It’s a solitary place where I’ve been riding during the past week and a half. Motor vehicles are few and I haven’t seen any other cyclists.
It’s so quiet that all I usually hear is the wind. When a vehicle does approach, I can hear it from far away and move to the side of the road.
That maneuver still scares me a little. You see, the gravel is usually thickest on the edges of unpaved roads.
I’ve been riding gravel roads on the outskirts of Willmar. They’re the kind of thoroughfares I’ve been trying to avoid for years as I’ve ridden in different parts of the county.
But a variety of factors have changed my opinion about gravel.
The Adventure Cycling Association, of which I’m a member, sometimes publishes stories in its magazine and on its website about off-road touring. That’s not always gravel roads necessarily, but that’s close enough for government work.
A link on the association’s site leads to Bikepacking.net, a website devoted to cyclists who try to do multi-day tours while carrying as little gear as possible. Most of the stories and examples of bike setups shown on the site are mountain bikes rigged to travel on unpaved paths such as gravel roads.
I’ve also started noticing gravel road racing. Several of these races are held in Minnesota. Some bike manufacturers are making bikes specifically for such competitions.
Another factor leading to my departure from pavement was the change of seasons. When I heard last month that there were frost warnings for northern Minnesota, I took that as a sign to prepare my mountain bike for the coming winter.
Seeing the fat, heavily treaded tires the techs at Rick’s Cycling and Sports Center had installed on my Schwinn Moab gave me the idea of trying some of the area’s gravel roads. It just seemed like a natural.
It’s an adjustment.
Although I can see the twin wind turbines near Willmar Senior High School on the horizon, it seems like a different world when I’m riding gravel.
Sometimes I can feel my rear wheel fish tailing a little as the pebbles beneath it shift.
There are stretches of road where the pebbles have been pressed into the soil beneath and the combination is packed so much the surface feels like pavement. Lots of times, those spots are in the middle of the road and, as hilly as these roads are, I have to be extra careful to avoid an unpleasant meeting with a car or truck.
Washboard is the only way other expanses can be described. The shaking I experience on a few yards of those stretches usually lead to my moving over to the edge, no matter how thick the gravel.
Riding these roads, especially for a novice like me, is a slow process. I usually average 10 to 12 mph during a two-hour ride. On my road bike on pavement, I’m more likely to average 13 to 16 mph.
But, as I’ve already said, gravel roads really roll. Coasting down those hills, I’ve gone as fast as a little more than 20 mph.
So far, I’ve managed to stay upright no matter how thick the gravel.
I certainly hope that trend continues.