The Road Less Ridden
The Road Less Ridden
A Resources Guide to Northland Gravel Riding
By Jeremy Kershaw , Founder Heck of the North Productions
Photo ©Clint Austin
Gravel road cycling has become a significant part of my life over the last decade. There are times, especially when describing it to non-cyclists at work, or maybe cyclists who have yet to discover it, when it sounds like a lesson in suffering or making something already challenging even more so. But then, without fail, the reasons why I do this type of riding return. I find myself on some country road churning away the miles. My mind busy working out new ideas and plans. It is one of my most creative times. Few cars, if any, pass me. Only the sounds of crunching dirt and gravel under my tires. And the sense of nature as I travel through woods, pastures, farmland and fields. This is why I ride unpaved roads.
Today, the popularity of gravel cycling has helped to shape an entire niche sector of riding. New gravel-specific bikes, tires and parts, mapping apps, gear for multi-hour trips, and events have been born from our growing love of off-pavement cycling. At the heart of cycling, and I think particularly gravel cycling, is the simple pleasure of exploring new territory. That is what people all over the world are rediscovering.
The region between Duluth and Grand Marais, including Two Harbors and Ely, are linked with a beautiful network of gravel and dirt roads. When I first started exploring, I relied on paper county maps to help find the best routes. This proved to be kind of old school and often, not very efficient (and I LOVE maps). Over time, I have found that a combination of riding, map reading, driving, and asking local experts is the ultimate way to discover off pavement roads and new adventures.
Photo ©Tone Coughlin
The shoulder seasons are a particularly good time to try gravel cycling. Our amazing local singletrack trails may be out of commission from time-to-time due to weather, but the unpaved roads are always there for you. I have found that cool weather riding is not that much different than summer riding - it just takes a couple more layers and some good shoe covers. Late fall is a great time of the year to discover gravel cycling for yourself.
For those of you who have not tried gravel cycling, here are a few basics that will get you ready for your ride.
One of the best first steps you can do is go out with someone that knows a local route or two. Most bike shops also have at least one group ride that focuses specifically on gravel roads. Another option is to try an app like Gravelmap.com to help find unpaved roads. It is a good place to jump-start a potential route. Eventually, you might enjoy talking to your local county and state forestry departments. Personally, I have met many helpful and friendly people in this line of work who know these roads really well. It also helps these agencies to realize that cyclists are a great group of people that enjoy their local, wild spaces. Lastly, while you are driving home from that camping trip or outing with your family, take the extra minute to explore that dirt road you have always been curious about. You might just find it makes a great place to ride!
Around Duluth, some of my favorite gravel road stretches include Fox Farm Road, the Rossini Road and the East Beyer-Wahl-East Lakewood Junction jog. This is where I started to see the potential of gravel road cycling in the Duluth area: pastoral, woodsy and remote feeling. And they are only a few miles out of Duluth. We are lucky to have this so close.
Two Harbors Gravel
In Two Harbors, look for the Drummond Grade and East Alger Grade to get your adventure started. This is the heart of the Heck of the North country. I have ridden these roads countless times and they still feel Alaska-wild to me.
A great in-between (Two Harbors and Grand Marais) stopping place is the Trestle Inn just north of Finland, MN. If you are looking for authentic saloon atmosphere with great burgers and beer, this is a must stop. It is right in the middle of a network of scenic backroads waiting to be ridden.
Photo ©Jeremy Kershaw
And if you make it up toward Grand Marais, get ready for some beautiful and hilly riding. The Lindskog Rd - Co. Rd. 60 - Co. Rd. 14 combo leads to many great gravel miles. The town of Grand Marais feels more like Maine than Minnesota as it sits right on the edge of Lake Superior. Truly one of my favorite villages in the USA, you won’t be disappointed by the backcountry roads surrounding this town.
Do I need a special bike or gear to ride gravel? The short answer is, “No!” I have seen just about every form of bicycle ridden on gravel. But the long answer is this: make sure that whatever you are riding is set up to be comfortable. Gravel cycling is just more work than riding pavement. And taken more seriously, at some point it does necessitate unique gear and technique that will dramatically increase your enjoyment while ticking off long miles.
To begin, go with fatter tires. I start at a 35mm width and go up to a 40mm for most gravel riding. I know riders who prefer even wider. The increase in width and the subsequent decrease in tire air pressure will add shock absorption (read comfort) to any bike. Or, more simply, go with as wide a tire as your current bike can fit.
Another very important aspect is a “good” fit on your bike. There are many specific variations to this theme, but the take home point is to get comfortable on your bike! I believe that overall comfort while riding is the BIGGEST thing that a rider can do to improve their cycling experience. There are professional bike fitters as well as knowledgeable folks at every local bike shop willing to advise on a decent fit. I can’t stress this enough! Comfort is KING! (or Queen!)
Bike Design Considerations
At some point, you will discover that you prefer a certain style of bike for riding gravel. For many, the best design looks like a modified road bike. It places the rider in an efficient, all-day- comfortable position. Its geometry aids in handling sometimes squirrely, loose gravel and descending situations. It can accomodate wide tires and even has room for fenders (wet, gritty, gravel spray is not fun to eat or sit on all day!) And often, the bike can easily transition between paved, gravel and mellow dirt trail riding. What is old is new again in bike design. And bicycle manufacturers are paying attention.
Lastly, the trend for many gravel races or events is to ride longer distances. This necessitates having bags to place extra food, clothing and stuff (camera, notebook, maps). There has been a boom of craft bike-bag builders (around the USA) and a great local example is Cedaero out of Two Harbors. Regardless if you go custom-made or thrown together, consider how it rides on the bike or your body. Again, comfort is paramount. Make sure it stays put, rides comfortably, and has relatively easy access.
Photo ©Jeremy Kershaw
So, you have made the jump to gravel cycling. And you are wanting more! Your backyard has all of a sudden become a place you would like to explore for more than just one day. Consider the off-pavement form of touring called “bikepacking.” Really, it is nothing dramatically different than the traditional form of overnight, multi-day bike tripping. But, instead of using metal racks and panniers, specially designed frame, saddle and handlebar bags are used on your gravel, mountain or hybrid bike. These “new” style of bags handle rough road riding with more grace than traditional bags. They fit neatly within the spaces between the bike’s frame or tightly under the saddle.
There are several beautiful routes connecting the towns of Two Harbors, Ely and Grand Marais on the North Shore. We use some of these for our two day bikepacking race, The Heck Epic. But as always, you can take your two favorite long routes (or more) and tie them together into a simple overnighter. Though we are coming into the colder part of the year, there is still time to get creative and enjoy some nights in the tent.
The Northland is filled with exceptional unpaved roadways, double track forest roads, and multi-use trails. Get out there and ride the road less ridden!
Riding Gravel.com: If you are looking for cool events to try in the region, a great starting point is RidingGravel.com. They offer information about events, news and reviews, podcasts and forums. And, it is managed by some very knowledgeable contributors.
Your local bike shop: All local shops offer ideas about group rides, bikes, and gear.
Continental Ski & Bike in Duluth
Fireweed Bike Coop in Grand Marais
The Ski Hut in Duluth
Twin Ports Cyclery in Duluth
Sawtooth Outfitters in Tofte
Spokengear Cyclery in Two Harbors
Stewart's Bikes in Duluth
Check out a Heck of the North Productions event: We offer 20, 50, and 100 mile distances at Le Grand du Nord in Grand Marais (May 25, 2019) and The Heck of the North (September 28, 2019.) We also offer a two day bikepacking race, The Heck Epic (July 20-21, 2019.) https://www.heckofthenorth.com
Multi-Use Trails, Fireroads