If you look at a map of almost any patch of countryside in Europe, you’ll see its riddled with roads. For cyclists, the options from afar seem to be endless, with infinite permutations of loops and wandering you can do on your bike. Sometimes, when surveying the American West, it can seem like the options are far smaller. Infrastructure for cars and trucks is heavily invested in, lesser-traveled country roads often remain unpaved.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t have the same web of roads. We do, and they’re out there. They’re just usually dirt or gravel.
Obviously a mountain bike is one way to try the fire roads, old logging skid roads, cart paths in the gold country and Sierras, and cattle roads that spill across the Western landscape. But if you want to ride some roaming mix of pavement and dirt, it’s entirely possible to do it on a road bike. Preparation is key.
There is widespread skepticism towards skinny road tires on rough surfaces. But trust me, they are much more resilient than they appear. Its’ still important to start with a setup that will help you enjoy your riding the most. First, get wide tires that are fairly thick, standard training tires are often sufficient. I prefer 25c tires. Wider tires allow you to ride dirt and gravel more comfortably and with greater purchase on the surface of the road.
Be prepared to flat, even though you often won’t. Carry spare tubes, but critically, a patch kit. Some rides you might just have bad luck and puncture all of your spare tubes, and you don’t want to be stranded on some beautiful gravel alpine road, as nice as it may be. Patch kits will allow you to salvage your ride, no problem. In the same vein, forget CO2 cartridges. I have heard sad stories of riders walking miles through the forest because they didn’t have enough CO2 cartridges to keep fixing flats. Carry a frame pump capable of pumping to 110psi – small and large frame pumps continue to get cheaper and more effective every year. Invest in one.
The remoteness of some dirt and gravel roads also means that you need to plan your food and water more intelligently. Bring more fig bars than you’d usually eat, just in case, and upgrade to the largest bottles that can fit on your road frame. Sometimes I will even stick one or two bottles in my jersey pockets.Riding dirt and gravel is difficult but extremely rewarding. It improves your bike handling and helps you identify road surfaces that are easier to ride and surfaces that will require more care and attention. Some dirt road climbs can be really steep, so scoot forward to the nose of the saddle for more traction. Also, sometimes you can stand on dirt, but you will need to shit your weight further back over the saddle to avoid spinning out your rear wheel. Staying seated is most efficient. Some dirt descents can be steep too, so scoot farther back on the saddle or even hang off behind the saddle for more control. You’ll see the benefits of all of these skills when you return to the pavement as well.
Ride with a buddy, its safest and more fun to explore unknown parts with a friend, and now there’s no excuse to pine for the road network of the Old World, go see what the American West has to offer.