Mountain biking seems like an ideal option in this era of social distancing, when outdoor recreation has become increasingly important and outdoor enthusiasts must become increasingly creative.
But the Central Oregon singletrack that we mountain bikers love to ride so much is a bit of an issue during the coronavirus pandemic.
With some trails as narrow as 2 feet wide, how is a biker supposed to keep the recommended 6-foot distance from an oncoming rider? The answer is to dismount and walk 6 feet into the surrounding woods or desert to let the uphill rider pass.
I have done that many times on a few rides over the last month.
But cyclists who stay on their bikes and ride 6 feet around oncoming riders are harming our beloved singletrack by effectively widening it.
One way to avoid the close quarters of singletrack and avoid harming the trails is to avoid singletrack altogether.
Gravel cycling has surged in popularity in recent years but it might become even more attractive to riders this spring and summer as social distancing dominates our world. Gravel routes typically include a mix of paved roads and dirt/gravel forest roads, many of which remain open during the pandemic.
Roads allow for more room for passing other riders and for staying at least 6 feet away from oncoming riders. Also, forest roads are typically closer than singletrack for cyclists leaving from their homes. (U.S. Forest Service trailheads and all developed recreation sites are closed to vehicles, but most trails and forest roads remain open for dispersed recreation.)
“Gravel is a really good option, because you can maintain that distance when somebody is oncoming, and also when you’re passing somebody,” says Bend’s Kevin English, who founded the gravel riding website dirtyfreehub.com with his wife, Linda. “It’s easy to go out of their slipstream and go to the other side of the road to pass.”
Dirty Freehub features 25 gravel routes near Bend, and several other routes near Redmond, Sisters, Prineville and Madras. The routes are accessible for most cyclists to ride from their homes and easily allow for proper social distancing.
“Almost all these towns in Central Oregon, you can ride out your door,” Kevin English says. “We’re riding a lot of gravel now, and we’re not seeing a whole lot of people. I maybe see one to three other people usually, sometimes nobody. There’s a lot of road out there, it’s very open, and you’ll see very few people.”
The Englishes are promoting routes that avoid paved bike paths as well as dirt singletrack to optimize social distancing. They also advise that cyclists only ride with members of their household or go alone.
“We’re trying to make sure that we’re super self-sufficient if we go alone, and carry all our own water,” says Linda English, aka Gravel Girl. “If I’m on some technical gravel and it’s a little sketchy, I’ll get off and walk. There are some things we’re doing to just be a little bit smarter. One of the good things about going on a designated route is that you can leave it with people back home so they know where you went.”
Many dedicated gravel riders own bikes that are actually built for the discipline — essentially road bikes designed to tackle a variety of surfaces and carry additional gear.
That said, many gravel routes can be ridden on a mountain bike.
“With a mountain bike, look for a route that has 80 percent gravel and 20 percent pavement,” Kevin English says. “50-50 might be a little cumbersome on a mountain bike.”
For mountain bikers looking for a gravel route, Linda English recommends a route through the Skyline Forest northwest of Bend.
“It’s a great route for someone with a mountain bike, because it’s not that far and it’s all gravel,” Linda says.
Linda, 55, and Kevin, 57, started the Dirty Freehub website seven years ago after Kevin got into a mountain biking accident and avoided the sport for two years while discovering gravel riding.
“I got into gravel and just kind of started documenting the stuff that I was enjoying riding,” he says. “It was a pet project for the first four years, and then we started putting more work into it. We have nearly 200 routes now in the western U.S.”
The routes on the website include maps, GPS files, photos, logistics for water and food, scenery details, levels of difficulty and seasonal recommendations.
They have sponsors and donations for the website, but the Englishes, who are both retired and have lived in Bend for more than 20 years, say they are not making any profit from the site.
“Routes can be downloaded for free,” Linda says. “This is our giveback to the community.”
And perhaps now more than ever is a good time to take up gravel riding.
“The other day I rode out to Tumalo Falls on back roads, and there was nobody out there,” Linda says. “I didn’t see a soul the whole day and I was gone for three hours.”