Notes from the Trails

Randonneur, Bridge
I have been trying to cycle on dirt trails a couple of times a week in preparation for D2R2, and I wanted to jot down some notes while it is all still new and wonderous to me. While this is by no means meant as advice, perhaps my impressions will be useful to those who are similar in skill and level of fitness, and are considering giving this a try.

Randonneur, Woods
It is effortful!
Naively, I thought that my biggest hardship with cycling on dirt and gravel would be the technical aspect - dealing with roots, rocks, loose surfaces and the like. Well, ha-ha. While it's not exactly a surprise that cycling on rough terrain takes more effort than on a smooth road (think walking on sand vs on a paved sidewalk), I did not expect it to be quite this draining. Replacing only 5 miles of a 40 mile ride with off-road trails made a big difference in how tired I felt afterwards. And here I thought that I was getting fit with all that roadcycling; turns out I am a weakling.

Molehills become mountains
Directly related to the previous point, is the need to use lower gearing for everything. Benign-looking upward inclines on gravel or packed sand feel like proper hills do on pavement. Huge difference!

Randonneur, Meadows
Just keep pedaling
This simple concept has been tremendously helpful. If a stretch of the trail seems difficult, or slippery, or overly bumpy, continuing to pedal (instead of coasting or trying to stop) is the best way to get through it. It was counter-intuitive in the beginning, but quickly became intuitive. The best way not to fall or get stuck is to quickly switch to a low enough gear and pedal through it.

Foot retention is helpful
Having my feet snugly inside Power Grips helps when I get nervous, discouraging me from attempting to stop the bike (which is a good way to fall) and teaching me how to keep my balance.

Randonneur, Farm
Scenery is everything
Beautiful surroundings are a huge motivator for me. The first couple of trails I tried were sort of monotonously woodsy and led nowhere. I did not find cycling on them particularly enjoyable, because all the focus was on the terrain and there wasn't anything exciting to look at. Then we went through a different set of trails - with farms, meadows, varied stretches of woods, historical structures, fields of sunflowers, and a network of narrower paths going off in all directions - and it became an entirely different story. Suddenly I was interested and wanted to keep going despite being tired, and suddenly that narrow muddy offshoot of the path began to seem worth following just to see where it would lead. After a couple of these experiences, I will amend my earlier ambivalent comments about cycling off road with "I like it, if the scenery is worth it."

It surprised me to learn how many options there are for cycling off road close to Boston. The trails are all fairly short, but there is a great deal of variety. Though I am starting to doubt whether I am fit enough for even the easy 40 mile D2R2 route, I am enjoying this cautious exploration of a new type of cycling. It was not love at first site, but it is growing on me - particularly if meadows and old farms are involved.


  1. Your remarks are right on the money. I cycled the length (and then back again) of the KATY Trail in early June, a rails-to-trails road of loose chat that runs 225 miles. The ride was incredibly taxing despite almost no climbing. Riding 80 to 100 miles each day felt a whole lot more like riding back-to-back double centuries, partly because of the continuous pedaling, comparatively slow (to road) pace, and the constant grind of low gears through the loose gravel: low and slow means no reprieve by occasionally getting to coast - it's constant spinning. As I'd mosey into a small town, I'd frequently take a four or five mile side trip to see what was there and it was amazing how fast my bike seemed to go (and how much more efficiently!) as I hit the paved tarmac of a country highway. But speed wasn't the point of the ride; as you point out, the sense of place is everything.

  2. MelissatheRagamuffinAugust 3, 2011 at 6:43 AM

    My only experience with riding on gravel was big chunks of gravel - not fine gravel like you find in parking lots. I found it nothing short of terrifying.

  3. The ability to ride off of paved surfaces is part of the "go anywhere" freedom of cycling. Even the most speed-oriented road bike can handle some off-road terrain if you need it to( or if Beloki goes down right in front of your wheel ).

