Gravel Rid­ing

Triathlon Magazine Canada - - DEPARTMENT - BY STEPHEN S. CHE­UNG

Re­mem­ber the joy of that first bike as a kid? That won­der­ful feel­ing of free­dom as the world opened up? If you’ve spent the en­tire sea­son pound­ing the pave­ment in an aero tuck, open your­self up to the thrill of gravel rid­ing.

I got started in cy­cling through road rac­ing, and a hard and fast group ride is still one of my favourite things to do. How­ever, over the past decade, I have got­ten more and more into the world of gravel rid­ing.

Why this switch? First and fore­most, it’s just so much fun to ex­plore new routes and ad­ven­tures. That dirt farm road you’ve rid­den by dozens of times dur­ing train­ing rides but ig­nored? Turn down it and see where it goes. That trail run that you love? Ex­pe­ri­ence it com­pletely dif­fer­ently on two wheels.

Where to Ride

Get­ting off pave­ment re­ally opens up a vast world of op­por­tu­ni­ties. Depend­ing on your bike and your skills, you can stay tame and ride dirt farm roads, or you can get gnarly and even try out sin­gle­track trails. Just make sure that you re­spect trail and prop­erty ac­cess.

This wide va­ri­ety also ex­tends to gravel events. Ev­ery event is com­pletely unique in dis­tance, ter­rain and chal­lenges, but all em­pha­size phys­i­cal chal­lenge, fun and ca­ma­raderie – the same things we love about triathlons.

Train­ing Ben­e­fits?

Triath­letes have three dis­ci­plines to pur­sue and master, which of­fers lots of va­ri­ety and crosstrain­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. De­spite this, cy­cling off-road can still help both your cy­cling and over­all ath­letic de­vel­op­ment. Un­like the steady ef­forts and pac­ing that we try to sus­tain in triathlons, rid­ing off-road means that mole­hills be­come moun­tains, with even slight changes in el­e­va­tion mag­ni­fy­ing the power re­quire­ments. As a re­sult, there are re­peated bursts of power at rel­a­tively low ca­dences re­quired while seated. The need to han­dle the bike around ob­sta­cles, along with the vi­bra­tions from the bumpy ground, also puts more de­mands on your up­per body and core strength than typ­i­cal road rid­ing. Rid­ing off-road can be­come a form of func­tional strength train­ing.

Im­prove Your Bike Han­dling

Ever watch a pro cy­clist like Peter Sa­gan and marvel at his bike han­dling abil­ity? Not sur­pris­ingly, he came from an off-road back­ground, even rac­ing the moun­tain bike race at the Rio Olympics. The con­stant fight for trac­tion and hav­ing both the front and rear wheels slid­ing around while rid­ing off-road does won­ders for your bike han­dling skills.

My off-road skills have lit­er­ally saved my skin many times. I well re­call one road ride with my wife and a friend, when, go­ing into a cor­ner, first my front wheel slid out on some loose dirt, re­gain­ing grip just in time for my rear wheel to slide out. While luck helped, I’m cer­tain that my ex­pe­ri­ence with los­ing trac­tion and slid­ing dur­ing off-road rides kept me up­right by help­ing me to keep re­laxed and not over­re­act.

What to Ride

While the cy­cling in­dus­try would love to sell you a new “gravel” or “ad­ven­ture” bike, the hon­est truth is that, with just a few mi­nor mod­i­fi­ca­tions, your gravel bike is likely al­ready sit­ting in your garage:

With the re­cent trend to­wards wider frame clear­ances, most road bikes built in the past five years or so can likely ac­com­mo­date at least 28 mm tires, which I have found per­fectly ad­e­quate for the dirt farm roads lit­ter­ing south­ern On­tario.

Make sure to drop tire pres­sure to max­i­mize com­fort and grip. At 65 kg, I run my 28 mm and 40 mm tires at 55–60 psi and 30 psi, re­spec­tively.

Com­fort and more sta­ble han­dling be­come pri­or­i­ties com­pared to aero­dy­nam­ics when rid­ing off-road. I ad­just my stem so that my han­dle­bars are about one cm higher and closer. This can be done, of­ten, by swap­ping spac­ers on the fork or flip­ping the stem up­side down.

Swap out your flash car­bon wheels for more durable al­loy train­ing wheels. You will gain both com­fort and peace of mind.

Un­less you’re rid­ing trails you ex­pect to be walk­ing, your cur­rent road shoes and ped­als will be per­fectly fine.

If none of the above works, or you’re con­sid­er­ing a ded­i­cated bike for ad­ven­ture rid­ing, check your lo­cal list­ings for used cy­clocross bikes. With the in­dus­try’s re­cent switch to disc brakes, you can likely get a great deal on a used cy­clocross bike with older can­tilever brakes.

The fall is a per­fect time to get gravel-cu­ri­ous as the trails come alive with colour, so check out one of the hottest trends in cy­cling and get a mega­dose of fun and fit­ness.

Brock Univer­sity’s Stephen S. Che­ung PhD is an avid cy­clist and world renowned ex­pert in En­vi­ron­men­tal Phys­i­ol­ogy.

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