A big trend in the bike industry is designing bikes especially capable of flying up and down roads made of any surface – not just asphalt. Among other features, these rides are more ruggedly designed, incorporate slightly slacker angles for better straight-line handling and comfort, add more gear-packing options, and provide options for a wide variety of wheels and tires widths. A 40 mm wide tire is optimal for our local gravel.
In our Hoosier landscape, these bikes open up to you thousands of miles of quiet rural gravel roads and hundreds of miles of forest roads in the area of Brown County and the Hoosier National Forest. Add-in country doubletrack lanes, chip ‘n seal roads, canal paths, logging roads, and non-technical mountain and multi-use trails, and your possibilities for experiencing our State on a well-built gravel or all-road bike are endless.
This past weekend, I experienced the benefit of this sort of bike and ride. I was able to take my beloved Salsa Warbird gravel bike from near Story, Indiana, and take to the road south on highway State Road 135. I planned a long and meandering ride in sunny, warm and windy conditions and wanted to get in some hills. Facing unexpectedly strong southerly winds, I soon opted to leave the asphalt valley and ride west up a set of gravel roads into the protection of the Hoosier National Forest. I rode quietly along swollen creeks, small farms and pastures, and then up into thick hardwood forest. It was great — only the crunch of my tires on the hard-packed gravel. I don’t think I saw a car all day on the gravel. At one point, a father and son in a 4-wheeler ATV came motoring slowly by me on a steep and long hill (even they were having trouble) and offered me a tow.
Deep into the forest, I sampled the Nebo Ridge mountain bike trail where it parallels the forest road for about a mile. The bike was light, tough, and fun on this bit of trail — and then I got back onto the gravel road. About this time, I saw another unknown gravel road shoot off to the right. I couldn’t resist taking it. It was gorgeous – generally downhill, following the flow of a creek as it gradually transitioned from hardwood forest, through an unusual and large tract of tall pines, and then into a set of small farms and weekend houses before spilling back onto asphalt down one final hill into what I quickly recognized as the town of Houston (pronounced How’sten).
It was a great day of solo riding and I was stoked for more. From Houston I meandered further south out of town on roads I’d ridden a time or two before. I ascended a long and steep road (known by cyclists as Mt. Baldy) back into the Hoosier National Forest up onto a high ridge with a solo blinking cell phone tower. I turned onto a narrow gravel road that took me rolling a number of miles along the top of the ridge to the lonely hamlet of Gorbetts and its church and cemetery. I then enjoyed a rollicking three mile descent on a new (to me) chip ‘n seal road into the small town of Freetown back on State Road 135. Here I slowed to tour the struggling 170 year-old town and found its busy little general store and gas station. I stopped and consumed a variety of junk calories and watched silently as a surprising number of others did the same as they came and went.
Only half by design, I was now at the southern most point of my route. I set sail home north on the two-lane SR 135 with the wind at my back. Indeed, I flew over the next thirteen miles to Story. I probably had only a dozen or so cars pass me on this stretch, but it seemed twelve too many. There was plenty of road for all of us, but frankly I missed the solitude of the gravel roads and forested hills rising gently off my left. Back to Story, I rode the final four miles on backroads to my finishing point, where our old basset hound welcomed me with his resounding and deep howl.