A million years ago, otherwise known as early March—when the prospect of hopping on a bicycle didn’t require a plan for disinfectant and social distancing—I drove to Palmetto State Park, near Gonzales, with my husband and a friend. We paid our entrance fee, parked the car, and climbed onto our bikes, pedaling south of the park on FM 2091 for a mile before turning onto a network of gravel roads. We rolled past chicken farms, fields of wildflowers, and barking dogs. We chugged north over a rusty iron bridge, then looped back toward the park, stopping to chat with a very vocal donkey, and checked out the old warm springs in Ottine. For more than thirty miles, only a handful of motorists passed us.
For me, that’s the appeal of “gravel grinding,” a laid-back category of bicycling that takes riders off paved streets, where cars can whiz past at 60 miles an hour, and onto rural routes, where they’re more likely to encounter a slowly whirling windmill or curious farm animals. Because gravel riders pedal roads that, though not paved, are built for motor vehicles, they won’t encounter the cyclist-launching obstacles—boulders, roots, rocky ledges—that mountain bikers love to conquer. Almost any sturdy bike with wide tires will do, although built-for-gravel bikes have become all the rage, with a more relaxed riding position and frames that are beefier than fine-boned road bikes but not as rugged as the mountain variety.
Compared with mountain bikers and other types of cyclists, gravel grinders pedal at a relatively leisurely pace. But the miles come harder for grinders than they do for road cyclists, thanks to bumpy roads that serve up more rolling resistance. Grinders generally have a more chill attitude about racing too. “The pros mix with the Joes,” as 38-year-old gravel rider John Wilmeth, of New Waverly, told me at last year’s Castell Gravel Grind, one of the biggest gravel events in Texas, while we enjoyed the post-race ritual of chili, baked potatoes, and beer.
I’ve been logging lots of gravel miles since the pandemic hit, crunching over lightly trafficked roads around Central Texas on my mustard-colored gravel bike. Near Luling one day, a snarling dog came barreling out of a fenced-in yard and straight into my path, nearly pitching me off my seat. I just managed to avoid crashing, and I learned a valuable lesson: carry a can of dog repellent to ward off unfriendly pups in rural areas.
Usually, though, I get lost in the solitude—rolling across an old iron bridge outside Luling, stopping to pet a horse near Smithville, checking out a pump jack in Paige. In nonpandemic years, you might find me at events like the aforementioned Castell Gravel Grind, which draws hundreds of like-minded cyclists looking to pound out some country miles and then kick back with a cold one and some grub.
Austin residents Mike Drost, Debbie Richardson, and Janie Glos, who have put on paddling and adventure races across Texas for more than a decade, started the Castell Grind in 2014 after exploring the infrequently traveled roads around the small town, which is twenty miles west of Llano.
“I think it’s the most scenic place you can ride in Texas,” Drost says, noting that the Grind route starts and finishes at the bright yellow Castell General Store, funnels cyclists alongside the Llano River for eight miles, and features views of House Mountain, Kings Mountain, and Bodie Peak. Participants choose from three distances—100, 75, or 50 kilometers—all of which include a spin up notorious Keyserville Road, where, as veterans put it, the carnage happens, with cyclists slogging uphill through the sand. It’s worth it, though. “Instead of just riding flat on farmland, you’re actually riding toward something,” Drost says of the mountains.
When they’re not racing, Drost and his partners also like riding around Lockhart, 33 miles southeast of Austin. They park their cars on the historic town square, pedal for hours along the nearby spiderweb of hard-packed gravel roads, then finish with barbecue at a classic spot like Black’s Barbecue, Kreuz Market, or Smitty’s Market before heading home. For Drost, the biggest advantage of gravel riding is avoiding traffic. “You feel much safer, even though you’re remote,” he says of the isolation. “The cars slow down because they don’t want to kick up rocks. You can go out, and just three or four cars pass you.”
Gravel riding has become trendy over the past few years. It attracts road racers bored with the endless closed-circuit laps of criterium races, endurance athletes who want to spend long hours on a bike, and mountain bike racers eager for new scenery instead of repetitive loops, says Fort Worth’s Kevin Lee, founder of the Spinistry, which stages about two dozen gravel events in North and Central Texas.
Storming the Castell
Registration for this year’s Castell Gravel Grind, capped at 550 participants, sold out in twelve minutes; originally planned for April 4, the ride was eventually canceled and rescheduled for April 2021.
The Spinistry’s first gravel ride happened by accident, in 2010. Lee was hosting the Red River Riot, an endurance mountain biking race at a private ranch. When a big storm hit, he switched the route to keep the riders off the narrow trails, which had quickly become unnavigable, and onto the better-draining dirt and gravel roads. “I was crying in my beer, thinking they’d hate me,” he recalls. “But the riders started coming in, covered head to toe in mud, and all you could see were teeth, because they were smiling.”
Unlike states including Kansas and Michigan, which have hosted well-known gravel events for years, Texas has a premier gravel scene that is more under the radar. “People in Texas don’t have to go across the country to get in a good gravel ride,” Lee says.
Although events build camaraderie, the beauty of gravel riding is that it’s available to anyone almost anywhere in the state. The rolling terrain and scenic ranches of the Hill Country, spliced by lightly traveled roads, and the Red River Valley (sometimes called the North Texas Hill Country) are big draws. A few places, like Lockhart and Luling, are known for hard-packed roads; around La Grange, cyclists tackle golf ball–size gravel that’s rough under saddle. Near Bastrop, gravel grinders can pedal past the historic Antioch Cemetery. Other regions serve up their own flavor of gravel riding. The Piney Woods around Palestine feature shady, gently rolling hills, and the prickly Chihuahuan Desert of Big Bend Ranch State Park offers rugged but exhilarating terrain.
Lately, though, some city-dwelling cyclists are having to drive a little farther to find gravel, as fast-growing counties expand their networks of paved roads. Lee, for example, has had to move his most popular event, the Texas Chain Ring Massacre, increasingly north of Fort Worth. Still, he says, “there’s plenty of dirt roads out there for people to go out and have a gravel adventure.”
That’s good news for enthusiasts such as 35-year-old Stephanie Martinez, an Austin paralegal who discovered gravel riding about three years ago. Now she volunteers to lead women’s rides on Central Texas gravel roads and participates in organized rides, including the Castell Gravel Grind.
“What I like about it is it’s not as hard as mountain biking, which can get very technical,” she says. In other words, you won’t have to thread your way between jagged chunks of limestone or pop up and down stone ledges if you stick to gravel roads. “A lot of people have been switching to [gravel] because mountain biking is too technical and road riding is too dangerous, with cars and accidents. It’s peaceful; it’s serene; it’s a really good environment.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Road More Graveled.” Subscribe today.