Why I Ride Gravel

There’s been a lot of press recently about gravel road races, like Michigan’s own Barry Roubaix, and ever since I began to hear about them I wanted to learn more about their appeal. To take on the task, I picked up a copy of Rob Pulcipher’s Dirt Road Washtenaw and set out on the shortest route in the book. Before the 14-mile loop was over, I decided that I would ride all 17 routes in the book by the end of the season. Here’s five reasons why I was sold, and some tips for getting started with gravel yourself.

1. Solitude. There’s no reason you can’t ride the backroads with a partner or a group, but I usually head out solo — not to escape the people I ride with, but to find the solitude of escaping from everything else. First, and this is a huge one, the cars are few and far between on dirt roads, as are the stop lights and pedestrians. It’s also very quiet. If there is noise, it’s more likely to be spring peepers or red-winged blackbirds than it is to be city noise. The same could be said for mountain biking, but sometimes I also want freedom from a crowded trail. I’m not going to encounter packed parking lots or constant signage, and I won’t have to worry about constantly passing or getting passed. For the most part, it’s just me and my thoughts in the countryside.

2. Scenery and serendipity. Speaking of the countryside, I don’t think we give enough credit to the scenery in our own backyards. If I only rode in locations that looked like the front of a dealer catalog, I’d be very out of shape. There are plenty of photogenic rides close to home — it just sometimes takes a bit of wandering to find them. Even though they’re mapped in simple, square-plotted grids, the dirt roads around Washtenaw County are full of subtle beauty. Sometimes it’s a sprawling marsh or a rolling farm field; sometimes it’s a bubbling creek or a giant tree in someone’s front yard. Wildlife is commonplace, too. I’ve happened upon sandhill cranes, great blue herons, green herons, redtail hawks, bluebirds, wild turkeys, woodpeckers, bats, and countless other species. I like the closed-in beauty of a tiny road through a wooded tunnel of trees, but I also appreciate the wide-open beauty of a sweeping, gently hilly farm field. I appreciate our city parks and state recreation areas, but in the Midwest some of the most expansive views are offered by the most commonplace of country roads.

3. Safety. A good number of my bike-riding friends are so afraid of cars that they limit their rides to crowded multi-use paths. Whenever I can, I try to take them on a short introductory dirt road, and they’re surprised to find that a ride is more relaxing when you aren’t constantly dodging pedestrians or in fear of getting run over. The average speed is typically slower, the surface is a bit softer than pavement, and interactions with cars are less frequent and less hectic. Many of the loops I ride allow for multiple bail-out options in case the weather goes south or I have a mechanical meltdown. The biggest risk with a country ride is also part of the appeal: you really are on your own. Cell service isn’t reliable, and navigation is up to you. If you do eat dirt, it may be a while before help arrives.The key is just to be prepared. Bring repair parts and tools, plenty of water and snacks, make sure your bike isn’t gonna break down, and tell someone when to freak out if you return. These are just good habits for any bike ride, though — they aren’t exclusive to gravel. If you still have doubts about going it alone, grab a riding buddy or two. You’ll get the countryside solitude without feeling so isolated.

4. Simplicity. There’s no wrong time or season to ride gravel — it’s only a matter of what you and your bike are prepared to do. You probably already have a bike that will work. Try it tomorrow! Gravel can be a compelling reason to dust off an older bike, or a less risky way to break in a shiny new bike. Either way, there’s no need to break the bank with race-day-only or heavy touring equipment. You can poke or hammer, go for an all-day two-breakfaster, or race the sunset after dinner. It’s no more complicated than you make it. My two goals on a given ride are to take one good picture and count the birds. I like a hectic commute or pushing my limits on a trail, but sometimes I just want to ride for the sake of riding. Gravel is good for whatever kind of ride you want.

Ready to give it a shot? Before hitting your new route, you might just want to consider your equipment. Make sure your bike has some tires that you’d trust around a tight, bumpy, loose corner. Aside from a skinny-tire road bike, just about any bike will do. The knobby tires of a cross bike are perfect if you want drop bars. A mountain or hybrid bike will offer a better ride over the rougher roads, but won’t set any speed records. Bring whatever you would bring on any other unsupported ride. Water and food are a must — don’t count on being able to refill your bottles or purchase snacks. A camera can be handy for capturing a wide-open sunset, and lights are useful for not getting run over after said sunset. Don’t be afraid to link up to singletrack, pavement, or a rail trail. Gravel is all about going wherever you want to go.

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