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Steering Your Road Bike Toward the Unpaved

The cattle guard stands there like a sleazy doorman at a nightclub.

It serves as a barrier, dictating the passage between the smooth paved surface and the unkempt on the opposite side. Several feet deep and just wide enough for a vehicle to pass through, the grid is aligned with iron slats separated from one another with just the right amount of space — a gap that’s tempting for livestock to cross, but one that’s sure to lock the unsuspecting hoof between the guard’s merciless jaws.

Rough Around the Edges

Even on a bicycle, this road disturbance causes me to stop momentarily and roll a series of questions through my head. I’ve ventured beyond this exact point before, but it was years ago and I was in a car. I’m pretty sure it was a car and not a SUV, so it shouldn’t be too rough of a road, right? I do know it eventually rejoins the asphalt somewhere out there, but how far it is, well, I can’t recall. As I rest on my top tube at this junction, going through the internal dialogue, I realize something else: My vague recollection of this gravelly dirt route is also what makes it so appealing. It’s a slight shift from the regular humdrum road riding routine and, hell, why not check it out? The adventurous spirit doesn’t come knocking all the time, so I decide to run with it. I check my supplies. I have a pump, two tubes, a multi-tool with tire levers, and enough water to last a few more hours. I should be set.

And so I rolled my skinny road tires across that rusty steel threshold. The path mirrored a streambed, down a gravel passage lining the floor between opposing canyon walls. For these unpaved surfaces, I find it best to pedal at a smooth clip, with my hands lightly resting on the tops of the bars. Not only does this upright position let me comfortably take in all of the surrounding scenery, but it also reminds me to keep my arms loose and relaxed to help soak up the bumps. And like any well-used bypass corridor, this particular road was filled with washboard sections ingrained from years of trucks riding the brakes and displacing the sediment and gravel. There was also the occasional steep pitch that snuck up on me, detouring out and away from the water.


When I’m on these rides, I always want to get completely lost in my sightseeing journey, but road conditions usually force me to stay focused. And while this road wasn’t too bad, I knew that it was still important to pay close attention to my line — gingerly picking through the rough patches and churning out a high cadence on the packed mud. It also helps to be rolling on bigger tires. I’ve been running 25/28mm tires on my road bikes for years, precisely for these opportunities — they’re not much slower on the pavement, and the wide profile makes for noticeably better traction. When I finally wheeled back onto the chip seal at the end of the canyon some 10 miles later, I was stoked. With no punctures and a fine layer of dust covering my sweaty legs, I finished with a grin that would take more than a few days to wash off.

So, even if this type of “adventure riding” is a bit of a craze that’s sweeping through the road-riding community, I say embrace it. If you have gravel paths or dirt roads that are accessible from your normal road loop, give ’em a go. It’s a hell of a time. You not only get a break from your routine, but you also have the chance to explore some new terrain on quiet roads, sharpen up your bike-handling skills, and slow it down a little. Just remember: pack your repair kit — just in case — and take it easy across those deceptive cattle guards.



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