Tour de Texas

Mount your steed and start... pedaling From big climbs to big descents, from rural farm roads to scenic byways these ten rides are a cyclist’s dream.

October 2005By Comments

More than a decade ago, as I was driving along U.S. 90 in West Texas outside Sanderson, I saw a lone cyclist grinding toward San Antonio under a brutal sun, followed closely by a two-man French TV crew in a station wagon. This apparition, some bizarre offspring of the Western myth and a twisted Gallic imagination, seemed absurdly out of place at the time—like a latte in Marfa. Today, the sight of a cyclist so far from anywhere couldn’t be more familiar, and our back roads teem with pelotons of cycling converts, all inspired by a cancer-conquering native who came to dominate the most European of sports.

What’s all the fuss about? As any cyclist will tell you, beyond the state’s sea of strip malls and congested interstates are thousands of miles of bike-friendly farm-to-market roads and rural highways, where the charms of the Texas countryside remain very much intact. With fall’s cool weather finally moving in, it’s about time you joined in. I’ve put together ten rides of varying degrees of difficulty to get you started. Most are longtime favorites of Texas cycling clubs, some are suggestions from other cyclists, and the remainder are rides I’ve discovered on my own. All you have to do is fill up your water bottles, slap on some sunscreen, and start pedaling. No yellow jersey required.

What the Difficulty Ratings Mean

EASY — These rides are manageable, even if you’ve been on a bike only a few times.
MODERATE — You’ve been riding for a bit, and you think you’re in good shape. You’ll find out on these more challenging routes.
DIFFICULT — You call yourself a hammerhead? Let’s ride, punk.

Before You Go . . .

Point, Click, Ride Ordinarily we would have published the directions for our ten rides in the pages that follow. However, because so many of the routes are rather detailed, we’re putting them online instead. Visit the address listed in the “Directions” section of each ride, and you can print out route instructions and maps.

What You Need Hit the stores to purchase a proper road bike (consider Trek, Cannondale, or similar brands), with a lightweight frame and a Shimano or Campagnolo component set. You can spend many thousands of dollars on a dream machine or find bargains for less than a grand, but the most important thing is to take as much time as you can trying out different bikes before plunking down your cash. Don’t forget to buy a helmet, gloves, and, yes, padded shorts. Believe me—you’ll be glad you did.

Austin Cycling Association: austincycling.org
Brazosport Bicycle Club: brazosportbicycleclub.com
Carrollton Cycling Club: carrolltoncycling.com
Corpus Christi Bicycle Club
El Paso Bicycle Club: elpasobicycleclub.com
Fort Worth Bicycling Association: fwbaclub.org
Greater Dallas Bicyclists: greaterdallasbicyclists.com
Highland Lakes Bicycle Club<!– : pages.tstar.net/~hlbc/ –>
Hill Country Bicycle Touring Club: hcbtc.org
Houston Bicycle Club: houstonbicycleclub.org
Longview Bicycle Club: longviewbicycleclub.org
Plano Bicycle Association: planobicycle.org
San Antonio Wheelmen: sawheelmen.com
Team Bicycles Inc. (Metroplex): teambicyclesinc.org
Tyler Bicycle Club: tylerbicycleclub.com
West Texas Cycling Association: westtexascycling.org
Woodlands Cycling Club: woodlandscycling.org

THE RIDES

The Devil’s Backbone

THE ROUTE: Over hill and dale around Wimberley.
DIFFICULTY: 2
DISTANCE: 30 miles
HIGHLIGHTS: It’s no secret that the Hill Country, with its natural beauty and challenging terrain, ranks high on most people’s list of favorite Texas rides. That’s why I selected two from the region. This route, slightly tougher than the one along the Guadalupe (see “The Waterfall”), offers spectacular views from the Devil’s Backbone (Ranch-to-Market Road 32), which allow you to survey miles and miles of ranchland (maybe while enjoying a cold one at the Devil’s Backbone Tavern, near the highest point). You’ll also discover the rural charms of Fischer Store Road, especially at the spot where it crosses over the Blanco River.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Heavy traffic and no shoulder on RM 12 outside Wimberley can make for a tough start.
Click here for directions.

