Why you need to go out and ride unmaintained roads?

Intro to gravel riding

Text by Adrian Grant
Photos by Adrian Grant / Simon Bergeron / Crossroad Tremblant

As gravel riding has entered the mainstream, demands for increased tire volume have resulted in generous improvements in frame clearances, with 45mm wide tires now considered the “new normal” for gravel/adventure bikes. This has allowed riders to explore “all roads” including routes that, at one time, may have been considered inaccessible. In the Ottawa-Gatineau region, these include what I collectively refer to as “Unmaintained Roads”.

Unmaintained roads consist of public right-of-ways that receive no winter maintenance, irregular maintenance, or no maintenance whatsoever. Logging roads. ATV trails. Forest Service roads. Hydro cuts. Their condition can vary from easily passable gravel to what could charitably be referred to as a goat path.

Findings these hidden gems is easy, if you know where to look. Sometimes I’ve discovered one by happy accident while out riding – a dead end that doesn’t really end. Otherwise, potential options can be found using Google Maps. Usually roads that “disappear”, then reappear a few kilometers away (you’d be surprised by what shows up on Google Streetview). However, I’ve found the best way to discover these forgotten roads remains the traditional paper map, especially the Ontario Cottage Country Backroads Mapbook and the discontinued Livre de Carte Plein Air for southwestern Québec. While you can rarely plan an entire route around unmaintained, these resources will help you add little extra spice to your next gravel ride.

Among my favorite regions to explore are the Lanark Highlands and Greater Madawaska. Only an hour or so drive west of Ottawa, their remote and rugged nature make these areas a gateway for local off-road and ATV enthusiasts, providing ample opportunities to stitch together various dashed lines on a map into an all-day (or multi-day) adventure. Other local options can be found north of Ottawa in Québec, including several Zones d’Exploitation Contrôlée (ZEC) and Wildlife Reserves. Home to a variety of outdoor recreation activities (including ATVing, camping, hunting and horseback riding), as well as small-scale logging, they offer endless opportunities to explore miles and miles of unmaintained goodness.

Overall, I like to think of unmaintained as gravel’s delinquent cousin. Sure, it’s more adventurous than your typical nice gravel road, but the same qualities that make these roads so alluring can also make them unpredictable. So before tackling an extended trip on unmaintained roads, here are some riding and equipment tips to consider.

First – and this should go without saying – BE PREPARED! Traversing unexplored unmaintained roads can be a gamble. There’s always a chance that connections that appear on a map may no longer exist. Anyone who spends time exploring potential routes knows the heartbreak that comes with riding down a road that eventually becomes impassable. Meanwhile, washouts, downed trees, flooding and other obstacles may force you into an unexpected re-route. So be sure to carry a good map and GPS at all times.

When travelling in remote or little travelled areas, such as ZECs, don’t count on getting outside help, as you’ll often be unable to get a cell signal. So before heading out, make sure your bike is mechanically sound, and carry a few bike repair essentials: two spare tubes, tire levers and a patch kit (in the unlikely event that you have more than two flats); a pump, not a CO2 inflator (should you have to inflate multiple tires); a tire boot or spare tire; a quick link; and a multi-tool with a chainbreaker. Ideally, you want to ride with a partner in the event that your bike is beyond a simple roadside fix. But if you don’t, be prepared for any contingency. This means carrying sufficient food and water with you, including simple water treatment options (such as iodine or Pristine drops), packable clothing for all expected weather conditions, lights, a lighter and an emergency blanket. A mid-size seatpost bag or handlebar bag, and a half-size frame bag to carry this gear aren’t bad investments either.

Riding off the beaten path is quite safe. After all, automobiles are the biggest danger we face, but are rarely found on unmaintained roads. The worst-case scenario – walking back to your vehicle – might be uncomfortable, but isn’t dangerous.

Secondly, the rules for riding gravel apply even more so to riding unmaintained:

✱ Pay attention to the road ahead. When riding unmaintained, one must remain constantly vigilant for any potential trip-ending hazards. Sharp rocks, deep potholes and loose sand can all result in slashed sidewalls, damaged rims or hard crashes. Scan the road ahead for these and other obstacles, and do your best to ride the safest line possible. At the same time, when riding with a group, be considerate and provide sufficient room to allow your fellow riders to perform any sudden evasive maneuvers.

✱ Stay seated and spin when climbing. As unmaintained roads are not designed with heavy vehicle traffic in mind, ascents tend to be steeper/pitchier than municipal gravel roads. To compensate, much like a two-wheel drive truck, keep most of your weight over your back wheel by staying seated. This, and small gearing/higher cadence (a minimum 1:1 gear ratio) will help maintain traction and momentum on loose surfaces as you climb.

✱ Use caution when descending/cornering at speed. The rough or loose surfaces inherent on unmaintained roads can potentially take out even the most cautious rider. So when descending, position yourself slightly off the saddle with your legs inwards touching your top tube, keep a relaxed grip on your handlebars, and bleed speed by feathering your rear brake before entering a corner. This will help to absorb any bumps and vibrations, while helping to maintain control should you encountered loose sand and gravel, which tends to collect at the bottom of descents. In addition, on particularly rough descents, it’s often worth keeping your pedals at nine and three o’clock to avoid pedal strikes.

Finally, take advantage of your frame’s clearance and mount the widest tires you can! A high volume tire, at the right PSI, can help you avoid most of the issues identified above (less chance of a rim strike, more traction and floatation, and greater comfort on rough terrain). Ridden with care and attention, a properly shod bike can handle even the gnarliest unmaintained roads!