Gravel Biking

The Kearsarge Klassic, which began in 2012, is not timed, nor is it a race. Organizers say that any prepared rider on a gravel bike can finish the event. Photo by Dustin Marshall Photography

When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, many of us found ourselves reliving some of our earliest memories. We were told what we could do, where we could go, and who we could be with, often for our own good. With gathering spots like gyms and fitness centers shut down, thousands rushed outside. Many rushed to their local bike shops.

The ensuing sensations weren’t a revelation as much as a rekindling of a love affair that we first experienced in grade school. Bicycles meant independence, the ability to roam freely. To create adventures.

“Riding off-road brings me back to my childhood. It’s what we did,” says Justin Pare, a manufacturing engineering manager in the aerospace industry. “We would gather together while our parents still slept and hit the trails on weekends.”

Pare, a Goffstown native, is a longtime mountain biker and serves on the leadership team of the central New Hampshire chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association. During the pandemic, however, he added a new steed to his stable — a gravel bike.

“I still love the adrenalin rush of mountain biking, yet at times the trails can feel like the same old thing,” says Pare, 49. “I found gravel during Covid. I was one of the lucky ones, and bought my gravel bike when the sky was falling during the spring of 2020. During that crazy year, when I really didn’t want to ride next to strangers on crowded mountain bike trails, the gravel bike opened whole new areas of New Hampshire I had never been to.”

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Gravel riding is popular with women too. Here’s some of the “no-drop” crew at the Kearsarge Klassic start line. Photo by Dustin Marshall Photography

Mountain bikes and gravel rigs address another grim truth of cycling: Road riding isn’t getting any safer. In the decade between 2009 and 2018, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports cycling fatalities across the country rose steadily from 628 to 857. In 2020, bicyclist fatalities jumped to 938 (a 9.2% increase over 2019) and almost 39,000 cyclists were injured, reports the NHTSA. In the New Hampshire Injury Lawyer Blog, Peter Thompson & Associates wrote: “There were 113 bicycle accidents in 2020, and as of July 2021, New Hampshire reported 77 bike accidents. Moreover, New Hampshire motor vehicle accidents are on the rise.”

Those statistics are a constant concern for road enthusiasts, especially since “near misses” and countless incidents of harassment aren’t included. Though the majority of cycling fatalities take place in “urban areas” (according to the NHTSA), the reality is this: New Hampshire, like most New England states, has a road network that is largely made up of glorified cowpaths that were eventually paved over. Roads are narrow and often winding, with little shoulder space. Many are in disrepair. Now add eight-passenger SUVs and other large vehicles, plus an epidemic of distracted drivers, and the risk of collision feels ever-present (despite New Hampshire’s well-intentioned hands-free phone laws).

The solution for many was to opt for dirt trails and gravel roads. That’s led to a renewed popularity in mountain bikes and cycling’s newest iteration, the gravel bike. The mountain bike, since its emergence in the 1980s, has been the gold standard of the do-it-all bicycle, a rig that can go anywhere over almost any terrain. With the addition of front and rear suspension, these rugged bikes may not be svelte nor particularly speedy, but they’re capable of handling rocks and roots and other obstacles on the trails.

Ethan Lemieux, a 40-year-old nurse from Silver Lake who serves on the board of Ride NoCo, a mountain bike club based in North Conway, says he’s a “mountain biker through and through.” A native of Rhode Island, Lemieux started cycling off-road early, which fostered a sense of freedom.

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Laura Lemieux, a nurse from Silver Lake, and her husband, Ethan, belong to the merry band of trailbuilders at the Ride NoCo club that make sure mountain bikers have plenty of outstanding trails to ride in the Mount Washington Valley.

“I’m old enough to not have had helicopter parents, so my mountain bike was a means to travel and explore,” he says. “We had power-line trails just down the road from our house, where I would spend hours almost every day riding far from home. I could travel all over town on the trails leaving the power lines. These rocky mazes of trails built by 4-wheelers and dirt bikes fueled my need for adventure.”

Gravel bikes, meanwhile, may be the original back-to-the-future design. Considered the sport’s latest evolutionary trend, gravel bikes look remarkably similar to the stout rigs employed by members of the Army’s segregated 25th Infantry — the Buffalo Soldiers — as they pedaled almost 2,000 miles from Missoula, Montana, to St. Louis, Missouri, more than 120 years ago.

Glen’s Marianne Borowski, the driving force behind the Cross New Hampshire Adventure Bike Trail, agrees the recent emergence of gravel bike design is misleading, since she’s been pedaling one for two decades.

