Finding a new route to ride after you’ve lived in one spot for several years is not easy. All the local climbs have been climbed, all the good loops have been looped in all possible directions. So when you want to organize a group ride that everyone will remember, what do you do? Explore the Google Maps.
I’ve been eyeing this one loop for a few years now but never been determined enough to have a go at it because Google Maps showed a long, 20 kilometer long unpaved section on it. How rough is it? Can it be ridden on a road bike? I kept thinking about it and thinking about it.
Yesterday though, Josh and I decided to go and have a look. We loaded our bikes on the roof of a Renault Laguna—to keep it as Euro-cool as possible—and drove to the start of the dirt road, reasoning that a proper reconnaissance expedition must involve some driving.
The sun was blazing in a typical Queensland manner and my iPhone informed me it was a lovely 37° in a shade. As you can imagine, there was no shade anywhere in sight.
Five minutes into the ride I discovered I made a rookie mistake—left my bottle on the bonnet of our Renault. Luckily, Josh mounted 2 massive cisterns on his bike. He passed one to me with a smug look on his face. Here, old man, live and learn. Thus, our gravel journey began.
Riding the Gravel
If you never rode on a gravel road for any significant distance, I think you’ll be surprised at how challenging it can be. It’s somewhat like climbing. Not as intense but just like on a climb the bike doesn’t roll by itself, you have to push on the pedals all the time to keep it going when riding on gravel. And when there’s a climb to deal with, the difficulty is escalated by the rocks and the soft, sandy surface. When it gets steep, and this loop we did with Josh has a couple of steep humps, you can’t get out of the saddle without spinning the rear wheel. And you can’t relax on the descends—too rough and too many dangers to watch out for. It’s when you spend an hour on a road like this you realize what a tough race Strade Bianche is.
So, if you wish to come along to taste a slice of subtropical Tuscany with us on 17 January 2015, here are a few things you need to consider:
- Leave your carbon wheels at home. One fast flying rock can damage them.
- I only have one pair of wheels and they were shod in 23c soft, racing tires, pumped to 80psi at the front and 90psi at the rear. They did OK but if you can, use something tougher in 25c or even 27c size (if your frame can take a 27c). You can go with lower psi on wider tires which will make your riding on gravel a little easier.
- Wear gloves. Not only does it create a softer interface between your hands and the handlebar, but if you misjudge a corner on a downhill and land on your hand, believe me, you would want a glove on it.
- Don’t forget your glasses—it will get dusty unless you decide to be an Eddy Merckx and ride at the front the entire section.
- Make sure both of your derailleurs work like a clockwork—there are a couple of places where you would have to make 3-4 gear shifts quickly—at the front and at the rear—to keep the momentum going as you take on a berg.
- Lube and clean your chain before the ride. My chain wasn’t lubed for some time and even though it would have been fine on a normal road any other day, it started squeaking a little after it got clogged with the dust. A squeaking chain is one of the most annoying things on a ride, especially coming from someone else’s bike.
- If it was raining the night before, the road edges can be a trap—water soaked sand that will drop your speed by 10km/h in 2 seconds.
In total, it’s a 123km loop. Doesn’t look epic, does it? But I promise you won’t be fresh when you finish it. That 20km gravel section will eat a good chunk of energy off you and when you’re back on a smooth surface, there is still a fair way to go. If you ever rode one of those “tempo” rides with me, you know how tough those last undulations can be near Springfield in the final 15km. And if it’s a hot day like it was yesterday, you’ll remember this ride for a long time.
For now, we’ll keep the ride’s route a secret to make it more interesting on the day when you come.