The Rewards of Riding Rough Roads by Tamia Nelson

I’ve been riding my Surly Long Haul Trucker for over a year now and grow even more fond of the bike. The LHT is capable, sturdy, and reliable—just what’s wanted in a touring or utility bike. I’ve hauled groceries and other goods, touring kit, and boxes of vino without any complaint from the bike (though the engine sometimes groans on the steep hills!). I bought the complete bike, and swapped the original handlebars and stem for Nitto Noodles, changed the saddle to a Selle SMP Strike Extra, and after 1000 miles I mounted Schwalbe Marathon tires. The bike has proven to be easy to maintain, the brakes adequate, the drivetrain and shifting superb, and the hubs and wheels very hardy. But except for a few miles of dirt road riding last year, I stayed primarily on paved roads. It wasn’t that I avoided unimproved roads. It’s just that my rides didn’t take me off pavement very often. This year I changed all that. I’ve been seeking out the rough roads, to test my LHT and myself, to push the envelope and see how well a road bike copes in mountain bike country. And my discovery? The LHT is a goat! Just come along on this last week’s ride up into the hills near home. It’s sweaty work, the speeds are slow, and the surface is loose, but the rewards are worth it.

The wind was freshening and making the taller tree tops sway, but the approach road offered a gentle grade and good pavement. Good conditions didn’t last more than a few minutes before the pavement ended and the grade increased. The gravel and sand is loose enough and the grade steep enough that after stopping to shoot the photo I couldn’t get the bike moving again. I had to walk to an area where the road was more consolidated.

The climb varied from steep steps to less steep grades, with plenty of gullying on the edges from recent downpours. Shade and bright sunlight made finding the right eyewear difficult, and I finally ended up wearing clear lenses so I could see in the dark shadows. Eyewear is essential when riding a bike, particularly on roads like this, when a passing truck would kick up a plume of grit. The forest deepened, the sounds of traffic gave way to the songs of the north woods, and finally the climb eased. Now came the descent, and it took all my concentration to avoid wiping out in some places. My skills on this kind of surface were rusty but improved with each passing minute. Then the woods opened up, the road leveled off, and the surface improved.

Now came the reward. A rest with a view of an expansive wetland alive with wildlife. Birds sang, a deer doe and her fawn bounded across the road and into the wood, and this toad lounged in the stream running beneath the road.

The time came to leave, and the road down off the mountain was as rugged as the climb, forcing me from one side to another to avoid the worst stretches. I chose to walk down some of the steepest grades, though that’s not because of the LHT’s lack of ability, but mine. The Schwalbe Marathons are great tires for all round use, but Schwalbe Marathon Cross are grippier and more robust, without sacrificing speed.

All in all I was pleased with the performance of my bike as she’s outfitted and I look forward to taking more rough rides with the LHT. As I’m discovering every week, though it’s great to go someplace far away and exotic, there’s a great deal to discover right outside your own doorstep, especially if you’re willing to rough it. This kind of cycling can be sweaty, vigorous, and hard on your backside, but the rewards are worth it!

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For half a century, Tamia Nelson has been ranging far and wide by bike, boat, and on foot. A geologist by training, an artist since she could hold a pencil, a photographer since her uncle gave her a twin-lens reflex camera when she was 10, she's made her living as a writer and novelist for two decades. Avocationally her interests span natural history, social history, cooking, art, and self-powered outdoor pursuits, and she has broad experience in mountaineering, canoeing, kayaking, cycling, snowshoeing and skiing.