“My partner, Tom Matchak, is a frame builder,” says Borowski. “He has built bikes since the early 2000s that had the capability to fit wider tires. He called them ‘all-road’ bikes, for biking on a variety of surfaces that we get up here in New Hampshire and what we have seen all over the United States — good pavement, bad pavement, cracked pavement, dirt, cinder, gravel, sand,” she explains.

“The comfort of the ride was improved by the wider tires and lower air pressure required by these tires, the added stability and the ability to cruise through the variety of surfaces,” she adds. “Up here, the dirt roads and the rail trails are fun. A mountain bike works but is overkill on the mixed surface roadways and rail trails and sluggish on the pavement. These all-road bikes were light and responsive, yet sure-footed.”

Today’s gravel bikes are engineering marvels, with lightweight frames and more relaxed geometry for improved positioning, disc brakes and expansive gearing that help make even the steepest climbs manageable. The tires are considerably wider (typically running between 35 and 42 millimeters wide, compared to 23-28 millimeters for a dedicated road bike) with a rippled tread to provide better traction but can carry enough air pressure to reduce rolling resistance on asphalt or smooth dirt.

“Mountain biking is about adrenaline and gravity. Pushing your limits on climbs and the technical descents is challenging and fun,” says Dee Cleary of Auburn, who has been pedaling for close to four decades. “Gravel riding is a true adventure but on a more local scale than cycle touring. It’s fun to seek out class 6 roads, Jeep tracks and ATV trails to try to do a big loop. Sometimes you never know where you’ll end up.”

Of course, any adventure brings the potential for misadventure, and riding off-road requires a certain level of dexterity when it comes to bike maintenance and repair. Since stranded riders can’t simply flag down passing motorists or call for a vehicle assist, self-reliance is key. The basics include being able to repair a flat tire, broken chain or faulty brakes. Spare tubes (even if you’re running tubeless tires), a pump and/or CO2 cartridges and a tool wallet are essential. Bring plenty of water or energy drinks and food, such as fresh fruit or energy bars.

A GPS, and knowing how to use it, is a big plus. Because, at its core, gravel riding is about taking the road less traveled.

“I got into gravel riding maybe five or six years ago,” says Matthew Sheldon, a carpenter who operates Brown Dog Bike Tours, which hosts rides in the southwestern and western portions of the state. “I’ve always done a fair amount of road riding as a way to keep my fitness level up. But with cell phones and the hate bikers get from drivers, it’s definitely gotten less and less safe,” he says.

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Matthew Sheldon of Brown Dog Bike Tours at the Arrowhead Recreation Center in Claremont

“I live in a place with more dirt roads than paved, and the old track bike that I use as my road bike is definitely not suited for the dirt,” adds Sheldon. “There’s so much to be said about gravel riding. For one you can go out and crush smooth dirt roads to up your fitness level, but there are barely any cars out there. And the dirt roads usually slow them down when there are.”

But that, he says, is just the tip of the gravel-riding iceberg. Given their extraordinary versatility, gravel bikes open up a tremendous variety of terrain to riders. Even areas known as mountain bike hot spots like Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown and Green Woodlands Foundation
in Dorchester have trails that can be ridden aboard a gravel bike. In the hands of a capable rider, the gravel bike’s larger wheels and beefier tires can tame almost all but the most technical routes.

“For me, gravel bikes brought back that feeling of freedom, adventure and exploration that started it all,” says Sheldon. “These bikes feel like they can go anywhere, and it brought me back to being a little kid. I get to head out and really explore my town, take random roads without a clue of where they go, and if I happen to pass a trailhead or old closed road, I can just take it. It’s awesome.”

The state’s labyrinth of rail trails offers more than 300 miles of converted routes that permit stress-free, if a tad predictable, cycling. After all, train routes were built relatively straight and flat, with little elevation change to ensure efficient travel. The New Hampshire Rail Trails Coalition and the national Rails to Trails Conservancy are good clearinghouses of information on these routes, many of which intersect state parks, and the New Hampshire State Parks office offers dozens of detailed rail trail maps.

Favorites routes include the 18-mile Presidential Range Rail Trail in Coös County, the Northern Rail Trail that covers almost 60 miles across Merrimack and Grafton counties, the 30-mile Cheshire Rail Trail in the state’s southwestern corner, and the 28-mile Rockingham Recreational Rail Trail that runs from Manchester east toward Epping. Often, you can combine routes for a longer ride, such as the Derry Rail Trail, the Windham Rail Trail and the Salem Bike-Ped Corridor. Eventually, New Hampshire is expected to host a major portion of the New England Rail-Trail Spine Network, an ambitious project of the Rails to Trails Conservancy that will connect all six New England states and New York.

