What is a road? What is a trail? Are they all the same? This may be obvious but ya gotta start somewhere. This page details different surfaces encountered on a ride. It’s important to consider the terrain for a number of reasons:
- It will impact how fast you can ride and how much distance you can cover in a given time.
- A challenging technical route can become more difficult if you’re carrying gear. What you may be able to ride easily without a load may become a hike-a-bike with a load.
A paved road is pretty obvious. Even the worst pavement is a pretty fast surface for riding. You may encounter glass smooth new pavement, chip-seal, or cracked and weathered pavement with pot-holes. The 150 miles South Park Dirty Fondo takes one paved road for a few miles that is relatively smooth, but so broken up with pot holes at its edges that it looks like the set of a post-apocalyptic film.
Gravel is a many splendored thing. Gravel roads can vary greatly between each other and across time. Gravel roads are primarily dirt roads that are maintained by a local government agency – often in the US the county. Many of these roads are maintained by dumping and spreading fresh gravel on them every so often. Frequently these roads are also graded to smooth out their surface. When recently maintained these roads can have a great deal of loose gravel and on a freshly graded surface the dirt itself can be loose and uncompact.
Over time the surface of these roads tends to improve. Various weather patterns (rain and snow) typically allow the surface to compact and help the actual gravel to settle and form a foundation. Given more time the surface hardens and pits or full on pot holes develop making for a different challenge.
Washboard is a special kind of hell that appears on gravel roads. A washboard is a series of small ripples or horizontal ridges in the road that resemble the ridges on an old fashioned washboard. Pray that you encounter little washboard. These sections can be very jarring on a rider. Even with a front or full suspension bike, riding on washboard gets old pretty quickly.
“B” roads are also known as minimum maintenance roads. Unlike gravel roads, B roads are infrequently if ever maintained. Consequently their surface is usually far more rough than a maintained gravel road. You’re likely to encounter slower lesser conditions including more rocks, sand, or mud than any gravel road. The Dirty Kanza 200 is famous for its B roads. It’s also famous for these roads becoming completely unrideable in the event of a rain storm. The rain turns the soil into a thick goo that gums up the works and jams wheels or damages derailleurs.
Jeeps roads are something special. Jeep roads are unmaintained roads that often still have a name on a map. They may actually be doubletrack or they may not have devolved into the classic two tracks – often not. Jeep roads are usually somewhat technically challenging and may involve large and or loose rocks. It is the challenging surface of these roads that attracts four-wheel drive vehicles and motorcyclists to ride these back roads. Be aware though that while they may be wide, some of these roads and present a serious challenge on par with technical singletrack. Coney Flats Road high above Lyons, Colorado is a fifteen foot wide loose rock and dirt adventure that will test your ability to maintain traction if you ever ride it. The video below shows a fairly rough jeep road beginning at 3:20.
Doubletrack is a degraded road where there is essentially two parallel trails where the tire tracks once were. Doubletrack is more descriptive than all encompassing. The conditions may be technically simple or not, and can often vary greatly based on weather.
Singletrack is essentially a trail that is only wide enough for a single bike. It’s akin to a hiking trail and most singletrack is open to hikers and some are open to horses as well. The key identifier is the width. For this reason the term trail is synonymous.
There are quite a wide variety of singletrack trails though. Some are incredible smooth (buff) with very little technical challenges. Others can involve serious technical changes including roots, rocks, large drop offs and terrain objects that are deliberately built into the trail.
It’s difficult to specifically rate the difficulty of a trail. Difficulty is highly variable based on immediate and recent weather, the technical ability of the rider, as well as the overall condition of the trail. There are, however, overall generally more and less challenging trails so it’s good to do as much research as possible before you ride so that you know what you’re up against.
Some trails do have rating systems. The systems can vary and the interpretation of what is moderate or difficult is also pretty subjective. The key lesson here is that to be forewarned is to be prepared.
End of the line. It’s something you’re likely do at some point. Hike-a-bike (HAB) is pushing or carrying your bike and any equipment you may have. Some events such as the Yak Attack stage race in Nepal have long sections that involve guaranteed hike a bike. Others may have more or less HAB based on the conditions and your ability to ride technical challenging terrain.