Don’t put away the cross bike yet. I know the temptation is to throw it in the corner of the garage and deal with cracking last year’s crud off of it when it’s time for next year’s race season, but you’d be missing out on a ton of great riding. It’s called gravel grinding, or adventure riding, or just plain riding around and a cross bike is the perfect tool for the job.
First off, what the heck is gravel grinding? Well, have you ever been out on a road ride and noticed all the sweet dirt lanes and gravel roads we have around here? Ever take any of them? Probably not very far, but if you did, good for you. You probably noticed how cool it is to link up places like Medford and the Applegate Valley without having to go through Jacksonville and Ruch first. How about taking a back way from Green Springs to Dead Indian? Have you ever wanted to get above the heat in summer and just cruise the gravel roads out by Lake of the Woods but the mountain bike is pretty much overkill for the job? How about taking Colestine Rd. down into Hilt? The gravel grinder is the perfect bike for such rides. You get to knock out miles and cover ground like you do on a road bike but you also get almost car free roads and tons of scenic views like you do on the mountain bike.
OK, so now you want to know why a cross bike is the weapon of choice for these types of adventures (or big stupids as my wife likes to call them) and you can’t do them on your road or mountain bike? Sure you can, but here’s why a cross bike is better.
Your road bike is the result of years of refinement all aimed at getting you from point A to point B as quickly and as efficiently as possible, as long as the way you are connecting those points is fairly smooth. Think sports car. Sure you can go down some gravel and dirt roads, but its going to be harder on you and your bike if you do it a lot. Plus, your margin of error on 23c slicks is pretty narrow when careening down washboard.
Your mountain bike is also designed to get you from point A to point B in an efficient manner, but over terrain that is heavily weighted towards the off in offroad. Shocks, fat knobby tires, and a fairly upright riding position all make for comfort and control on rocky singletrack and rutted out logging roads, but not the most calorically efficient way to cover miles over smooth dirt and bad tarmac. Think Baja racing truck, except you are the engine and last night’s burrito is the fuel. Your milage is gonna suffer a bit.
But there’s your trusty cross bike. The funny thing about a cross bike is that it is actually a very specific use, highly refined tool designed to do do one thing very, very well. Carry a racer around terrain that is pretty crappy according to rad bike standards, kinda tame by mountain bike standards, and be fairly light, tough, and comfortable while doing it. Those are the exact same qualities that you’d look for in a gravel grinder type bike, although since you aren’t going to be racing on a closed course for just 45 minutes to and hour, you’ll probably want to make a few concessions. Also, you won’t be having a crack Belgian pit crew to swap bikes every lap, so these mods are going to be made not only with performance, but durability in mind.
First thing is you are going to want to change tires. Cross tires (especially tubulars) for racing are awesome, but you are going to want something that rolls easier on pavement, lasts longer, and is more easily repaired on the side of the road. I’ve had great luck with the tires from Clement. They make a few models specifically designed for these types of rides and I can say they roll fast on the road, grip well on gravel and dirt, and have a nice, supple casing so they suck up all the small stuff nicely. Another option is to use a commuting or touring type tire, but typically they are heavier and the thread count on the casing is pretty low so they ride a little rougher.
This is the MSO from Clement. If your bike frame can handle their 40c size, I can’t recommend these enough. They come in two versions. The less expensive one has a 60TPI casing and a single rubber compound whereas the nicer one comes with a 120TPI casing and dual rubber compound. So nice.
This is the USH. It’s a skosh smaller at 35c so it tends to fit on more bikes where clearance is limited. It’s also a bit better if your rides tend to have a bit more pavement thrown into the mix. That center ridge section runs nice and fast. The little diamond shaped knobs start to get bigger as they get closer to the edge, so cornering traction is great with out having a buzzing from a large block like you would on a mountain bike tire. FYI, these hook up better than they have any right to when you get them off road. Also, all the Clement tires convert to tubeless super easily. Here’s a handy dandy review of both the MSO and the USH from someone else who likes these tires.
There really aren’t many more mods to do. You will probably want to go with a little wider range gearing than you have now. A little smaller on the inner chainring and maybe a mountain bike cassette in back in case you want to venture up some of the canyons and buttes we have around here. Needless to say, having a geared bike is going to be pretty much a given for most of us. Sure, there are plenty of examples of folks doing all sorts of epic rides on single speed and even fixed gears, but I will leave you with one word regarding single speeds and these types of rides. If you’re gonna be dumb, ya gotta be tough.
You’ll also want to put bottle cages back on the bike, and if the ride is long and remote enough, plan on using a hydration pack of some kind. That’s all there really is to it. The biggest modification you have to do is to yourself. Start looking at all the awesome gravel roads and dirt lanes that are out there and just begin to ride down them. You’ll be amazed at how many of them there are, how many cool and out of the way places they’ll take you, and how quiet from traffic they are. Plus, it’s fun to start pouring over old maps and using your GPS for something other than seeing how fast you were up the same boring climb you do every week. Here’s a few pics to wet your whistle, so to speak, for some great gravel road rides in the year to come.