10 Essentials for Taking Your Road Bike to the Dirt

For many, cycling brings to mind imagery of pedaling at extreme speed on a flat and well-paved road. But, it doesn’t always have to be this way. Taking your road bike to the dirt can offer some of the season’s most fulfilling riding, especially here in New England, where getting off the pavement can bring silence, beautiful foliage, and an experience that is usually unique to activities like hiking, climbing, and camping.

The bike I ride was built for the pavement and is by all means a conventional road model. Although it’s probably not the most ideal for riding dirt roads, it gets the job done. Some may argue otherwise, but when it comes down to it, you can throw any old road bike on dirt paths. It might get a bit dusty, and flats are possible, but this is also the case on the pavement.

This type of riding isn’t mountain biking, and it isn’t high-speed road cycling. It is something somewhere in between, where the enjoyment comes from seeing new places, feeling like you’re in the woods, or struggling through mental and physical challenges. These are the elements that make it so satisfying.

You don’t need to run out the door to buy a new dirt road-specific bicycle, either. A model like the Kona Esatto is an adventure machine that seems to have no bias about whether it is pedaled on a major paved route or a back road.

Breaking the monotony of the pavement and relishing in the pursuit of the dirt doesn’t take much besides a few essentials and the willingness to explore:

Credit: Joseph Frigo
Credit: Joseph Frigo

1. Plenty of water

Usually, there are plenty of places to stop and fill up your water along paved roads, but when you’re out on the dirt, they might not be so easy to find. I typically bring two CamelBak Podium bottles with me on dirt road rides and store them on two frame bottle cages.

2. Repair kit

I store mine in a Timbuk2 seat bag, so I can put other things in the pockets of my bike jersey. My repair kit contains a CO2 tire inflator with a spare cartridge, a Topeak multitool, a spare tube, a small piece of an old inner tube for tire punctures, a pre-glued patch kit, and some toilet paper. If you’re having more bike issues than these items can handle, that’s an indication you’re having a tough day.

3. Physical map

I tore off the southern portion of a Vermont State Tourism map (free at many gas stations), and find this to be sufficient for most of my riding. If I am looking to get more off the beaten path, I reference a Vermont atlas before heading out. Although I bring along a smartphone, having alternative sources like a physical map and a compass (mine is on my GPS watch) will always give you something to navigate with, plus the confidence to explore roads that maybe you’ve never been down.

Credit: Joseph Frigo
Credit: Joseph Frigo

4. Food

When you’re riding on the dirt, distances can add up unexpectedly at times, and it is important to have enough fuel on hand to keep your engine running. Food—like water—is not always accessible when you’re riding on the back roads, and to prepare for this, leave with more than enough calories to sustain what you plan to do. It is best to bring along foods that your body can digest quickly, like Clif Shot Bloks or gels, as well as anything heavy in calories for your body to burn slowly, like a classic Clif Bar.

5. Cycling gloves

The Pearl Izumi Elite cycling gloves are long lasting and provide excellent grip and cushioning for long gravel descents. Going down dirt roads on skinnier tires is both exhilarating and challenging, so having good bike gloves can make a big difference.

6. GPS watch

Instead of using a bike computer, I find that, for touring-style dirt road riding, a GPS watch is a much better option. I use the Suunto Ambit3 Peak, which provides me with all of the information I need, including compass bearing, total mileage, and average speed. Afterwards, you can upload your ride to Google Maps through the Suunto Movescount application to see your entire route.

7. Cycling wallet

I put my phone, money, and map into an Outdoor Research Sensor Dry Envelope. You can still use your phone through the clear film, and because I just put the whole envelope in my jersey pocket, it keeps the contents dry from both sweat and unexpected precipitation.

Credit: Joseph Frigo
Credit: Joseph Frigo

8. Helmet

The Giro Savant helmet with MIPS is an excellent choice for all types of riding, and is my go-to for road and mountain biking. It breathes well, is lightweight, and has a secure, comfortable fit. I never head out on my bike without it.

9. Clear glasses

Smith Pivlock glasses are perfect for all types of biking. Pairs come with three lenses that can be easily interchanged, depending on the conditions. I find myself most frequently using the clear lenses for riding dirt roads, since they are usually well shaded by treecover. Wearing glasses also provides an additional element of safety by protecting your eyes from bugs, dust, and debris. An added benefit to the Smith Pivlock is that they seem to almost never fog up.

10. Lightweight wind shell

The Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite Jacket packs into its own pocket and provides some added protection from unexpected winds and precipitation. When not in use, it can fit into one of my cycling jersey’s pockets, making the jacket an essential piece that adds a good deal of protection and warmth for minimal weight.

 

For me, the fall season in New England captures why I love living here, and pursuing the path less traveled by taking your road bike to the dirt is one of the best ways to experience it.

Credit: Joseph Frigo
Credit: Joseph Frigo