The Gravel Tier: a post-mortem

Mr. Coffee

Well-Known Member
I just completed a two-week, 750 mile biking extravaganza from Kalispell, Montana to my home near Winthrop, Washington. The majority of the trip was on either really poor roads (paved or unpaved). I am calling the tour "the gravel tier" in reference to ACA's Northern Tier Route, which I roughly followed with the modification of getting off of highways wherever and whenever possible.

Here are a few things I learned on this tour:
  • Make sure your bike is in perfect condition before starting a trip like this. Bike shops and even hardware stores were few and far between on this route. Most of the route was also well outside of cell range as well. So if you did have a mechanical you would be totally on your own. Fixing everything that is broken (and everything that might break) on your bike before your trip is just good insurance. If you do your own work I'd still recommend having your local bike shop or another cyclist you trust check your bike out before you go.
  • Upgrading the Charger with a 203 mm front brake rotor made it a whole new bike. Even fully-loaded and on fast, steep, and bluntly scary downhills I could easily keep the bike under control, which wasn't always the case with the original rotor. I'm upgrading the rear rotor next week :).
  • I didn't take one, but for a trip like this where much of your riding is outside of cell range I'd buy a Garmin InReach. Especially if you were traveling on your own. Even if you don't I'd recommend carrying at least basic survival gear in case you end up stranded for a day or three.
  • Even after consulting multiple map sources, taking a hand-held gps, and with multiple phone calls to land management agencies I managed to get all screwed up several times. As Daniel Boone is reputed to have said, "I ain't been lost but I've been a mite confused for a couple of days." Backcountry road conditions can be subject to change under the best of circumstances, which due to both budget cuts and increasing developments in the wildland-urban interface recent decades most certainly haven't been. My only advise is to allow extra time and be patient with yourself because you certainly will screw up. The challenge and qualification is that because the biggest problems were often quite close to towns, my biggest struggles happened late in the day when both patience and energy were not as generously available.
  • On a related note, in springtime backcountry road conditions can change quite dramatically on a day-to-day basis, and what was hopelessly snowbound (or full of down trees) one week might be a breeze on the following week. Similarly, a spring rainstorm may make what would be an easy ride into something out of a Jack London story.
  • Eating well and properly was a major challenge this trip. Most of the towns I passed through had only small mini-marts and the best dining options were typically tavern food. Often quite good tavern food but you can't fuel a trip like this on just cheeseburgers. A further challenge was that due to my traveling in mid-May a lot of restaurants and stores were not yet open or had very limited hours.
  • Don't be too proud to walk your bike.
  • In spite of a lot of the comments above, if you get off the beaten path in Montana, Idaho, or Washington there is great cycling to be had. I had multiple days where in 30-40 miles of riding I encountered exactly one vehicle. And since there is so little traffic and it is going pretty slow (usually) you will have lots of warning before you actually encounter them -- you'll typically hear them several minutes before you actually see them.

john peck

Well-Known Member
Sounds entertaining, any opportunity to avoid highways is welcome so far as I'm concerned. I'm a back roads kinda guy
wherever possible. Food on the road ? My diet decays into junk food rapidly on the road requiring a week's cleanse
when I get home. The solution I've found is to do as I do when prospecting in the back country. I just take some
whole wheat tortillas, peanut butter, a couple cans of refried beans, & hot sauce. I never use fire or eat where I camp.
If a bear does show up I'll just squirt some Tapitio sauce at him. Other than that, I supplement diet with berries,
tubers, mushrooms & convenient 'herbs'.🙄