Sometimes there are things to see, people to meet and experiences to be had in life that can only be found in a trip off the beaten path…at 12 miles per hour.
A trio of cyclists recently saw a different side of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas when they took a nearly 300 mile trip through the states using the backroads of America.
Last week, Stephen Clayton, Kirk Grynwald and Matt Krov embarked on the trip from Sherman to Little Rock while staying away from major roads and instead relying almost entirely on gravel roads and paths.
“There are things you take in on a bicycle at 12 miles per hour that you just never see,” said Stephen Clayton of Sherman. “So, it was really an illuminating experience.”
The trio of experienced cyclists started planning their trip earlier this summer to coincide with Clayton’s birthday weekend. The group would start their trip in Sherman and make their way to Grynwald’s home in Little Rock in time for the birthday.
“This became a brainchild over the summer — we should do a bike trip and started looking at locations,” he said.
Clayton first took up cycling as a hobby about six years ago and has ridden across many parts of Texas with about 40-60 miles of riding during the spring and summer months each year. This hobby grew during the pandemic as it seemed a natural fit with social distancing, Clayton said.
Earlier this year, Clayton began to branch out into the hobby and started exploring gravel riding, which uses bicycles with larger, fatter tires, to navigate more rough terrain.
“Grayson County roads are not known for their smooth pedaling surfaces,” Clayton joked.
For Grynwald — who is Clayton’s cousin and previously lived in Grayson County — the decision to take up riding nearly 20 years ago was in search of a stress reliever. He also branched out into gravel riding as a way of expanding the hobby.
“There kind of has been a gap between what mountain bikes can do and do efficiently and road bikes can just go on such surfaces,” he said.
For Krov, cycling is more than just a hobby as he teaches it at Nautilus. While he rode a lot as a child, he said it wasn’t until his late 30s that he started the hobby again as it “made me feel like a kid again.”
“Getting off the beaten path was something not anticipated and took some getting used to, but Stephen has some crazy ideas and we tend to find our ways into them and have a blast doing them,” he said.
The hobby of gravel riding has grown significantly over the last five years, the trio said. While mountain biking and road cycling have their appeals, gravel riding allows more access to areas that otherwise wouldn’t be open.
“I can say five to 8 years ago finding a gravel bike was a much more laborious task,” Clayton said, describing it as an emerging trend in the cycling world.
While the trip was last week, preparation for it started long before that as the trio mapped their route using a combination of existing maps along with notes from other cyclists. The one goal in deciding a route was to make sure that they stayed away from major roadways as a safety measure.
“You can almost accidentally find gravel roads by just going away from traffic,” Clayton said.
The trip led them through a diverse landscape of America including North Texas, the North and South Poles — of Oklahoma, that is. — and western Arkansas, where the rich reds browns and yellows of autumn were in full bloom.
Once the trio got outside of Ambrose — the furthest any of them had biked in Grayson County — one reality quickly set in: not all of their maps were accurate. As they travelled, they found that sound roads had fully been lost, others were abandoned or destroyed while others were never built in the first place.
“There were a few times where we ended up sitting in front of what our maps said should be a turn, and there was nowhere to go,” Grynwald said.
The trio also encountered some rougher than expected roads. As one person they encountered described it, one road in particular was so bad, “they wouldn’t fly a plane over it.” Another road only saw traffic from line repairmen, who got stuck there the last time they needed to travel it.
These factors led them to double back multiple times on the trip, and it wasn’t uncommon for their days to go long, with about 10 more miles on the road than expected.
“By the time it was done, our 80s were 90s, our 50s were 60s and we were running out of day light and were cutting it short,” Clayton said.
In some cases, these diversions led them back to the busier roads that they were avoiding. However, about 70 percent of the trip was on the gravel roadways.
Still, the appeal of the trip outweighed these pitfalls as the rural routes gave them time to think and absorb the world around them unlike how one would going 70 miles per hour down U.S. Highway 75.
“This was hours of us letting our minds wander and conversations going where they may,” Grynwald said. “It opens your mind up a more than a three-hour ride in a loop might do.”
For Clayton, these hazards and obstacles proved to be part of the appeal as it required the group to think of alternatives and go outside of the box to get to their goal. While family was always available for help, the fact that the trio were all alone increased the meaning of the trip for him.
“We had bail out options to call home, and we were never that far from people who could come and get us, but we were effectively self-supporting,” he said.
“We were really out there relying on good-natured people, of which we met many, and our own fortitude and ingenuity to get to the end,” he continued.
Krov said the appeal for him was in being tested and being made to go beyond the limitations he placed on himself. Not continuing was not a possibility as they had to keep going.
Ultimately, the trio fell about 70 miles short of their end destination and had to hitch a ride with a mutual friend the final way. Over the course of the trip, mechanical issues — including nine blowouts — became a factor that led to the decision to cut the trip early.
“We went through a lot of inner tubes,” Krov said. “Gravel roads are not forgiving.”
Despite all of this, Clayton said he loved the experience and the trip have already started discussing future trips elsewhere with New England as a possible next destination. He also encouraged anyone who is considering the hobby to take a chance and go for it.
“It was an extremely fulfilling experience, it was a challenging experience physically and mentally, but if the opportunity presents itself again next year, I would absolutely do it, pick another route and experience another area of the country or region,” he said.