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Local Cyclists Rally to Save Gravel Roads

Local Cyclists Rally to Save Gravel Roads

Written by Shayda Windle | Photos by Shannon Ayres

The gravel roads that wind their way through Loudoun and Fauquier counties are an incredible treasure and are becoming an increasing attraction to the Middleburg area as a venue for tourism and sport. Traditional farming and equestrian communities have cherished these roads for decades, enjoying the buffer provided by a slower pace and softer footing for four-legged friends as well as transit paths for hunts. But under the seemingly relentless spread of residential and business development, these rural roads are under threat. 

Fortunately, gravel road warriors are gaining an important ally in the preservation battle: gravel cyclists. Cyclists have discovered the benefits of quiet lanes and bucolic countryside. Using more robust bikes and wider tires, these riders are enjoying roads less traveled, away from busy paved byways and safe from the noise and the hazards of speeding cars and distracted drivers. On weekends, one is likely to encounter more cyclists than cars on the wide network of gravel roads that stretch across Hunt Country. One popular blogger of the sport even ranked the Loudoun and Fauquier region as a top location for gravel riding from a list of 20 across the United States. 

A group of VeloPigs riders.
Left: The sign outside Plum Grove Cyclery in Leesburg. Right: Kasey Clark.

With popularity comes a need for preservation, and cycling clubs are joining the fight to preserve and maintain these historic pathways. One active group is the VeloPigs Beer and Bicycle Social Club. Formed by Middleburg resident and avid cyclist Kasey Clark, VeloPigs’ motto is “do good and be kind.” Eight years and almost 1,000 active members later, VeloPigs now draws 60 to 80 riders a week every Saturday starting at Mike Dickerson’s Plum Grove Cyclery in downtown Leesburg. 

Another group is Rapha Cycling Club, based out of D.C. and formed by Upperville resident Peter Dattels after he moved to the area and fell in love with the region. As a ride leader for Rapha, Dattels “enjoys bringing people into the sport and sharing experience on two wheels.” An experienced rider, Dattels has ridden in Granfondos and Haute Route events, including in the Pyrenees, Asheville, and Mexico. He was drawn to cycling because of the “spirit of adventure and community that has been the backbone of these events.” After moving to Upperville, he quickly learned that cyclists often meet equestrians on the road, and the “rules of the road” in Hunt Country are different. In Hunt Country, you “slow down to ask the horse rider how to pass safely, but the way you do so is always different depending on the horse’s temperament and the rider’s experience,” Dattels shares. He underscores to fellow riders that equestrians have the right of way.

Gravel roads may not allow drivers to move at speed, but it is for that reason that cycling on historic roads is more enjoyable for the rider. Bluemont Connection, organized by Chris Tank, also leads rides in the area, as does Haymarket Cycles, owned and operated by Jared Nieters. Nieters’ route takes riders through The Plains, a popular stopping point for the cake and coffee at Doppio Bunny. 

Rain doesn’t stop these cyclists from getting out on a weekend ride.

Playing an active role in preservation, Clark has participated in numerous fundraisers to help raise money to support America’s Routes. The local nonprofit works to counter the widely held tenet that paving equals progress, create appreciation for their history and beauty, develop practical methods to improve them, and cultivate the political backing to protect them. In 2020, Clark rode a 250-mile gravel course to raise funds for America’s Routes. Clark also completed all three courses during the fifth annual 1725 Gravel Grinder, totaling 182 miles of gravel last year in just 24 hours. He has no plans to stop and continues raising money to help preserve America’s Routes. 

“One way we can safeguard these historic roads is by raising awareness and getting people out to enjoy the roads, which is a large part of what we do,” emphasizes America’s Routes member Jane Covington. She continues, “The stories they tell are worth preserving, which date back to the Civil War and are an essential piece of history that can easily be erased if someone does not advocate for them.”

America’s Routes also works with partner organizations to increase the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) care for the gravel roads, and Clark has led efforts with the team at VeloPigs by adopting two roads in 2020, Old Waterford and Beaver Dam Road, which are some of the most well-traveled gravel roads in the county. At the time, Clark wanted to ensure there was a community service aspect to his cycling group, but given its importance, the effort has now become an advocacy initiative. Twice a year, Gregg Hyde of VeloPigs hosts a roadside cleanup where about 20 to 30 members join and help clean the roads. They then report the details of their cleanup to VDOT. “We want to help keep our gravel roadsides clean and attractive for years. We work hard to significantly expand and improve infrastructure that facilitates safe and convenient gravel riding for riders of all ages and abilities,” Clark shares. “More importantly, though, we want to be stewards of the road and ensure that it is taken care of and shared the right way.”

VeloPigs and Plum Grove teamed up to adopt and maintain one of their favorite routes.

Other organizations have tapped into the popularity of gravel cycling as a fundraiser for preservation. For example, the Bike the Gravel tour in Middleburg, sponsored by the Land Trust of Virginia, is a scenic ride on gravel roads through gorgeous properties in Loudoun and Fauquier counties that are all in conservation easement and only viewable on one day. All proceeds of this ride go to the Land Trust of Virginia. And, as riders believe, if you save the land, you save the gravel.

Many riders have become fixtures locally. Whether it’s to stop in Middleburg, where cyclists are often seen at Common Grounds, Salamander, and the Oyster Bar; visiting a brewery or winery (Slater Run a popular spot for Rapha rides); or eating lunch at Bluewater Kitchen or Hunter’s Head in Upperville, investment in preserving gravel roads connects them to the historic and scenic areas through which they ride. ML

Published in the April 2024 issue of Middleburg Life.

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