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2022 RAGBRAI Optional Gravel Day Tips

  • 22 April, 2022
  • Andrea Parrott

As many of you realize, the gravel revolution in cycling is here.  People are discovering we can ride bikes on unpaved roads as well as paved roads, and these unpaved options give us a lot of advantages to augment our road riding. I will use the term ‘gravel’ here because almost all of the unpaved roads in Iowa are covered with limestone gravel. But this article also applies to dirt roads.  When I was a kid riding my bike, I avoided gravel roads and you probably did too, but recently we are discovering the advantages of such roads.  Depending on where you live, gravel/dirt roads may way outnumber the miles of paved roads. That is certainly the case in Iowa. Iowa roads were laid out in square mile grids. Many of these roads are gravel where approximately 66,000 of our 90,000 miles of roads are unpaved.  So this gives us a lot of new roads to explore.

If you are like me, I tend to ride the same routes over and over again. Gravel gives me an almost infinite choice of new routes to choose and new scenery.  Gravel roads also tend to offer more interesting terrain. When paved roads are built, the road engineers level out the hills and fill in the valleys.  Not so with gravel, just get the road grader out, carve out a road and sprinkle some gravel on it. They follow the terrain up and down all the hills no matter how steep.  Gravel roads also take you into the back country where paved roads don’t dare to go, so you get to see the countryside in its natural condition.  One final advantage of gravel riding is that vehicles prefer paved roads so you don’t usually get a lot of traffic out on these gravel roads.

On the other hand, there are some disadvantages to gravel riding.  First, gravel riding really needs a different bike, or at least different tires. It’s highly recommended if you plan to do a lot of gravel riding to get a gravel specific bike. One of the main features of a gravel bike is the greater tire clearance.  Gravel bikes often have wider and heavier tires to handle gravel. Gravel bikes can come with tires ranging from 28mm to 57mm, with most in the 35mm to 40mm range. Gravel tires also have a tread to help with traction. If you don’t have a specific gravel bike, you can try to fit 28mm tires on your road bike. I tried this before gravel bikes were invented but had to keep the air pressure way down or the tires would rub on the frame.  On gravel roads that are well traveled, or after a rain when the gravel is packed down, these roads can be just as hard and smooth as a paved road.  On the other hand, if the county crew went out the day before and laid a new layer of gravel, it can be a couple of inches deep and loose.  That’s one of the charms(?) of gravel – it’s like the weather, you get different conditions every day and you never know what you are going to get.

Another disadvantage of gravel riding is you are typically out in the boonies – miles away from civilization which means you are miles away from convenience stores, water sources and in some cases, cell service.  So plan ahead and carry with you everything you will need for your ride.  And one other feature of gravel riding: because you are in more rural areas, rural acreages tend to have dogs, and you might find you get chased more by dogs on gravel roads But think of it as sprint training. And finally, gravel riding tends to be slower than riding on paved roads, because of the increased resistance. This may be thought of as a disadvantage if you like to track and accumulate lots of miles fast, but on the other hand it allows you to slow down and look around. Plus, gravel riding is great for building fitness. I estimate it’s about 50% harder riding than on pavement so you may actually get more fitness by riding gravel, at least on a time basis. And, depending on how dry the roads are, gravel can be dusty especially when cars and trucks go by.  Occasionally you may have to hold your breath and close your eyes briefly as cars pass. On the other hand, when it rains, gravel becomes mud and muck.  I would not recommend doing the gravel option day if its rainy unless you can hose down at the end of the day.

So with that background, let’s talk about whether you should consider the gravel optional day on RAGBRAI, and if you do, here’s some ideas on how to prepare.

The gravel option day is Tuesday July 26, from Pocahontas to Emmetsburg. The paved route is 56 miles compared to 48 for the gravel option. They picked one of the shorter days so at least you don’t have 100 miles of gravel!  The gravel option is on totally different roads than the paved route, although it does intersect the paved course at four points. So if you are riding with people who will be on the paved course, you will have a chance to meet up throughout the day.  Also, because the gravel and paved routes intersect, it gives you the option of doing part of the day on gravel and part on paved. So you aren’t committed to doing the whole day on gravel. As mentioned above, if you choose to do the gravel option, you should bring either have a gravel bike or at least 28mm tires on your road bike.  If you don’t, you will be taking your chances that the gravel roads will be packed and smooth, and I wouldn’t count on that.  So does that mean you need to bring two bikes on RAGBRAI, a road and gravel bike?  That certainly is an option but not a very good one for most people as it complicates logistics of traveling and hauling bikes.  A better option is to go with the wider tires on your road bike, but some road bikes don’t have enough clearance to handle 28mm tires. Get that checked out by your bike shop before you go and buy wider tires. Or you can ride a gravel bike for the whole duration of RAGBRAI.  Gravel bikes work great on pavement, although the treaded tires tend to have more rolling resistance on pavement. If you decide to ride a gravel bike all the way, one consideration is to bring along another pair of smooth road tires and change those to your gravel tires for the optional gravel day.  But my experience is riding gravel tires on pavement works just fine so personally I wouldn’t mess with changing tires. Just put more air in them for the pavement.

If you have the ability and equipment to do the optional gravel day, I will strongly encourage you to give it a try.  It will add a new dimension to your ride and get you off the beaten path.

Coach David Ertl

David Ertl is a USA Cycling Level 1 Coach. He coaches the Des Moines Cycle Club Race Team and individual cyclists through the Peaks Coaching Group. He also provides cycling training plans and ebooks at his website: http://www.CyclesportCoaching.com . He can be contacted cyclecoach@hotmail.com.

1 Comment

  1. KenH

    Decades ago I first learned to ride a bike on the long gravel driveway of my grandfather’s farm. It was the classic Dad running alongside holding you up until at some point you look back for comfort and GAAAH, HE’S NOT THERE ANYMORE!! training technique. That would scar some kids for life but I was the sort who took well to it because your very next thought is YAY, I CAN RIDE A BIKE!! I’ve been riding gravel ever since but I am not a modern gravel grinder/racer. To me it is just another road surface to ride on and I am an old, slow rider even on pavement. As the coach says the crowds are lighter (and that can be a nice break from the RAGBRAI norm) and even though hillier the scenery is often some of the best you will find on RAGBRAI which is saying something given the beauty of much of the main route. Part of the gravel grinder ethos is to help riders in trouble so even with the light crowd you should be able to find help if you need it.

    Wide tires are best for gravel but they do not have to have an aggressive tread pattern so you can get some wider tires that will work well all week. Wide tires have the generally unappreciated advantage of giving you some extra margin of safety when it comes to road hazards like the centerline cracks that can take you down and out for the week. There’s something to be said for running wide tires except when you are in a race. Give the gravel a try, you will be surprised at how much fun it is!

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