    One trick used by Paris-Roubaix riders over stretches of hard-packed rough stuff (cobblestones, flagstones, corrugated dirt roads) is to ride in a gear higher than you normally would at a particular speed and mash the pedals at a slightly lower cadence. This has the effect of putting more weight on your legs and pushing you slightly out of the saddle. It's tough on the quads, but saves the rest of the body and your wheels a bit.

  4. Can you detail some of the trails you are taking that you like (the ones with farms and scenery)?

    And this is good to know, as all of my d2r2 training has been of the roadcycling endurance sort. I need more off-road and more hills it seems!

  5. The 40 mile route is not terribly strenuous but it does take some effort and it's somewhat technical but not terribly so. I recognize the trail you are on in the pics as the one in Lexington. Try to imagine that trail but instead of four miles it being 35 miles. Yes it takes effort and attention but it's sooooooo much fun. Don't miss it.

  6. love at first site...clever!

  7. I enjoy riding my Trek 520 with Jack Browns on non-technical (no drops or boulders) trails. I like the variety in terrain and effort, the way that the simpler bicycle makes the trails more interesting than would a mountain bike, the scenery and wildlife (coyotes, prairie dogs, birds), the non-wildlife (cows and horses), and the TOTAL LACK OF CARS that enables actual relaxation and escape. I also sometimes ride my 36er unicycle on the same trails, but then the ride takes longer, requires more effort, and is far less comfortable.

  8. Fantastic! Great to see a new convert!!! :-)

  9. Lovely photos. Lovely trails.

    Just keep pedaling is always true. Applies just as much to road cycling. If a fixed gear is not mounted on the bike there should be one built into your legs.

    Energy loss on uneven surfaces is Chapter XIX of Archibald Sharp's 1897 treatise, Bicycles and Tricycles. The mathematics are straightforward, the energy losses are large.

  10. Pedaling through the rough stuff can be lots of fun, and as you say, it helps to keep the pedals turning. Unfortunately, August also ushers in "Goathead Season" here in Montana. The dirt paths near the river are thick with them. Even the paved cycling paths become infested with goatheads. When they mow nearby, the mower blades distribue them onto the path.

  11. Velouria, this is almost a travelogue! But it leaves me wanting to know the names of the places and what the farmer is doing, and how the trail happens to be there. I like the technical commentary also, no complaints, other than your writing leaves me hungry for more. Do you think that you could raise your readership by expanding your writing for the non-technical readers?
    Now on the trail riding aspect, there is a irrigation canal network throughout my locality called the Lower Neches Valley Authority. I have ridden some of it's levees. I'll have to see if the authority allows extensive trail riding on them.

  12. Fantastic! Great to see a new convert!!! :-)

    C'mon, you knew it must have been just a matter of time. :-)

  13. Are these narrow trails public land or are they throughways on private property?
    Very nice.

  14. Public land. It is ridiculously beautiful along that stretch. Queen Anne's lace, Pussywillows, wild lilies, butterflies, the sun slowly setting over it all - just magical.

  15. JPTwins - I think that you are in a lot better shape than I am, so you should not judge by my reactions. But when I cycled up a sandy uphill stretch the steepness of which would hardly require switching gears at all on pavement, I had to get into a small ring/big cog combination immediately in order to make it up. I kept thinking my tires were flat, but nope it was just how this terrain feels.

    "Can you detail some of the trails you are taking that you like (the ones with farms and scenery)?"

    I like the trails that go through the Minuteman Park (not to be confused with the Minuteman Trail, for those unfamiliar with the area). There is a surprising amount of variety, and there is more to it than just the main trail shown in these pictures. If you want highly technical, there are offshoots that will give you that.

    Also, until recently there was construction on the Charles River trail and they closed off a large portion of it on the Brighton side. The asphalt was removed and it was a pretty rough mixture of rocks, sand and gravel, and you could sneak in there with your bike if you were willing to ride on that stuff. I did it half a dozen times and it was great. Sadly, they've now paved over most of it.