The Fort Davis Flier

THE ROUTE: From Fort Davis, follow the famous scenic loop through the mountains.
DIFFICULTY: 3
DISTANCE: 75 miles
HIGHLIGHTS: Here’s a bold claim: The Fort Davis loop will take you on one of the prettiest roads in the . . . world. Yes, you read that right, and if you’re skeptical, go see for yourself. You’re guaranteed a one-of-a-kind ride through the canyons and mountains on one of the highest, most rugged, and most remote regions in the state. In fact, the jaw-dropping views will make you forget how hard your legs and lungs are working as you climb up to 6,700 feet. Leaving Fort Davis, you’ll make your way up Limpia Canyon past the McDonald Observatory, then Mount Livermore and Sawtooth Mountain, before heading back to town. Though this is a challenging ride with some extremely hard climbs, all Texas cyclists should put it on their life list.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Watch out for violent thunderstorms, which can roll in unexpectedly.
Click here for directions.

The Canyoneer

THE ROUTE: From Canyon down into the canyon.
DIFFICULTY: 3
DISTANCE: 40 miles
HIGHLIGHTS: The good news: While shooting down the steep, eight-hundred-foot descent just past the entrance to Palo Duro Canyon State Park, you’ll enjoy incredible vistas of the bright red, yellow, and orange hues of the canyon. The bad news: What goes down must come up. You’ll probably need to find your granny gear to labor back up to the Llano Estacado. With any luck, though, the stunning landscapes of one of the state’s most pristine regions will inspire you to take on the endurance test. If not, there’s always another strategy: Arrange for a friend to drive down into the canyon to pick you up, an option cyclists call “riding the sag wagon.”
FULL DISCLOSURE: Be aware of the unpredictable weather. Storms can blow in without warning.
Click here for directions.

The Waterfall

THE ROUTE: From New Braunfels up to Canyon Lake and back.
DIFFICULTY: 1–2
DISTANCE: 48 miles, with 28- and 72-mile options
HIGHLIGHTS: Our second Hill Country selection is an old favorite; the San Antonio Wheelmen have been riding this way for more than thirty years. After heading out toward Canyon Lake, you’ll return along the River Road, which follows the Guadalupe as it flows down to the coastal plains. The two-lane highway winds past limestone bluffs and towering cypresses toward Gruene, where you can detour to Gruene Hall for some R&R before the journey back to the start point. If you’re looking for a bigger challenge, try adding the loop that climbs over the Devil’s Backbone (see “The Devil’s Backbone”) along RM 32 and zooms back down Purgatory Road.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Avoid this route on summer weekends, when the River Road is full of tourists and tubing shuttles.
Click here for directions.

The Lake Corpus Christi Cruise

THE ROUTE: A tour of one of South Texas’s most popular lakes.
DIFFICULTY: 3
DISTANCE: 45 miles
HIGHLIGHTS: Nearly twenty miles long and with shoreline in three counties, Lake Corpus Christi is the centerpiece for this challenging ride from the Corpus Christi Bicycle Club. Why the high difficulty rating? The route will make you forget that you ever thought of South Texas as flat, and the occasionally blustery conditions can kick up a fierce headwind. But you’ll be rewarded. Between Dinero and Swinney Switch, on Farm-to-Market Road 534, you’ll cross branches of the gorgeous Nueces as it flows into the lake. There’s a store in Swinney Switch that makes for a nice rest stop before you head back south.
FULL DISCLOSURE: When I went, Live Oak County had resurfaced FM 3024 from Swinney Switch to the county line—some six miles—using a coarsely graded asphalt that made for a bumpy ride.
Click here for directions.

The Exurban Escape

THE ROUTE: A loop through the small towns of Collin County outside Plano.
DIFFICULTY: 1–2
DISTANCE: 65 miles, with a 55-mile option
HIGHLIGHTS: Although the Metroplex seems to sprawl a little farther every day, slowly filling the rangeland between Lewisville and Lavon lakes with subdivisions and shopping malls, this route will take you back a few years by exploring the remaining open space in the far reaches of Collin County. After leaving Plano and heading into the countryside east of McKinney, you’ll wind around Lavon Lake and maybe stop in the little town of Princeton for refreshments before riding through the farmland north of New Hope. “It’s a very pretty ride,” says Rusty Nail—his real name, I swear—of the Plano Bicycle Association, adding that it’s worth lingering on the section between Stacey Road and FM 546, where large cedar elm trees form a sheltering canopy.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Watch out for dogs along those back roads, warns Nail.
Click here for directions.

