When it comes to two-wheeled fun, Bedford’s Mike Rowell and his wife, Cathy, have things dialed in. They’ve owned road bikes, mountain bikes, touring bikes, even tandem bikes. But their bicycle of choice these days is a gravel bike, a Swiss Army knife-type rig that’s as comfortable on dirt as it is on asphalt.
“What I like most about gravel is the adventure, and the fact that you’re in control,” said Mike, a retired software engineer. “It’s whatever you want it to be. I adore planning routes and custom-tailoring them to exactly what I or my ride partners are looking for.”
Rowell was first smitten with bicycles growing up in northern Vermont. After he and Cathy moved to Massachusetts, they started competing in road and off-season cyclocross races. But the call of the dirt roads of his youth remained strong.
“Though the first gravel road riding I did was on a mountain bike, I consider my cyclocross bike my first true gravel bike,” he said. “We used the ’cross bikes to explore local conservation areas, ducking in and out of newly found trails by the roadsides. Soon we were doing destination trips, mapping out loops, and seeking out gravel roads and connectors.
“It wasn’t until the boom of cyclocross in America that we had a large group of cyclists out there with a specialty bike that was just sitting in the basement for half of the year,” Rowell said. “Naturally, these folks were looking for something to use the bike for besides cyclocross racing. Gravel was the perfect fit.”
The race-specific cyclocross rig eventually morphed into today’s gravel bike (though many racers still ride their cyclocross bikes year-round). These versatile rigs look similar to road bikes, with drop handlebars, and are typically lighter than mountain bikes. The gravel frames featured a more relaxed geometry, for a more upright riding posture, and wide wheel clearance that allows riders to run bigger tires for improved traction. Most have disc brakes, and can accommodate racks and panniers for bike-packing trips.
“Although I’m not a true industry insider, I do follow the market and trends,” said Rowell. “For the past couple of seasons, the all-road and gravel-specific bike segment has been gaining popularity [with] the manufacturers as well as the consumers.”
While cyclocross and gravel bikes are similar, the disciplines are not.
“Racing cyclocross is very focused, intense,” said Rowell. “Gravel riding is nearly the opposite. It’s often soothing, calming. You’re compelled to take in the sights and sounds of the surroundings.
“It’s much like mountain biking in that sense,” he said. “For me, gravel riding is about getting away. Getting away from the stress, the chaos, the people, and certainly the traffic. Peace and solitude.”
Rowell acknowledged that his home state has more dirt roads, and considerably less traffic, than Eastern Massachusetts. Vermont, in fact, claims it has 1,000 more miles of dirt roads than paved ones. Massachusetts’s road system is clearly more developed, though ribbons of gravel or dirt do exist, especially west of Worcester.
Rail trails are a great option, as are hard-packed trails found in a number of public locations like Bradley Palmer State Park or Willowdale State Forest to the north, and Wompatuck State Park to the south.
“As all of us in Eastern Mass know, gravel is hard to find,” said Rowell. “The best we can do are paths like the Battle Road Park from Lexington to Concord or the Narrow Gauge Trail or Reformatory Branch Path in Bedford. The carriage roads at Great Brook State Park in Carlisle are good, as are the rustic Revolutionary Era roads in Estabrook Woods in Concord and Carlisle.”
It’s the paved roads connecting these dirt tracts, however, that reveal the gravel bike’s pedigree. Though not as fast as a dedicated road bike, they’re more comfortable, and move along more quickly, than fat-tire mountain bikes.
That mixed bag of conditions is reminiscent of New England from a century ago, when pavement was far less ubiquitous, and the bicycle was king. Cyclists have always adapted to a variety of terrain, as those old, sepia-tone photographs of the Tour de France from the early 1900s will attest. And that variety is part of the fun that gravel bikes promise.
“I don’t think that gravel riding is anything new,” said Rowell. “People have been doing it for as long as there have been bicycles. Those who live in areas without paved roads simply ride gravel. In Vermont, the majority of the roads are unpaved and the paved ones tend to be much busier, making gravel more attractive to cyclists.”
The same holds for Massachusetts, given that so many roads are hundreds of years old, narrow and winding. The vehicles are bigger, and the drivers often distracted.
“I love exploring new places and seeing new things,” said Rowell. “Get a map program, like RideWithGPS, and start mapping routes, then upload them to your GPS device or smartphone. Just remember, maps often lie and not all roads connect any longer regardless of what Google Maps says. That’s part of the adventure.”