I don’t like gravel.
I live in a rural area - grew up here, in fact, though I moved away for quite a while and then returned. Gravel has always been a part of life out here. The road that live on now was gravel for most of my childhood, and parts of it still were up until a couple of years ago. Although it has since been paved, many of the secondary roads around us remain covered in loose rock.
I’m sure gravel has its benefits, but from a road user perspective it’s hard on things. It’s hard on your vehicle, chipping paint and throwing dust on things. And it’s particularly hard when cycling. On an upright, or diamond-frame (DF) bike riding a gravel road is a matter of carefully finding the narrow paths through the surface where the gravel has been worn away and hoping against hope that an errant rock doesn’t find your front wheel and take you down.
And wiping out in gravel? I suppose, technically, a gravel road is a softer surface to fall on than is asphalt. I mean, after all, the rocks are simply sitting on top of dirt, right? But this does not account for the hours (and sometimes days) of picking rock after rock out of your skin. Ugh.
When I got my Catrike Pocket one of the things I was looking forward to was being more comfortable on gravel. But while my recumbent trike is my preferred ride for virtually every option, it isn’t able to tame all of the issues gravel has to offer. That risk of falling is gone, of course, but the ride over rock is still very rough and uncomfortable, and the layout of the trike is such that soft material - for example, loose gravel on an uphill track - causes the rear (traction) wheel to loose hold, and you find yourself sitting and spinning with no forward motion.
And I’m aware that they make gravel bikes, and that fat tire and suspension bikes and trikes are a thing. But I’m the (apparently somewhat rare) cyclist who really doesn’t collect bikes and trikes. I like to have a well rounded machine that does most things well, and I find my Catrike fits that bill.
But it means that I map out my rides so that I can avoid riding on the rocks.
It occurred to me last weekend, however, that the snow-covered nature of our roads this season might offer up an opportunity.
Out here in rural Illinois the plows go to great effort to clear primary highways down to the asphalt. Liberal application of spark showering blades combined with road salt means that, for the most part, a heavily traveled roadway with a state or national numerical designation is going to be showing pavement. But on the secondary roads the plows content themselves with removing the drifts and ensuring the road is passable to traffic only. They remain coated in white.
This is pleasant to ride on - last week I mentioned the delightful sound of snow crunching under the wheels. But it occurred to me when I was trying to decide where to ride last week that it also had the potential to be an equalizer of sorts. That is, a snow-covered road is just a snow-covered road, regardless of what is under it.
That thought in mind, I decided to give it a go. I don’t have to ride far to get to gravel, and I ended up laying out an eight mile circle (well - it’s a square circle - we’re in farm-grid country, after all) that included four solid miles on the gravel.
So the first, simple part is that it worked. If you didn’t know these roads were gravel ahead of time there’d have been no way to tell simply by looking.
This is taken at a gravel and asphalt intersection. Which is which? I know, because I was there...
More importantly, there was no way to tell by riding on it either. Turning off of the asphalt and on to the gravel was an indistinguishable change as far as my backside was concerned.
What’s more, this opened up an opportunity to travel down roadways that, although nearby, I hadn’t seen in years. I hadn’t realized, for example, that the house down one of the roadways is, apparently unoccupied - no sign of activity, of attempt to clear the driveway or get a vehicle through. There was an old barn that I remember playing at as a kid that I see is now gone, and I passed at least one house that, if I’d ever seen it before I don’t remember doing so.
These are small things, but they are part of the joy of cycling through the countryside, and offered some novelty, some fresheness from my typical routes. In fact, I took the route again yesterday, moving my usual Sunday ride up a day because a) it looked like the weather today was going to be inhospitable and would turn the roads to a slushy mess (and so far that is true); and 2) it was simply gorgeous yesterday - too gorgeous to pass on the opportunity.
It might seem surprising that this possibility hasn’t occurred to me in the past - I do a fair amount of winter cycling. Still, the reality is that most of our winters here really don’t offer extended periods of snow cover. It’s typically cold, but real snow on the ground and the roads for an extended period of time is a rarity. This may be the first season since I started winter cycling that the opportunity presented itself.
It’s an ephemeral opportunity at best. It was 40° here yesterday, and the snow cover on the asphalt was already transitioning away. There were even sections of the gravel starting to show thru.
It’s already 40° again here this morning, and the surrounding world is blanketed in the thick fog that rises as the snow releases its hold on the earth. It’s 40°, on its way to 41°, with a low also well above freezing, and a projected high for tomorrow of nearly 50°. The snow - even with the prodigious volume we’d received - will be gone soon. There might be more - the forecast speculates some for next week, but we all know how reliable that is. Odds are that, even if it happens, it will be fleeting. That’s just the way it goes here.
But for a short period of time, a few days, and two rides, it opened up another part of my little world.