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Bicycling Magazine Logo

Hit the dirt

Beat stress--and celebrate your summer fitness--by leaving the pavement behind

By Alex Stieda
Bicycling Magazine

Some of my best pro-cycling memories are of the adventure rides the team did during training camps, when we'd explore whatever paved roads, dirt tracks or trails were available--on our fresh, team-issue road bikes. But we weren't just having fun: Riding a road bike on dirt can yield huge benefits. Your bike-handling skills will improve by necessity: If you use your front brake in a dirt turn, you will most likely wash out and go down. If you stand up to pedal on a steep climb, your rear wheel can spin out. But with some off-road practice, you'll learn to brake before turning and apply pedal pressure evenly in smooth circles. Riding on softer ground will also improve your power by forcing you to push against a higher resistance. Here are some tips to keep in mind.

BRING YOUR A GAME On many adventure rides you start out with a rough plan, but end up spending twice as long as you expected. Make sure you have the fitness to ride for several hours. It's safer--and more fun--to do this kind of ride with at least one other person.

PREP YOUR BIKE On dirt roads, I use a larger-diameter tire (25c instead of 23c) and carry at least two spare tubes. A CO 2 cartridge is good only once, so bring a minipump, plus a small tool set and chain breaker-- and make sure you know how to use them.

DO A TEST RUN Practice some shorter dirt rides first. Find a stretch of gravel road and try riding at different speeds in a variety of gears and cadences. Notice how your wheels slide underneath you as you turn or move from one track to the next. Scan the terrain ahead and find the smoothest line to ride.

DRESS SMART You're trying to beat stress with your bike, not create it, so set your mind at ease by preparing yourself for any weather situation. You may end up in remote areas with little shelter, so bring a windbreaker, long-finger gloves, and arm warmers and leg warmers in case you encounter nasty conditions. You can also wear a wind vest with pockets, which will give you another place to store gear.

FILL YOUR POCKETS Bring plenty of energy bars and two large water bottles per person, a GPS or a good topo map with road and trail markings, some cash in case you need to compensate a farmer, and a charged cell phone and digital camera in a plastic bag to keep them dry. Then get out there and create some memories.