Welcome to the Basics of Gravel Series (B.O.G.)! In this series I will attempt to bring a very foundational knowledge of gravel and back road riding to anyone reading that may be curious or a beginner in riding off-pavement, but not wanting to be mountain biking. There will be a new entry every Wednesday until the series is complete. To see the schedule, click this LINK. Thanks!
Now that we've covered the bikes, the gear, and some self-sufficiency basics, it is time to talk about the riding. Where do you get routes and how do you navigate out there? These questions can be addressed with technology, but many times the devices (Garmins, Wahoo, etc) are very expensive for beginners and knowing the nuances of route finding is a somewhat clouded pursuit for many.
So, let's take a look at routes first.
|Snip from Google.
So, what do you look for? Okay, anytime you see a lot of curvy roads, rivers, creeks, and areas marked as preserves or forests, etc, you can pretty much bet on facing some challenging terrain. Now while that may sound disappointing, usually the best stuff to experience is in these sorts of areas. Well....not best, but 'most spectacular? Probably. If you are looking for pictures for your Instagram, then you are on the right track.
But I might suggest a different approach. If you are a beginner, not used to rural riding, and maybe are not quite feeling confident in your self-support skill sets, then keep things closer to home. Actually, I've found some real gems to see which are very near to my hometown. I bet most people could say the same if they researched routes and took the time to look.
But Google will help you sort out a possible route. Next up, I would look to your government sources. Many states maintain a Department of Transportation web presence which may have a wealth of road information for you to verify that your route you found on Google Earth is not a State highway or some blacktop road now. Iowans can see stuff like this here. Clicking on a color PDF for any county will pull up maps that have color coded roads, (hint: You want the green and red roads in Iowa!), and you can print those out and either use them as is, or input the route on a mapping program, if you want.
Many states have this sort of information. Out West, your best bet is the BLM, or the Bureau of Land Management which has information on cycling besides maps for their jurisdictions. But government sources are great for detailed information which will help you decide where you might be interested in going.
Next stop- Local Knowledge. Fortunately gravel cycling isn't anything new, at least that's a plus for you beginners. Because of this, there are already thousands upon thousands of miles of loops, point-to-point, and local routes which have been searched out and have been proven to be great routes. You can generally find these sorts of things out from local bike shops, local bicycle clubs, or even promoters of events in your area. It is highly likely that the promoters of gravel events have ridden or driven thousands of miles of rural roads searching for good routes, so don't forget to check in with anyone who may be connected to the promotion of a local-to-you gravel ride or race.
If you haven't already found a great route, you can try making your own using some of the above mentioned resources, and if you do, I have one critical bit of advice for you: Drive the route first to verify it actually exists. Too many times I've run into bad information from all sorts of sources, even from the latest governmental agencies and from Google or any online atlas or paper atlas. There just is not as much of an emphasis on accuracy for roads seldom traveled or used for touring. So, don't get caught at a dead end on your bike! Drive that route and see if it works first! Besides, you'll maybe see if it actually will work out how you think. Or you may see a more tantalizing alternative.
Navigation: So, are you challenged when it comes to finding your way? Well, get used to navigating via a paper map by using one to route yourself through an unfamiliar urban area, or draw up your own cue cards and see if you can follow them on an urban adventure. Practice makes perfect, and once you understand maps and how to follow them, you are on your way.
Many rural intersections are marked with 'street signs' like this one at a "T" intersection.
Many times roads in rural areas have corner signs, almost like street signs, which will help you to orient yourself or to help you verify your directions. If you are fortunate enough to own a GPS device with a route prompt feature, you can use those signs to help make sure you are lining up with your downloaded route. Out West you may have sign posts with numbered forest roads or trail numbers. Just make sure you are acquainted with how things are marked in the area you are hoping to travel through before you get there. Again, government sources are key here.
And the old compass is a great tool for righting a disoriented mind. Don't discount having one in your bag for a ride, especially if the route is a turning and twisting one which can make finding directions a bit more challenging at times. Finally- ride with seasoned riders a few times. Often you can learn a lot by doing and asking questions of those more experienced riders, if that is at all possible. Local gravel group rides are another thing to look for here to get your feet wet in following routes and learning about where to ride.
To close, I'll just reiterate that if you are a beginner, don't try to bite off more than you can chew the first few times. Maybe stick closer to town, or an area you are familiar with. Maybe hook up with a gravel group ride, or hang with the folks that already ride gravel on social media who can suggest routes or take you out to ride something. There are a bunch of ways to do this, and finding the way that suits you best shouldn't be too difficult these days.
Next: Riding "Right" (Basic Gravel Road Riding Rules and a word or two about dogs)