(dirt) Road Bikes

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Dirt, road, bikes.  Rock ‘n Road.  Dirt roads are much the way they sound– they are roads composed of local sediments, sometimes groomed and graded and maintained, sometimes abandoned and rugged.  But the variety of dirt roads is greater than the variety of paved routes, which partly explains the great variety of bikes in use for these kinds of rides.  Still, the emergent genre of dirt road riding is finally landing on some common themes– not quite standards– but commonalities in tire size and tread, handlebar concepts, and in some cases, luggage.  Of course, riding on unpaved roads is ancient as far as bicycles are concerned.  But today, greater accommodation of comfort and efficiency on unpaved surfaces is afforded through new equipment.  Specifically, a vast array of lightweight large-volume 700c/29″ tires are perfectly tuned for dirt, road, riding.

Some dirt road rides are self-supported races over many thousand miles.  Others are actually half on pavement to connect the dots of featured dirt segments, and still others are about the pursuit of adventure and reaching remote destinations by the only means available– a dirt road.  We are not talking about mountain biking, which is an exclusive search for dirt trails and tracks and rough terrain.  We are not talking about a brief segment of unpaved rail-trail– yes, I know you can ride it on your road bike.  We are talking about road riding, potentially at a brisk pace, on dirt roads.  Dirt, road, riding.  Common themes include medium to large volume 700c tires, powerful brakes, a range of gears; drop bars, aero bars or multi-posiiton handlebars; and lightweight frames, in reference to true mountain bikes or touring bikes.  The following are a sample of modern concepts from NAHBS:


Ellis Strada Fango

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29×2.0″ Schwalbe Furious Fred tires, Shimano CX-75 brakes

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Retrotec Half

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700x43mm Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road tires, Paul Racer brakes to brazed pivots

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Soulcraft Dirtbomb

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700x43mm Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road tires. Paul Mini-Moto brakes (linear-pull brake, compatible with road levers)

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Steve Potts, w/Type II fork (1987)

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26×1.95″ Specialized Ground Control tires, WTB Roller Cam brakes, and WTB Dirt Drop bars.  One of only two 26″ wheeled bikes in this collection, back when large-volume 700c tires were unavailable.  Several years earlier, a few Marin builders had gotten their hands on some 700x47mm Nokian Hakkepelita tires for use off-pavement, although supply issues forced the concept out of existence.  A year after this Potts frame was built, Bruce Gordon released his 43mm Rock ‘n Road tire.  This bike would have been considered a true mountain bike at the time, but has since informed the kinds of bikes that are popularly ridden on dirt roads, such as the Salsa Fargo.  Marin County is home to many historic fire roads.

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29×2.20″ Kenda Karma tires. Avid BB7 brakes

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Moots Farrhoots

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29×2.2″ Geax AKA tires, mechanical disc brakes (Shimano CX-75?)

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Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road

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700cx43mm Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road tires, and custom Bruce Gordon cantilever brakes.  This design and the accompanying tire celebrates 25 years in existence.

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Rob English Black Rainbow Custom

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Schwalbe Racing Ralph tires, Avid BB7 brakes

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Rick Hunter Super Scrambler

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Continental RaceKing tires, Shimano CX-75 brakes and vintage WTB Dirt Drop bars.  Check out this thorough post on the Super Scrambler.

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Twenty2 Cycles Custom 650b/700c

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650B Schwalbe Rocket Ron tires, Avid BB7 brakes.  Fits large volume 650b tires or cross-type 700c tires.

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Ellis Inox Rando

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Kenda Happy Medium tire, Paul Racer brakes, dynamo lighting and mini-rack.  This is the narrowest tire of the bunch, but represents what many people consider to be an appropriate tire for unpaved surfaces. This size is fine for graded, hardpacked surfaces without a load.
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Littleford Expedition Tourer

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26″ Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tires, Paul Touring cantilever brakes, dynamo lighting, and expedition-grade racks.  In this instance, 26″ wheels are selected for durability and the ability to source wheels parts all over the globe.

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A brief history and tribute

Credit to Bruce Gordon for pushing the first large volume 700c tire through to the American market, and building a bike to fit it.  And to the 700x45mm Panaracer Fire Cross XC.  Credit to mountain bikes and all-terrain bikes and down-home dirt roads everywhere, and the people who ride them.  Credit to the Surly LHT which is a “real touring bike”, but fits bigger tires and is a gateway bike to dirt roads for many; and the Cross-Check, the monstercross bike of the people; and the Salsa Fargo, which has reintroduced the idea of knobby tires and drop bars to a lot of people.  Surely, credit is also due elsewhere: Grant Peterson and Rivendell (and the drop-bar Bridgestone MB-1), cross bikes, Jan Heine and ultra-plush 650b tires, Charlie Cunningham and the WTB drop bar, Wes Williams, Chris Skogen, Mike Varley and the Black Mountain Cycles Cross frame; Divide racers, gravel grinders, Hemistour riders, the BLM, and the most prolific builder of dirt roads in the world, the United States Forest Service.

