Although there has been niche interest in gravel cycling in the Northwest since the mid-2000s, the subdiscipline is experiencing a boom in interest as riders look for car-free alternatives that emphasize fun with friends over Strava KOMs.
The Snoqualmie Forest (aka (“Campbell Global”), near Fall City and Carnation, is among the most popular gravel destinations in the Seattle area. Snoqualmie Forest is a gigantic tree farm managed by managed by Campbell Global, LLC. Access to hike, bicycle and horseback ride requires a permit.
On a glimmering autumn day last October I joined High Performance Cycling teammates Tom Sumter and Lois Kepler Smith for an all-day mostly off-road adventure with a little “hike-a-bike” thrown in for good measure. Tom loves the cycling in the Snoqualmie Forest and was excited to turn us on to his favorite venue. Tom rides gravel almost exclusively, and has an affinity for the “adventure” end of the spectrum. As defined by Michael Pruitt, another prominent local gravel enthusiast, “adventure” gravel rides include *hiking.*
Although our route was *mostly* planned, there were a few freelance sections where we did some “hike-a-bike” to attempt connecting adjacent roads. Hence, this was in the “adventure” category of gravel rides. In contrast to the popular and growing “gravel fondo” scene, this kind of ride is all about having a great day of cycling adventure with friends. If you are new to gravel cycling, expect a 100km adventure ride to be pretty much an all-day outing.
Although close to civilization, the Snoqualmie Forest is remote enough that you need to be prepared for a worst case scenario. Tom advised us to bring extra food, several tubes, a multi-tool, several CO2 cartridges, a hand pump, and extra clothing.
Our other riding buddy for the day, Lois, is a recent data science PhD and transplant to the Northwest from Michigan. Lois has an effervescent, energetic personality and has vigorously jumped into the deep end of the Northwest’s cycling community: She is a Cascade Bicycle Club ride leader and has been competing for the Egencia Cycling Team in cyclocross and mountain biking.
This ride began at Fall City Community Park. Good to know: There is an outhouse located adjacent to the ball field. Although the parking area is adjacent to Hwy 203, just as you’d park in any rural location, I recommend not leaving valuables in your car. There are actually a number of fine places to park adjacent to the Snoqualmie Valley Trail. On another gravel outing I started at Nick Loutsis Park in Carnation.
Our route included a long climb that got steeper and steeper as we progressed. Tom stopped at a slight ease in the pitch where we took a look at the valley below. Meanwhile, Lois kept checking her Garmin to verify that we were on a ~20% slope.
This was the beginning of two revelations about my new-ish Specialized Diverge “all-road” bike, and about the gravel bike category in general. At that moment, on that 20% grade of loose gravel, capabilities of the rider aside, the Diverge was inadequate to the task. After the regroup, we attempted to continue up the hill. Unfortunately, the combination of steepness and loose surface made it nearly impossible to stay upright for very long. Both Lois and I were flummoxed. Tom was riding a gravel-specific bike he had assembled himself (not to mention being a skilled climber) and was able to ascend another quarter mile before he too finally cried uncle.
I thought: “I’m pretty sure I could have pedaled that section with a mountain bike.” Which made me question my bike purchase. When I bought the Diverge I knew I was making some compromises. I wanted a bike for urban riding as well as gravel, and the Diverge is a bike that does both ok. This part of the ride just happened to expose the limitations of this kind of bicycle.
The rest of the ride trended downhill, which was where I had the second revelation: Drop handlebars don’t work that well on long, high-speed, washboard descents. I found it extraordinarily difficult to hold on to the handlebars and brake as the bike bounced and skittered down the road. My forearms repeatedly cramped as I tried to maintain a loose grip while also braking. On some of the longer straightaway descents I just let the bike roll, but would have preferred to have more control over my speed. Horizontal bars would have made it easier to feel in control fo the bike. Once again I felt like a mountain bike would have been a better equipment choice for this particular ride. The bike I was craving that day does exist: the OPEN ONE+.
With sunlight waning, we opted to finish the final couple of miles with a speedy paceline along Hwy 202, but we could have returned to the start point at the Snoqualmie Valley Trail.