Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Gravel Bike Adventures

When I bought my cyclocross bike back in November, I had no intention of ever using it for a cyclocross race. Instead, the goal was to give gravel grinding a try. This relatively new sport with a funny name has consumed my imagination all winter, and after my first actual gravel race this past weekend, I feel compelled to write about it here. So, why gravel?

Here's why, in a nutshell. Look at where you get to ride! (Castell Grind race course)

It's different

After Ironman Lake Tahoe, I was pretty burnt out on riding my tri bike for hours every weekend on the same roads around town. When we started riding the gravel bikes instead, each ride became an adventure to look forward to. Whether we were exploring the greenbelts around the city or riding on gravel roads in surrounding counties, everything was new and different.

Salado Creek Greenway, San Antonio TX

It's like trail running on your bike

Riding in dirt, gravel, sand, and rocks comes with all the same benefits of running trails. It also has a similar learning curve. In trail running, you’ll be most successful once you’ve learned how to pace yourself, find the best line, and take small, nimble steps both uphill and downhill. Riding a bike in loose gravel and soft sand is similar. Finding a good line and getting in a small gear at a high cadence allows you to negotiate through gravel, rocks, and sand. And then, just like trail running, your body gets stronger from riding on the uneven terrain. And you have no choice but to improve your bike handling skills.

It's beautiful!

In the last 6 months, we have found the most amazing routes that have been all around us the whole time, but we never knew they were there. How do you find them? You can ask at the bike shop, or stalk your gravel-riding friends on Strava, and go look at their routes. That’s how we found a gorgeous 70 mile loop starting in Rio Medina (Thank you, Jenny Park!). On a recommendation from the guys at Bicycle Heaven, we rode the most beautiful route on gravel roads from Bandera to Utopia. The thrilling part is that these routes are literally right next to the highways where we’ve been riding our tri bikes for years. But there are no cars!

Outside Rio Medina. Right next to the 471 route I've probably ridden 300 times.
Between Bandera and Utopia, TX.


Through sheer luck, Trent and I picked a really beginner-friendly event to do as our first organized ride - the Holey Roller in Smithville a month or so ago. The Castell Grind last weekend was our first real gravel race. For me, the race was a humbling experience. I'm newbie again, struggling with the very real fear of falling off my bike and hurting myself. I have all the endurance base in the world and I can climb any hill you put in front of me, but put my bike in some wet sand and I want to cry and give up. It's scary. I'm glad to remember what this feels like, to be new and unsure of yourself. We talk about getting comfortable being uncomfortable...well, here I am again.

There's also an element of adventure to these races because the courses are unmarked. They give you a map or directions that you have to be able to read (or, if you have a good Garmin, you can upload the map into that). There are no aid stations - you have to be totally self sufficient on these rides out in the middle of nowhere. There are no cheering crowds, only the company of other cyclists, who you'll make friends with as you try to navigate the course and encourage each other through difficult sections. All of these things make it intriguing and fun, and I'm looking forward to the next event.

Turn-by-turn instructions at the Holey Roller - don't get lost!
Beginning of Castell Grind

How to get started

That's the awesome part. You don't even have to get a new bike. You can just put fatter tires on your road bike and lower the tire pressure. That's what Orissa did, and it worked like a charm. Then, stalk one of us on Strava and find that Rio Medina ride. I promise you'll be hooked!

Very versatile bike - you can also use it to accompany a friend on a run. ;)