How to Get Off the Road

This one’s for the roadies. I have friends who are dyed-in-the-wool road cyclists. The last few years have seen the numbers in their group rides dropping, and the media dedicated to what they do dwindling. The industry has, on some level, abandoned the old school road enthusiast, the watt counter, the mile piler, the all-things-paved-all-the-time sort of person.

People like me see riding bikes as all one thing, just riding bikes, road, mountain, other. Many roadies don’t. Riding off road, they believe, requires a different set of skills, and those rides are harder to measure in the ways road riders might feel compelled to measure them.

Road riding is governed by a set of rules. Those rules are mostly about safety, because cars, but they also take in the efficiency of the group riding together. There are cultural and stylistic rules that are a bit arbitrary, but most cultures and styles are like that. And the focus, on the road, is usually on what your legs will do for you on the day. Road riding is very effort and distance oriented.

To get off-road, you have to adapt your mindset a bit. You have to let go of a lot of those rules, and you might want to stop thinking about distance and effort so much, at least at first. Also, have some faith in your bike handling skills. Almost everything you’ve learned to do on the road will translate to the not road. I promise.

I learned to ski in middle age, and the prospect of having to learn new skills when you have a perfectly good set for another activity is humbling. It is very tempting to just stay with what you know, but I can tell you I am fanatical about skiing now, and I discovered that a lot of my mountain biking skills translated to skiing, which is so fun I can’t believe I put off learning so long.

But why would you want to get off the road? Let’s not skip over that.

Not the worst place to ride a bike.

First, the woods are good for you. I don’t think that’s controversial. The woods are beautiful, relaxing, and there are no cars there. The sense of adventure is rewarding. I could go on and on, but as I said it’s not controversial. No one is saying, “Don’t go in the woods. The woods suck.”

Second, riding on dirt will make you a better rider, and learning another type of bike will do that too. Nothing you do off road will have a negative effect on your road riding.

Third, it’ll get you out of your head. Off-road riding, whether gravel biking or mountain biking, is busy work. There is a lot of steering to do, a lot of terrain reading. You’ll forget your worries, and even, maybe, what’s going on with your legs that day.

Fourth, it’s good to be humbled. For sure there is discomfort in it. Frustration. But wow are the rewards there. That process of starting over and working your way back up has all these joyful little waypoints along the way.

So how to do it.

If you don’t have a gravel bike, get one. Or even just put wider tires on your road bike and take in some easy dirt. Incorporate some chill trails into your road rides. I started riding “gravel” on 28mm slicks, and I was hooked. To be sure, I was going more slowly on those tires than I do on 40mm gravel tires now, or 2.5″ mountain tires, but the fun was still readily available.

If you’re gonna make the jump to mountain biking, which I highly recommend, then I’d start with a budget hardtail. There is so much fun to be had with a bike like that without breaking bank, without going all in.

Find a friend who knows the local trails or use an app to find a place that’s open and easy, and then explore it. The biggest leap is the mindset change, to go from measuring miles or wattage or whatever, to simply riding around in the woods. Have faith, it’s still bike riding. It’s still improving your fitness.

Don’t be intimidated. Just because the mountain bike media is showing you kids hucking back flips off big jumps, doesn’t mean cruising around in the woods isn’t mountain biking. As you become familiar with one trail, another will quickly follow. Before you know it, you’re mastering whole trail systems or looking for ways to connect one set to another.

Join the conversation
  1. alanm9 says

    1. Trails are being closed or restricted due to overuse and environmental damage.
    2. Most people have to drive to trails. Climate change.
    3. Gravel roads are narrow and dangerous; I’ve had multiple encounters with drivers taking up the middle.
    4. Hundreds of miles of gravel roads are being paved every year due to population growth.
    5. Leaving the road means losing access to it. It’s already happening through deliberate road “improvements”.
    6. The perception of dangerous roads is overblown by media and not supported by data. What is irrefutably supported by data is that more cyclists on roads increases motorist awareness and preserves our access.

  2. Balky says

    @Alanm9, you make some good points especially regarding the very real possibility of losing access to roads if people stop cycling on them as well as the concept of safety in numbers on the roads. Likewise @Emlyn makes good points particularly the one about riding bikes being just about riding bikes and not adhering to any one tribe or sub-culture within cycling and abstaining from constantly striving to achieve this or that performance metric. Being a roadie one day, a cargo bike rider fetching groceries the next and a mountain biker the next is definitely a good thing to aim for.

    And whilst I agree that there can be a certain toxicity within certain sub-groups like roadies (though others as well), to me, the most important thing is getting as many butts on saddles as possible regardless of the type of bike or attire. I think it’s probably easier to expand your scope of riding types once you’re riding so riding anything is better than not riding at all.

    I think whilst some people certainly do drive to the trail head, if that’s about the only driving they do because they commute by bike in their home area most of the rest of the time then it’s still worth doing because being in natural places is a key to creating empathy for those places and thus heading in the right direction to preserving them. There’s probably another subset of off road riders who live close to trails who could be encouraged to ride from/to their doorstep.

    Regarding overuse, I think that’s largely a land management issue where rangers and other experts should (and mostly do from my experience) open and close selections of trails based on regeneration needs and current weather events.

    1. khal spencer says

      All good points. We should be one big happy family, whether road, off road, commuter, utilitarian, or something else. But then there is tribalism. Kinda reminds me of that Monty Python People’s Front of Judea skit. “The only people we hate worse than the motorists are….”

    2. alanm9 says

      Thank you, I appreciate the feedback. And I’m certainly not against off road riding. Merely pointing out, especially in the Eastern US, that opportunities for off road riding are dwindling while cyclists are being encouraged to leave the roads to motorists. This will not end well for any of us.

  3. khal spencer says

    I’ve never been a fan of driving to a trailhead when there is a perfectly good road right in front of the house. Fortunately, where I live in Santa Fe, NM, there are opportunities to ride the gravel or cross bike down the road to a trail and get both jollies in. There is also a very nice set of semi-technical trails a mile from the house and the dirt trailhead actually starts about a third of a mile away. So best of all worlds.

    In addition to getting in a bit of riding diversity, I’ve long noted that dirt riding is good for the upper body fitness, skill building, and bike handling, which helps me stay alive on my BMW sport tourer, an R1200RS. Whether it was my little dirt motorcycle when I was sixteen or my Stumpjumper Expert when I was sixty, it worked all the muscles, including the brain.

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