Halfway along a 20-mile gravel route, any cyclist would have delighted in the thin, rideable layer of snow that appeared on the firm double track. Immaculate except for prints made by deer, raccoon and coyotes, the smooth, crispy snow crunched beneath knobby tires and accounted for several miles of satisfaction.
Surprises like these account for the growing popularity of gravel routes among cyclists.
This route, known as the “Quick & Dirty,” connects pavement, gravel roads and single-track through the Deschutes National Forest and the site of the Two Bulls Fire. It is one of 35 such routes featured on Dirty Freehub, a website that details great off-the-beaten-path cycling routes in Central Oregon and beyond.
Two Bend cyclists, Linda and Kevin English, both restless retirees in their early 50s, created Dirty Freehub in 2014. They wanted to cater to Central Oregon cyclists who wish to steer away from reliable, if repetitive, road and mountain bike routes. The website showcases 35 downloadable GPS routes, replete with lengthy ride descriptions and bundles of ride photographs. The site also recommends rides in Arizona, Montana and California — and a few in Europe. Off-road bicycle routes, particularly those with a variety of terrain, are ever-changing depending on any given day’s weather. As such, they offer discovery at every turn.
“For us, it really is about sharing great routes. We’re not trying to hide anything, or make anything exclusive. It’s the opposite: We’re trying to publicize and share routes and get people spread out a little bit,” Kevin said.
Not a business nor a nonprofit, Dirty Freehub is the Englishes’ philanthropic project. One catch: Only the Englishes can upload routes to the site. It’s this vetting process they say ensures users’ enjoyment and safety on the gravel roads and trails. The couple, who lead rides for the Meetup group Bend Area Cycling Enthusiasts, have earned reputations in Central Oregon’s cycling community as go-to leaders of all bicycle rides on the road and off. In particular, their names are synonymous with gravel riding.
“I walked into a florist and the guy goes, ‘Hey, aren’t you Gravel Girl?’” Linda said with a laugh, referring to her nickname. “He said, ‘Oh, I was just looking at some of your rides. They look pretty cool. Which do you recommend?’ I helped him pick out a route for him and a couple guys to go on. I thought that was super cool.”
Speaking by Skype from their vacation in Seventeen Seventy, Australia, the Englishes have spent previous days road-riding through forests and along beaches. Kangaroos bounded in the periphery, yet they worried about unseen crocodiles. The couple might add an Aussie route to Dirty Freehub — as they have during recent cycling trips in Spain and France — if one hits all the high notes. That involves featuring varied terrain, jaw-dropping scenery and perks such as an en-route store or water source.
“Riding down the same gravel road for hours with the same texture is not interesting,” Linda said. “What I love is when we do a little bit of gravel, road, single track — it’s just a mishmash of stuff, like a cool view or a waterfall — that keeps it really interesting.”
Many Dirty Freehub routes in Central Oregon offer respite from the well-worn road and mountain biking routes.
“Those roads by Skyline Forest — I call them ‘The Silk Roads’ because they are great gravel roads,” Linda said. “They’re smooth as can be and you can really fly on those things.”
A ride scrapbook, with prompts
Dirty Freehub was born of Kevin’s dissatisfaction with leading GPS-fueled cycling apps and websites, such as Map My Ride, Strava and Ride with GPS. Inundated by his friends activity feeds, Kevin kept losing track of his favorite gravel routes. He also couldn’t trust that his friends’ routes wouldn’t disappoint.
“A gripe with the main riding apps is the absence of quality control,” he said, adding that he might set off to trace a route a friend had recently ridden, but it might only be “OK” or “not very good at all” if insurmountable gates or poor road conditions complicate a ride.
By creating Dirty Freehub, Kevin is able to track the routes he enjoys doing — all loops or lollipops with four- or five-star rankings — and organize the ride photos he and others enjoy taking.
“It’s like a scrapbook of rides that we like,” he said.
Use of the downloadable GPS routes requires a basic Ride with GPS membership, which is $6/month. The account allows users to take their digital maps with them with their handlebar-mounted GPS devices or with GPS-equipped smart phones.
“This way, people only have the opportunity to ride really good stuff.”
Diamonds in the rough
Many great gravel routes, such as “Quick & Dirty,” are hidden in plain sight. It begins and ends on NW Shevlin Park Road, the starting point for many road cyclists riding the well-worn 36-mile paved Twin Bridges loop. After swooping past Shevlin Park, the route veers left onto Bull Springs Road, which leads onto a gravel road used by the occasional timber truck. On a recent ride, the gravel was frozen solid and covered in a half-inch of snow when protected by tree cover. Exposed to the sun, the road surface was alternately firm and dry or moist and tacky.
“(An avid cyclist) could find Quick & Dirty on their own. They could link it together, but it would probably take some time,” Linda said.
Linda also likes to promote rides — and bicycle tourism dollars — in some of Central Oregon’s more remote corners, like the rural areas outside Madras and Prineville.
“I’ve driven past Madras a million times, but the reality is, Madras — or Post or Camp Sherman — has some of the most beautiful routes that we’ve seen,” she said. “Last week we had 15 people riding near Madras, and they’re out in the middle of nowhere. I think we probably saw two cars.”
While Dirty Freehub is not a social group, the Englishes often use the site as a reference for many of the rides they lead for B.A.C.E. The route selection process involves some informal vetting by B.A.C.E. riders.
“We take a lot of pride in our rides. Kevin and I will scout a ride and then lead it through B.A.C.E. to see what everyone thinks about it. Then we name it,” Kevin said.
Catchy or referential names include Jailbreak (a 33-mile loop through the Baldwin Hills near Deer Ridge Correctional Institute). Water & Lava, a 30-mile lollipop of gravel, pavement and single track that traces the Deschutes River and stretches to Lava Butte, is Dirty Freehub’s first route. Future routes are in the works.
Kevin has spent six or eight rides trying to piece together a loop he intends to call “The Horn of the Metolius.” It’s not quite there yet. He has also been looking closely at the areas around Sunriver, China Hat Butte and near the Pine Mountain Observatory. The Englishes task friends to act as “explorers” who help them test ride sections.
“It’s becoming more of a community project,” Kevin said.
Bryan Bergstedt, 60, is one such explorer. Having ridden nearly 10,000 miles this year, Bergstedt has done most of the Dirty Freehub routes since he stumbled onto the site three years ago. Some, such as those near the Prineville Reservoir, overlapped with his training for this year’s Tour Divide, a nearly 2,700-mile mountain bike race. His monstrous mileage means Bergstedt savors variety among his rides.
“I like the exploratory, adventurous nature of Dirty Freehub. You see what’s out there,” Bergstedt said. “It’s also good to have the ability to not get stuck in one groove. The more options you have, the more ways you can vary to enhance the experience.”
Steve Esswein, 67, made himself useful to Dirty Freehub by emailing the Englishes, whom he met on group rides, about any grammatical errors or broken links he discovered on the site. A retired IT project manager, Esswein said he didn’t mean to be annoying. The Englishes rewarded Esswein’s eagle eyes by making him the site’s copy editor. While no one earns a paycheck, contributors take their work seriously.
“Dirty Freehub (is) a terrific resource. Gravel routes aren’t easy to find. Sometimes these gravel roads peter out into nothing. You really don’t want to go out in the middle of nowhere unless someone has scouted it out for you.”
The Englishes call Dirty Freehub “a community give-back.”
“We are not trying to make any money off this,” Linda said. “We’ve had bike shops approach us about buying banner ads, and it’s like, ‘No, that’s all right.’ This is what we do. This is just fun.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7816, firstname.lastname@example.org