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A hardtail mountain bike marks a lovely dismount spot atop a waterfall on the Monadnock to Metacomet Trail.

There are also options that combine a number of different routes to provide a true mixed-terrain experience. One of the best is the Cross New Hampshire Adventure Trail. The 83-mile route traverses nine northern communities from Vermont to Bethel, Maine, linking the Ammonoosuc Rail Trail and the Presidential Rail Trail to recreation pathways like the Littleton Riverwalk and Bethel Pathway.

“If I introduced the Cross New Hampshire Adventure Trail 12 years ago, or maybe even seven years ago, I wouldn’t have gotten the enthusiasm and really positive responses from cyclists who have ridden it,” says Borowski, a retired chemist. “This whole gravel movement has opened the possibilities of enjoying dirt roads and mixed-terrain cycling. The busy roads, traffic and distracted drivers are likely causing many cyclists to try the quieter-but-rougher backroads and trails.”

Looking to get started? Perhaps the best place to learn about bikes and routes is your local bike shop. In fact, most riders build relationships with favorite shops. Pare is partial to S&W Sports in Concord, while Cleary is a faithful patron of DG Cycle Sports in Epping and Sheldon is a fan of The Wheelhouse in Claremont.

“Any good shop owner or worker is there because they love the sport,” says Sheldon. “They can probably help you find a good deal on a bike even if it’s not coming from the shop, as well as good places to ride or people to ride with.”

The New England Mountain Bike Association has seven chapters in New Hampshire, including central New Hampshire, the Seacoast, Franconia and Brattleboro-Keene. There are also “independent” local clubs, such as the Coös Cycling Club, the Wolfeboro Singletrack Alliance, the Central New Hampshire Bicycling Coalition, the Monadnock Cycling Club and the Upper Valley Mountain Bike Association. Don’t be bashful. “The more, the merrier” is a common theme among these organizations, and riding with others is a fast and easy way to improve your own skill set.

“NEMBA is a great group to belong to,” says Cleary. “They hold regular rides that members can join and are very welcoming to newcomers. There’s always an appointed lead and sweep, so nobody is ever left behind. If there are slower or faster riders, they sometimes split up so everyone has a good experience.”

You can also find many of these organizations on Facebook, as well as other groups, such as the New Hampshire Rail Trails Challenge, NH Gravel and Northeast Gravel Rides, that can introduce you to like-minded riders.

“Organized group rides are a great way to learn the area,” says Sheldon. “Trail systems can be confusing and usually aren’t well marked, so it’s great to have a guide. It takes that one aspect out of the thought process so you can focus on the riding.

Each Thursday, Brown Dog Bike Tours organizes a free gravel group ride out of Outlaw Brewing Company in Winchester. “Anyone is welcome,” says Sheldon. “We always have a route planned that can be adjusted to whoever shows up, but it will include some great dirt roads, some fun class 6 roads and some good climbing. We try to keep the pace comfortable for the group and do about 20 to 30 miles on average. Then we finish it up with some great food and drinks at the brewery.”

Want more company? Larger, organized events are rolling block parties that can introduce riders to new routes in a supported, inclusive atmosphere. Arlon Chaffee of GRVL Cycling puts on rides like the Raid Rockingham (one of the original New England gravel grinders) in June and Kearsarge Klassic in August that draw hundreds of gravel enthusiasts.

“If you can ride a bike, you can ride a gravel bike. Start on a rail trail or a well-managed dirt road you know,” says Chaffee, another Goffstown native. “Look for flatter terrain, then add elevation and distance. The biggest tip is to be careful on descents, keep within your abilities while building confidence.”

To build your confidence level, Chaffee suggests an organized gravel ride that offers a shorter distance — 25 to 35 miles — and to bring along some of your friends. “It’s easier when you support each other,” he says.

Likewise, Sheldon’s Brown Dog Bike Tours offers a number of larger events, including the Dirty Roads tour in June, the epic 100-mile Rabid Dog ride in July, the Round the Mountain loop in August and the Brown Dog gravel grinder (with 35- and 60-mile options) in October.

“My advice to anyone looking to get into the sport is to just do it. Get out there and try it all. Expect a bit of crashing here and there, but it’s all part of the adventure,” says Sheldon.

“The most important thing is to remember that you are always in control of the speed,” he adds. “I have two young girls who love to ride, and I always tell them, ‘If something looks scary, just slow down or even stop and pick your line.’ It might be hard, but the only way to get better is by doing it.”

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