A recent Facebook post prompted me to write down some of the things I’ve learned about routing gravel rides over the past couple years.
1. Maps – Georgia is great in that the DOT has excellent county and city level maps that show different road surfaces as well as a ton of other detail. They can be found here: http://www.dot.ga.gov/DS/Maps. Pick your county and there’s the map, free online. What I like to do is give the map a cursory overview and get an idea of where the gravel roads go. Go do something else and come back a few hours later or the next day and start my route planning. Much of the gravel roads wind around the terrain and making a sensical route that is fun to ride is often as much a puzzle as anything else.
For states with less comprehensive mapping available there are options like GravelMap.com, which is ok but more of a high level overview than a consistent 100% correct gathering of gravel road data. Lots of the local gravel near me is over stated as it looks like the initial import include routes listed as “gravel” that are 50%+ pavement. A helpful resource nonetheless.
2. Pick the start – The most important things about the starting point are 1.) it’s a safe place to park and 2.) it’s not at the top of a big hill or over a ridgeline. I had a brutal ride that required riding over a ridgeline to get back to my car and it was terrible. Nowadays I pay close attention to the elevation as 100 feet a mile on gravel is much harder than the same on the road. For parking a good bet is that since most of the places you will start will be rural – look for city or county parks and rec areas. They can easily be seen on google maps as the little green areas. If you can’t find anything use satellite view to look for baseball fields, tennis courts or pools. These are often the public areas with safe parking. I have a post with a listing of places that I’ve found as well a few posts down. I don’t like parking at Churches as weekend days are often when landscaping and other non-service related events happen and it’s easy to end up having your car towed.
3. Know thyself – This is a concept that took me a while to understand. I love riding the mixed routes I was doing but they were so hard, it was only this year that I realized it was because I only like 3 hours max of riding alone. Once I get out into the country where it’s common to never see a car for 2-3 hours I want to see some evidence of civilization and have a store stop. I’ve done routes where I never saw another human for 9 hours and although interesting, it’s not something I like or am in a hurry to repeat. So be aware, if you’re not sure start with store stops or city visits every estimated 2 hours and then increase the time from there. Maybe you’re capable of many hours of riding alone and maybe not.
4. Have a point – The main prompt for this post was seeing a gravel route posted on Facebook that looked exactly like what I used to do. Route as much gravel as possible without any regard for the beauty of the route and the ride. Your ride should have a point, go somewhere to see something. We’re riding around interesting areas of the state with history and there are often little towns that are worth exploring – even as just a quick ride through. Don’t route yourself like you’re an RUSA organizer. Make it a beautiful route that goes somewhere. Especially in most areas of Georgia that become rural so fast you can ride into a small town or city, refill and look around and be back onto gravel or in the country in a couple miles.
This example route skips everything interesting. It’s boring and lacks a theme. A better route would be less gravel but more destinations. Hit those little towns and see what’s out there instead of staring at gravel and trees for five hours.
5. Prepare for adversity – There are essentially no current up to date gravel maps. Every single non-organized gravel ride I’ve done has had a road closed, a bridge out, a public road taken private or something else requiring a reroute. Prepare to reroute as needed, pay attention to the sun as you may not have a cellphone signal and be ready to backtrack or take unexpected turns to get where you’re going. Don’t hesitate to ask directions from anyone you see, people in rural areas are nice and often love to talk about the roads and where they go.
6. Never take “road closed” at face value – I’ve seen several variations of road closed areas that are perfectly fine on a bike. Sometimes it’s a washout that has a tiny ribbon of good road, sometimes it’s a bridge that isn’t strong enough for cars but fine for bikes and sometimes it’s no bridge but a perfectly easy water crossing. Until you see an impassible barrier be it water, or a ravine or something – keep riding.
This bridge was at the end of a “road closed 1 mile” sign – bridge intact and perfectly rideable, but impassable for cars and trucks.