KB commented that I had built up a good base and I paused as I realized he was correct.   Gravel is a great and semi painless way to build base.
On top of Starvation Mountain
Don’t be afraid to go big!
If you have built the fitness and can figure the logistics of food, water and safety- you can tackle some rewarding adventures.  Aside from the “Oh shit- I am going to be so late” it was awesome to stand atop Starvation Mountain like I was the king of the world.  The full hour of descending that followed was only part of the reward.  Anything with butte, lookout, mountain, summit or peak in the name is fair game. 

The Winthrop Fondo was a chance to benefit from my hard earned experience and take advantage of someone else handling the food, water and logistics.

During the Fondo I watched with a wry smile as other riders gained valuable “experience” learning from mistakes in tire selection, pump options and what to carry in their saddle bags. About halfway into the Fondo I recall seeing a Rapha-clad maroon holding his rear wheel and a 25mm tire that was clearly outmatched lament, “This is my fourth flat tire,” which he said in a tone of surprise. His comment was only superseded by his follow on words which were, “and I only brought two CO2 cartridges.”   It takes a pretty big ego to ignore so much good advice in advance of that event.  The powers of denial are strong with this one too.
There are an ever increasing number of these events and based on my limited experience; they are awesome   I had a bunch of fun doing the Winthrop Fondo and that is part of a series of gravel Fondos which I expect will become even more popular in 2015. 

Explore galore
I’ve been riding road and mountain bikes in the Methow for over a dozen years and I thought I knew my way around.  Gravel riding has opened up more options than I imagined existed.  On the busiest weekends when the mountain bike trails are crowded and parking lots are full there are dozens of gravel roads where I can find solitude and amazing scenery and if I am lucky maybe even chase a cow or two.

Gravel biking affords us the luxury of riding from our place, as opposed to driving a car to a trailhead with bikes in or on it, which is way cool. It seems to connect our cabin to the mountains around us in a way that is hard to explain.

Like so many things you can read all you can find on this from me and anyone else but it is all translates as “blah, blah, blah,” until you go and do it yourself.

As El Jefe’s says, “Get Going!”

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