Bruce Gordon’s influence is immeasurable.  If you ask Bruce, he started it all.  Note: the BG Rock ‘n Road tire was actually designed by Joe Murray, and borrowed heavily from the Nokian Hakkapelita.

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Does your bike happily ride on dirt roads? rough dirt roads?

The United States National Forest Road System consists of more than 380,000 miles of roads. The types of roads range from permanent, double-lane, paved highways to single-lane, low-standard roads intended only for use by high-clearance vehicles, such as pickup trucks. At this time, a significant portion of this system is closed or use-restricted to protect resources. (USFS website)

Further, 1.3 million miles, or more than one-third of all road miles in the U.S. are still unpaved gravel or dirt roads. (ARTBA website)


Real touring bikes: Yukon

Don’t listen to my advice about selecting a touring bike, as I’m hefting a purple snow bike around the continent.  As for good advice, maybe these bike have something to offer.  This will become a regular feature; as I see them, I’ll share them.  From $200 to $4000; 32mm or 94mm tires, 26″ or 700c; carbon and steel;  racks, bags, rafts and plastic totes, these bike will do it.  This is the antidote for all those pictures of shiny new touring bikes on the internet– these are real bikes.

First, Matt’s Surly Pugsley with fat tires, coruplast fenders, vintage EPIC Designs framebag (from Eric Parsons, of the renamed Revelate Designs), and Alpaca packraft.  Matt lives on a sailboat in Juneau, having sailed north though the Inside Passage from the Puget Sound.  This is a true Alaska bike, especially with the raft.  I spotted Matt’s name in the logbook at the cabin on the Trans-Canada Trail from Braeburn, dated from 2010.  Surly Racks support Ortlieb panniers in the rear and the raft up front.  Titec-made Jeff Jones-designed bars, Ergon grips and Paul Thumbies are standard on sensible upright touring bikes.  Endomorph tires are mounted front and rear at 30 psi for paved stretches.




The odd couple:


Ela’s recent purchase of a used Kona Fire Mountain made my day.  She leads mountain bike trips in Skagway for a local company, but found some time to look around up north.  I love her “system”– a plastic tote on a standard rear rack, a couple stuff sacks and an NRA lunchbox-turned-handlebar bag.





And of course, Dave and Sarah’s custom Robin Mather tourers.  Hopefully, I’ll run into them again to catch a better look.  Next time I see them Dave will be riding without front panniers, and with a new Porcelain Rocket frame bag.



And these old guys from Juneau left me half a cinnamon roll in Braeburn, which I blame for my muddy wanderings on the Trans-Canada Trail.  While enjoying and ruminating over the roll and a cup of coffee, I spotted the trailhead behind the Braeburn Lodge.  They ride matching Bruce Gordon BLT (Basic Loaded Touring) bikes.  These are the Petaluma, California bikes, not the Taiwanese BLT bikes offered more recently.



Adam has attempted an Argentina-to-Alaska ITT, but relaxed when he reached the northern part of South America due to muscle strains.  Still only 103 from Ushuaia, he is within two weeks of Deadhorse at Prudhoe Bay.  He was missing one chainring bolt entirely, and the other was replaced with standard stainless hardware store fare.  The hash marks on the seat tubes signify the number of days on the road.  A Trek TT bike was used on purely paved portions.  The ride supports autism.




This French rider was on a 1986 Alex Singer, built with Reynolds 531 All-Terrain tubing.  With a small pair of rear panniers and a Gilles Berthoud handlebar bag he was quite proud of his minimal load, communicated despite poor English and my basic French.  The frame has ridden PBP twice and has been repainted by paintbrush recently, seemingly with standard house paint.  The bike features Campagnolo derailleurs, Stronglight cranks and headset, 3TTT stem and bars, Schwalbe tires on a Mavic Cosmos wheelset, and a Gilles Berthoud saddle.  The brake levers were the only Shimano bits to be seen.

I would ride this bike without the racks, and with a huge framebag.




This father and son pair from San DIego and Mexico City were on skinny-tired cross bikes.  They laughed when I asked if they planned to ride those tires to Inuvik, on the gravel Dempster Highway.  Of course not, they were also packing (or had shipped) 32mm knobby tires.  They’re a long way from the paved stretches of southern California, and they remarked that they’d rather be riding tires like mine even on the “sealed” roads.  Even a 32mm tire is narrow to me, especially with a full load of panniers.  The son was on a Bailey AL/carbon cross frame, while the father was on a steel Kelly cross frame.  Incidentally, the lightweight steel frame was said to be “wobbly”; no complaints about the other.  Both were riding skinny Continental tires on the road with front and rear Ortlieb panniers.