Bike tours, when I first started venturing out on my road rig in the 1980s, were all the rage, and for good reason. They followed paved backroads, often gorgeous two-lane routes that wound through New England’s spectacular countryside and quaint villages. Higher-end tour companies provided top-notch support, delightful restaurants, cozy accommodations. They were fun, and fairly predictable.
Still, I found there was something lacking, even with the best of these tour organizations addressing every possible creature comfort. I had great routes, beautiful scenery, super support, and a comfortable bed to sleep in every night. So what was missing? Two things, actually — variety of terrain, and a corresponding challenge.
“Gravel riding, like trail running, demands constant attention, as the riding surface is much more varied than pavement,” said Arlon Chaffee of GRVL Cycling. “First sensations for me centered around feeling barely in control, which eased quickly with experience.
“Surprises came via the twitchy handling afforded by a ‘cross bike and the limited stopping power of rim brakes,” he said. “You can avoid those surprises with a gravel-specific bike — relaxed geometry, more like a road bike — and disc brakes.”
That’s not to say the paved routes are easy. Quite the contrary. Some tours offered dramatic elevation gains, with equally dramatic views. But the routes themselves were, for lack of a better word, pedestrian. And northern New England has so much more to offer.
The region, in fact, is an almost-limitless playground of unpaved roads, corridors of gravel and dirt that most tour companies avoid. Road bikes, with their high-pressure tires, simply aren’t designed for dirt. That means almost half the routes (Vermont, for example, claims to have more than 8,000 miles of dirt roads, compared to roughly 7,000 miles of asphalt) were being ignored.
That situation, fortunately, is changing, thanks to an evolving design that has obliterated many of the limitations of traditional road bikes. Today, gravel bikes have opened up a breathtaking, and lung-busting, new world of bike touring. Actually, a better term might be “bike adventure,” because these remarkably versatile rigs allow riders to explore terrain that would, frankly, spell disaster for a road bike (and rider).
“If I could have one bike only it would be my ‘gravel’ bike, a Specialized AWOL,” said Erik daSilva, an education specialist with the Bicycle Coalition of Maine and one of the organizers of October’s Maine Woods Rambler. “It can fit 29-inch mountain bike tires, but most of the time I have 42-centimeter tires mounted on it (compared to 23- or 25-cm tires typically found on road bikes). It’s good on singletrack or pavement. Versatile indeed.”
However, daSilva, like many gravel enthusiasts, is quick to point out that any bike can be used on gravel, with just a few alterations.
“The gravel-bike movement is terrific” said daSilva. “Anything to get folks out into the wilderness and toward places with less motor-vehicle traffic is a good thing, in my book. But I wish the industry didn’t push gravel-specific bikes so hard. Folks shouldn’t feel they ‘need’ a gravel bike as any bike — from road to fat bike — will work.”
A dedicated gravel bike, however, is the best of all worlds. A cyclocross bike, which typically has a bit more aggressive geometry, is a close second. Both mix the best elements of road and cross-country mountain bikes (minus the full suspension), which allow riders to feel comfortable on the vast majority of roads, paved and otherwise.
The popularity of gravel bikes (and other bikes used to traverse gravel roads) has even created a new genre of touring — bikepacking.
“The whole bikepacking movement, and general realization that there is less chance of crashing with motor vehicles, strengthened the trend,” said daSilva. “But ‘racing’ is not gravel riding — it’s racing.
“Gravel riding can be about going all-out fast, but just as often it’s about chilling out, camping, finding wild berries to eat and secret swim holes to cool off in,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to explore the state, hang out with friends, and sometimes get completely lost on purpose.”
Not surprisingly, the favorite rides of gravel enthusiasts are found a fair distance from urban centers. The fewer people, the less asphalt. But the bike’s versatility makes those same exceptional lodging options accessible. Places like the Phineas Swann Bed & Breakfast and Wildflower Inn in northern Vermont, the Inn at Sunset Hill and Thayer’s Inn in upstate New Hampshire, and the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Medawisla Lodge in northern Maine are great examples of superb accommodations close to gravel routes.
“My favorite ride is one that circumnavigates Mount Katahdin,” said Maine’s daSilva. “It’s a 120-ish mile route that begins and ends in Millinocket, traveling through Baxter State Park and KWW (Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument). Such a great route that I try to do it at least once every year, often making it an overnighter.
“There is so much riding up near AMC’s Medawisla Lodge still to discover,” he said. “Thus far I’ve been super impressed by the route recon trips I’ve taken up there. The Rambler is going to be a great event, and has terrific routes.”
Next door, in New Hampshire, retired chemist Marianne Borowski looked at the Cross Vermont Trail and decided to continue it across the Granite State to Bethel, Maine. The Cross Vermont Trail — a combination of rail trails, back roads, dirt roads and paved roadways — travels from Burlington to Wells River, just across the Connecticut River from Woodsville, N.H.
“I like plotting routes, and I could map routes that were a mix of dirt roads, unpaved roads, mixed surface rail trails with these wider tires and enjoy the mix and not be bogged down on pavement,” she said.
