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The world of gravel cycling is exploding. More and more people are venturing beyond the tarmac in search of quieter, safer roads, exploring the world around them in the process. But if you’ve never ridden gravel before, it can be hard to find the perfect trails and roads to explore this burgeoning discipline of the sport.
Enter our Recommended Routes series. In partnership with Continental, we’ve pulled together a bunch of the best gravel cycling routes around the USA. Stay posted for future episodes in the weeks and months to come. And head to Trailforks to see the routes themselves.
Photos and words by Brett Rothmeyer
Located 85 miles (137 km) southwest of Pittsburgh is Pennsylvania’s tallest peak, Mt. Davis. The unassuming berg sits at a mere 3,213 feet (980 metres) amidst the dense Forbes State Forest. With the Appalachian Mountains formed over 480 million years ago, these hills once rivaled the peaks of the Alps and Rockies. But time has taken its toll. What remains is a vast rolling landscape of farmland and lush forest that resembles the prestigious cycling arena of the Ardennes. Perhaps most importantly for cyclists, the area also houses a network of forest and farm roads devoid of the traffic of the nearby suburbs and cities.
When the cycling bug first bit me in my early 20s I did what most bike-obsessed newbs do: I gobbled up everything I could in the world of bikes. From magazines to sitting down and watching the races early on spring mornings before heading out for rides, I was all-consumed. During one particular morning, my grandfather and I were watching Liège-Bastogne-Liège. “Is this in Belgium?” he asked. I confirmed that it was. “I was there, in that town during the war; it looks like here, well, more like where the ski resorts are.”
For almost 20 years now, along with friends, we have been exploring the roads of the Laurel Highlands. The steep climbs and gravel passages weave their way up and over the ridge, ripping-fast descents plunging back into the valleys. Influenced by the first images of European racing that we witnessed, we would seek out long climbs channeling our inner Paolo Bettini or Phillipe Gilbert (feel free to choose your own Ardennes classic hero.) Knowing that Mt. Davis was the highest point in the state, we scaled the roads up to its “peak,” but not until recently had we taken the unpaved route to its summit.
A few years ago, Dan Manges, a local cyclist and race promoter, created The Quick and the Dead route and race. The counterpart to the Mt. Davis Road Race, Quick and the Dead takes place on a predominantly gravel course. I had heard the chatter about the 54-mile (87 km) route and the over 6,000 feet (1,830 m) of climbing it delivered, so it was high time to check it out.
The route begins in Addison, PA, just off of Route 40, and wastes no time getting into the good stuff. A paved descent transitions to the first proper gravel section and elevation gain. The ride begins with a prologue loop before heading out because The Quick and the Dead is a racecourse by design.
If Manges was trying to deliver a hidden message via the prologue about what was in store for the remainder of the route, job well done. Riders are immediately on steep, loose climbs and descents, as well as beautiful rolling farm roads. The scenery of plowed fields, dilapidated barns, and a church that likely dates back 100 years is a delightful appetizer.
As the route properly begins it doesn’t take long for things to get spicy. Rolling gravel lanes lead into the first hefty challenge and abnormally steep stretch of pavement that transitions into a jeep trail. I was relieved not to be racing but merely out for an afternoon ride amongst friends on the climb.
Crossing a paved road onto an access trail for work vehicles, a view of the surrounding ridgeline and windmills revealed itself. What little respite we found ended with a quick steep pitch on what could be best described as a dried-out creek bed. We rolled along the ridgeline among the wind farm, next to a vineyard and up more rough jeep trail.
The heart of this route takes place in the Forbes State Forest and its gravel roads. The woods are thick with ferns, hemlocks, and oak trees, shading the deep valleys. As the rattle of rocks under the tires quiets on the climbs, you can hear the forest alive with birds and the babble of the creek. Whatever sweat equity it takes to get to this portion of the ride is repaid in full with serene surroundings.
Circumnavigating the peak of Mt. Davis, we arrive at the payoff, the fire tower. Perhaps a bit rickety in its old age and maybe not the easiest to go up or down in cycling shoes, but it is a goldmine of views. From its deck, you will be the highest person in the state of Pennsylvania, geographically speaking, of course.
The Quick and the Dead Route is undoubtedly front-heavy with the climbing. Once you have reached the fire tower, it may feel like you are dragging on the pace but not to worry – a series of smoking descents get everything right back on track. Something to note and especially in the summer months is there are no stops out on course. Be sure to pack plenty of water or bring a filter device for the streams; even if you’re hammering, you’ll be out for four hours.
While the overall distance of this route is nothing to fear, its steep loose pitches are most certainly something to respect. After two outings on this route, I would 100% do it again. The lack of cars, beautiful surroundings, and terrain challenges make it a must-do for me. Bring a friend; heck, bring a bunch, and most certainly bring plenty of snacks and water.
What you need to know
Pennsylvania has it all from snow and sub-freezing temperatures in the winter to oppressive summers. The fall is easily the best time of the year for riding here. Temperatures average between 50-70 ºF (10-21 ºC) in October when the humidity of the summer fades.
Deer, bears, coyote, and owls are just a few of the animals you may encounter out riding here. For birders, the Forbes State Forest is chock full of dozens of varieties.
In the immediate area bike shops are a bit of a scarcity, but in nearby towns like Ohiopyle and Connellsville you will find Wilderness Voyagers and Bikes Unlimited.
For the loose gravel roads a tire no narrower than 38 mm would be ideal. The Continental Terra Speed at 40 mm handled everything perfectly. For the hotter months and longer forays into the forest, a water filter is highly recommended.
If you have never been to the area before, checking out the work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright at Falling Water and Kentuck Knob is a fine way to spend a recovery day. There is also some primo hiking and white water in the area.