There are many reasons to love gravel riding, but one of the best parts of this rapidly growing discipline is exploring new areas. You take new roads just to see where they lead. You travel to new places and meet new people. And sometimes you might find yourself sleeping on a sailboat in the middle of Oregon.
Sleeping on a boat on an alpine lake is very much like traditional camping. You adopt a routine tied to daylight, sleeping when the sun sets and waking as soon as it peeks above the horizon. If you can convince yourself to ditch your phone for a couple days, clocks become irrelevant as your body reverts to its natural cycle uninterrupted by the ubiquitous presence of sleep-interrupting blue light. And temperatures cool down a bit, allowing for a comfortable night’s rest.
Thirty-degree Fahrenheit temperature swings are normal once the sun sets here on Elk Lake, near Bend. We come prepared, with beanies and down coats and insulated sleeping bags. But the normal temperature drop never occurs. The heat wave we had hit on our way to the lake persists, unwelcomed, through the night. By morning, we have all stripped off the layers of down, and are each halfway out of our sleeping bags. We each know this means another sweltering day of riding awaits us.
By the time we roll out, lunchtime still hours away, the temperature is already breaking the 80-degree mark. We decide to stop for some extra snacks down the road at the Lava Lake Resort. Some electrolyte drinks and extra salt and protein in the form of jerky are needed to ride through another day of heat. With sufficient provisions, and after a quick visit from a doe, we venture off the beaten path.
We think about the spring classics a lot here at Peloton. And we think about those races well beyond the confines of Belgium and France and the months of March and April. Spend any time riding backcountry gravel, the kind where you only encounter door-less Jeeps and quads ripping up a cloud of dirt in their wake, and you also might end up thinking about the spring classics a lot. Thinking about how divots in gravel roads are rough even with 40mm tires, and how the classics specialists survive weekend after weekend on roads often much bumpier than these. Thinking about how, counterintuitively, to make cobbled roads less bumpy, you must ride faster, allowing your tires to almost float over the cobbles rather than bear the full blow of each individual stone. And thinking about how, oftentimes, it’s the same story on gravel.
The particular gravel road we’re on is one of those cases. It soon becomes like one large highway rumble strip, with ridges running perpendicular to the road, spaced uniformly apart. The choice is either this bone-jarring rumble strip, rough and hard-packed, or fishtailing our way through inches-deep loose gravel in the center of the road, losing precious energy with each pedal stroke. We think about the lessons of the spring classics. The specialists go fast; that’s how they survive. Soon, Matt Lieto opens up his engine over the rumble strip and we jump on; that’s how we survive.
Having spent years racing Ironman triathlons, and more recently gravel races, Matt’s specialty is riding a steady, high tempo, and holding it seemingly forever. Having not spent day in and day out training for the world’s most grueling endurance races, this is not exactly our specialty. But the pace is set and all we have to do is try to hold on.
The high speed really does help. The bumps reverberating throughout our entire bodies become diminished, replaced by the good kind of pain from a hard effort. And our Schwalbe G-One Bite tires offer just enough traction as we swerve back and forth from the right side of the road to the left in an ever-meandering search for the smoothest line. Soon enough, the rumbling dissipates and we can let up a bit (rather, Matt can let up a bit). We return to the highway and then hit a bike path snaking through the Sunriver community.
There’s no time frame for our return trip to Bend. We stop when we want, for a coffee in Sunriver, or to take in the scenic delights of the Deschutes River. We ride fast when we want, and just as quickly sit up and soft pedal. There’s no right way to enjoy the day—no segment hunting, no regimented workout to stick to. We’re riding solely for the enjoyment of it, a concept that’s increasingly easy to lose sight of through constant training and racing. But fortunately it’s a concept that’s just as easy to regain. Whether you live somewhere like Bend where epic gravel is around every corner, or you have to search just a little harder, all it takes is getting out there and exploring.