There’s an easy explanation for why gravel biking is the fastest growing style of riding: there are more than 2 million miles of unpaved roads across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“We don’t have to construct anything, the roads are already here,” said LeLan Dains, cyclist and owner of Gravel City Adventure & Supply Co. in Emporia, Kansas. For the record, the industry considers anything that is unpaved as gravel and the ideal equipment falls between a mountain bike and a road bike.
Dains is a former co-owner and race director for Unbound Gravel, a race through the Flint Hills’ rugged landscape of hilly roads dotted with sharp limestone rock and soil filled with even harder chert, or flint. The event started in 2006 with 34 riders and now draws 4,000 competing at distances ranging from 25 to 350 miles.
“Unbound Gravel was not the first gravel cycling event, but I would say that it was the event that made gravel world famous,” he said.
Kansas isn’t the only state with tens of thousands of unpaved public county roads, he said, but he believes the quality and diversity of the topography of these roads makes for interesting, unexpected rides for first-time visitors.
I asked Dains how to get past the intimidation factor of hearing about uber-challenging gravel rides. While the epic rides get the publicity, he said, there are plenty of leisurely gravel rides to start with; choose a beginner route that has less mileage, fewer feet of climbing and less intense topography. Most bikes can be used on gravel, just talk to an expert about appropriate tires and ask for tips for handling loose gravel.
MeLinda Schnyder is a freelance journalist based in Wichita, Kansas, and has been a regular contributor to Kansas Country Living since 2017. She grew up in Columbia, Missouri, where her first grown-up bike was a used yellow Schwinn 10-speed that would now be considered vintage and cool.