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To Grind or Not To Grind

0228
 2020


A top biking trend is to travel on gravel roads, where there is less traffic and more back-road scenery. Above, riders on the 'Come and Grind It' event, which starts about 20 miles southwest of Luling. This year's ride was Feb. 29.

Story by Pam LeBlanc 
Photos by Sarah Beal 


Whether you prefer biking on a smooth surface or grinding on gravel, here are roads and rides for cyclists in the Bluebonnet area. 

Warm days and budding wildflowers always trigger the same response: My bicycle flexes its gears and spokes and practically points its way out the door.

In Central Texas, we have plenty of terrain to explore on two wheels.

Biking gets you outside and, if you stick with it, can improve your cardiovascular fitness and decrease stress levels. Springtime, before nature cranks up the furnace of summer, is the best time to get rolling. You just need to decide if you prefer spinning down paved streets or gravel roads.

If you like swift and smooth miles, you’ll probably prefer traditional road riding, on a built-for-speed bicycle with skinny tires. If you don’t mind bumpy, unimproved gravel roads, and care less about going fast, you might like gravel riding.

Road cyclists should note that there’s a new twist in the 2020 Texas MS 150 — a two-day, two- wheel fundraising spin May 2-3 through much of Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative’s service area. For the first time, cyclists can choose to start either from Austin or the Houston area. The routes merge in La Grange and end at Texas A&M University’s Kyle Field in College Station.

Some of the organized events double as recommended training rides for the MS 150, which began in Houston in 1985 and can draw 10,000 riders. (Find more information about the MS 150 below.)

If gravel’s more your speed, just remember that even though you’ll travel slower, you’ll work harder.

“Gravel is about 15 percent more strenuous mile for mile, just because the rolling resistance on uneven surface of gravel itself is not the same as asphalt,” says Brett Kinsey, head of Capital City Racing in Austin, which puts on organized bike rides around Central Texas. “A 35-mile gravel ride is going to feel a lot harder than 35 miles on pavement, and you’re probably going to stop and take more selfies with that donkey.”

Gravel riding — or “grinding,” as some call it — is growing in popularity. It appeals to those who want to get out of heavy, fast-moving traffic. Because vehicles don’t drive 65 mph on gravel roads, traffic moves more slowly and beginning cyclists may feel safer. Plus, it’s a different experience.

“It’s always going to be an adventure, because crazy things happen on gravel roads versus paved roads,” Kinsey says. You’ll likely see cattle, horses and the occasional deer.

One year, during Capital City Racing’s Come and Grind It ride near Gonzales, about 50 feral hogs ran along a fence line next to the cyclists. “You probably don’t see that on a highway,” Kinsey says.

Whether you decide to get in on the gravel craze, or tune up for the MS 150, we’ve scouted the area to find the best places to log some miles. Now’s the time to pump up your bike tires, fill a water bottle, grab your helmet and pick one of these routes to explore. 

Pam LeBlanc has written about fitness, adventure and recreation in Central Texas for decades. Her work has appeared in Texas Monthly, Texas Highways, Texas Parks & Wildlife and Real Simple magazines, and the Austin American-Statesman.



This Tomasso Siena Shimano Tourney Gravel Adventure Bike is a budget-priced option for beginning gravel grinders. Designed to be comfortable for long stretches of gravel but still fun on paved roads, it sells for $550 on Amazon.com.

WHAT’S THE DIFF?

You probably recognize the difference between a road bike — which is streamlined, lightweight and built for speed — and its beefier, more rugged cousin, the mountain bike. But where does a gravel bike fit in the picture?

Think of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Gravel bikes are more durable than road bikes but not as thick-boned as a mountain bike. They have a more comfortable design, with a longer wheelbase and more standover height. That makes them ideal for the jolts and jars of rugged surfaces. You can even buy special seat posts and gel pads that go under the handlebar tape to reduce vibration.

All gravel bikes use disc brakes instead of rim brakes, which accommodate wider tires that smooth out the ride and provide better grip on uneven surfaces. (A standard road bike runs 23 mm tires, while gravel bikes use 40 to 45 mm tires.) Gravel bikes also come with more mounting points, so you can carry more water bottles or attach a rack.

Gravel bikes weigh a little more than road bikes. The average road bike tips the scales at 17 or 18 pounds, while gravel bikes come in between 19 and 22 pounds.

You can pay from $300 to nearly $2,000 for a good entry-level road bike. Gravel bikes start at about $500. The price increases as the quality of the bike’s components increases.

You might not need a new bike if you decide to ride gravel. An old mountain bike gathering dust in a garage can be outfitted with thinner tires for the area's gravel roads.

“I’m a big believer in don’t go buy a bunch of stuff you don’t need, and I love that with gravel you don’t have to have the latest and greatest to have fun,” Kinsey says.

IS IT SAFE TO BIKE ON COUNTRY ROADS?

Bicycling down a two-lane country road is entirely different than pedaling through an urban area.

Instead of rumbling city buses and drivers pulling in and out of shopping centers, you’ll more likely encounter a pasture of grazing cows and the occasional farm tractor. You’ll also find less cycling infrastructure and motorists less accustomed to mingling with two-wheeled vehicles.