  16. Trails are not bad if you take it easy. Frankly, Velouria, you are developing a pretty intense competitive nature -- if it's not always been there. I've cycled from Pittsburgh to DC and back on trails with children, and there was no point at which we were worried about not going fast enough -- it just took a long time.

  17. Oh I am not competitive at all. I just like the *feeling* of speed, the experience of riding fast.

    The 40mile version of the D2R2 is not timed, so there isn't a competitive vibe to that either. I figure I'll take my camera, take it easy, and photograph all the interesting people and things along the way.

  18. "Just keep pedaling"

    Couldn't agree more. From the realm of motorcycling, "When in doubt...gas it!"

  19. Velouria said...
    "Foot retention is helpful"

    This is one point about cycling in general I have a strong dislike for.

    I simply will never believe that locking one's feet to the pedals is a sane or safe thing to do unless one is racing. With racing you either go all in or you say home.

    I really do wish that any device that retains the riders feet to the pedals was banned since they has no place on the street, trail or racing yes, street no!

  20. Velouria said...
    "Walt D - I would say Power Grips are an exception to this. "

    I am forced to agree since a single strap doesn't lock the foot to the pedal.

    Besides, my comments were not intended for your riding style at all. :^))

  21. Walt D - I would say Power Grips are an exception to this. It is difficult to explain what these things are unless you've tried them. They are "magically safe" in that your foot *will* come out if you panic and try to put it down. They are not like toe straps and not like clipless - much, much, much safer. At the same time, they hold your feet firmer than toe straps do - so you get the benefit of the firm hold and the benefit of the safe release. I don't expect you to believe me, because it sounds implausible even as I try to describe it. But I am satisfied that I am very safe with these things.

  22. oops, I corrected a typo and now the comments are reversed - sorry!

  23. Walt, I am an ex-racer with a race bike that I still ride. What kind of pedals/foot retention do you propose I use?

  24. Well, yuo are coming along just as I thought you would and nothing you have said so far is too surprising!

    Secondly, I maybe should address the notion that any sort of pedal system "locks" your feet in! It's simply not true and maybe spreads a misconception about clipless pedals in particular. The old style toe clips, used with cleats and with toe straps tightened down could be considered "locked in" but even then an experienced rider would know how to get out of those! If your feet do not come out of the clipless pedal easily, then they are not adjusted properly!


  25. FYI: The Raleigh Tourist with the Delta Cruisers feels right at home on dirt trails (no doubt because it's geometry was designed for them)... one of my favorite local rides- amazing fun!

  26. @somervillain: The revolution will not be televised (but will have a lot of pictures!).

  27. "maybe should address the notion that any sort of pedal system "locks" your feet in! It's simply not true and maybe spreads a misconception about clipless pedals in particular. "

    Yes, this annoys me. I think that because toe clips look old-fashioned and cute, they somehow seem safer to people. Clipless is a much easier and safer system, assuming that we compare it against *properly* used (i.e. tightened) toe clips. Maybe a topic for a post later.

  28. "FYI: The Raleigh Tourist with the Delta Cruisers feels right at home on dirt trails"

    I agree! We've ridden our DL-1s on trails and they handled fantastically. No hills though.

  29. "Ground Round Jim said...
    Walt, I am an ex-racer with a race bike that I still ride. What kind of pedals/foot retention do you propose I use?"

    When you are racing use whatever you please since winning is all in racing.

    On the street...
    Plain platforms or single strap like Velouria uses.

    Just MYO..........

  30. Walt, there is a different pedal stroke involved when using clipless than with platforms, which I run on some bikes.
    When you have an extremely efficient race bike one wouldn't want losses from the lack of retention.
    Everyone likes the feeling of flying on a bike; with the right combo the flying sensation is greatly increased.

  31. Clips & straps: these need to be used with the right pedals with old-fashioned cleats to be truly effective. What's happened is back when people started riding go-fast bikes without the right footwear. They do a bit of good to keep your foot centered on traditionally slicky pedals with street footwear, but to Walt's point they're not necessary. Used in the traditional racers' way, clips and straps need to be cinched tightly. This is truly a problem when riding in city traffic. What I used to do is keep the straps loose in the city, tightening them up on the open road. Of course you have to be aware when they needed to be loosened again.

