You know that feeling of riding a bike as a kid — the freedom to go (almost) anywhere, to explore, to ride with friends? Gravel biking is like that.
With a penchant for riding on dirt or gravel roads and paths and piecing together out-of-the-way routes, gravel bikers — as opposed to mountain bikers, who prefer narrower trails over uneven terrain — make up a booming segment within the cycling industry. Some cyclists value the absence of traffic, and increase in safety, compared with biking on busy roads. Some are drawn by terrain that is easier to ride on than many mountain bike trails. Others appreciate the inclusive “come as you are” community, which extends to every skill level, age and even clothing style (think: less emphasis on spandex). Annual cycling events further that sense of community and often sell out months in advance.
When Rebecca Rusch, 55, a former professional mountain bike racer who lives near Sun Valley, Idaho, first tried gravel riding about a dozen years ago at a long-distance race in Kansas, it was an eye-opener. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is a really accessible form of cycling for a lot of people, but also fun for a pro,” she said.
Inspired to start her own event, she created Rebecca’s Private Idaho in Sun Valley, in 2013. That first year, 175 people showed up. Now there are four days of group rides and races each Labor Day weekend, with a registration cap of 1,500 riders.
Gravel riding is “the fastest-growing genre the sport of cycling has ever seen,” said Zander Ault, an Arizona bike entrepreneur. “It’s gotten more people into the sport or back into the sport. You’re getting out into places where you may have never thought to explore, and you can hear your surroundings.”
As gravel riding has surged, bikes designed for the sport have entered the market. In the simplest terms, gravel bikes fall somewhere between svelte, skinny-tire road bikes and burlier, knobby-tire mountain bikes, combining aspects of each.
“You want the handling and response and feel of a road bike with the larger tire clearance that lets you go over rougher terrain,” said Barrett Brandon, chief financial officer of the Utah-based cycling brand Ventum, which added gravel bikes to its offerings in late 2020.
Having a gravel-specific bike can make a ride more comfortable, but it’s not a necessity. Ms. Rusch estimated that 20 to 30 percent of the riders who attend Private Idaho are on other kinds of bikes, like mountain or fat-tire bikes.
There are few better ways to bask in the blaze of changing leaves and spot fall wildlife than by bike. While gravel biking can be done anywhere there’s an unpaved road or trail, certain U.S. destinations are especially lovely in the fall. Here are five.
Fort Collins, Colo.
Miles of unpaved roads go through ranch land and prairie in the area surrounding Fort Collins, Colo.Credit…Bike Sports
Steamboat Springs and Trinidad are among the great Colorado destinations for gravel biking, but Fort Collins, 66 miles north of Denver via Interstate 25, is one of the most accessible. Situated near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the area surrounding this city of almost 170,000 remains rural, with miles of unpaved roads that traverse ranch land and prairie.
“The greater Fort Collins area is really designed for gravel riding,” said Zack Allison, a former professional road bike racer. Every July, Mr. Allison and his wife, Whitney, organize the eight-year-old FoCo Fondo, which attracted some 1,700 cyclists this year to compete or just ride on one of four gravel routes ranging from 12 to 118 miles. They also publish route descriptions and maps for more than 70 rides on their website, Bike Sports.
This year’s 32-mile fondo course begins and ends at the New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins. (Fondo comes from the Italian road-cycling term “gran fondo,” a big ride with many participants.) The loop rolls up and down over wide-open prairie and past reservoirs on roads often lined with sunflowers through early fall. All the while, you’ll have a grand vista of the mountains that rise abruptly to the west.
Riders looking for the extra challenge of lung-busting elevation gain and high mileage can explore the region northwest of Fort Collins, where routes like Pennock Pass to Old Flowers climb steadily from the foothills into remote mountain landscapes.
Sun Valley, Idaho
“If you want an adventure, this is the place to go,” said Ms. Rusch of the high alpine terrain that surrounds the central Idaho resort town of Sun Valley and neighboring Ketchum. “Everything around us is dirt, and in 10 minutes from town, you can be riding in a remote area.”
An introduction to the area’s gravel riding follows the Harriman Trail north for 19 miles from the Sawtooth National Recreation Area visitor center, outside Ketchum, to the log-cabin Galena Lodge. Paralleling the Big Wood River, the trail ascends 1,100 feet gradually enough that the climb is not strenuous, though you’ll get a good downhill glide on the return. Bikers who compete in the Rebecca’s Private Idaho three-segment stage race ride this route on the first day (with additional mileage tacked on from the Galena Lodge’s mountain bike trail system).
A shorter ride, but with several hundred more feet of climbing, leads east from Ketchum into the Salmon-Challis National Forest, topping out at the 7,881-foot Trail Creek Summit. From here, catch your breath while taking in an expansive view of the Pioneer Mountains, with pockets of golden aspens, and the Sun Valley ski area in the distance. The round-trip ride is approximately 20 miles. Rebecca’s Private Idaho riders continue from the summit into Copper Basin, which, said Ms. Rusch, is “the gateway to where it gets really remote.”
