Bicycling dirt and gravel roads gaining popularity

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Most bicyclists traditionally avoid gravel roads and paths like the plague. It can make for sketchy, tipsy riding, and the friction makes for slow going.

1-1/4 inch tires do fine on gravel John Wayne Pioneer Trail

1-1/4 inch tires do fine on gravel John Wayne Pioneer Trail

But as the alternative sometimes is riding a bike on busy or narrow highways, many more are discovering the new-found pleasures of a crunchy ride. Many turn to mountain bikes on gravel roads, although others are finding their road bikes do just fine when mounted with wider tires.

One example of the popularity of off-the-blacktop byways is the Oregon Outback 2014, a 360-mile bike ride on dirt and gravel roads across Oregon. Although riders had to register (free), the organizers offered no services and no support.

The organizer, Portland’s Donnie Kolb, expected maybe 50 or so bike-campers to show up after he announced the May 23rd ride at his VeloDirt website. The Dalles Chronicle reports that he was overwhelmed with 400 people wanting to do the ride, so he shut down the free registration. At his Velodirt blog, he encouraged people to do the ride at another time.

“Part of the reason we love this route and selected it was because the services are limited – there are very few places to buy food, snacks, get water, etc. along the route.  It’s perfect for probably 100 people at one time, maybe a bit more, before it’ll become a shit show and it’ll lose its charm.

… “We kindly ask that if you really really want to do this route and aren’t already “registered”, that you go do it another weekend.  The route is ride-able a large part of the year (skip winter, early spring and the high-summer), and there’s literally nothing stopping you from riding this any other time.   We actually encourage it – the route is amazing and we think it deserves a lot of traffic.”

The route is 75% dirt. It starts at Klamath Falls in the south and ends the Deschutes River in the north. Along the way it hits the OC&E State Trail, Fort Rock, the Crooked River, the Ochoco Mountains, the Ashwood-Antelope area and finishes on the Oregon Stampede route along Gordon Ridge above the Deschutes and Columbia rivers.

More dirt

It sounds like an amazing ride. There are others.

The Oregon Coast Gravel Epic is actually an endurance race that starts in either Waldport or Yachats, depending on the 73-mile or 37-mile option. The ride option offer either 10,000 feet or 5,000 feet of elevation gain.

Two other routes created by Kolb are the Dalles Mountain 60 at 60 miles and the Oregon Stampede at 127 miles.

Travel Oregon told the Dalles Chronicle that such gravel rides are becoming so popular, that the state travel agency has created a 15-person committee to create or choose dirt and gravel bike routes for its Ride Oregon website. The website already features multi-day mountain bike and road rides in Oregon.

Cascade view from Snoqualmie Valley Regional Trail

Cascade view from Snoqualmie Valley Regional Trail

Washington state

Many of the rail-to-trails in the Puget Sound region have crushed rock surfaces, which are rideable on any bicycle with 32mm or wider tires. The Snoqualmie Valley Regional Trail and the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, for instance, both get enough bike traffic that surface is well-packed. The East Lake Sammamish Trail is being upgraded from gravel to pavement.

Vicious Cycles hosts nine gravel-grinder style bike rides in the Cascade region. Some are gran fondos, some are mountain bike races, and other are recreational rides. They all offer dirt and gravel as a main component.

Rough Riders

The Rough Riders is a bicycling group that eschews specialty bicycles for different pursuits. Their slogan is “Any Bike, Anywhere.” It was started by Chris Kostman, who also runs the AdventureCorps extreme bicycling and running events in California.

In 1993, Kostman wrote an article entitled “Mountain bikes, who needs them?” Today Rough Riders gather on their bikes for rides that follow pavement, dirt and gravel.

Gravel road heaven

If you’re looking for a place where it’s easy to find gravel road rides, I’d recommend Kansas.

Randy Rasa lists two dozen gravel road bike races, events and recreational rides at his Kansas Cyclist website. There’s even a bike tour outfitter — Adventure Monkey — that specializes in gravel road bike tours.


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