    The most practical way to ride a vintage road bike around the city for errands is to use flat grippy pedals. Ugly platforms work best with a rubbery sole, completely ruins the look.

    Modern road clipless are way better, allowing for immediate disengagement when necessary. Takes a little practice, but are much safer. SPDs for even easier egress/ingress.

  32. Technically, I can more or less use clipless pedals now, but I cannot imagine doing so in stop and go traffic - which is necessary in order for me to get to where the riding is. I do not understand how people go from the point where they have learned to do it but are nervous, to riding with them in traffic. Just too risky for me.

  33. Run trails in the summer? Golly, it never occurred to me that trails might be ridden sometime other than in the depths of winter.

  34. When I first bought my clipless pedals I was extremely nervous b/c I live in a city and bike daily in traffic, plus I'm afraid of falling. My first attempt was to the grocery store and I had to stop at a traffic light. When approaching it I do what I always do which is to lean against the signal with my hand supporting myself and the bike. This time, however, my feet were clipped in and I missed with my hand. Result is that I began to fall sideways....Completely surprised me that my feet ended up on the pavement, releasing from the pedals!! I had to take a moment to process what just happened. This has been true for me with whatever system I've used, beginning with toe clips and cleats. Somehow I've always managed to pull my feet off the pedals...well, once I may have embarrassed myself. So now I put my cycling shoes on w/o worry. In fact when I ride in boots on the other side of these pedals, I find myself twisting my foot at each stop light. It's amazing at the ways in which we adapt.

  35. Focus, determination, practice, familiarity.
    I never think about it; it just happens.

  36. Hmm I don't see how that will save me if I fall over in front of a truck after stalling out at an intersection : (

  37. You missed the flow - you'll know how to get out quickly if you practice it, same as anything. If you don't, you'll be a speed bump and Walt will be right. There's always PowerGrips (tm).

  38. Think about it....You don't fall over when going through the intersection, but it's possible to fall over when stopping at an intersection. When that happens there is some laughter but that's about all...

  39. Ground Round Jim said...
    You missed the flow - you'll know how to get out quickly if you practice it, same as anything. If you don't, you'll be a speed bump and Walt will be right. There's always PowerGrips (tm).

    THIS is why I am so dead set against locked foot retention on street bikes. Life riding mixed with traffic is dangerous enough without the added worry of having your foot locked to the pedal/bike in case the foot sticks or you have a sudden stop.

    Power grips , if I understand you correctly, are no more than a simple strap over the top of the foot that can be gotten free of very easily. I've tried these straps and don't care for them but they are easy for a clumsy clutz like me to slip out of. Not so with clipless or toe ciips.

    For racing.....
    Well, that's a whole other ball game. It all in do what it takes to win or stay home. However, racing isn't transportation street riding either...........

  40. Walt, you weren't supposed to see my latest comments. Please only refer to my previous ones.

    Really, riding the race bike on a long Sunday blowout isn't getting groceries either.

    Horses for courses or horseshoes for ...I can't come up with anything.

  41. Who uses toe clips? Guys who do L'Eroica? Guys who 'use' them to dress their stable of never-ridden collectors items? Do the consumers who get the black plastic version as OEM ever use them or is that just landfill in progress?

    For the record I've finished a few races and topped a few mountains forgetting to pull my straps sprint-tight. The pull is more on the cleat and the cage plate than on the strap. So yeah, I've come across the line at 45mph and been surprised that my shoes pop right out when I want them to.

    Never have I been stuck in toeclips. Just once I got stuck bad in clipless- some local sand/grit that jammed Shimano mechanisms. The locals then told me to use Look or Campag.

    The real problem for someone contemplating clips & straps in 2011 is that the system does not work without traditional shoes and/or major dedication to finding workarounds. The currently marketed 'traditional' Dromarti needs mods to work the old way. Traditional shoes are widely available, and cheap, for those with small feet. Size 42 or above it's slim pickings.