Cyclist Brett Kinsey, director of Capital City Racing, offers tips for rural biking:
  • Attach a red blinking light to the back of your bike, and use it even during daylight to make you more visible.
  • Wear bright-colored clothing, such as a day-glow yellow cycling vest.
  • Wave at motorists as you approach. “It humanizes you and captures their attention,” Kinsey says.
  • Don’t weave. Set as straight a course as you can, so motorists can predict your moves. “Don’t get so distracted looking at cows that you swerve out into the road,” Kinsey says.
  • Observe traffic laws. “If you can’t do it in a car, don’t do it on a bike,” Kinsey says. For example, be sure to stop at stop signs. It’s a safe practice, and motorists grow weary of cyclists blowing through intersections.
  • Look for roads with less traffic. Avoid multi-lane highways like Texas 71, U.S. 290 or Texas 95. “Distracted driving due to texting has been a game changer
  • for any athlete who wants to use public roads,” Kinsey says.
  • Remember that country roads don’t have bike lanes. Pay attention and make eye contact with passing drivers.
  • Consider switching to gravel riding. Generally, traffic moves more slowly on gravel roads in rural areas. Park roads are an option, but remember that drivers may be distracted by scenery.
  • Pay attention to terrain, especially on gravel. You don’t want to hit a larger piece of gravel or a rut.
  • Carry everything you need, including spare bike tubes, tools for quick repairs and a pump or CO2 cartridge to inflate a flat tire.
  • Hydrate. Drinking a standard-size bike water bottle per hour is a good rule of thumb. Hydration packs worn on your back work, too.
  • Bring snacks. “City riders get a little spoiled knowing there’s a convenience store at every intersection. On gravel you need to be self-sufficient,” Kinsey says.
  • A hint: Pack enough food and drink for distance rides on rural roads, as corner stores are less common.

SAFETY TIPS

The Texas MS 150 offers these guidelines to bicycle safety:
  • Don’t wear headphones or earbuds. (But do wear sunscreen.)
  • Know and obey all traffic laws so motorists can predict where you’re heading.
  • Obey all traffic signs and signals. Avoid following the leader through traffic signs and signals by checking to make sure it’s still a cyclist’s turn to cross the intersection.
  • Ride in the right portion of the rightmost lane in the direction you are traveling. Leave at least 4 feet between your handlebars and parked cars, other hazards
  • or riders.
  • Ride no more than two abreast and do not impede traffic.
  • Be verbal by communicating to let other riders know about hazards or your movements. Call out “on your left” before passing someone, “slowing” if riders in front of you are slowing down, and “stopping” if a rider ahead stops. “Car back” means a car is approaching from the rear. Alert riders to hazardous road conditions by calling out “gravel,” “pothole,” “sand” or “tracks” and pointing at the hazard.

A SAMPLING OF RIDES TO CONSIDER

Head for the Hills
TYPE OF RIDE: Organized, on paved roads DISTANCE: 22-, 40- or 66-mile circuits LOCATION: Brenham area
WHEN: 8 a.m.-3 p.m. March 28
COST: $35-$50 (early registration costs less) INFORMATION: head4hills.org

If hills and paved roads are your thing, consider the Head for the Hills Ride that starts in Bren- ham and unfurls through the rolling terrain of northeast Washington County.

The Rotary Club of Washington County hosts the annual group fundraising ride there — March 28 this year — but you can pedal its 22-, 40- or 66-mile circuits any time. All three routes start and finish at the Washington County Fairgrounds, 1305 East Blue Bell Road in Brenham.

The 22-miler takes cyclists past the Antique Rose Emporium north of Brenham, which should be in full bloom at ride time. The longest route goes all the way to the Washington-on- the-Brazos State Historic Site, where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed on March 2, 1836.

“All three routes are hilly,” says Roger Ross, facilitator of the organized ride, which benefits local charities, including Boys & Girls Clubs, Child Protective Services, the Brenham Heritage Museum and Miracle Farm. “The scenery is phenomenal. During the spring, the bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes are out. It’s just a beautiful ride.”

Lexi’s Midnight Runners
TYPE OF RIDE: Organized, on paved and gravel roads; night DISTANCE: 21-, 31- or 51-mile circuits
LOCATION: Lexington
WHEN: Sunset-midnight July 11
COST: $30
INFORMATION: capitalcityracingtexas.com

Capital City Racing puts on a slate of mostly gravel rides in Central Texas, and this one unfolds after dark. All routes begin in Lexington in Lee County. Make sure you’ve got a good headlight and a blinking taillight before the organized ride on July 11. Or try the 21-, 31- or 51-mile routes on your own anytime.

On event day, rides will start an hour before sunset at the town square. Cyclists will follow roads through rural areas northwest of Lexington before returning to town. At the finish line, riders can find music, food and beer.

Bastrop Gravel Grinder
TYPE OF RIDE: Self-guided, paved and gravel DISTANCE: 35 miles
LOCATION: Bastrop State Park to Paige and back WHEN: Any time
COST: $5 state park entry fee INFORMATION: tinyurl.com/u46lcne

If you like to mix up your ride with a little bit of pavement and a little bit of gravel, try this easy-going loop. Park at Bastrop State Park, where you’ll find restrooms, campgrounds and a swimming pool. Head north on Park Road 1C, but instead of going toward Buescher State Park, take the left fork at County Road 146.

You’ll hit gravel in a few miles. Notice the sign on a pasture on the left, warning cyclists to not raise the ire of the resident stallion. Stop and check out Antioch Cemetery, where some of Bastrop’s earliest pioneers, including veterans of the Civil War, are buried.

Continue toward the town of Paige, past the pump jack and cows. Brace your abdominals for the last section because stretches of gravel in the “lollipop” (or loop) part of this route are rough as a washboard. You can shorten the ride 10 miles by parking at Antioch Cemetery and riding to Paige from there.

Download this story as it appeared in the Texas Co-op Power magazine »

 

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