I went into Great Basin Bicycles to chat with Rich Staley asking what was hot in bikes for 2018. Gravel bikes were at the top of the list along with mountain hardtails and full suspension trail bikes. From other popularity reports I’ve gotten I think 2018 will be the year of the gravel bike.
While the discussion of what is a gravel bike might be lengthy, let it be a fat tired (28mm and wider) disc brake road bike. Obviously there are many ways to blur the lines with drop-bar mountain bikes, cyclocross bikes, flat-bar road bikes, and any good ol’ fashioned touring/commuting bike. By no means will I try to narrowly define the genre. In fact, quite the opposite, your gravel bike should suite the gravel roads you ride.
My riding partner, Brandon Anderson is keen on riding gravel but as the summer warms up we need to find cover that is otherwise not available in the desert. So far we have focused on the forest service roads north of I-80 between Bocca Reservoir and Antelope Lake and Independence Lake and Reno. This swath of terrain is rich in roads to explore between 4500 and 7500 feet in elevation, tree covered, but in northern California. Chances are good that if you ride gravel in northern Nevada your tires will cross the state lines from time to time.
Henness Pass Rd.
Out of Verdi, NV you cross the state line on Dog Valley Rd. which becomes Henness Pass Rd. This is by far the most popular gravel road ride out of Reno. This road has intrigued me from day one. A quick synopsis and history of the road can be found here. I have traced its length numerous times on Google Maps and firmly established it as a route to explore. I mapped out a route to Webber Lake and pitched it to Brandon. He gave it a thumbs up.
Most riders will turn off Henness Pass either at Long Valley Rd to go into Dog Valley, Stampede Dam Rd to ride along Stampede and Bocca Reservoirs, or Smithneck Rd to ride to Loyalton or Sierraville. These are all great rides and I recommend them.
Past Stampede Reservoir we came to Kyburz Flat which in its self is a worthy destination that I imagine is taken advantage of by the people of Truckee, CA. There is an interpretive trail there that is on my list of places to return. While this is easily accessible from Hwy 89 it was fun arriving on a dirt road through the Tahoe National Forest.
Crossing Hwy 89 and following Henness Pass Rd was a challenge. Depending on how you do your navigating you will find a distinct break in the road crossing the Little Truckee River. And yes, on the ground you can ride to the river’s edge but then you are forced onto Hwy 89 to Jackson Meadows Rd (Fibreboard Rd on USGS topo maps). You can rejoin Henness Pass Rd after crossing the Little Truckee on a good bridge.
We took a minute to assess our original route and Brandon was intrigued by exploring Independence Lake Rd. These mid-ride route changes are fantastic! The road through the forest to Independence Lake was rugged but completely rideable by gravel bikes. The destination is breathtaking. The Independence Lake Preserve managed by the Nature Conservancy is a wonderful destination to explore and you can arrive by bike!
I have made several road rides to Frenchman Lake from Sierra Valley off Hwy 70 and even from Reno riding up US 395. But I hadn’t ridden any of the gravel roads in the area. From Highway 70, Frenchman Lake Road follows Little Last Chance Creek as it flows through Little Last Chance Canyon to Sierra Valley. The creek and canyon make for spectacular road riding but I was curious about the dirt roads to the east and west.
I picked the nearest road to the east that climbed into the Diamond Mountains of the Plumas National Forest. The roads were posted for California Hunting zones but otherwise all was very quiet. Snow Lake Rd proved to be very sandy the first 4 miles to the extent I would recommend this start for gravel bikes with 40mm+ tires. Otherwise 4 miles up the road is FS road 24N 44 which will tie back into Snow Lake Rd. We made some convoluted loops to explore wonderful quality dirt roads that eventually dropped us down to Frenchman Lake.
We made our way counter-clockwise around the lake and considered a side trip to Dixie Mountain. But after a quick assessment of how our legs were feeling we decided best not to push our luck nor abilities. We kept it enjoyable with a fun descent back to Snow Lake Road via Little Last Chance Cyn. We were quite surprised by the development along Carmen and Mule Ear Roads. To the east there appears to be roads that tie into Costantia Rd and Doyle Grade for future rides.
