Are you mental? Riding off-road on a road bike

Off the map. The tarmac ends just like that. No warning. Mud, gravel and rocks ahead. Behind the ignominy of retreat, of surrender.

You pause and stop as if your eyes deceive you and the road will be resurfaced if you just stare at it long enough. The road pitted with holes, with sharp rocks and more grit than a Ken Loach film. Punctures and snapped derailleurs hide in plain sight.

You look at your bike. The once sturdy and comfy 25mm tyres now look razor thin and as soft as jelly. The track ahead will surely splice them to bits.

Off road riding
There may be trouble ahead

The clue is in the name. Road bike. What fool would ride on anything but smooth asphalt? Yet road bikes are not as precious as we might think. They’ll survive all sorts.

Road bike used as a BMX? Tick. Road bike used as a mountain bike? Tick. So what’s the secret? Tyres. Decent rubber is the difference between bumpy fun and puncture pain. Other than that all that’s stopping you is your own preciousness not the bike.

I remember cringing when I first rode the Belgian cobbles, my bike clattering over the jagged stones like a speedboat on choppy water. Yet it survived (a lot better than my soft parts and wrists).

Riding off road is a lot fun, challenging too. Picking your line, risking your speed, in and out of the saddle, eyes peeled, constantly on the lookout for your next puncture, your next fall.

There. That’s sold it to you. Right?

The smooth road is just around the corner, right?

Sure, riding off road will slow you down but it will quicken the pulse and heighten the senses. Add a little interest to your ride with a few lumps and bumps.

Learn some new bike handling skills, build your core strength a little. Change down the gears to avoid wheel spin on loose gravel, fly over mini-jumps and hold a straight line when the ground gets soggy.

Farrapona climb cycling
Who stole the road?

Riding off-road instantly sends me back to my childhood. It’s a joy to recapture such youthful abandonment. Carefree, neverending days of sunshine and random rides throughs woods and forests, always on the lookout for the next big jump or super steep decline, the more dangerous the better.

Gravel is great. Gravel bike not required

Even the Pro’s are at it

Such is fashion. There’s been a resurgence in sending the poor old pro riders over surfaces more suited to moon buggies. The Tour de France organisers must think it hilarious to send the peloton crashing over the Roubaix cobbles. Cue crashes, epic images and dirty, miserable faces.

Over at the Giro d’Italia, fans love nothing more than the novelty of gravel on the beastly Colle delle Finestre. Eight kilometres of gravel, or mud as it’s known in the wet.

Not forgetting rides like Strade Bianche (translation: White Roads) who’s very reason for being is gravel, albeit pretty soft. I’ve ridden dirtier, lumpier country lanes here in the UK!

A lesser know race is Tro-Bro Léon. The hipster’s favourite, apparently. Cool name, cool route, riding through the dirt, cobbles and gravel in Brittany. The local Bretons even have a poetic name for any such uncovered filthy roads, ribinoù.  

Next time you’re heading off, why not confuse folk and ask them if they fancy a ride on the ribinoù? Damn those French and their poetic license. They make the ordinary sound so sexy. Bidon monsieur? 

I know something for sure. Tro-Bro Léon sure has the best prize. You can keep your filthy lucre, forget about your boring old cobblestones, glass plates, and shiny trophies. Give me a piglet. For real. A prize reserved for the leading Breton rather than the race winner.

Gravel rides and sportives

The rise in popularity of dirt can also be found a little closer to home for us mere mortals.  With origins from US gravel grinding races, more and more sportives and even local club rides are beginning to venture into unknown worlds of filth.

With it comes the added the adventure of er, breaking your bike, but mostly your legs. Riding off-road requires more strength and stamina, an all over body workout. Not to mention the warm down when washing your bike.

Dirty Reiver is perhaps becoming the most well-known, or notorious, of the UK off-road rides. A 200km romp (or hack, depending on your ability) across the English-Scottish borders. The landscape lumpy, alien to us road riders, the course isolated, lost to the world.

I’ll usually do all I can to avoid puddles. Dirty Reiver challenges this approach. Bring your snorkel.

Sure you’ve packed the fifteen spare inner tubes but did you remember the mandatory survival blanket? And perhaps a sidecar for Bear Grylls?

Time for some classy black and white photos of proper suffering and epicness.  Rapha’s Hell of the North ride is a little nearer to home for us Londoners, for who the concept of dirty riding is usually a tube train journey.

Of course the event is not really in the north (just north of the river) and neither is it hell. Or is it?

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#Rapha #HOTNVII

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Personally I draw the line at any ride requiring you to get off the bike. If I wanted to go for a walk I’d do it with a hip flask and without the bike. Rough, muddy and rocky is fine when dry but best left to horses when wet.

Did somebody say walking? With a bike on their shoulder? Then Yorkshire’s 3 Peaks CX is for you. Gruelling.

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Chaos #1 . #3peakscx #cadenceimages

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Technically we’re getting into cross-bike territory now, so probably best not to try this on your road bike. As this video shows, plenty of rocks and crashes await. 

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6 thoughts on “Are you mental? Riding off-road on a road bike

  1. Nice. Yeah I was just thinking about this yesterday, we climbed a section of gravel on our road bikes with 25c tyres. Not so many years ago that was the norm. Required some extra skills to do it. But in these parts at least, gravel riding bikes , 650b wheels and 47c tyres have become norm. There was something extra challenging about gravel on road bikes, and satisfying when you hit the smooth top.

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    1. 47c tyres, that must be like a monster truck experience! I always hate it when I first realise my route goes off road but of course never turn around! As you say, it’s enjoyable to take on the challenge and survive! Yet to puncture on such an off road adventure… Yet!

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  2. That’s a great post.
    The Strada Bianchi were at their best in 2015 for l’Eroica after so much rain that there was more hole than Strada – and as for the ‘Ride with GPS’ routing for my ride out to the alps in July …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had friends doing the Strade Bianche sportive this year, the day before the pros. Weather was horrible, more mud on their faces than the road by the time they were done! Glad to hear I’m not the only victim of GPS mis-routing. I remember one in France sent me down me a small lane with massive stones on it, a bit like those used on railway lines. For five miles. I was scared to turn the front wheel as it would simply jam amongst the huge pile of loose stones! Had to climb over a huge fence at the end to rejoin tarmac!

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  3. It seems I have relatively few qualms about taking my road bike off-piste compared to my peers. I’ll certainly not shy of doing a few hundred metres along a bumpy gravel path and even if, as on a recent ride, the route I planned means more than just a few km of it then so be it, like this recent adventure https://www.strava.com/activities/1665887022

    Remarkably few punctures result from bumpy paths taken slowly, I find they’re far more likely to be caused by UK potholes or the Chiltern flints which used to squirm their way way towards my inner tubes when that was my stomping ground.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Looks like a nice route. Sometimes I wonder if half of France roads are gravel given the regular appearance of such roads on my routes there. Very true about punctures, scrub a little speed off, take the weight off the rear wheel when required and pick your line. Job’s a good ‘un.

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