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'.🙄


New Member
That sounds fantastic. I'm contemplating some of this for myself. How did you manage charging? Did you carry multiple batteries? How did you pick your routes?

Mr. Coffee

Well-Known Member
That sounds fantastic. I'm contemplating some of this for myself. How did you manage charging? Did you carry multiple batteries? How did you pick your routes?
Coffee, what were you riding, mods,gear, etc?
Okay, I'm riding an 2017 R&M Charger GX Rohloff with three 500wh Bosch Powerpacks, although for some trips I only carry two of them.

Mods? The major mod was the bigger disc brake rotors, but I also replaced the stock cork grips with the rubber ones. I also am using Smart Sam tires rather than Rock Razors (after a very brief period of experimentation with WTB Riddlers, which are awesome but not so awesome for such a stout bike). Since switching to the Smart Sams plus Slime Tubes I have not had a flat tire, in spite of a lot of miles on atrocious roads.

Charging? With three batteries I can easily manage 70-90 miles in most terrain -- I typically ride about 30 percent eco, 50 percent tour, and the rest in sport or turbo. Most of the time that is more than enough to get me through a day so it is actually pretty rare for me to charge on the road. I usually stay at either dumpy hotels, small rv park/private campgrounds, or public parks where I know I can keep the bike secure and charge it as well.

For figuring out routes -- first off, nearly all of my bicycle travel has been in Oregon, Washington, or British Columbia. Good starting points for trip planning are The Adventure Cycling Association and any guidebooks you can find (Amazon or a local REI are both great places to look for guidebooks). Eclectic websites like Our Mother the Mountain also inform and inspire me.

Those are just starting points. Usually I also try to spend three or four evenings using ridewithgps, Google Maps, and Garmin Connect for more route ideas and to start planning an itinerary. Then I spend a morning making a bunch of phone calls confirming that critical places (in a lot of smallish towns there might be only one campground or motel) are actually open (one of the worst riding days of my life was an 85 mile hot, shadeless, and waterless ride where a ranger station with a faucet was a critical oasis -- I arrived there with dry bottles only to find the place closed down and the taps shut off).

john peck

Well-Known Member
Ah. I like that. Just had an issue with a smart sam i might have prevented. They are a very comfortable ride & roll
surprisingly well, but I just had a flat where the edge of the rim tore up the sidewall. Too bad, i had a heavy duty
spare tube, but the tire was a write-off. Nice long walk back home. A sharp edge on the rim valve bore was the
culprit. I've since honed it smooth.

john peck

Well-Known Member
The replacement tire, while heavier & more durably made, is kinda sluggish compared to the Smart Sam. The real
issue is with the cheap tube that came stock on the bike. It was thin & 10mm too narrow for a 2.25" tire.
I will buy another Smart Sam & reuse the heavy duty tube of the correct diameter. I'm irked, but the bike
was still a good buy. In future, I have a Ghadi tube that can be used to limp home without removing the
rear wheel. That's a real hassle with a hub motor bike if you're miles from anywhere.
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