Thursday, August 29, 2019

Country Views: Expert Level Gravel

This sign is at the start of one of the best sections of gravel around in Iowa.
I was out for a gravel ride Wednesday and I went to an area I've ridden in several times before, but it had been awhile since I'd been down that way. N.Y. Roll and a friend of his had done a night time grind down there recently and their social media posts gave me the inspiration to go down there again and ride.

Of course, I am talking about "Ridge Road" in Northern Tama County. This road is only about 27 miles or so from home and just outside of Traer, Iowa. In fact, you can park in Northwest Traer, be on gravel in a block's distance, and within two miles you are at the foot of the climb up which marks the start of Ridge Road.

Ridge Road, just like the name suggests, is on a high ridge running Northwest to Southeast for several miles. This gravel road meanders atop the ridge offering travelers spectacular views off either side of the road for miles. The trip is worth it just for the view, but the climb is also one of the only ones of its type in Iowa. A climb that rises steadily for over a mile, and despite a few rollers on top, never really quits climbing if you come from Traer. The "easier" passage of Ridge Road is to take it starting on the Northwestern end of it and travel toward Traer. But trust me, you don't want to do that if you want to earn your "Expert Level" Gravel Scout Badge. That's because Ridge Road can be put in a loop course in and out of Traer that, in my opinion, is one of the most physically and technically challenging loops in the State. 

I say this because when I put on Trans Iowa, I loved using this area for routes. Tama County is no joke, and the gravel travel in Tama County is awesome. I've not only used this area for Trans Iowa courses, but for Guitar Ted Death Ride courses as well. I've been around too, and I can say with some confidence that there isn't much tougher challenges out there then some of what Tama County has on offer, and this loop I did is a great sampler platter, if you will. This loop, as a matter of fact, is one I would not recommend to anyone not confident with and/or not very experienced in gravel skills. The risks are too high for folks with poor handling skills.

A twisty road sign- one of my favorites!
You can literally see for miles off either side of Ridge Road on a good day.
There is another odd fact about Tama County that is pretty consistently true- They have a slightly chunkier, gnarlier gravel than anywhere else. I don't know why their particular "grind" of rock is the way it is, but Tama County generally does not scrimp on using it. You can almost always count on there being a good layer of "chunky goodness" on Tama County roads. Just ask anyone who has ridden Trans Iowa when it went through any part of that county.

You can see this rural water tower for miles around. It takes quite an effort to go by it!
Coming down off Ridge Road on K Avenue, South. You'd better be a confident downhiller on these roads!
So, you have a ridge road with a long climb up to it. Big deal! Yes, but what goes up must eventually go back down, and in Tama County, that can mean "down fast!"  This is one of the major reasons I don't recommend this area to many folks because unless I know that they are good bike handlers I may be sending them off to a very bad deal. 30+ mph and loose rock is no joke, but those speeds and Tama County loose rock is downright sketchy. I know that folks with limited down hill skill sets have a lot of issues on gravel and it only takes one wrong move and you are going to be fishtailing, or possibly wiping out, because of the technical nature of high speed bombing on looser gravel. Having the right set up is critical too. Especially in terms of air pressures.

I rode the carbon Noble Bikes GR-5. NOTE- The "white patch" behind the telephone pole is the next hill on gravel!
Getting to see this view from atop the Wolf Creek Wall means you had to pay in some tough climbing.
Of course, what comes down has to go up again, and again, and again. Most climbs here aren't that long, but they are really steep, and they can come one after another, sometimes endlessly. This loop I did has several steep ups, and they aren't of the easy variety. Bring your climbing legs for a big section of this loop. I used to recommend a certain section on this loop as training for locals that were going to try Trans Iowa. That's how tough these are to get up. And of course, the downhill part applies every time here as well.

A lonely John Deere sits in a field near Traer, Iowa.
Barns for Jason
After a pretty intense first half of this loop you get a little relief with some 'normal" Iowa rollers. The chunky goodness of Tama County made this part no less of a grind though. At least it was nice out with a stiff Northwesterly breeze and big skies overhead. Not too hot either. Nice and comfortable in that regard. I felt bad for anyone having to work indoors on a day like it was Wednesday.

There is nothing finer than an Iowa dirt road in summer. Fast! Smooth! Fun!
Barns For Jason- Part 2
Then I got into some Level B Maintenance roads. Now these can be your worst nightmare, or the best thing you've ever ridden on. In Summer it generally is the latter. However; you still have to be on your guard. Ruts, potholes, whoop-de-dos, garbage, buried stone, shards of beer cans and bottles, and other nasties await your fragile tires and unsuspecting self. I saw a bungee cord with metal hooks, several crushed aluminum beer cans with sharp edges, and lots of embedded stone and even bricks! So, just because it looks easy and is fun, it doesn't mean it is without its own forms of peril. And of course, if it is spring or Winter, well......fahgeddaboudit. You will have a miserable time on a bike. But everyone already knows that, right? 

I remember someone remarking at this year's GTDRI that dirt road intersections seemed odd. Well, here is another one!
Good times on O Avenue South of Highway 63 in Tama County.
So, we have regular hills, longer climbs, fast, sketchy down hills, steep climbs, and Level B dirt roads, all in the same loop? Yes.'s all within a half an hour drive of Waterloo, and it can be done in two hours. (More if you want it)

Barns For Jason- Part 3
Barns For Jason- Part 4
The scenery doesn't stop either, as you can see from my "Barns for Jason" images here. That isn't all there is to look at either. There are ample wildlife viewing opportunities, and the general goodness of rural Iowa, of course. But that said, this little nook of Tama County is pretty charming, and there are several other parts of Tama County with great views as well.

The low water crossing of the Wolf Creek on O Avenue.
Climbing up from the water crossing on O Avenue.
So, all of that and a lot of it is pretty dang difficult stuff. I would say that anyone that does that loop and can handle it all without missteps is an "expert gravel grinder" and could probably handle just about anything out there off pavement on roads and byways.

I had a good outing and felt pretty good on this ride. I need to get down there more often and ride. I can put together several variations of loops from  Traer, but the one I did is probably the most difficult and the most fun. I'd do it again in a heartbeat on a good day.


Ben said...

Nice photos - I actually think I did much of that route last weekend on a ride from home and Traer and back, including a few "new to me" B roads that I imagine you were on also. Looking at the state DOT map, there are a LOT of them roughly between Traer and Gladbrook just south of Hwy 63 / 96. I'll have to check out some others around there soon.

Guitar Ted said...

@Ben- I HIGHLY recommend the Level B road on 270th Southwest of Garwin, "II" Avenue Level B Southeast of Garwin, and anything just West of HWY 63 between E-29 and Toledo. Let me know when you find the zebra farm!

Happy Hunting!