SALT LAKE CITY — Rocks, sidehills, close trees and branches, hard climbs and speed-demon downhills can be fun for most mountain bikers, But for those getting up in age and struggling with a little balance issue, these features can be a bit frightening.
If you're in your senior years, don't hang up your helmet. Don't let technical single-track trails keep you from enjoying the outdoors on a mountain bike. Find a gravel or dirt road and pedal your way through great scenery, breathe fresh air, and get in some good exercise.
Gravel and dirt roads are perfect for all bikers to ride but are especially great for senior riders, and Utah has gravel and dirt roads throughout the state.
How to find a place to ride
Guide books, internet searches, and even visits to bike shops are great places to learn locations of gravel and dirt roads suited for pedal bike adventures in your area.
Southern, eastern, central and western desert areas of Utah all have dirt and gravel roads suited for pedal bike rides. Many of these are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, so access is usually not an issue. On these unpaved roads you will find yourself riding through sagebrush flats, red rock country, and juniper steppe landscapes.
The U.S. Forest Service areas also have gravel and dirt roads. These are more mountainous and riders will enjoy aspen, fir, mountain mahogany, maple, cottonwood and other forest trees.
What to know for the type of ride you want to take
Here are a few scenarios and how to be prepared for them:
Casual riding out and back. Find a nice dirt road and park your vehicle. Determine how many miles you want to ride, divide the mileage by two, and then ride out and back to the vehicle to cover the miles.
Point to point with a support vehicle. For this type of ride you determine two waypoints. A support vehicle drops the rider(s) off at the beginning waypoint and then drives to the ending waypoint. The rider(s) should take necessary hydration, such as water or sports drinks, and energy bars if needed for longer rides.
Cross-country point to point. This is similar to the point-to-point ride only with longer distances. This may even involve overnight camping. Riders are dropped off and a support vehicle drives to a designated resting point with necessary hydration and energy food. When the riders reach this waypoint, the support vehicle will drive to the next waypoint. There may be several waypoints. For the overnight version, the vehicle will carry the necessary camping gear such as tents, tarps, sleeping bags, a cooking stove, cookware, utensils and food.
Loops. Some dirt and gravel roads will have connecting roads, and riders can ride out on one road and return via another in a loop fashion. Again, depending on the length and terrain, proper hydration and energy foods may be needed.
To get the most pleasure and satisfaction from riding, it is important to do some training before attempting longer rides or rides in hilly or mountainous terrain. Spend some time getting used to your bike by riding around the neighborhood. It will be more enjoyable if you get your body used to the saddle and your legs, heart and lungs in riding shape.
Share the road
While some dirt and gravel roads might not see a lot of traffic, others can be quite popular with off-road vehicles, all-terrain vehicles, and motorcycles. It's important to be alert, especially around corners and places where vegetation may limit your vision.
Laws and common sense
Most laws that govern bikes and automobiles on paved roads apply on gravel and dirt roads. Be careful, use common sense, and be courteous. Always check with local authorities to verify any laws or restrictions for pedal bike use on the dirt and gravel roads you plan to visit.
As with all outdoor activities, be sure to let family and friends know what your plans are. This always includes where you are going, how long you intend to be there, as well as the route you plan to travel to and from your destination. Also, mention the names of all participants and put this in writing.
What type of bike?
Getting a decent bike is critical for the enjoyment of the ride. It is best to go to a specialty bike store, tell them what you plan to do (casual rides on dirt and gravel roads or longer rides on the same terrain), and let a qualified expert suggest and fit you with a bike.
Mountain bikes are fine for riding dirt and gravel, especially for casual riding. If you are thinking of longer rides, then a gravel-specific bike may be in order. How serious you are and how often you plan to ride will help you decide how much to spend on a bike and its features.
An expert will also help you decide which type of pedal is best suited for you. A clipless pedal may sound a bit confusing since you do actually clip the shoe into the pedal, but clipless pedals will provide more pedal efficiency as the shoe is attached to the pedal, and you can push and lift on the pedal. This pedal is great for long rides with few stops.
Platform or flat pedals do not allow the shoe to be clipped into the pedal. A variety of different shoes can be worn with them. For the casual rider who may stop to dismount more frequently, or who just feels safer being able to put a foot down quickly, a flat pedal is a good idea.
Helmets are always in fashion when riding a bike. Again, a qualified expert can fit you with a helmet that will be comfortable and provide the protection needed in an unfortunate fall.
Gloves to protect your hands and provide comfort are also nice to have and can help absorb some of the shocks during a ride. There are long-finger or short-finger styles available.
Sunglasses for bright sunny days or safety glasses on dark overcast or evening rides will provide comfort and protection from wind, flying insects, or churned-up pebbles and dust. It's also important to bring sunscreen on those bright sunny days.
Bike shorts also come in a variety. For casual riding, a pair of baggy shorts with an inner liner will work. For longer rides, spandex or Lycra, tight-fitting shorts with a chamois or synthetic padding for comfort would be the better choice.
Always have some type of lighting available in case you get caught out in the dark. This can be a light specifically designed for a bike or a good headlamp.
Don't forget a small toolset with the proper tools to repair your bike. Carry a patch kit and extra tire tubes and a pump for emergency repair of flat tires.