Are you a bicyclist stuck in a routine of cranking out miles on the same old boring highways you’ve been riding since you bought your first pair of lycra shorts? Or are you a mountain biker who has ridden the trails in the area so often that you notice when someone has removed even a small pebble from the path?
Or maybe you have been considering taking up cycling. However, with drivers so distracted by their cell phones, you’re concerned about the dangers of riding a bicycle on the highway, and you are even more leery of riding a mountain bike because of all the bumps and bruises you may experience.
Whichever category you fit into, this might be a great time for you to investigate a new fringe sport gaining traction across the country – gravel grinding.
Riding a bicycle on gravel and dirt roads is not a new concept. However, in recent years, its popularity has exploded among both veteran cyclists and newcomers who choose to forego highways and single-track for dirt and gravel roads.
In 2017, the number of bikes shipped in the United States fell by 4 percent, with losses in both mountain and road models. During that same period, gravel bike shipments grew, adding $26.9 million in new business.
Gravel grinding is something of a marriage of both genres. Roadies can still grind out long, continuous mega mileage they are accustomed to on group road rides, but under relatively safer conditions. Mountain bikers are able to ride in the same natural wooded environment they enjoy on single-track jaunts through the forest, minus the technical features.
With the abundance of forest roads within the Ozarks National Forest to our north and the Ouachita National Forest to the south, the River Valley area is rich with gravel grinding routes.
The White Rock/Shores Lake area a good place to plot a gravel grinder bicycle adventure. The options are unlimited and the inescapable extended climbs to crest its rolling hills will provide all the challenge a cyclist would want.
Area cyclists can add even more options to the mix with the miles of gravel roads available within the 66,000 acres of Fort Chaffee, located mere minutes away from most Fort Smith neighborhoods. Call 479-478-1043 for maps and requirements to access Fort Chaffee property.
New organized events are cropping up in the Natural State to accommodate gravel cyclists, such as The Hazel Valley Gran Prix, held annually in Northwest Arkansas.
Bicyclists who have grown tired of the competitive, take-no-prisoners attitude encountered at road events and mountain bike competitions will enjoy the friendly, low-key atmosphere cultivated at gravel events.
Those seeking an extended gravel adventure can tackle the Arkansas High Country Route. This 1,171-mile route takes cyclists past pristine streams, historic sites, expansive vistas and inviting swimming holes as it flows through the hills and hollows of both the Ozark and Ouachita mountains.
Arkansas’ own Chuck Campbell designed the route. It is supported by the Arkansas Parks and Recreation Foundation, a non-profit organization established for enhancing parks and recreational opportunities in Arkansas. The route had additional support from Adventure Cycling Association, which now leads bicycle tours over the route.
Although gravel grinding is not for everyone, it should be, if for no other reason than to take a break from your normal cycling routine. It is not necessary to have a special bicycle to enjoy it. The entire family can ride whatever bike they own. Of course, bicycles specifically designed for riding over the rocks are available. Get out and grab yourself some gravel. – Bob Robinson
Avid cyclist Bob Robinson of Fort Smith is the author of the bicycling guide books to Route 66, the Mississippi River Trail and the Lake Michigan Trail.