This article is an introduction to riding unpaved roads in the Culpeper area, but also shows important practices for adventurous riding anywhere. If you want to share some of your favorite local gravel roads, leave us a comment!
If you watched any of this year’s Tour de France, you probably noticed the Strava commercial featuring professional rider Jesse Anthony ripping up some gravel and dirt roads, changing flats* and eating Pink Sno Balls. As the commercial states, fortune does indeed favor the brave. Fun, perhaps more than fortune, is often as simple as turning on to one of those unpaved roads that you pass by every day.
Experienced cyclists know that the best roads are not always paved. For some of us, the challenge of riding fast on loose terrain provides an incomparable thrill. For others, unpaved roads lead us to places and sights we might never see otherwise. Whatever your reason, you shouldn’t be afraid to veer from the paved path. In Culpeper County, we have tons of unpaved roads that will add excitement to your rides.
There are some very nice gravel roads all over the county that you can easily incorporate into your rides. Some of my favorites are between Batna or Stevensburg and Mount Pony, like the south end of Blackjack Road, Stringfellow Road and Kibler Road. If you’re headed to Moormont or Rapidan from the south side of town, try taking Old Orange Road across Route 15, where it will turn to gravel, then either continue or turn left onto Winston Road (also gravel). The ride shown below incorporates Kibler, Blackjack, Old Orange and Winston all into one ride, with a long unpaved stretch on Twin Mountains Road. This 33-mile loop has a lot of gravel in a relatively short distance, so it’s a good one to explore.
There is a beautiful gravel road called Old Mill Road that leads from White Shop into Madison County toward Oak Park. From Oak Park, you can go east toward Rapidan or west toward Madison. The Old Mill Excursion is one of my favorite rides. Old Mill Road is the only gravel section, but it’s plenty long and involves a short, thrilling descent.
Now go try some unpaved roads! Let us know about any others in the comments section!
If you are new to riding unpaved roads, read on for some quick tips…
Dirt roads are an easy way to try out unpaved riding. If the road is smooth, hard-packed dirt, you’ll feel just like you’re on the road, but probably cooler. The only things you will need to look out for are holes or dips caused by rain. If it has been wet recently, avoid puddles because there will be mud at the bottom.
Most unpaved roads in the Culpeper area are dirt roads with a light covering of gravel. You will often find two “tracks” of exposed dirt caused by car traffic. That’s where you want to stay for a smoother, safer ride. Be on the lookout for potholes since gravel roads are not maintained as well as paved ones. When you go uphill, stay in the saddle to keep traction on the rear wheel. Stay loose on the descents and don’t fight your bike. Don’t brake abruptly or you might lose traction. If you spot any plant life growing through a gravel road, you can sometimes ride over it. The plants’ roots might help hold the gravel together, giving you a solid platform to ride on.
If the gravel is consistently a few inches deep, you probably won’t make it on your road bike. However, you might encounter very short stretches of deep gravel. In these sections, you have to keep your speed when you enter and stay loose! Your bike is your friend, so don’t fight it. If you fight the bike, the road will win.
First of all, if you are training or riding on racing tires… STOP IT! Racing tires offer light weight and low rolling resistance to allow you to ride (very slightly) faster, but they cut easily and don’t offer as much puncture resistance as other tires. There is no reason to spend an extra $30 per tire for that marginal benefit if you are not racing. If you bought the most expensive tires in the shop, you are probably setting yourself up for failure. It’s a safe bet to use the next step in your favorite tire company’s product line-up. For example: Switch from Michelin Pro 4s to Michelin Lithion 2s. That will gain you some flat protection and save you some money. If you think you can feel the difference in rolling resistance, it’s probably in your head. I guarantee you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference in a blind test.
While you shouldn’t have any problem crossing unpaved roads on 23c tires, a bit more volume might make your experience more pleasant. 25c tires will give you a bit more volume and allow you to ride with slightly lower air pressure, which will improve shock absorption and give you some more grip and let you float more over the rough stuff. 28c tires would be an even better choice, but modern frame clearances are getting tighter, so you might have to check and see if 28’s will fit on your bike.
Make sure you have appropriate pressure in your tires to improve flat resistance on gravel roads.
Contrary to some riders’ beliefs, unpaved roads do not cause flats instantly. However, you are more likely to flat, so be sure to bring your normal flat kit. Also consider bringing more than one tube if you plan on doing 10+ miles on gravel roads.
Use squishy, cork tape for shock absorption. You can even use two layers of tape if you want a really comfortable ride. Check out the bikes that pro’s use at Paris-Roubaix for shock absorption techniques.
With all of the skills and mechanical preparations above, no road conditions will hold you back!
*In case you were wondering, Jesse Anthony was faking those flats for dramatic effect. See here.