Northwest Arkansas, particularly Bentonville, where the annual Big Sugar gravel race — Oct. 21 this year — begins and ends, has become known for its stellar mountain-biking trails. Now, gravel riders are appreciating the region, too, thanks in part to Chuck Campbell, an environmental manager for a wastewater recycling company who loves to bike. Joining with the Adventure Cycling Association, Mr. Campbell mapped out three multiday loops that together make up the 1,200-mile Arkansas High Country Route, a mix of paved and unpaved roads that debuted in 2019.
“I started with big circles on the map around cool places like state parks, the Buffalo River and the Razorback Greenway,” Mr. Campbell said. “Then it was finding roads and lacing the whole thing together into a route.”
Sections of it make for good day rides. For example, pedal 27 miles north from Bentonville to Seligman, just across the state line in Missouri. This undulating route travels past pastures and hayfields, along the Pea Ridge National Military Park and across the Springfield Plateau. Refuel with fried chicken or homemade lemon meringue pie at the Seligman Super Stop. Back in Arkansas, 20 more miles of riding, partly through the Mark Twain National Forest, where hardwood trees like oak and hickory offer a vibrant autumn backdrop, bring you to Eureka Springs. From there, return to Bentonville via the paved Razorback Greenway (37 miles) or spend the night and ride back the next day.
Another, more rugged option is to ride south from Fayetteville for 50 miles to White Rock Mountain Recreation Area. The route leads through the Boston Mountains, the steepest in the Ozarks, and includes some thigh-burning climbs. White Rock includes a 1930s-era Civilian Conservation Corps stone lodge and cabins that you can stay in.
Mr. Campbell’s “Arkansaw High Country Route Guidebook” includes details of these rides.
Southern Arizona attracts cyclists with the desert’s intense beauty, and rides near Tucson like Box Canyon or the challenging climb up Mount Hopkins to the Whipple Observatory are popular. But the area gaining the most buzz is Patagonia, a mining and ranching town of 800 people that’s 18 miles from the Mexican border. And its biggest cycling advocates are Mr. Ault and his wife, Heidi, who co-own a bike shop, a coffee shop-bar and three short-term rental properties; operate a guiding service; and organize the annual Spirit World 100 gravel race (Nov. 2 to 5).
“We started the race to expose Patagonia to a larger audience because the riding here is so amazing,” said Mr. Ault, who describes the vibe as more music festival than competition (one aid station even offers tequila shots). A new edition in the expanding “Gravel Adventure Field Guide” series focuses on routes in Patagonia and surrounding Santa Cruz County.
Just because it’s desert, don’t think flat terrain. Patagonia sits at 4,000 feet in elevation at the bottom of a natural bowl, so most rides climb for a few hundred feet to start. From Patagonia, the Spirit World’s 50-mile course (actually 57 miles) rises through the Patagonia Mountains on a 17-mile gradual climb, then descends to the Mexican border and Lochiel, a ghost town. A highlight: cycling undulating roads amid the San Rafael Valley’s shortgrass prairie and spotting deer and antelope or fall migrants like raptors and sparrows. The sky is expansive and the panoramas are huge in this 90,000-acre zone that includes the San Rafael State Natural Area. “You can ride 80 miles and not see a soul,” Mr. Ault said.
Gravel cycling is a natural fit with Vermont, with its countless unpaved roads and pastoral scenery — red silos, covered bridges, cows — and hardwood trees that put on one of the finest fall displays. Craft breweries, coffee shops and general stores make for good pit stops. Don’t forget to try the beloved ice-cream treat known as maple creemees (available through the fall foliage season).
“People say about Vermont that there are more miles of dirt roads than paved ones,” said Tyler Cohen, who, with his wife, Rachel, runs the Ranger, a weekend event in Tunbridge each June with group rides at three distances. There are also many roads considered Class 4, the state’s designation for unmaintained thoroughfares.
Though much of the state is excellent for gravel riding, areas like the Northeast Kingdom, which includes 1,000 miles of gravel roads, are particularly enticing. The VTXL is a 300-mile route, 90 percent on unpaved roads, that bisects the state from the Canadian border to Massachusetts. Though ambitious riders may aim to tackle the whole thing, camping along the way, there are sections suitable for day rides.
Last spring, the final six miles of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail were completed, after 18 years of construction. The 93-mile, crushed-stone-surface trail, the longest route of its kind in New England, slices across the state’s northern half, connecting 18 towns.
Major flooding in July damaged miles of trail and scuttled Gov. Phil Scott’s plans to ride it from start to finish to celebrate its completion. Now all but 21 miles are open. A nice section for viewing fall colors is on the mostly flat, squiggly trail that runs through stretches of verdant forests between Joe’s Pond in West Danville and the trail’s eastern terminus in St. Johnsbury (16.3 miles).
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