Among cyclists, dirt riders have always distinguished themselves from “roadies,” those riders who prefer their pavements firm and smooth and their tires narrow, and who are more focused on speed than scenery. Among dirt riders, mountain bikers range from “boulder hoppers” and rough single-track riders, to those who prefer accumulating their miles on dirt roads as a way to enjoy the countryside. The dirt road riders prefer double-track or graded gravel routes to single track trails and proudly call themselves “gravel riders,” an emerging class riding a wave of popularity.
In its April 8, 2021 issue, cyclists’ magazine VELO NEWS hailed Patagonia as “the new Mecca” for gravel riders. Writer Betsy Welch believes this area “boasts some of the best gravel riding in the American Southwest. The roads wind through the stunning sky island ecosystem, and you can ride for days without repeating the same route.”
In the larger cycling community, praise for Southern Arizona has flowed for many years from road cyclists. Since at least 2000, they’ve praised Tucson as a “climbing cyclists’ Mecca,” and Mt. Lemmon as “the world’s crown jewel of road biking climbs.”
Patagonia pioneers of gravel riding are the entrepreneurial couple Heidi and Zander Ault, who brought the “Spirit World 100” event to Patagonia in November 2019. The race weekend was canceled in 2020 but is currently scheduled for November 4-7, 2021. For Spirit World riders, the Aults have identified three longer rides in the San Rafael Valley – 50, 80, and 100 miles.
Heidi Ault explained that pandemic induced desire for contact with nature has caused a surge in cycling-related tourism.
“As a result,” she says, “every weekend during the summer of 2020 we saw HUGE groups of cyclists from the city adventuring here to ride!”
Longtime local rider Tomas Jonsson brings up a downside, though.
“There is only one way out of town towards the San Raphael Valley, where the majority of unpaved roads are,” he said. “The first three miles out Harshaw Road, we share the road with everyone, including traffic up to the mine site. It’s a bit dangerous at times.”
The Aults have bought a house in Patagonia and converted its two buildings into an airbnb called Gravel House. They offer small “cycle camp” experiences, mixing hard riding, great eating and spectacular landscapes. The great eating part is due to Chef Zander’s inspired cooking, which he calls “food that speaks to the land,” locally sourced within 150 miles as much as possible.
Both individual riders and touring groups are increasingly finding Patagonia and its gravel and mountain-biking routes online, since most use GPS systems. One popular system, RideWithGPS, has a growing inventory of tour routes displayed on interactive maps, searchable by location. It’s a rider-built online community, with dozens of local routes ranging widely in length, elevation gain, and difficulty. Many of the new GPS apps allow you to both download routes you are interested in, and to make or record your own routes. While you ride, another app, PeakFinder, will identify the mountaintops your iphone camera looks at when you stop and wonder what you’re seeing.
Some locally identified routes are only a couple of hours, but others are long enough to be also on the radar of the “bikepacking” community, touring riders prepared to spend a night or more self-sufficiently on the road. On Bikepacking.com, three interesting long challenges are the overlapping Sky Islands Odyssey Loops: the East Loop(125 miles), West Loop (169 miles) and Full Loop (230 miles). Aside from necessary short highway stretches, all three are gravel routes going through Patagonia and San Rafael Valley.
Other shorter gravel routes can get riders to Lochiel, Canelo Pass, Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, and Greaterville. The Arizona Trail also makes extensive mapping available for mountain bike riders, although the Trail’s riders generally think of themselves as single-track enthusiasts rather than gravel riders. Near Patagonia, a popular local route that serves both types of riders is the Temporal Canyon Road.
Just as the sport is evolving, so is the machinery, with features like carbon forks, fat tires, front shocks, and drop bars. A new development is the e-bike, ideal for riders wanting a little boost to their own power in exploring gravel routes. Zander Ault feels “e-bikes are amazing and it’s opening the sport to a whole different demographic of riders,” since you don’t have to be a performance-oriented endurance athlete to gravel-ride on an e-bike. E-bikes aren’t permitted on identified non-motorized trails like the Arizona Trail.
And the language evolves along with the sport, as ntxtrails.com reports in its extensive glossary of Mountain Bike terms and slang. One popular term, “cyclopath,” defined as a person who enjoys or gains pleasure from cycling-induced pain and suffering, expresses something simultaneously heavy, light, and essential about the world view of the gravel riders being drawn to Patagonia’s gravel roads.