Going Graveling – A Triathlete’s Take on Gravel Biking

by Kathryn Taylor

Last year, after my bike accident, I was out on what I had planned to be my comeback ride. It was to be a solid day to get me back into the swing of things and rebuild my confidence. Instead, I randomly took a wrong turn and got lost on a route that I’ve ridden many times and with just seven miles to go, my derailer snapped and I was left stranded on the side of the road. Oh and to add to the misery of the day, my cell phone had died so I couldn’t call anyone to come pick me up. I started pushing my bike but realized that seven miles was going to be a long, miserable hike in my bike shoes so I sat down in some weeds on the side of the road to try to stay out of the August sun while waiting for someone from my group to come by and call our SAG car.

At that moment I literally hated my bike.

I decided it was time to pull the plug on my upcoming race in September, give my body the needed time to really heal and to take a mental break from training.

My bike got fixed, my body has healed but I’ve found that the mental break is still needed.

I spend all day talking about triathlon. I coach triathletes. I host a podcast about triathlon. I spent most Sundays over the winter coaching long bike classes for triathletes.

I love triathlon but my heart still isn’t into training and racing.

Not long after my bike accident, I decided to make the next year a year of experiences instead of a year of performance and goals. It was then that I started thinking about investing in a gravel bike.

–If you have questions about what a gravel bike is then head on over to this article on our all3sports site.–

After a bit of debate, I decided to purchase the Orbea Terra. I’d had my eye this bike since it came out last year. I liked the idea of a bike that I could use for many functions – gravel, road, and even cross if I want to venture into that realm. Note, any gravel bike can be used cross-functionally but the Terra really appealed to me.

My new bike – the Orbea Terra

The first step was a road bike fit with Chloe. I have a great tri bike fit but the last road bike I purchased was years ago at a shop that just measured the length of my legs and eyeballed the rest. I knew that for gravel biking, I’d want to be in the proper position so I could get maximum power on the uphills while being comfortable on mixed surfaces.

I learned a lot from my fit with Chloe. The optimal position didn’t ‘feel’ comfortable while sitting on the bike fit bike but as she explained why I should be in that position it made sense and I trusted her expertise–which by the way, has proven to be correct now that I’m on the road.

We also tried out 5-6 different saddles. I have never found a good saddle on my road bike but I knew that as I got into gravel riding, I would want a solid saddle.

I used Affirm –our financing company — to purchase the bike (it literally took less than two minutes).

I took my bike out on a short little ride at Cochran Shoals. I was there riding with one of my athletes on Columns drive and decided to see how it did on the trail between parking lots. I think I had a giant grin on my face for the entire 3 miles. I loved the feel of the dirt beneath my tires. I loved riding along the river surrounded by trees. I loved the freedom I felt on the bike.

It was time to try out a ‘real’ gravel ride. I reached out to my friend Lauren who is training for the Dirty Kanza, a 200-mile gravel ride in Kansas. She was planning to ride loops at Dirty Sheets, a well-known 20-mile gravel route in the Chattahoochee Hills.

We met up on Saturday at 8 am. Since the temps were still a bit cooler, we pretty much had the parking lot at Cochran Mill to ourselves. I was a little nervous because I had no idea what it meant to navigate hills on gravel and I was still getting used to the gearing on my bike but Lauren assured me that it was a very doable loop and she’d make sure I didn’t miss any turns.

After layering up, pumping up tires, and a last-minute bathroom visit, we were off. The ride leaves from Cochran Mill Park and begins on the very familiar Silk Sheets ride. Within a couple of miles, we took our first right onto a gravel road and we were off.

Turns out I’m a lot taller than Lauren…

Still struggling with the gears, I was very focused on our first climb and as we crested the top, I realized I had no strategy to tackle the downhill. I watched Lauren get low and fly down the hill as I nervously kept my hands near my brakes the whole way down. When I caught up with her I got some advice.

Basically, you want to stay off the hoods and in the drops on the downhill so your hands are more stable, she told me. it’s pretty scary at first but you’ll get the hang of it.

I wasn’t quite ready to drop low on this ride but I did begin to feel confident enough on the descents to keep my fingers away from the brakes by the end.

After the first 5-miles or so, I was feeling confident in the gearing and was able to start really enjoying the ride. We were just 30-minutes outside of the city surrounded by farmland on a beautiful spring day. The views were magnificent. I think we saw 2 cars on the route and they patiently waited for us to move over instead of blaring their horns at us.

For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was riding for no other reason than the pure joy I felt in exploring unknown places with my trusty bike as my means of transportation. I didn’t care about my pace or my power or how far I went. I was just there for the experience. It was the most fun I’ve had on my bike in a long time.

Just 30-minutes from my home near downtown Atlanta you’ll find rolling hills, farmland, and beautiful views!

We had to cut the ride a bit short because of some mechanical issues but I’m already looking forward to my next ride.

I’ll be back to triathlon and to racing – maybe even this season – but for now, I’m so happy to find a new way to get out and ride.

Here are a few tips from my first ride:

  • Go with someone who isn’t super focused on pace. It was great to ride with Lauren because even though she had a long training day on her schedule, it was more about the hours, not the pace. I didn’t feel pressure to keep up.
  • I wore a cycling kit but I think I’ll try out bibs for my next ride. I noticed my shorts were ‘falling down’ as I hit bumps along the way.
  • I rarely ride with cycling gloves but I’ll add them for gravel riding. I think it’ll help my hands feel more stable on the bars especially during the hot summer months.
  • Everything was covered in dust – everything. Keep a towel or wipes handy in the car to wipe down shoes, bike, water bottles, helmet, and yourself.

We host occasional gravel rides.

On Sunday, April 29th and Sunday, May 27th we’ll be hosting intermediate to advanced gravel rides in Ellijay. Get the details here and check back for beginner rides coming soon!