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The Advantages of a “Gravel” Bike for Recreation, Fitness, and Touring

You can DOUBLE your cycling fun if your bike is capable beyond paved roads!

The more miles that I log on unpaved roads, the more I am convinced that “gravel” bikes are the only way to go. Years ago, I was obsessed with lightweight and speed – to the point that I toured on a modified Japanese racing bike complete with fragile, one-inch “sew-up” tubular tires. Rarely a day went by that I or one of my companions didn’t suffer a flat, or worse, break a spoke. When planning a tour route, we focused 100% on paved roads, primarily the network of secondary County Highways. This also meant that we were forced to ride busy and dangerous main highways to connect lesser roads.

Looking back, I would estimate that less than 50% of the roads in Midwest farm country were paved. Just like western mountain states, much of the best scenery and camping opportunities were found beyond the pavement. This was further confirmed when I became an avid “dual-sport” motorcycle rider, and covered thousands of unpaved miles across the U.S., including hundreds more in Alaska.

gravel touring bicycle
Typical gravel road in Wisconsin farm country

Maybe I am content to cover fewer miles per day and at a slightly slower pace. Now days, I enjoy the ride, including many miles of rural, unpaved roads as well as lesser trails. Mid-Wisconsin is blessed with “premier gravel” in the form of crushed red granite. While a little dusty at times, these hard-packed rural roads are nearly as smooth and fast as pavement, and sometimes smoother without the incessant potholes and frost cracks. I sometimes plan rides to MAXIMIZE the miles on gravel, which means I often travel many miles without seeing any vehicles. Instead of being buzzed continually by passing traffic (and the tension this requires), I often pedal for HOURS without being passed by a single vehicle!

My fragile racing bike is long gone. Now EVERY bike I own is a “gravel” bike – at times – including my touring bike, mountain bike, and even my fat bike! And I'm not alone. "Gravel bikes" outsell every other category today. The previous article, "Why Your New Bike – or NEXT Bike – Should Be a “Gravel” Bike!" covered many of the selling points. Since then - while riding on unpaved roads - I have thought of some more important advantages of owning a bike that is "gravel-capable".

My definition of a gravel bike is one that has both the wheelbase for stability and the frame clearance for sturdy, wider tires. I can swap the tires on my touring bike from 700c x 28mm for fast paved roads to 38mm for most gravel roads, excluding only the roughest two-tracks and deep mud. The 28mm (1 1/8”) tires are capable on dry, smooth Wisconsin gravel while 32mm to 38mm tires have more tread options and provide a cushier ride.

gravel touring bicycle
Gravel takes you to remote and interesting places! (Pray, Wisconsin)

The ultimate versatility is found in bikes that have two sets of wheels. Most gravel bikes are designed for 700c wheels and tires for fast training rides and ultralight overnight trips. But I can also install 650b wheels with wider, softer 47mm tires for extended tours and gravel grinders on rougher roads. I can even go up to 50mm (2-inch) light knobbies for participation in what would normally be considered “mountain bike races”, like the Chequamegon MTB race on the famed Birkebiner ski trails.

gravel touring bicycle
Road Construction doesn't scare me! (Use caution!)

Beyond practicality, there are other reasons to ride a bike that is gravel-capable. The other day I was completing a training loop for the upcoming 450-mile RAGBRAI tour. In the middle of my loop, my planned route encountered road construction. Here in snow country, the short summer season means widespread road construction – it is unavoidable. I doubt that you can travel 50 miles in any direction without entering a construction zone. Many miles may be bulldozed or covered with tar and gravel “chip seal”. Some zones include detours, but others require that you pass through since there simply may not be parallel alternative roads. There simply may not be any alternate routes. Sometimes a section of pavement is damaged by flooding and the pavement may be replaced by a stretch of rough, crushed rock.

In the “old days” we went so far as to hitch rides with cooperative truck drivers to bypass the loose, sharp rocks in construction zones. Now I simply gear down and pedal through. I have even traveled past “Road Closed” signs and negotiated active construction zones. Most recently, I rode several miles into a road construction zone to find the road completely closed and the crew replacing a washed out bridge. In a higher and drier area, I would have simply bushwhacked through the woods along the road. In this case, both sides of the road were marshy and wet. Luckily, a railroad track ran close to the road, and I backtracked to the nearest crossing, then walked my bike to the next crossing beyond the construction. This half-mile “hike-a-bike” added about 15 minutes to my ride but gave my muscles a chance to recover.

Don’t put yourself in danger in a road construction zone and don’t create a conflict with the crew. But you will often find that a slow moving bike can easily negotiate most active sites. In contrast, in the past I have bypassed gravel roads only to later be confronted by road construction on my chosen paved route. So, I no longer go out of my way to avoid gravel. Instead, I plan for it and enjoy it! Indeed, you may need to travel 10 or more miles to bypass a single mile of gravel road. I have often found that rural farm roads sometimes turn from pavement to gravel and back again every few miles, especially where there are large sections of fields with no houses.

gravel bikepacking
Old Hwy 54 has been converted to miles of traffic-free gravel!

When touring, not only will the scenery often be better and the traffic lighter on unpaved roads, but your route will be more direct. I recently completed a loop that offered the choice of 20 miles on a paved highway or 18 miles on a parallel gravel town road – and I didn’t think twice about choosing the slower gravel section. (I saw TWO vehicles in the next 90 minutes!) You can intentionally take side roads to scenic destinations, hiking trailheads, and the best campsites. Here in northern Wisconsin, there are unpaved routes that link dozens of waterfalls, all of which are miles from the highway and hordes of impatient tourist drivers. EVERY gravel road will offer more wildlife sightings in addition to the opportunity for relaxed contacts with rural residents.

Finally, being “gravel-capable” offers options when touring. Many areas have roads laid out in grids. If you see a dangerous storm approaching, it is easy to turn 90-degrees and put miles between you and bad weather. Similarly, if you find yourself in need of food, bike repairs, or medical help you can take the shortest route to reach supplies or assistance. If you are traveling with a companion, you can ride side-by-side for hours without any danger.

Whether for short day rides, an intense workout, or an extended tour you will find many advantages in preparing your bicycle and your attitude to accept, even welcome unpaved roads. Even most “road” bikes can become gravel-capable. This is especially true with the softer ride and durability of tubeless tires. Even my fat bike becomes a fun and capable gravel bikepacking machine when I swap the 4.9-inch snow tires for 3-inch lightweight tubeless tires. But my main bike is ready for fast road rides, gravel grinders, and mixed touring routes. Don’t miss the “miles of smiles” that await beyond the pavement.


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