Cross-state gravel travel
It’s a big accomplishment to bicycle across a rugged state like Arkansas on pavement.
Try doing it on gravel roads. Six area riders did in mid-April. A seventh flew in from California to join the trip.
The riders saw Arkansas as few see it for one week and 431 miles. Views from their bicycle seats were stunning, traveling among the dogwoods, redbuds and the bright green of spring.
Scenery was postcard perfect in the Ozarks and in the Delta. Equally inviting was the hospitality of people they met along the way.
The height of spring brings fickle weather. The group toughed out some rainy days, but also basked in sunshine.
A drizzly, chilly start from downtown Springdale on April 14 cooled the riders as they pedaled east on Emma Avenue. After crossing Beaver Lake on U.S. 412, they veered off the pavement to roll along gravel Ozark byways.
Brannon Pack of the Fayetteville area drew up the route and got the trip going. Maps in an Arkansas atlas showed him the back way across the state. About 65 percent of the route was on gravel roads, Pack said. The seven carried camping gear, water and some food on their bikes in bags designed for bicycle touring.
They’d ride and tent camp their way across Arkansas, with some cabin camping mixed in. Bikepacking, it’s called, and Pack is quick to mention he’s no expert. Area bike shops have all kinds of information and gear for bikepacking, he noted.
The bikepacking bug bit Pack on some previous trips. He wanted to do more. His friends were eager to join the cross-state adventure, including Scott Miller, the California rider.
Rounding out the group with Miller and pack were Northwest Arkansas riders Mike Gerwig, Nickel Potter, Allie Corlett, Noel Howard and Chris Brosh.
“All of us ride together,” said Pack, who is executive director of the Ozark Off-Road Cyclists.
To call the trip tough may be understating. The seven covered up to 65 miles each day mostly on gravel. Some days required thousands of feet of climbing.
Hills were so steep in places, “you wondered how cars just didn’t flip over backwards going up,” Pack said. “Outside of Huntsville, we were literally climbing mountains.”
They all rode quality bicycles made for gravel-grinder riding, as it’s known in the cycling world. Pack’s gravel-road bike weighs 20 pounds and he carried 40 pounds of gear.
The idea was to eat most of their meals at cafes in towns they pedaled through. Each rider carried some food in case that didn’t pan out. Most days they found eateries with home-cooked food and plenty of it.
Adventure unfolded right away on the first day’s ride from Springdale to Ponca. The gravel road heading into Ponca turned into more of a dirt hiking trail that caused some concern. Eventually, they rolled into Ponca and stayed in a rental cabin that night.
Hospitality showed itself right away. The cabin owner let the group spend the night for free. The next night in Witts Springs, town bosses let the group stay in the community center.
A heartfelt welcome greeted the group as they rolled into Marshall. The president of the chamber of commerce and others took photos and video as the riders circled the town square. The mayor bought breakfast for the seven the next morning.
Riders burned more calories each day than they could replace.
“What’s fun, if you like to eat, there’s no shortage of that good home-cooked food,” Pack recalled. “You can eat pie for breakfast. You could eat as much as you want and it still wasn’t enough.”
Some of the steepest climbs of the trip came outside Marshall.
“You’re talking 20 percent grades,” Pack said.
The group made each ascent riding and walking their bikes.
Pack is 42 and Gerwig is 62. The youngest rider, Corlett, celebrated her 30th birthday on the trip.
“The younger ones seemed to get up the hills a little quicker,” Gerwig noted. “The older ones seemed to be the fastest ones in the flatlands.”
Wicked storms threatened to strike their campsite near Heber Springs. Again, hospitality emerged. The owner of the local bike shop let the riders stay at his store.
“We spent the night sleeping between bicycles and kayaks,” Pack said.
There’s a fine line between the Ozarks and the Delta. They saw it in the little town of Bradford. Hills lie to the west. Land as flat as linoleum spreads to the east.
“We had found the Delta,” Pack said. “Nothing but rice, soybeans and cotton all around.”
Think remote Arkansas and most people think of the mountains. Some of the most isolated riding of the trip was in the Delta.
“We’d ride for miles and miles, for hours and not see anybody.” Pack said.
Terrain was flat, but the roads were muddy because of rain. Tires sometimes sank 3 inches deep in the muck.
The plan was to roll into Memphis via the Big River Crossing bike and pedestrian bridge over the Mississippi River, but it was closed because of flooding. Tom Sawyer Park, in West Memphis on the banks of the Mississippi, was the end point. Riders dipped tires into the big river.
They’d hired a Northwest Arkansas bike shop to drive over with their van and shuttle the riders home.
Pack and Gerwig reflected on the adventure. Gerwig has ridden coast to coast across the United States on his road bike. The weeklong ride across Arkansas on gravel was harder than that ride, he testified.
What struck Pack most was the friendliness, hospitality and sense of community in the small towns.
“In a metro area, sometimes it’s hard to feel that sense of community,” he said, “but I can tell you, it’s alive and well in Arkansas. You just have to take a gravel road to find it.”
Pack is already planning the next cross-state gravel road ride. This one will cross Arkansas from north to south, starting at the Missouri line.