    I don't much care for Powergrips, but they do work. Just can't see why someone who did not grow up with clips and straps would put out the effort to learn.

    There is one more way to skin a cat not discussed here. The only English term I know is pedal patch. It's simply a small rectangle of leather glued & nailed to the sole of a trad cycling shoe so that it fits between the front & back plates of the pedal. Only needs to be 1/8" thick. For performance possibly 3/16". No one can get scared over 1/8". The grip is as good as any cleat.

    The main problem is there's nothing to sell, nothing to buy, no brand, no marketing, no slogan, no one who's won a race on them unless you go back at least 40 years. Strictly DIY.
    The secondary problem is a pedal patch is simple as dirt to put on a leather sole and would be an experiment on carbon fiber.

  42. All the "practical" hipsters around here use the clips, yo. Y'know, the non-fixie jeggins chica with the Winehouse look.


  43. Who uses toe clips?

    I do, on my city/errand bikes. I ride those bikes in all kinds of shoes, including heels, and the clips are less for foot retention per se than for the occasional moment when a leather-soled shoe slips forward on the pedal, so that I don't slip off the front.

  44. I see this as another cycling evolution for V. I'm sure the scenery was a motivator. But the sudden interest in trail riding stems from your evolution in behavior. You now have confidence in your bike and what it can handle. You also have confidence in your skill level and how to think through and overcome trail obstacles using your intellect. The mind and body working together is a wonderful thing. Of course this could all be mumbo-jumbo. But it sounds pretty :). Look forward to future trail riding impressions.

  45. GRJ @ 8:59

    Yes. Why I can buy either nylon web straps that remind me of onion bags or double-strap pro NJS megastraps. But not a regular strap.

  46. @anon 8:59

    NJS he-straps + touring bike w/rack > PBR + tats + aviators. Obvi? Maybe, but needs to be said.

    Make your own onion bag straps = genius.

  47. I like the photos, V. They give a marvelous sense of space. Riding on trails like that is indeed effortful.

    "Who uses toe clips? Guys who do L'Eroica?"

    Anon, I have used toeclips for nearly 30 years, with and without straps.

    Maybe I'll forgo them on my DL-1 Tourist and go straight for the Look pedals.

    What brand of clipless shoes go best with tweed plus-fours and a pith helmet?

  48. Sausend who uses clips with heels should have good results. Heeled ladies shoes usually have a smooth leather sole.

    For maybe two generations the word "shoe" has meant a pontoon-shaped thing manufactured in East Asia with a foamed polyurethane outer shell. Those don't work with toeclips. I'm sure some outliers have made accomodations & good luck to them.

    If you wear the sort of chaussures that Jacques Tati or Jacques Anquetil might have worn toeclips are wonderfully useful and a perfectly raceworthy setup. I like them a lot. They are not mass-market, they are not utilitarian but for a handful of us.

    I have been gifted an actual pith helmet but sadly it is too small. I do cycle in brown corduroy Italian knickers. I look like a tweed ride whenever I leave the house. Tourists take my picture. Clips and straps were meant for me. You can join me if you want. It is probably more practical to just go ahead and use what the industry wants to sell you.

    Thank you MKS and Soma for making retro riding possible.

  49. Hah! I use plastic toe-cages (the cheapo $5 that don't use straps) and sneakers. They're great at home (for the same reasons quoted above--they keep dressy shoes from sliding off the pedal), but I've been touring for 2,000 miles and I love'em.

    I don't use power grips because, as I understand it, you have to turn your heel out a tad to get in and out of them, and I have hip rotation issues and I can't turn out my heel very well.

    I hate riding on gravel myself. UGH. But I want to try cyclocross racing, so I'm trying to get better at off-road riding when it happens.

    Took me a while to realize that part of why I hate off-road is that I needed a better sports bra. I wonder how many other ladies have that problem....mostly though, I just fear losing control of the bicycle.


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