Gravel/all-road/under-biking is de rigeur these days, for a multitude of reasons. Whether you're looking for escape from the hazards of dealing with cagers on open roads, a way of exploring terrain that you'd previously ignored, a reason to keep the 'cross bike rolling during the "off-season," or whatever your desired rationale, it's nice to see more options popping up in the lower Mainland. For those who are looking for something other than the familiar Fisherman's Trail loop, the off-road ascents to Cypress, Grouse, or Seymour in North Vancouver, or any of the many dyke paths, this is going to be a worthy challenge.
Mark May 5th on your calendars for the Ride for Water. The course has been set by Matt Scott, the devious mind behind the great ValleyCX series, and has plenty in store for both fledgling and veteran gravel grinders. The ride will feature both long and short courses, with aid/water stations and multiple time-cuts/bailout points that will give riders the option of taking paved roads back into town should they find themselves biting off more than their legs can chew. The ride will start and end at Old Yale Brewing, who will be setting up a beer garden in collaboration with a few other craft brewers from the Fraser Valley and hosting a wrap-up party with live music. PS: your event entry comes with a post-ride meal and beer ticket.
A few of us had the opportunity to pre-ride parts of the course last weekend. I've put together a little preview for ya'll, but the incessant rain and dirt jammed my camera about halfway through, so I wasn't able to get everything. Anyway, here goes:
Everything starts off nice and mellow. Riders will be on dyke paths and a brief paved road section before things start getting vertical on Slesse Rd. The lower grade is pretty chill, but the climb will feature several kicks into the mid-to-upper double digit gradients, so pacing (and gearing) is going to be key. Remember, you're still going to have a full day ahead of you.
We topped out on the bench just below the snow line and were treated to a majestic view of the valley below, even covered in fog. A brief photo op and it was time to descend on a forest service road. It was nice and wide and recently graded, but the seemingly non-stop rain the PNW has experienced over the last little bit made things a wee bit sloppy. As usual, you'll want to keep your eyes up and make good line choices to avoid the occasional ruts, divots, and rocks.
It was around here that the blades of camera's lens cover jammed as I tried to handle it with gloves covered in grit, so there's a good chunk of terrain that I wasn't able to capture because I was hesitant to keep pulling it out while it was still drizzling and my rear tire was kicking up a steady stream of brown muck. We traversed a flat section of dirt service road next to the Chilliwack River that had turned into a sodden, muddy, mess from the rain. If it dries out, it should prove to be a fast section of the ride, but if conditions stay wet, it'll be like riding a mud section at a 'cross race, requiring your legs to turn a big(ger) gear at high torque to make it through efficiently.
For the sake of time (and beer!), we skipped the last two climbs of the long course and headed back to town. Instead of rolling straight back via pavement, however, Matt has saved the best (in my opinion) for last; the final leg of the day will take riders through some single and double track on the Trans Canada Trail. It was quite a shock to the senses to come down from the gritty greys and browns at higher elevations and drop into the lush green foliage. Things may get a bit congested on event day with 100+ riders coming through here, so you'll want to exercise some courtesy when passing or being passed. On Sunday, however, it was just a half dozen of us. I quickly gave up on trying to keep up with Canadian CX champ Michael van den Ham and the others who had an MTB background and tried to focus on not spilling it over the incredibly slick wet roots.
Hopefully this gives you a tantalizing taste of what's coming up in a few weeks. For those of you who are wondering about gearing and tire choices, I ran the following setup:
- SRAM 1x. I'm geared 40 x 11-42. You'll definitely want something approaching a 1:1 ratio (or lower!) so you're not slogging it out at 40-50 RPM up these climbs. This will be especially important for the Vedder Mountain climb at the end of the day when you've already been in the saddle for 6+ hours and you come around a switchback to see the road still going up. I'm still considering dropping down to a 38 ring up front.
If you don't have/want an MTB cassette in the back, I would highly recommend prioritizing a low climbing gear over optimizing for the brief road sections and dropping your front chainring size. A 36 chainring paired with an 11-36 cassette that most folks are running on a CX rig should be fine. 36x11 @ 90 RPM will still get you 38.6km/h on the road on a 35c tire. Will you find yourself spinning out on the paved sections? Maybe, but it's probably better hitting your shifter and having your rear derailleur not move when you're on an 18% grade.
- 35mm Panaracer GravelKing SK tires, tubeless. They inflate to about 38mm on my rims. For me, these are a good balance between durability, volume, rolling resistance, weight, and traction on the terrain for this ride. If you're riding a CX bike and don't want to bother getting dedicated "gravel" tires, any of the 33mm intermediate treads you probably already have will fine. Depending on how much precipitation comes in the days leading up to the event, you may even be able to get away with a file tread. A full mud tread is overkill and not necessary. If you can fit fatter rubber, by all means, go for it and enjoy the cushier ride that a lower pressure will bring. Personally, I find 35-38mm to be the sweet spot between having enough volume to take the edge off some of the gnarlier stuff without feeling bogged down by all that extra rubber. But hey, you do you.
If you're still running tubed, bring spares (minimum 2 recommended) and a mini pump instead of/in addition to Co2 and be prepared to be self-reliant since most of the course will be out of cellular coverage. There'll be 100+ riders there with you so somebody will inevitably stop and help, but it sucks to be that person who double flats with only one spare. Also, please don't dump your empty gas cartridges (or any other trash for that matter) on the course. Pack it in, pack it out.