Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Gravel Riding

 Searching for the Promised Land, riders fleeing persecution on the pavement disperse to safer-seeming venues like mountain bike trails, separated paths, and gravel roads.

Along with people asking where to ride their mountain bikes around here, we also hear from riders lamenting that they can't find good gravel. 

When people ask for gravel, this is what they envision

This part of New Hampshire and nearby Maine has a lot of unpaved roads. Back before the bike industry had decreed that Gravel was a category, you could buy a Surly Cross-Check frame and build a go-anywhere bike, or just update the components on a classic 1970s to '80s touring bike and ride a wide variety of paved and unpaved public rights of way. I did it to increase my commuting options without beating up my trusty road bike. One might also do a drop bar conversion on a mountain bike, to skew the capability more toward rougher terrain at the expense of sluggish handling on pavement.

The Cross Check opened up almost any route depicted on your average road map. It was never meant to handle technical trails, large loose rocks, or deep mud. Routes on a road map -- and now Google Maps and other online sources -- take in Class 5 and 6 roads, which are still public. Class 6 around here is not maintained for winter travel, and may not be graded at all. If the route is popular enough with intrepid motorists, it gets some maintenance just from the passage of vehicles. Depending on the soil type and composition, it could be pretty smooth and firm, or it could degenerate into something that would beat the crap out of any bike and rider. Maybe you ride it once and know better than to ride it again.

Jeep-width snow machine trail

These are Class 6

From 1989 to the summer of 1995, a mile and a half of my daily commuting route was unpaved and heavily traveled. It illustrated perfectly the increased stress of riding gravel as opposed to pavement. When the road had not been graded in a while, the surface was generally packed hard in most places, but potholed and rutted. It was very damaging to motor vehicles, which still did nothing to discourage speeding. When it was freshly graded, the mix they used was all fluff and golf balls: fine sand mixed with awkward-size rocks. This also did nothing to discourage speeding, which rapidly transformed it to long sections of washboard. The awkward-size rocks became the dominant surface as long as the weather remained dry. Wheel tracks got packed down fairly firmly, but the edges of the road, where a cyclist would be shoved aside by hurtling rednecks, filled with treacherous loose sand and stones. It was the worst section of my commute, which I would traverse outbound when I was barely warmed up and inbound when I was tired at the end of the day.

A lot of the border country between Maine and New Hampshire north of the seacoast region is crisscrossed with dirt roads, but even there you'd have trouble putting together a route that was entirely gravel. And bear in mind that no one builds a road that they don't intend to use. If you go on Class 6 -- not maintained year round -- some of these are practically abandoned, and their condition reflects that. If it sees any regular use you may encounter a driver who considers it a familiar racetrack. Or you might get lucky and encounter no one. This is true of all back roads, paved or not.

All of the dirt roads I have ridden show the same patterns of use and maintenance. The unpaved sections vary depending on how recently they were graded and how they were used thereafter. A road gets graded regularly because it gets driven regularly. And motorists are absolutely no kinder or more indulgent to cyclists they meet on a dirt road as opposed to a paved one. If you're in their way, you're in the wrong. They won't consider that your traction and handling might suffer because you've been pushed into the loose stuff off to the side.

On the flip side, sometimes you will be making better headway than the motorists. This happened to me one time in April, when I was riding in the Pine River State Forest and came upon a Jeep club having a hard time in the mud. I could stay up on the firm ridges where they were bottoming out because the width of their vehicles kept them in the ruts and bogs. I had to be careful passing these unfortunates, because they were still concerned only with their own progress. Once ahead of them, I had to make sure that I stayed ahead of them. That turned out to be easy, but it isn't always. It happened again more recently on Elm Street, because the town is finally repaving it, starting by unpaving multiple sections. I had a car hovering annoyingly behind me as I negotiated these. Finally, I pulled aside to force them to pass. It was a low-slung little sporty car that didn't want to go fast through the dirt and gravel. I had to be careful not to run up on them after I let them get in front. However, as soon as they got clear of the last rough patch, they jetted away.

When I first started exploring the dirt roads in and around Effingham (NH), I was using my mountain bike. If a driver came up behind me while I was laboring up a hard climb, I could easily fade to the side, even bushwhacking a bit in the places that offer a bailout. At the very least, the bike was well configured in case I had to dismount. On a descent, I could let it rip, because its geometry and tire size made it quite secure. But on pavement it was a slug. Now, with mountain bike geometry, gearing, and suspension optimized to handle super rough surfaces, the slug factor on pavement is astronomical.

You have to decide what you want your bike to be best at, and what you'll put up with in the passages between those best places. The gravel bike -- like my Cross-Check -- represented a moderate approach that accepts its limitations for the sake of a generally good average for the mix of surfaces a rider will encounter on readily accessible routes of all lengths around here. The old steel bike does it cheaper and is easier to maintain and repair, but that's a separate issue. There is no car-free Utopia for cyclists, because you're either driving to your trails with your bike of choice on your vehicle, or riding on publicly accessible roads that you will end up having to share with your fellow taxpayers. Eventually we will have to address the underlying problems of culture and education that will make cycling better for all riders, instead of trying to invent new pedal powered vehicles on which to make our escape to a mythical place in another dimension.

1 comment:

Steve A said...

And thus has it ever been...