The Alpe d’El Paso

THE ROUTE: An up-and-down screamer over the Franklin Mountains in El Paso.
DIFFICULTY: 3
DISTANCE: 26 miles
HIGHLIGHTS: Ever wondered what Lance’s quads feel like on the legendary switchbacks of the Alpe d’Huez? Try riding Woodrow Bean Transmountain Drive. During the 10.7-mile section between U.S. 54 and Interstate 10, the route zigzags up 1,145 feet and then zips straight down, roaring over the jutting, weather-beaten spine of the Franklin Mountains. Stop at the rest area at the route’s apex to enjoy the view; you won’t want to take your eyes off the road on the way down. This ride is not for beginners. The steep climb can take up to an hour, and the fast descent requires confidence and skill. But the buzz you’ll get when you reach the top and look down over New Mexico is worth every ounce of lactic acid in your legs.
FULL DISCLOSURE: These are urban roads with heavy traffic, including big trucks. Stay well inside the big shoulder on
the ascent.
Click here for directions.

The Brenham Back Roads

THE ROUTE: Pedal through the rural terrain south of the Central Texas town of Brenham.
DIFFICULTY: 1
DISTANCE: 38 miles, with a 27-mile option
HIGHLIGHTS: A popular family pit stop halfway between Houston and Austin on U.S. 290, Brenham is best known as the home of Blue Bell ice cream. This ride will help you justify that double dip. The route—from Chris Marsh, of the Hill Country Bicycle Touring Club—is perfect for beginners because it gently ambles along country roads that carve through the lush green farmland and rolling hills of Washington and Austin counties. It’s especially beautiful in the spring, when the roadsides are a blur of wildflowers.
FULL DISCLOSURE: The last five miles are a bit of a slog through the heavier traffic on Texas Highway 36; try to avoid this route during the weekday rush hour. Also, there are no convenience stores along the way, so fill up an extra water bottle and pack a snack.
Click here for directions.

The South Dallas Detour

THE ROUTE: A route from Lancaster through the countryside south of the Metroplex.
DIFFICULTY: 2
DISTANCE: 51 miles, with a 5-mile option
HIGHLIGHTS: “Everybody rides from Lancaster,” said the woman in the store in Rockett where I stopped to get some Gatorade. (When you look at the map, you’ll see that I was lost.) This popular tour, an adaptation of the Greater Dallas Bicyclists’ Lancaster Rally route, runs through small towns, rural neighborhoods, and farmland in Dallas and Ellis counties. The flat cornfields around Lancaster give riders a chance to warm up their legs for the ups and downs through Ferris to Bristol, where you should take the optional five-mile loop for a great view east over the fields and woods of the Trinity Basin. The real test comes on the sharp turns and steep climbs along Rutherford Road and around Smith Cemetery Road. From there, the ride flattens out some as you pass through rural suburbs, where brick McMansions perched on treeless mounds dwarf their older neighbors.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Once again, beware of dogs. I encountered several aggressive canines on the Bristol loop. And be careful on FM 813 from Bristol to Palmer, where there’s no shoulder and heavy traffic.
Click here for directions.

The Piney Pedaler

THE ROUTE: A double loop out in the woods north of Palestine.
DIFFICULTY: 1–2
DISTANCE: 49 miles, with a 24-mile option
HIGHLIGHTS: No hustle and bustle in sleepy Palestine. Surrounded by thick forest, this pretty town makes a perfect start and finish line for a journey into the Piney Woods. Empty, shaded back roads are perfect for cyclists, and the deceptively rolling terrain will give your legs a good workout. The section along FM 321 from Neches west to FM 315 has some longer, steeper climbs. This, my second pick from Chris Marsh’s collection, is a great introduction to the beauty of East Texas.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I was caught needing fluids because I could not find the store marked on the map (at FM 315 and FM 837). Lesson: Always bring plenty of water (consider two bottles for longer rides) and a snack.
Click here for directions.

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