Gravel Riding

This spring, I upgraded my 30 year old steel road bike with a gravel bike. As someone who had been an on-again, off-again road cyclist for most of his life, I had no idea what a gravel bike was, much less what to expect. In the distant past, I had owned a mountain bike and done a bit of mountain biking on the East Coast, but it had never really grown on me. I had also witnessed the “hybrid” commuter bike craze of the early 21st century and while those bikes interested me as someone who might enjoy a casual peddle through my neighborhood, they didn’t seem very serious, durable, or (to be honest) fun.

That all said, my trusty steel road bike had begin to look worse for wear and I knew that I probably needed to get a new bike if I was going to continue to ride. So when I received my Biden-Bonus, I headed down to the local bike shop with the plan to buy a mid-level road bike that would hopefully last another 30 years or so. After an hour of conversation, I left the shop with an entry level gravel bike.

For those into technical stuff, it’s a Specialized Diverge in aluminum. It’s not particularly fancy, but feels really solid on both the road and on less technical trails. It has drop handlebars, disc-brakes, and I’m still riding it with its original 700×38 Specialized Pathfinder Sport tires. With this set up, its real happy place is on gravel roads and I thought that I should introduce the readers of my blog to this happy place.

1. Riding Gravel. First and foremost, riding on a gravel road is its own kind of thing. As someone who grew up riding on the neatly pave roads of northern Delaware and Southeastern Pennsylvania and around Richmond, Virginia, I was not prepared to understand gravel.

In my experiences, for example, macro-topography was usually the greatest concern for planning a ride. Growing up my cycling buddies and I often considered elevation change, climbs, and descents as closely as we considered distance when we planned a ride. A 20 miler full of wickedly steep climbs was actually worse than a 40 miler over gently rolling hills. Gravel riding in North Dakota is more like surfing. Where I live, the only macro-component to ride planning is the direction and intensity of the wind (which consistently ranges between 3 and 4 on the Beaufort scale with some riding days approaching 5). Otherwise, the main concern is not the topography (which is flat) or distance (which varies depending on the wind strength and direction) but the gravel itself. 

Riding gravel involves a pretty intense attention to the area 3-5 feet in front of your bike. Finding a way to navigate the changing consistency and depth of the gravel and avoiding washboard ridges and ruts in the road is crucial to both a comfortable, efficient ride and staying upright. And the difference between good and bad gravel is the difference between humming along at 17 or 18 mph and bogging down and desperately searching for a higher gear (and then falling off your bike). Allowing a car or truck to pass often involves a delicate process of leaving enough room and finding a section of road hard enough prevent bogging down. Taking a drink from a water bottle or riding side-by-side involves anticipating paths through the gravel that extend further than the 3-5 feet in front of you and then making sure that you can snap your attention back to the road ahead. I’ve found that when I’m in the groove, there’s nothing quite like it. I’m discovering how to cross ridges of deep gravel and catching my back tire as it slides around. I’ve also learned to negotiate the one sweeping turn on my ride without scaring myself and intersections where ridges of gravel wash out your front tire. Yesterday I managed a ride with my tires at about 70 psi, which is pretty hard for a gravel bike tire, and managed to stay upright. I’ve also had the opposite happen; on a bad gravel day, I fall down a lot.   

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2. Formation Processes. One of the great things that this attention to the road in front of my front tire has brought to my attention is the formation processes involved in the making of gravel roads. As the photo above indicates, North Dakota gravel roads use a mixture of dirt and crushed stone. Each spring the roads receive a new level of gravel which appears to be poured on the center of the road and serves to accentuate the road’s crown (and facilitate drainage, one would imagine). Riding gravel in the spring is like riding through sand and tough going, but earlier season’s road bed often remains visible on the shoulders of the road and is often harder than the new gravel, but moving from the firmer shoulders to the emerging groves in the center of the road is not always easy. 

Over time, on a lightly trafficked road, a two grooves tends to develop where the gravel is both ground down into a hard surface and pushed to the side of the road by car tires. On more heavily travelled roads, three groove develop with cars sharing the middle groove of the road and leaving one path marking the tire tracks of cars traveling in either direction. For a cyclist, riding along this groove can be as easy as riding on a paved road and the soft shoulders are nearly impossible to negotiate. When traffic passes, it is sometimes possible to find the very edge of the soft gravel and to ascend and then slide down the gravel ridge back into the groove. This is strangely satisfying. 

Intersections are often scarred by washboarding where cars and trucks under braking have worn a washboard pattern into the road surface. The intersection itself tends to be a veritable miasma of dragged gravel which likely accounts for why many intersections are higher than the roads that enter it. Negotiate the loose and often deep ridges of gravel at intersections is a real challenge and turning across is often harrowing (heh, heh, see what I did there?). 

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3. Local Landscapes of Gravel. One of the paradoxes of riding on gravel is that it requires a good bit of concentration on the road immediately in front of you and taking in the scenery is sometime rewarded with the of bone jarring surprise of washboard ruts or the slushy sound of deepening gravel. That said, gravel roads are the only way to really appreciate the landscape around my home town. There are only two paved roads (that aren’t interstates) in and out of the town and the rest of the landscape is only accessible by the neat grid of paved section line roads set 1 mile apart. 

In the rare moments when its possible to enjoy the scenery, late summer and fall landscape is pretty interesting. There are the very first hints at next year’s winter wheat crop and the rustle of corn and the low broad-leafed acreage of sugar beets, which are just now seeing the very first “pre-pile” harvest.

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And of course, rural churches and their cemeteries which punctuate the countryside reminding us that there were once settlements here that have all but disappeared.

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It’s hard to fathom what it must have been like to live on the Northern Plains in the decade before statehood and the railroad but the grave markers offer a quiet reminder of that life.

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