Adventure October 19, 2021

Crush the Unpaved Road

The rise in popularity of gravel biking

Riding west on Warm Springs Road on a cool summer morning in early June, Frenchman’s Hot Springs appeared on the left, with a sulfur scent on the breeze and steam rising to greet the day. Just past Frenchman’s sprawled quintessential Idaho backcountry. From this road, there are endless possibilities that can lead to some of the most beautiful terrain in south-central Idaho. On this particular day, Mark Carnes and Mike Shane, co-owners of Idaho Cycles, crested the top of Dollarhide Summit on their gravel bikes, and the Soldier and Trinity mountain ranges exploded in peaks and valleys as far as the eye could see. That descent though…

Countless switchbacks down the other side took them deeper into another world, with deer, elk, and yes, today even a bear cub, the sole spectators to their ride. As the road flattened out toward Featherville, they headed to Skillern Hot Springs near the Big Smoky Guard Station for a short soak. Following along the South Fork of the Boise River, after a few hours in the saddle, the Rocky Bar Store beckoned for a quick snack, and then it was onward until they reached their destination, Trinity Hot Springs, just in time for a late lunch and a rejuvenating swim.

To Carnes and Shane, and countless others before them, gravel biking is the perfect antidote to a world gone mad.

“Gravel biking” has a broad definition—generally, any terrain between the steep, rocky inclines of mountain biking and the smooth asphalt of road biking, essentially a perfect hybrid between the two. In practice, it translates to gorgeous scenery, pleasantly challenging conditions, and no cars. Combined with advances in bike technology, gravel’s recent rise in popularity makes perfect sense.

To some, gravel biking is something that is old but new again. According to ultra endurance pro and seven-time world champion, Rebecca Rusch, “The past five years have seen an explosion in this cycling category for a few reasons: human desire for exploration, lower intimidation factor than mountain biking, a lower vehicle-to-bicycle ratio than road cycling, and a plethora of riding options nationwide. People want to explore, get off the main roads, away from cars and crowds and into some adventure.”

Paved road, bike path, dirt road, single track: a gravel bike can do it all. Gravel biking offers a ton of options to explore the surrounding area and not be stuck to just one type of surface to ride on. The cycling industry has responded to this style of riding with some amazing gravel-specific bikes that look like a traditional road bike but have room for wider tires and handlebars and slightly different technology to allow for more comfort on bumpy, uneven surfaces.

But you don’t necessarily need a gravel bike to enjoy getting out on gravel and dirt. “Not everyone has a bunch of different bikes, and that’s okay,” said Rusch. “In fact, 25 percent of riders at my signature gravel event, Rebecca’s Private Idaho, ride on their mountain bikes. If you have a mountain bike and are spending a lot of time riding gravel roads, my suggestion is to put on thinner and lower tread tires. If you only have a road bike and live in an area with more dirt roads than pavement (like Sun Valley), then you might consider switching to a gravel-specific bike that you can also ride on paved roads.”

Some of the best gravel biking in the U.S. is actually right here in our own backyard.

“For first timers, there is no bad place to start out around here,” said Shane. “In the south valley, Croy Creek and Rock Creek are awesome in the spring. The farm roads around the Bellevue Triangle offer endless routes. Out of Ketchum, Warm Springs Road is a flat, easier option, or head up Trail Creek for more of a challenge. This area truly has something for everyone.”

Idaho’s endless miles of remote roads, coupled with breathtaking vistas, are what inspired Rusch to create one of the world’s largest and most celebrated graveling biking races here in 2013, Rebecca’s Private Idaho. Called “One of the World’s 25 Best Bike Rides” by Outside Magazine, “One of the Top Five Gravel Cycling Events” by Global Cycling Network, and a “Monument of Gravel” by VeloNews, this Sun Valley event takes place annually over the Labor Day weekend and is now a driving force behind the huge surge in gravel biking. And for good reason.

“Rebecca’s Private Idaho hits all the spots,” said Rusch. “You start with a big, grueling climb up Trail Creek, then drop into the Big Lost River Basin and meander through Wildhorse Canyon. As you head toward Copper Basin, you roll into a lovely valley of sagebrush and willow-rimmed creeks, hemmed in by the great White Knob and Pioneer mountain ranges, the most beautiful and challenging part of the course. Riders end the course with a ripping 2,000-foot descent back down Trail Creek into Sun Valley.”

For those interested in giving gravel a go, it’s best to be prepared. Equipment matters, and knowledge is power so be sure to ask at a local bike shop like Idaho Cycles or Sturtevants about rentals, places to ride, tire pressure, etiquette and other tips. Start with easy rides like the bike path or a flat dirt road like Prairie Creek to gain confidence and skill on the bike. Then graduate to bigger adventures and more technical and bumpy roads. A nice step up from Prairie Creek is the Harriman Trail, which starts at the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) north of Ketchum and provides a gently rolling 20 miles of track, culminating at Galena Lodge.

One of the best things about gravel biking is the remote nature, but that also means you’re off the beaten track, away from people and cell coverage, so you’re on your own. Take responsibility for yourself and make a plan. Educate yourself on basic skills like fixing a flat tire and other simple bike mechanics, and plan ahead with food, water, and supplies. Know where you want to go and have the correct navigational tools to get there (and back) safely.

“Gravel biking has brought in riders from all walks of life,” says Shane. “People young and old are discovering that gravel is a safer alternative to mountain and road biking. It’s fast, fun, and accessible to everyone. And most importantly, it offers unlimited freedom to get out there and explore”

This article appears in the Fall 2021 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.