In my home area of Central Wisconsin, unpaved roads outnumber paved roads. We have plenty of paved highways, county roads and town roads. But the rolling countryside is a grid of rural roads with intersecting East-West gravel roads nearly every mile. The sparse rural population and the massive expense to pave and maintain these roads means that thousands of miles of Wisconsin country roads will remain gravel.
Years ago, I avoided ALL unpaved roads. Bike touring was restricted to paved roads – ONLY. Today, I seek out unpaved roads. The scenery is better, and you have the chance to take it in without being threatened by dangerous traffic. I have become a “gravel junkie”! I enjoy planning routes that maximize the miles on unpaved roads. It also helps that the state rock of Wisconsin is red granite. There are massive granite quarries in central Wisconsin – or what we refer to as “gravel pits”. Red granite makes beautiful countertops and grave markers when polished. Crushed red granite also make primo roads for bicycle touring!
I travel at a slower pace these days. I’m not interested in setting personal records, completing a 25-mile course in an hour so I can drink lattes the rest of the morning. I would much rather ride for several hours, even if my pace slows to half speed. Besides, I also feel that every gravel mile is the equivalent of 1.5 road mile, so I enjoy a slower pace, encounter minimal traffic, and get over twice the exercise.
I recently completed an 80-mile loop from my home in Marshfield. This route pieced together both paved and unpaved roads, being about 75% gravel – or 60-miles. The ride had two goals. First, I needed some conditioning miles before the two last competitive events I have planned for this Fall: Chequamegon MTB Festival (40-mile mountain bike race over the sharp hills in NW Wisconsin) and the Ironbull Red Granite gravel grinder (80-miles on mixed roads and trails near Wausau, WI.)
Second, I was fine-tuning my “gravel bike” for both the Ironbull event and a Fall bikepacking ride. My new gravel bike is the Priority Bicycles P600. This is my first bike with the Pinion enclosed gear drive. The Pinion drive uses a series of planetary and sun gears, with the transmission mounted at the bottom bracket of the aluminum frame. The evenly spaced 12 gears has the range of my 27-speed traditional touring bike – but substitutes the Pinion drive connected by a Gates carbon-reinforced belt to a single rear sprocket. The drive chain and front and rear derailleurs are eliminated, along with the adjustments, lubrication, and weaknesses these components share over long, strenuous miles of bicycle touring.
I researched the Pinion drive extensively before making the purchase. One impressive story was that of Kamran Ali, who trekked from Argentina all the way to Alaska riding his Pinion-drive bicycle. Here is a photo of Kamran in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. He writes: “Here, at this sign, my bike comes to a gentle stop. The bike computer shows that I have reached the destination of my tour at latitude 70°21’N. In 3 years, 7 months and 10 days, I have covered a total distance of 33.105 km.”
Kamran logged almost 20,000 trouble-free miles on his Pinion gear drive! Pinion.eu has more testimonials of cyclists that have tallied even higher numbers, some circling the globe. Closer to home, Ryan Van Duzer completed the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route with his Priority 600X mountain bike, relying on the same C12 gear drive. The year before, he rode his Priority P600 over 1,000 miles from his home in Colorado to Iowa, then across Iowa for the RAGBRAI tour.
Priority Bicycles has equipped the stock 600 for the urban rider. It is delivered with upright handlebars, fenders, flat pedals, and slick street tires that are perfect for commuting. Priority is based in New York and there are 10’s of thousands of commuters who rely on their bicycles. The trouble-free, maintenance-free Pinion drive is perfect for the urban commuter. But I saw the potential for the P600 to become the ideal gravel bike and bikepacking rig for the mixed roads in rural Wisconsin.
I reversed the stock build and removed the fenders, laid the handlebars down for better aerodynamics, installed a rack for panniers, and replaced the slick tires with tubeless tires with a better grip on loose gravel. The “commuter” bike has become a gravel bike. The truth is that the best touring bikes – combining durability, comfort, and versatility - also make great commuters.
I have ridden many miles on drop bar gravel bikes. I have never found them to be comfortable, resulting in a literal pain in the neck. Most bikes targeted at the trendy gravel market have road bike geometry with an aggressive riding position that is great for short, fast rides. But I have not found this to be comfortable over long days of gravel touring.
In contrast, the Priority 600 shares a more upright geometry with both commuting bikes and touring bikes – see also the photos of Kamran and Ryan above. Now that I have logged hundreds of miles on my P600, I am very satisfied with the comfort of the bike as well as the performance of the 12-speed Pinion drive.
The Priority 600 also is more versatile than my traditional touring bike with 27-speeds and narrow 700c wheels. This touring bike is gravel-capable on hard-packed roads with the 32mm tires, but any loose surface causes the wheels to wash out. The P600 has wider 650b wheels and I chose to set these up with 45mm Pirelli gravel tires, converted to tubeless. These are ideal tires for hard-packed gravel as well as paved roads and roll quietly and smoothly. They will be my choice for extended bike touring, as well. Instead of my 80 psi touring tires (that transfer ALL the bumps from the road up the seat post), I run the Pirellis at a max of 35 psi but have the option to air-down to 25 psi or lower for soft sand or rougher roads. Finally, I also have the option to swap to more aggressive tires for tours on rougher roads and challenging grinders like the upcoming Ironbull (which encountered mud and snow in 2019!)
I admit that I am still getting accustomed to pausing for a split-second to ship the Pinion gearbox. If you simply stop pedaling for an instant, the gearbox shifts instantly and silently – exactly like your auto transmission, which is what you would expect from former Porsche engineers!