Today I headed out west to the Texas Hill Country to do my first proper gravel ride. The route I took starts in the small town of Castell, and loops around to the south before ending back at the town for a total of 31 miles. I rode in the counter-clockwise direction, which pretty much starts out on gravel, and ends on paved roads. I think that worked out great, because at the end of the 31 miles, I was pooped, and hitting that smooth asphalt was welcomed.
As I mentioned before, this is my first proper gravel ride on my bicycle. I used to ride roads like these on my motorcycle quite a bit and that actually gave me some good experience that translated well to the bicycle. For instance, when there’s a sandy part, it’s best to have a decent amount of speed so you can keep your momentum going, and when things get squirrelly, the best option is to give it some gas, or in the case of the bicycles, to just power through. You might think being in a granny gear would be good for sand, but no… if you are going that slow, you won’t have enough momentum. Better to be in a middle/low gear and push down hard!
But this route is really not too difficult as far as sand was concerned. I only had to get off and push twice, and each time was only for half a minute or so before reaching firmer dirt. For a newbie like me, this route was perfect. Not too easy, but not too tough either. About half way through, there was a pretty steep hill where I had to shift into my lowest granny gear. It was awesome! I have a triple chainring on my bicycle, and I keep it in the middle chainring 95% of the time, but I had to throw it into the low chainring in order to make it up that hill without spending too much effort. So much fun!
One thing about this trail is that there’s plenty of washboard surface to deal with. You can usually find a smooth line but it takes a lot of attention, which means that it’s not a completely leisurely ride. You have to actually watch where you’re going! 😄 A couple of times, there was no smooth line through, or it was on the other side of the road and I couldn’t reach it quick enough, and I went over the washboard a bit too fast. I thought my bike was going to fall apart with all that rattling! But luckily she held together, and the only “damage” was that my top-heavy phone/holder would work its way downward with each big bump and I would just have to readjust it. 😊
My bike has a cheap suspension fork, which just about everyone says is junk and should be replaced. I think that is good advice if you are are using the bike for proper mountain-biking, but for the type of riding I do, the simple spring suspension is really nice. It doesn’t require maintenance, removes road vibration, and I don’t think there’s a lot of energy loss when pedaling. Modern gravel bikes have rigid forks, but I’m very happy with the simple suspension fork and appreciate the comfort that the 2.5 inches of travel provides. I’m sure my wrists are better for it after all the washboard today!
The nice thing about this gravel route is that there were no cars to deal with. For the first half of the ride, which was all gravel, I only saw one ATV. That meant I could ride anywhere on the road to find the smoothest line. It was great! Towards the end of the ride, where there were more homes, I saw maybe 4 or five trucks, which were all going at a slow speed and gave me a wave. I suspect most gravel roads have a similar lack of traffic which makes gravel rides so appealing.
The remoteness was refreshing, but if you are riding this route, make sure to have some basic tools and a way to fix a flat tire, since you might not see another person for a while. I always carry a tube, patch kit, pump, first aid kit, and basic tools in my pannier, so I wasn’t too worried about getting stranded. If worse came to worse, you could always walk back and pick up your bike later.
This loop goes to the south of Castell, but there’s also a north loop, which looks like it would also be fun. I’m looking forward to riding that in the future. Actually, there’s an event called the Castell Grind where you can ride the South Loop, or both loops if I understand the description correctly. It looks like quite the race! Not really my thing, but it’s neat that something like that exists.
If you are a newbie to gravel riding, and live in Central Texas, I highly recommend a visit to Castell. It’s a terrific ride! I enjoyed the solo trip, but I think it would be great with one or two friends, and pack a lunch to enjoy together halfway through the route. Next time!