Employing the Ammonoosuc Rail Trail, which runs almost 20 miles from Woodsville to Littleton, Borowski then patched together a “mixed terrain” route that winds 83 miles to Maine, and dubbed it the Cross New Hampshire Adventure Trail.
“It’s mapped, and anyone can download the GPS tracks and a cue sheet from the website,” said Borowski. “All of the road and rail trails and rec paths are existing and open to use. Some are rougher than other, some parts shared with ATVs.
“Maintenance on the rail trails is an issue; there is always some washout, sinkholes, et cetera, that need attention,” she said. “I hope to be able to help out with working with the state agencies that control the rail trails so that areas can be restored and maintained better. There might be more interest in this, since these trails are now part of this cross-state route.”
The Cross New Hampshire Adventure Trail also features a number of great lodging and dining options, including the Nootka Lodge in Woodsville, the Inn at Bowman in Randolph, and the Philbrook Farm Inn in Shelburne.
“This whole ‘gravel’ movement has opened the possibilities of enjoying dirt roads and mixed-terrain cycling,” said Borowski. “The busy roads, traffic and distracted drivers are likely causing many cyclists to try the quieter-but-rougher back roads and trails instead of the paved road riding alongside the cars, trucks, tourists and campers and big RVs.
“And cyclists are now OK with having the wider tires,” she said. “Up to now it wasn’t cool. Now it is. Now the Cross New Hampshire Adventure Trail is cool, too, and I hear that the gnarlier, the better.”
Local businesses, said Borowski, also have gotten on board with the gravel bike boom.
“Businesses have responded positively, have enthusiastically taken in cyclists and have let me list them on my website as possible places for cyclists to stay,” she said. “Many are saying they’re ‘bicycle friendly,’ and provide a hose to wash off the mud, dirt and grit, provide covered safe storage, or allow the bikes in the room overnight. The north country of New Hampshire is welcoming cyclo-tourism.”
Likewise, New Hampshire native Chaffee’s GRVL Cycling puts on a number of gravel events that introduces riders to a number of wonderful Northeast riding areas, including the Raid Rockingham and Kearsarge Klassic in New Hampshire, and the Raid Lamoille in Vermont.
“With the growth in the (event) segment there has evolved a spectrum of gravel bikes, from nearly road bikes through bike-camping adventure rigs,” said Chaffee. “Some (cyclists) even ride fat bikes in the early season events. Events also run the spectrum, from tours to group rides to full-on timed races.
“My view is all these options are a good thing, as long as you’re having fun riding gravel with friends,” he said. “Another area that’s taking off is reclaimed rail trails and adjacent spurs — those are a great introduction for newer riders and families and can be excellent ‘dirt conduits’ to gravel roads.”
Further west in Vermont, folks like Collin Daulong, co-owner of Kingdom Cycling and Experiences in Lyndonville, and Glenn Deruchie at Okemo Mountain Resort continue to push the gravel envelope. Deruchie, who works as a manager for guest/owner relations at the resort, would like to see Okemo and other inns adopt the Italian model of “bike hotels,” which provide guiding services for guests.
One of the organizers of the annual VTMonster Gravel Grinder, Deruchie believes a series of gravel events in Vermont — including the Muddy Onion, the Rasputitsa Spring Classic and the Vermont Overland — could showcase the incredible variety of off-pavement riding in the Green Mountain State, since “every gravel ride is different,” he said.
Meanwhile, Daulong’s Kingdom Cycling and Experiences, located just across the street from the bike-friendly Wildflower Inn on Darling Hill Road overlooking East Burke, offers guides for both mountain biking and gravel routes. That’s a huge bonus for riders unfamiliar with the local terrain.
“The explosion of people wanting to ride gravel is awesome to see,” he said. “We have certainly seen an uptick in the number of people that we take out on dirt road rides and have expanding options to accommodate those riders.
“As far as number are concerned, I’d say that about 12 percent of our business in 2018 was on gravel bikes, where in years previous it was closer to zero,” he said.
The key to a great adventure ride, said Daulong, is to “find someone or some resource that can point you in the direction of quiet dirt roads, take whatever bike you have and just go ride. Enjoy the peace and quiet and mental clarity that being out there gives you.”
“Really, there is no place I’d rather be riding than New England in autumn on a gravel bike, with the leaves, the cool air, and the sense of relief from a hot and hectic summer,” he said, adding that “the great Belgian racer Eddy Merckx said it best — ‘Ride as much or as little, as long or as short as you feel. But ride.’ ”
Daulong is absolutely correct, regardless of the surface you’re riding on.
Details on the Bicycle Coalition of Maine’s “Maine Woods Rambler” can be found at bikemaine.com. For more on the Cross New Hampshire Adventure Trail, check out crossnewhampshire.org. More on the Cross Vermont Trail is available at crossvermont.org; GRVL Cycling at grvl.net; and Kingdom Cycling and Experiences at kingdomexperiences.com. For a list of fall New England gravel grinder rides, visit BikeReg.com.