Lake Davis to Antelope Lake
This is one of Paco’s favorite spring and fall rides! It’s a ways of a drive from Truckee, but the benefit is a ride through beautiful rolling terrain where you’ll see hardly any cars along the way. Of course, Paco likes to extend this 60 mile ride into a hundred miler by heading down to Genessee and back, but you have the option of simply circling Antelope Lake before heading back to Beckwourth. – ANTELOPE LAKE LOOP ROAD RIDE MapMyRide
This route follows some of the Lost and Found, as well as a ride I did a few years back. The roads were in excellent condition between Lake Davis and the paved Indian Creek Rd. The climb to Antelope Lake was through gorgeous alpine scenery. The return to Lake Davis was on quality dirt roads. At one point I realized we could cross Dixie Valley from where we were and connect to some of the roads we rode near Frenchman Lake. The center of this loop is filed with major and minor roads to explore as well.
Alternate Routes to Loyalton, Sierra Valley
One of the the most popular gravel rides out of Reno is to take Henness Pass Rd to Stampede Reservoir then turn north on Smithneck Rd. Loyalton is at the top of Smithneck Rd. Most local gravel riders I have talked to are familiar with if not regulars on this ride. Once in Sierra Valley the ride possibilities grow from flat loops on low traffic roads, climbing into the Lakes Basin, Frenchman Lake, and Lake Davis. I was interested in finding an alternate route to Loyalton.
Following lines on maps, from Google Maps, USGS topo maps, to Forest Service maps it looked like I could ride through Dog Valley on Long Valley Rd to Forest Service Route 31003. I had passed this turn off several times in the last year with a mental note to see where this goes.
This road appeared to tie into Balls Canyon Rd which passes several canyons before dipping into Dark Canyon. From Dark Canyon the road climbs to Staverville Rd which descends into Loyalton. Easy! Sort of. FS 31003 was surprisingly wet and the water attracts butterflies that fly around like little jewels when disturbed. The roads became very faint at times and in Dark Canyon there was a short break in the road continuity. This is apparent in the paper maps but not so on Google Maps and navigating by Garmin. It was a bit of a hike out of Dark Canyon but the ride into Loyalton was a victory. I looped back to Reno via the “trade route”. I am not giving this route full endorsement as a gravel ride.
Back to the maps to find an alternate route. Having traveled Smithneck Rd around the west side of Sardine Valley I considered the road on the east side then tie into Badenaugh Canyon Rd. From there I envisioned following Bear Valley Rd to the intersection of Lemon Valley and Cottonwood Roads which could be followed back to Henness Pass Rd. Sounds great!
I hadn’t paid close attention to the Sagan Fondo event just weeks before but Badenaugh Canyon was the infamous “Boneyard”.
Badenough Canyon Road is the big dragon to slay on the Sagando long route. The total climb is about five miles and 1,500 vertical feet. Although not steep until the last quarter-mile, the first two miles of Badenough are quite rocky. This section is knowns as “The Boneyard” and will keep things interesting. Those on mountain bikes will motor through The Boneyard, while skinnier tires will get bumped around a lot more. The Boneyard will be tough going, but the views are incredible, and know that eventually the road smooths out, so just power through it. –Sagan Fondo
Our route selection was reverse of the Sagando and the descent was beautiful but kidney-jarring. We decided to postpone the Bear Valley-Lemon Valley loop to a cooler day. The Badenaugh Canyon route although rough at times is a fine alternative to Smithneck Rd.
I have two dedicated gravel bikes. My KHS 2016 Grit 440 is the bike I have used the most on my gravel explorations. The full carbon frame and fork make a difference in ride quality over my aluminum option. The bike is stock with the exception of the 46cm Ritchey AdventureMax bars and Vittoria 700×38 Adventure Trail tubeless tires. The bike is outfitted with Revelate Designs bags.
My second gravel bike is the Opus 2017 Spark 1 (info on current model here). I was looking for a strong comparison to the Grit 440. Both are Shimano 105 equipped. The Spark uses hydraulic disc brakes while the Grit uses the TRP Hy/Rd cable actuated hydraulic caliper. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. The Spark is a quick and responsive bike. While both bikes are geared a bit high for my local terrain a cassette swap makes 5000′ elevation days easier on the legs. Both bikes are easy to recommend on quality and value.