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RAGBRAI Training: Gravel Goodness

  • 30 April, 2021
  • Andrea Parrott

Did someone say gravel?

One of the new features of RAGBRAI is the adoption of the latest new fad in cycling – gravel riding. On Tuesday, July 27, you have the option of staying on paved roads all the way from Ft Dodge to Iowa Falls, or you can do an alternate course which takes you on 44.3 miles of unpaved gravel roads (full day is 70.2 miles).  If you grew up in the country, you hated riding bikes on gravel roads.  Gravel is hard to ride on, its dusty and it’s slow going. On group rides on paved roads. when you come to gravel strewn on pavement, people yell ‘Gravel!’ and swerve to avoid it like COVID.

So why in heaven’s name would RAGBRAI and cyclists actively seek out gravel roads when you have perfectly good smooth gravel-free paved roads to ride on?

The road less traveled, for one.  There will be a lot less bikes on the gravel course than on the paved course. If you want a break from the 10,000 cyclists doing RAGBRAI, head for the gravel. You will have a lot less company.  And gravel roads are nice because you don’t have much vehicle traffic either.  Cars apparently prefer paved roads too.  So there will be more solitude out on the gravel route.

The challenge, for two. Gravel riding involves more rolling resistance.  Depending on how thick the gravel is, you might be on perfectly hard smooth dirt roads, or you may be slogging through 3 inches of fresh loose gravel.  It makes you work harder and you go slower.  If your goal is to get to Iowa Falls as fast as you can, then I suggest taking pavement. If you want an adventure and challenge, opt for gravel.

Variety, for three.  For those of us who live and ride in Iowa all the time, we often get tired of riding the same roads all the time.  Only 36% of Iowa’s roads are paved, meaning that when we venture off pavement, we pick up 200% more new roads to ride and scenery to see.  There are still some gravel roads within 10 miles of where I live that I haven’t ridden yet. And these unpaved roads tend to have more personality.  Hills aren’t flattened when gravel roads were built – you go up and over all the natural terrain. They take you right into the heart of Iowa, off the beaten path.  For more info on Iowa gravel riding, check out this article on BikeIowa.com.

So if you are interested you in the gravel option on RAGBRAI this year, here are some things you need to know. Mainly, the equipment.  Because you are riding through gravel, which are small rocks (mostly limestone in Iowa), you need tires that can handle it.  Most older road bikes came with narrow tires (e.g. 23 mm).  More recently road bikes starting moving to wider tires (25-28mm).  I ride 25mm tires on the road and occasionally will ride gravel stretches with them, but I wouldn’t recommend it. If you plan to ride the 50 miles of gravel, you should have at least 28mm or wider tires to handle it.

Did you know bike manufacturers now make dedicate gravel bikes?  If you are really serious about riding lots of dirt and gravel, you should consider getting one.  By the way, these are very suitable for road riding too. They tend to have a bit more rolling resistance than a road bike due to the larger tires, but it won’t slow you down too much. If you have a gravel bike and want to ride the gravel section on the Tuesday of RAGBRAI, you could just bring and ride that bike for all of RAGBRAI. My gravel bike is actually more comfortable than my road bike.

Before you decide to ride the gravel section on RAGBRAI, I’d strongly encourage you to get out and try out some dirt or gravel roads where you live to see if you really like it or not, and to figure out if you have the right equipment for it.

So try some gravel goodness. You might just like it.

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: www.cyclesportcoaching.com. He can be contacted at cyclecoach@hotmail.com.

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