Sand Trails Meet Road Tires

I know that some people are afraid to venture off road on road tires, but you might be surprised how versatile a good road tire can be.

We were cycling along the coast in Wellfleet, Mass., when we came upon this spectacular fire road.

The sand road, which is no more than a narrow trail in some stretches, runs trough several miles of dunes and saltwater marshes. You can see the depth of the sand here by the tire tracks on the left and the foot prints on the right.

There were no other cyclists on the trail and at first we did not think that our bicycles could handle it, but apparently they could. We rode at a slow and even pace without incident, enjoying the gorgeous views that were inaccessible from the road.

We both have 32mm tires on our Motobecanes: mine are Panaracer Pasela Tourguards and his are Continental Ultra GatorSkins. Both of these have good kevlar protection and are pretty fast on the road. Great to know that they perform off road as well. The above photo gives a pretty good sense of the depth of the sand we were able to cycle through. If you have never encountered sand on a bicycle before, the thing to keep in mind is that you should avoid making sudden or sharp turns. If you need to turn, make it a very wide turn and do it smoothly and gradually.

Here is a deeper pile of sand where we had to stop and walk the bikes (or in my case, push the bike forward with my feet). There were a couple of these patches, but not many.

As the trail wound closer to the water's edge, the sand became increasingly wet and covered in shards of sea shells.

Here is a close-up. We rode through that too.

I was worried that the sea shell shards might puncture our tires, and here I am yelling something to that effect. But in the end we decided to go through with it, and que sera sera.

The tires emerged filthy, but intact.

Cycling through the sand felt wonderful, especially since it gave us access to places that would otherwise have gone unexplored. One does not necessarily need a mountain bike just to go on some fire trails, even if they involve dunes and marshes. Invest in good tires with kevlar protection and don't underestimate your roadbike!


  1. Years ago, I used to cycle a trail that ran north along the Hudson River from Nyack to Haverstraw. Its texture was similar to what you've shown, maybe even a bit rougher. And I used to do it on a Colnago racing bike with sew-up tires.

    Your and my experience show that for most people, mountain bikes are unnecessary. You can ride trails if you have good, solid tires--and technique!

    I love the photos, by the way!

  2. I first learned to ride single track before there were any mountain bikes. I used my Teledyne Titan road bike, which is not merely a road bike, but one weighted toward effectiveness in criterium racing. Shod with street gumwalls (back in the day even most criterium bikes could usually fit them) it proved effective. In fact the infamous Teledyne "sprung" fork turned out to be a positive virtue here (coulda used some damping).

    I found myself, just a matter of days ago, over on Kent's Bike Blog opining that if I were to attempt the GDR I'd probably do it on a Redline 925 "urban" bike, rather than on the ubiquitous Monocog mountain bike. Although the GDR takes place off PAVEMENT, it does not, for the most part, take place off ROAD. It's just that most of the roads aren't paved. It's a fire road race, not a single track race.

    Fat tires float over the soft stuff and use deep lugs to grip it. Skinny tires dig in and get their grip that way without need for deep lugs. Skinny vs. fat is an ongoing controversy among snow country cyclists. I can go either way, but find myself perfectly happy with "pimple" treaded 35s (at least until I hit the ice).

  3. Justine - Thanks re the photos. We don't take digital seriously as a medium and our technique is half-hearted at best - but the Co-Habitant is a pro film photographer and sometimes he can't help but show this even in the 1st photo, which was taken with his cell phone.

    kfg - At first I thought you cycled through the former German Democratic Republic, but the internets tell me that "GDR" = Great Divide Bike Race, which is "the world's toughest bike race". Mr. Tough Guy.

  4. makes me want to take the batavus up to wisconsin...

  5. "We don't take digital seriously as a medium"

    Neither do I; and yet I got rid of my film cameras last year and bought a PowerShot (kept my tanks and such, just in case though). Guess I'm just not feeling that serious about it these days. When I am, I can borrow from my mother (a pro; as was her father before her. You might even have seen her work in the Sunday Globe travel section, although she is retired now. I stand to inherit the Leica, so my "abandonment" of film is self-consciously half-hearted).

    "At first I thought you cycled through the former German Democratic Republic"

    Naaah! I've crossed The Curtain, but not in Germany. Did it from Austria, which meant I got to "see" Vienna, walking between stations to change trains for the east (Whose bloody brilliant idea was THAT anyway; and why did Chicago think it was something to emulate?). Would love to go back and cycle it (Salzburg too) someday. Your photos make me a bit jealous. I'm not inclined to subject myself to the vicissitudes of modern international travel on a voluntary basis though. Morons with badges are the form of terrorist I most fear.

    "Mr. Tough Guy."

    Naaaaaaah! It's the informal, yer on yer own nature of it that appeals to me. In the words of George "Soon to be Late" Mallory; "What will we have conquered? None but ourselves."

    "Mr. Zen Guy," I might have to plead guilty to.

    It's also lovely country I haven't seen yet. Although I used to live on the Pacific coast, I've never been west of Dodge City.

  6. Fil, you mentioned that coastline and Texas do not connect in your mind, but your pictures could be my beach, if not for the split rail fence, how New England quaint. My beach, however, has lots of flotsam and jetsam, fun to collect junk, and the occasional Spanish gold dabloon!
    Thanks again for the ride story.

  7. There is one annoying thing however: the sand might get into the drivetrain, making the chain crunch and increasing the wearout. That’s why I always ride carefully and slow on sandy stretches. On Dutch islands every rental bike has a sticker on it which says “Don’t ride on the beach”.
    Nice photos!

