Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Getting Dirty: A Case For Taking Your Winter Bike Training Off-Road

My cyclocross bike is my weapon of choice for winter gravel grinding.
Winter bike training can really be pretty miserable.  Let's not kid ourselves here, it really isn't any fun to ride at road bike speeds when the temps drop.  No matter how many layers of "wind proof" cycling gear I put on, I still get cold.  Riding the trainer is also no fun.  It has it's place for high intensity interval training but there's nothing enjoyable about a 2 or 3 hour steady trainer workout.  So what is a triathlete to do?  We have to get our base miles in, right?  Well,  I was recently introduced to Gravel Grinding by some of my cycling buddies and I think it just might be the holy grail of winter training for triathletes.  Why, you ask?  Gather 'round kiddies and I'll tell you.

Climbing up Rich Mountain in East Tennessee.
Let's go ahead and address the elephant in the room.  The burning question: Derek, what the heck is a Gravel Grinder?  Well, again, I'm glad you asked.  No, I'm not referring to a piece of construction equipment, I'm talking about a kind of bicycling.  A glorious kind of bicycling.  A kind of bicycling done on gravel (and sometimes dirt) roads.  Sounds simple enough right?  It is actually that simple.  All you need is a gravel road and a bicycle.  Why do I love gravel riding so much?  It presents several really great benefits over traditional road miles.  First, it builds strength.  The gravel/dirt and knobby tires create more rolling resistance than a paved road so each turn of the pedals is just a wee bit (or sometimes a great deal) harder.  Second, there's very little traffic... if any.  This is big.  Not having to worry about getting run over takes a huge worry away letting you focus on the road ahead.  Thirdly, gravel riding will without a doubt improve your bike handling.  You will notice the first time you put wheels to a gravel road that the stability of tarmac is a thing of the past.  The bike can and will slide around, and that's fine.  You will begin to get a better feel for the bike under you and how it reacts to reduced traction.  The last thing is a bit regional but being living in East Tennessee means there's no shortage of hills both on an off road but the hills off road are generally quite a bit steeper and sometimes more technical.  Embrace those climbs, they will make you nothing but stronger.

Mountain bikes also make great tools for exploring your favorite
gravel roads.  This is Norris Watershed, one of my go-to winter
training spots.
Before you ask, no, you do not need a "special" bicycle to grind the gravel.  Any mountain bike or cyclocross bike will do just fine.  I prefer to use my cyclocross bike as it fits very similar to my road bike but a mountain bike will probably feel more stable to you initially on the loose surface.  If you are going to be riding after dark, a headlight will be necessary.  My preferred setup is two lights, one mouted on my helmet and a secondary one mounted to my handlebar.  This gives you a fixed light on the path in front of you and a spot light that follows your line of sight.  I would also like to point out that riding alone... after dark... in the woods is not a great idea.  Besides, graveling is best done with friends!  Look around for local bike shops that shift their winter rides to the gravel or just find a few friends and go explore this whole new world of bicycling.

If you want to dig a little bit deeper, a quick google search for "gravel grinding basics" will turn up several good articles.  You can also check out www.gravelcyclist.com for a good bit of information on gravel setups, gravel racing and the like.

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