Gravel Riding: The Best of Both Worlds

A new PEC report explores possibilities for gravel riding in the Commonwealth

Gravel (sometimes referred to as “mixed-surface”) riding is a form of cycling that mainly utilizes gravel and dirt roads, but also incorporates paved road connections, rail trails, singletrack and doubletrack to form routes. Gravel riding is currently one of the fastest growing forms of cycling, and for good reason.

Why gravel?

Unlike mountain biking or rail-trail riding, gravel riding is not confined to a certain trail or system, yet is safer and immerses users in nature more than road cycling. Routes can start anywhere, be any distance, and often take riders through scenic forests, farmland, and small towns — sometimes all in the same ride. 

Gravel riding is exploratory. It offers more adventure and challenge than sticking to a rail trail, yet it isn’t as intimidating or technically challenging as mountain biking. There are many different ways to enjoy gravel, from a casual half-hour ride after work or weekend ramble with friends, to races and extreme endurance challenges on long-distance routes, to overnight trips and bikepacking. In some places, you can ride from your back door, heading out of town and into more remote areas and then back again. 

Photo credit: Helena Kotala

Gravel riding is also accessible from an equipment standpoint. Gravel bikes have wider, knobbier tires than road bikes, but tend to be more efficient on pavement than mountain bikes, making them a good all-around option for commuting and everyday use. They are meant to handle a variety of different surfaces with ease and are often set up with all-day comfort and versatility in mind. But while bikes specifically designed for gravel will provide the best experience, it’s not necessary to invest in a new set of wheels. A hybrid or a hardtail mountain bike will also do just fine, especially for someone just getting started in the sport.  

Events tend to be focused on camaraderie more than competition, and the gravel cycling community is known for being inclusive, fun, and not-too-serious. Races and supported rides usually have good food at aid stations, after-ride celebrations and weekend-long festivities that are just as important as the ride itself. These events are a way for the community to get together for a shared passion and experience. In Pennsylvania, there are over 30 organized gravel events around the state each year. 

Gravel cycling is a great way to explore an area at a speed that is fast enough to cover a lot of ground but slow enough to enjoy.

Gravel cycling is a great way to explore an area, get to know communities, and experience the world at a speed that is fast enough to cover a lot of ground but slow enough to enjoy. With over 25,000 miles of gravel roads, as well as countless more miles of rail trail, snowmobile trails, and mellow singletrack, Pennsylvania is great for this type of riding. 

Riding PA gravel

Here at PEC, we recognize the important role that gravel riding plays in the outdoor recreation economy and public land stewardship. Outside of events, cyclists travel to ride on their own throughout the year. Some of the best routes are in remote areas near rural communities that could use an economic boost. When cyclists visit somewhere, they don’t just leave as soon as they are done with their ride. They notoriously like to grab a bite and a beer and soak in the local flavor.

Most gravel routes also travel through public lands such as state parks and forests, and the immersive experience of being on a bike moving through these places can create a feeling of connection that, in turn, encourages stewardship. Getting people onto bikes and into these landscapes therefore helps to build networks of stewards and environmental advocates.

Photo credit: Helena Kotala

But with the growth of the sport comes the need to make sure that growth is sustainable and responsible: for the parks and forests through which popular routes travel, for the rural communities along the way, and for the riders themselves. To these ends, PEC hosted its first Gravel Summit this past April, bringing together a select group of riders, event promoters, land managers, route creators, tourism bureaus, and advocates to discuss any existing or potential issues that may arise from the growth of gravel cycling in Pennsylvania, as well as identify needs to be addressed and opportunities on which to capitalize. The intention of the Summit was not to make any decisions or solve any problems right away, but to broaden everyone’s understanding of the state of gravel in PA and the perspectives of the various stakeholders. It also was to lay the groundwork for future conversations and work. With this in mind, PEC intends to host a larger Summit in 2023 to bring together even more stakeholders and continue the conversation. 

Getting people onto bikes and into public lands helps to build networks of stewards and environmental advocates.

Some of the most pressing needs identified at the Summit include creating better resources for riders to find high-quality, vetted routes and information; improving coordination between land managers and riders, event promoters, and gravel advocates; and leveraging gravel riding to improve the economies of towns that are positioned to take advantage of the 25,000+ miles of gravel roads in Pennsylvania. PEC also recommends doing more research to improve our understanding of the economic impact of gravel, as well as exploring ways to use gravel as connections between multi-use trails, leveraging the impact of more well-connected systems.

Learn more

Aside from convening, our work on this topic has also included research on gravel cycling trends from across the country. Prior to the 2022 Gravel Summit, PEC commissioned Amy Camp of Cycle Forward to interview experts from a variety of sectors in the gravel scene both within Pennsylvania and nationally. That research led to a report, compiled in conjunction with PEC staff, detailing her findings and providing insight into the current state of gravel cycling, as well as some of the potential barriers and opportunities for increased growth of the sport in Pennsylvania. The report, titled Gravel: Another Great Cycling Option in Pennsylvania, is available to view and download here. Outcomes of the Gravel Summit are explained in the subsequent Gravel Recommendations Report, which was released at the end of summer 2022. That report is available to view and download here.

Save the Date for the 2023 Public Lands Ride

The Public Lands Ride is a non-competitive supported gravel ride that will take place at Black Moshannon State Park on Saturday, September 30, 2023. Route options of 22, 45, and 62 miles will take riders along hemlock-lined streams, up and down rolling climbs and descents, and past open plateau views in Moshannon State Forest. We’ll have aid stations every ~15 miles and will provide a light breakfast and post-ride meal. The park has camping, a lake with a beach and boat rentals, and plenty of hiking trails to enjoy in addition to great gravel riding. Registration will open on BikeReg in early spring. Stay up to date by following us on Instagram @publiclandsride. 

Explore our Public Lands Ride routes!

The cancellation of the in-person Public Lands Ride in 2020 due to COVID opened up a new opportunity – sharing a variety of routes from different areas in the state. The routes were so popular that we continued to release more of them in 2021 in addition to bringing back the in-person event, and we’ll keep releasing more! 

Each of the Public Lands Ride routes begin and end at a state park that offers camping in order to provide the opportunity for easy weekend trips, and we encourage riders to check out what else these parks have to offer while they are there. The routes as designed are 40-65 miles in length, but there are always ways to shorten or lengthen them depending on what experience you’re looking for. Links to the routes and their maps and descriptions can all be found here

Feel free to reach out to Helena Kotala at [email protected] with any questions or comments about gravel riding in Pennsylvania or the Public Lands Ride event or routes.