  8. That is my favorite walking place. Not too far from my in laws. I usually walk or run down there, but maybe I'll bike down this weekend.

  9. Thanks, Filigree, but I am not really a pro film photographer--and still the undeserved compliments do feel nice... :)

  10. kfg - If you do go to Austria and Germany, I suggest the Danube trail. It extends from the Black Forest to the Black Sea.

    Vee - another examples of worlds colliding, but not quite. Wellfleet is such a nice town. Have fun this weekend; I miss the Cape.

    Zweiradler - That is true. It also helps to clean a bike after a trip near saltwater; some suggest literally hosing it off with water.

    MDI - yeah yeah. If I recall correctly, you still have some undeveloped film I'm holding my breath to see!

  11. 32mm tires are cyclocross size -- and you should know what those bike/tire combinations are capable of!

    What's the worst case scenario? The sand gets a little too deep for your skill level, and you turn around. You still get a nice afternoon exploratory ride.

  12. Anon - I think that many people really don't know. There is a trail near where I live that is partly asphalted and partly a gravel path. I have seen cyclist on non-mountain bikes turn back in dismay when they reach the gravel part, clearly thinking that their bikes are not equipped for the terrain. And of the bikes I do see riding there, 90% are mountain bikes. On bikeforums a couple of days ago, someone posted the question of whether vintage 10-speeds can be taken on unpaved roads, and a long discussion ensued. I think that the whole classification system of road/ mountain/ city /etc used by the bike industry has created the impression that one needs a different kind of bike for every form of cycling activity...

  13. It's true, most bikes are surprisingly versatile. But in all fairness, the specialization you see within the various bike categories is about optimizing the bike for its intended purpose. (Yes, I'm a designer. How did you guess?)

    Of course that doesn't mean you can't use a bike for a purpose outside of its main design intent - it's just a question of what you, the rider, demand of your machine and where are you willing to compromise?

    As an aside, I'm curious to see where the Dutch bike thing will be in North America about 3-5 years from now.

  14. I had meant to include this link in my first post but somehow neglected it, so here it is better late than never:

    Filigree: I have to admit that upon first seeing the Great Mother, the Beautiful Blue Danube, my first impression was, "What? That murky little ditch is IT?" Perhaps downtown Vienna was not the best place for a first view and I wouldn't mind riding the Danube trail in its entirety someday. Maybe shoot the Iron Gate back into the old country (which IS the "Old Country" because we weren't welcome there, but what the hell).

    Mr. Crankypants: I'll predictify; The Oma/Opa thang will be dying out, but the modern "Personal" U-Frame will on the upswing. The American variant the "Comfort" bike will still dominate the niche though, but modified a bit for speed (ala Breezer). The "Thirty Pounder Class" will be found to be the sweet spot, simply because, well, it IS.

    I think the upshot of it all will be a re-appreciation of hub gears/brakes/dynamos; plus, perhaps (or at least I hope) a renewed understanding that "hi-ten" is not a "junk" material, but the RIGHT one where sturdiness and durability are to be desired over maximum lightness.

  15. kfg: I'd have to agree with your predictification. I'd also add that in addition to the modern step step through, I think we'll also be seeing more urbanized MTB style bikes. (Giants TranSend LX for example).

    I too, feel that the Oma/Opa thang will most likely be dying out. Not because of the bike itself, but because it's so strongly attached to a certain style of fashion (here in N.A. anyways) and nothing stays in vogue forever. (fixies anyone?). That's not to say Oma & Opa won't have a place in the bike-o-sphere, they just won't be the "must have" accessory they are now.

  16. Mr. Cranky - I agree with you of course. If I did most of my riding off road, I'd be getting this rather than a road bike.

    The "Dutch" bike thing... I think that the English/Dutch style bicycles have their place, which is namely for cycling in dressy clothing and transporting loads such as groceries - in an environment with fairly lowgrade hills. Aside from those purposes, the usefulness of these bikes is fairly limited. And that is my opinion as someone who actually owns one and likes it. I do think that in 3-5 years we will still see them in the US - if the acceptance of the bicycle into popular culture continues at the rate it is happening now. But I do not think that everybody needs such a bicycle, and in 3-5 years time its place will go from fashion craze to just another specialised sub-category.

  17. I hope I didn't come across as being unfair or overly critical of English/Dutch style bikes. That was certainly not my intent.

    For the record, I'm quite a fan of English roadsters and roadster style bikes.

  18. My commute is partially under water and I find Dutch bikes utterly lacking in this respect. Side currents are really difficult to manage with coat guards. Thusly, this Pugsley is the ultimate bike, of course, about to replace both fixies and carbon-framed anything. Do look forward to seeing your downtown messengers on one.

  19. If you are looking for an affordable, quality made “dutch style” bike you should check out

    They are made by hand in american, out of american steele using solar power and they only cost $595.

  20. I have had panacer paselas for about a year. My surly lht came with horrid fat slicks and something needed to be done. Pasela's were highly recommended and there was no way I could afford schwalbes. They are fantastic tires and very versatile. I live in the country so encounter alot of different trails and the paselas are excellent. Hard pack, dirt trails, gravel, forest ground etc.. The only problem I have is with loose piles of sand. And as for pavement, pasela's are super fast. They are inexpensive and some people give them sketchy reviews, but honestly they are the best tires-fast, durable, and light. Only one flat so far and normally I get flats all the time!
    now, if only I could afford some grand bois tires!


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