We can credit/blame the coronavirus pandemic for all manner of secondary and downstream disruptions to humanity. While recreational activities are a relatively minor theme against the backdrop of everything else that is going on, for those of us who have the privilege to recreate, I'd argue that maintaining our physical and mental health helps us keep the vibe just a bit mellower than it would be otherwise.
Prior to the pandemic, gravel cycling was already simmering here in the Pacific Northwest (PNW.) For historical context, it is worth noting that a few years back, well before gravel cycling was a marketing niche, Bellingham's Brian Ecker did a south to north transit of Washington state from the Columbia River to Slate Peak on mostly gravel roads along a bucket-list off-road motorcycling route. I'm not sure he ever formally documented that feat, and I'm not aware that anyone has repeated it on a bicycle.
For the rest of us, this summer has been a notable inflection point. Pandemic conditions are inspiring recreational athletes to squeeze out new levels of creativity and pushing deeper into the "dark zones" of Strava's heat map.
To give you a taste of what is happening, here are perspectives from four riders.
Gravel fiend Tom Sumter told me:
"Road is dead. It's the cars. The lack of group road rides has also been a big factor, but honestly I'm surprised it has taken this long.
It doesn't hurt that the PNW is home to abundant logging and fire roads, and trails suitable for gravel cycling. Regional cyclists are really just starting to explore and establish new routes.
Tom's gravel rides tend to be in the "adult portions" section of the menu.
In late June Tom organized a *timed* 400-mile Gravel Circumnavigation of the Olympic Range (GCOR) self-supported bikepacking event that attracted over a half-dozen competitors.
Jamie Van Beek's enthusiasm for gravel cycling infects the entire cycling community. Her positivity and encouragement of new riders is grounded in credible competitive results. In addition to smashing the local fondos, she's been a contender at Dirty Kanza (including 2nd place at DKXL 2019) and Rebecca's Private Idaho gravel stage race.
During the pandemic she's been working on new routes out of the Methow Valley east of the Cascade Crest and demonstrating you don't need to win races to have fun on a bike.
This area is so “pure” that there are absolutely no Strava segments! Go ride where Strava segments don’t exist and totally immerse yourself in the beauty of the wilderness.
That’s the good stuff!
This 100% gravel route is not for the faint at heart but it was worth every ounce of sweat and hard work. This might be the most spectacular bike route I have ever done. The views took my breath away at every turn. The hot temperatures, remote high alpine backcountry climbing made this journey epic on every level.
This route is a spectacular 100% all rideable gravel loop. I can’t wait to do it when the fall colors start.
Climb #9 is 9.38 miles long and the toughest climb of the route. It’s very steep, full sun, absolutely no shade. You will need good gearing to do this climb.
Kirkland's Mark Thomas is one of the region's (world's??) most avid randonneurs, a past president of Randonneurs USA (RUSA), Seattle International Randonneurs (SIR), and current president of Les Randonneurs Mondiaux, the international sanctioning body for 1200km and longer brevets.
"In March of this year, I returned from Australia (1000km ride, team flèche, hiking vacation with my wife Chris) to a dramatically changed landscape. Permanents had been on hold in the US since December because of insurance issues, but we had been scheduling a lot of smaller populaires and brevets to fill the gap. With the pandemic, however, there was no randonneuring at all here at home."
With randonneuring on hold he decided to try riding new-to-him forest service roads he could do from his home and within a 2-hour drive from Kirkland.
"I have been 'gravel-curious' for a couple of years. The truth about that is that I don’t love rough surface roads, but I do like the idea of exploring areas not accessible by pavement. Last year, I outfitted a gravel bike, but a broken clavicle and randonneur distractions--Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) and a '60-by-60' goal--kept me from putting it to much use."
"At first I wasn’t even comfortable riding with anyone other than my wife Chris, so I set out on my own to learn about gravel routes and riding. One of my first rides went out the middle fork of the Snoqualmie to the horse camp at the end of the road. The road was behind a gate and much of the road was behind a washout. It was really rough. I realized that I had a lot to learn, but the scenery had me hooked."
As a by-product of his recent gravel expeditions, Mark compiled this handy catalog of rides that he hopes will be of use to others:
Given Mark's notoriety/addiction for "riding for (randonneuring) trinkets" (and beer), I asked him about the future of the randonneuring discipline.
"There have been almost no randonneuring events for nearly four months, but they have started again. Still mostly small and limited to local riders. The sport itself can be very safe - risks are low with outdoor activities and we can learn to manage the risks of the interactions with the community, the organizers, and other riders."
"Randonneuring has survived world war; I suspect it will survive a pandemic. For me personally, the great joy of the sport is the shared effort of a brevet, especially the long (1200km and longer) ones that I've traveled the country and the world pursuing. (The permanents and the trinkets are nice add-ons, but not, to me anyway, the core of the sport). I’ll be back at the brevets as soon as it’s reasonable."
Her first gravel ride was at the beginning of the year during a photoshoot trip to Bend. She learned some lessons quickly: She barely had enough hydration during a 45-mile gravel ride with only one water bottle. Like Mark, she was hooked after the first ride.
"I love loop rides. Out and back rides kind of bore me personally. I also tend to look for rides either with a cool viewpoint or a fun mid-ride stop. It always is giving me something to look forward to on my ride!"
Even though Kayla is a hard-core athlete, for her gravel cycling is all about fun with friends.
"I like to look at gravel riding as fun and exploration, not about who can go the fastest! It is a different pace than road riding so if you are fearing you won't be fast enough, speed is not the point of gravel riding! Enjoying the views and laughs with your friends is what it’s all about!"
She recommends starting on King County's trail system.
Snoqualmie Valley Trail is a great way to get started! It is a wide, well maintained trail that connects to a multitude of other trail systems in the PNW!
Beware: Many PNW natives and long-time residents take it for granted that **everyone** knows how to safely travel off the beaten path, whether that's on a bike or on foot.
If you are new to backcountry cycling or backcountry anything, learn before you go, and have some skepticism about that friend who is an expert because he/she did it once and lived to tell the tale. But, do try to ride with others who have more skill and experience.
Here are some recommendations:
--Check out our post Gearing Up for Bikepacking
--Know how to be self-sufficient in the backcountry and in situations where rescue is impossible
--Carry enough water and a filter if there is water on the route
--Use a backpack or frame bag to carry your gear
--Be prepared to spend the night: take a space bivvy
--Carry a gravel cycling version of the Mountaineers' 10 Essentials
--Bring a Garmin InReach
--Strong route-finding skills
--Ride routes that match your skill and experience
--Learn to figure out appropriate tires (and other gear) for the route and conditions
Passes are required to enter the Campbell Global Forest. We've heard stories that some folks have gotten caught without passes, which could potentially lead to losing access.
Check out the Northwest Gravel Riders Facebook group, and take a look at their Files along the left-hand menu. That group gets rave reviews for being more than helpful to novice questions.
Mark Thomas notes that SIR has routes (called permanents in randonneuring lingo) with gravel.
Kayla Kobelin advises:
"When I was starting out I didn't realize there were different pedals for gravel and mountain biking. So when I took my speedplay pedals and put them on my gravel bike I was a mess. I finally understood why SPD or SPD-like Pedals are a MUST for anything that is not on pavement! Also, don't be afraid of saddlebags! Unlike road riding, if you are unable to fix your bike, it's usually a long walk back to the car!"
"Also. when planning routes, always be conscious of where you can and can not get water! Being prepared with enough hydration is key to make your ride enjoyable!"