If you’ve been following the PEC blog this year, you’ve surely heard us start to talk a lot about “gravel riding.” 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 as it is versatile, approachable, and offers a middle ground between road or rail-trail riding and mountain biking. Learn more about what gravel riding entails and its appeal here.
As the sport continues to gain popularity, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council recognizes the need for cooperation between riders, event promoters, tourism bureaus, land management agencies, and others involved in order to provide the best possible experience for cyclists and support the responsible continued growth of gravel riding. There is a lot happening across the state – over two dozen annual events, various entities promoting routes, group rides, and riders gathering and traveling to ride on their own – but there is no go-to resource for information and no coordinated effort to align the interests and goals of the involved groups.
To start the conversation, PEC convened about 30 stakeholders on April 28, 2022 for a Gravel Summit. In attendance were riders, event planners and promoters, tourism bureaus, bike industry representatives, business owners, and public land management agencies such as DCNR Forestry and State Parks, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, and Allegheny National Forest.
The Summit began with presentations offering different perspectives on gravel riding. I kicked things off by providing an example of an avid rider’s view on what gravel riding means – connecting a variety of surfaces but centered around low-volume gravel and dirt roads; traveling through forests, farmlands, and small communities; attending laid-back events and riding with friends; and finding freedom and empowerment in exploring by bike.
There is a lot happening across the state… but there is no go-to resource for [gravel riding] information and no coordinated effort to align the interests and goals of the involved groups.
A representative from State College-based company Stans NoTubes gave an overview of trends in the sport from the industry’s perspective and how the growth of gravel riding has shaped product design. The creator of the 550-mile TransVA bikepacking route provided background on the route development process and key partnerships. The director of the Endless Mountains Heritage Region updated us on the creation and promotion of the Endless Mountains Gravel Bikepacking Loop, a 400-mile loop through Bradford, Sullivan, Susquehanna and Wyoming counties, as well as a series of shorter day ride loops the organization is hoping to market in the near future. Promoters of unPAved, which brings over 1,000 riders to Lewisburg every fall, talked about the event, its growth and economic impact. Finally, DCNR state forester Jason Albright provided his observations on the growth of gravel riding from a land manager’s perspective.
After the presentations, we had small breakout groups discuss potential challenges and opportunities associated with the growth of gravel riding, which were then distilled into themes on flip charts. Over lunch, participants “voted” via a stickering exercise on what issues they deemed most important. The afternoon discussion brought the entire group together to further drill down on prioritizing challenges and opportunities, as well as identifying aspirations for the gravel riding climate in PA.
Following the Summit, we worked with Amy Camp at Cycle Forward to craft five different recommendations to enhance gravel resources and support the sustainable growth of the sport in Pennsylvania. These recommendations were based on the priorities emerging from the Summit discussion as well as observations from PEC’s own research on gravel trends.
Gravel riding is currently one of the fastest growing forms of cycling as it is versatile, approachable, and offers a middle ground between road or rail-trail riding and mountain biking.
All of these recommendations are simply a starting point and goals to aim for, and will require further discussion, coordination between stakeholders, and thought and planning on how to achieve them.
1. Conduct gravel-specific research to improve understanding of the gravel demographics and economic impact.
When we were putting together the report titled GRAVEL: Another Great Cycling Option in Pennsylvania, it became clear that there is not much existing information about the demographics of gravel riders and economic impact of the sport. The growth of gravel riding is widely recognized, but its significance has yet to be quantified much beyond anecdotal evidence. Better understanding and concretely quantifying its impact would potentially leverage more support and funding for improvement of gravel riding resources and quality user experiences, as well as encourage community and agency buy-in.
2. Establish statewide coordination that improves communications between land managers, route planners, the riding public, and other stakeholders, resulting in increases in responsible gravel cycling on public lands.
One of the most pressing challenges and concerns that came out of the Gravel Summit discussion this past spring was educating riders, route planners, and event promoters of best practices for recreating on public lands. With so many different types of public lands – state parks, state forests, state game lands, local parks and forests, the Allegheny National Forest and other federal property – it can be hard to keep track of regulations and etiquette for each. For instance, being aware of hunting seasons is important when recreating on most public lands, but especially game lands.
Coordination between all these entities can also help mitigate some of the potential issues that could arise from overuse in certain areas. While the beauty of gravel roads is that they are resilient to high traffic from bicycles, the most convenient parking lots in popular riding areas may experience overcrowding in peak seasons, or state parks that may serve as jumping-off points for routes may not be equipped to handle increased traffic. If route planners worked with land managers to encourage riders to use starting points that have the amenities and infrastructure to handle more use, it helps foster responsible recreation and resource allocation.
3. Create a statewide resource for gravel riders that recommends vetted routes that support high-quality experiences, responsible land use, and the outdoor recreation economy.
Once coordination has been established, the next step is to communicate information to riders, both locals and tourists. Currently, there is no one resource that aggregates all the best gravel routes in Pennsylvania or provides any guidance as to how to find the best places to ride or plan a loop. There are plenty of user-generated routes on apps like Strava and RideWithGPS, and there are localized efforts to provide routes, but there is value in combining the best of these resources into a one-stop-shop for all things gravel in PA.
This resource would vet the routes so that users would know they are up to a certain standard of quality and visitors would know they are in for a good experience. These routes would also provide further context and information beyond just the GPX track – riders would know where they may be able to fill up water, stop and use the restroom, visit a neat historic site, or grab a bite to eat in a small town afterwards.
Adding these details to a route also supports the outdoor recreation economy by encouraging riders to engage with the local communities through which routes travel or that are nearby. Most cyclists enjoy grabbing a coffee, beer, or hearty meal on either end (or in the middle of) their ride, and many would also travel from hours away and stay overnight to ride and explore an area.
This resource is also an opportunity to engage users in environmental stewardship. Traveling through places inspires one to care about them, and a call to action along with information about the logistics of a route can help leverage this appreciation.
4. Leverage the growth in gravel cycling to further support Pennsylvania’s investment in multi-use trails.
Many gravel routes include multi-use trails (rail-trails) when they are convenient to include, compelling or interesting, and keep people off busy roadways. Including rail-trails in routes and providing information on the trail groups operating and maintaining them is a way of building support for these resources.
Furthermore, gravel roads can be used to connect these multi-use paths where there aren’t off-road connection opportunities. Expanding the scope of connectivity to include gravel, dirt and low-volume roads can help leverage funding by providing more contiguous connections.
5. Position communities to flourish by taking part in the outdoor recreation economy.
Supporting local communities and economic development emerged as a priority during the Gravel Summit. As mentioned in Recommendation #3, gravel cyclists often travel and spend the weekend exploring new areas, or stop in town before, during, or after rides to eat, shop, and relax. Leveraging this potential tourism is an excellent opportunity, especially for small towns in remote regions of the state, where there are high concentrations of gravel roads and uninterrupted public lands.
Learn More: More details on potential action items for each of these recommendations and background on the Gravel Summit can be found in Gravel: Recommendations for Supporting the Growth of Gravel Riding in Pennsylvania.