Linda English had been cycling on Oregon’s rural roads around her home in Bend for years, but one day in 2013, she seized upon a rare opportunity.
Her husband, Kevin English, also an avid cyclist, had injured himself and needed time out of the saddle to recover. That made him the perfect person to drive the shuttle car while Linda and her friends pedaled between Post — a hamlet at the geographical center of Oregon — and Paulina, a Central Oregon community about 30 miles west. (If you go, be sure to check out the awesome pastrami sandwiches at the newly renamed Paulina General Store.)
“The whole time Kevin’s driving, he’s looking out the windows at all these gravel roads and thinking how we should be riding on those,” Linda says. “And so he started exploring, got us gravel bikes, and everything took off from there.”
The gravel bike Linda rides sits somewhere between a road bike, with its sleek, rigid geometry, and a mountain bike, with its fat, knobby tires and rugged components designed to handle the demands of dirt. Being lighter than a mountain bike yet more robust than a road bike lets you ride pretty much anywhere. On a gravel bike, you can take in the best of a region on a wandering, varied adventure that rips down flowy singletrack, along lonely forest service roads and maybe even on sections of scenic highways.
These days Linda, 57, is better known as Gravel Girl, and Dirty Freehub, the nonprofit she and her husband started, has become the go-to authority on where to spin along spectacular dirt roads that braid the forests, deserts and valleys across Oregon. From easy outings among fragrant stands of ponderosas and lupines to challenging sufferfests that grind up to the airiest, loneliest views, Gravel Girl and Dirty Freehub have curated 10,000 miles of stellar routes.
Can’t decide where to start? Here are three of Linda’s favorite rides for every season in Central Oregon.
Big Trees, Bald Eagles and a Scenic Byway for Bikes
The Deschutes National Forest and surrounding public woodlands boast a whopping 800-plus miles of gravel and dirt roads, plus another 500-plus miles of singletrack. Now Dirty Freehub has teamed up with Visit Bend to create the whimsical, deeply informative (and free!) hard copy of the Gravel Adventure Field Guide, which showcases 11 stunning routes from The Bishop, a 100-mile-long route near Sisters, to one of her favorites, the more manageable 16-mile Big Red route near Sunriver.
That route, which starts at Big River Campground and forms part of the recently created Cascades Gravel Scenic Byway, works its way south to La Pine State Park and includes a glimpse of Big Red itself, a 500-year-old ponderosa believed to be one of the largest of its kind in the world. Along the way, expect to see bald eagles, ospreys and a few other cyclists. “You’re weaving along the river and it’s just a blast,” she says. “It’s so pretty, with waterfalls and forest — I mean, how can you miss that?”
Coolest of all, it’s hard to get lost. All of the rides in the guidebook include a QR code that will take you to apps like Ride With GPS, where you can download maps and cue sheets. (Remember to scan them before you ride.) Find your copy of the book here.
A Cool Ride Into the Cascades
One of the most scenic rides (not included in the guide) unfurl around the moody forests and crackling Metolius River near Camp Sherman outside of Sisters, Linda says. It’s dubbed Into the Horn and features a 43-mile-long loop that takes you north out of Camp Sherman and up along a mountain ridge for awesome views of the Cascades.
Linda says this is a great ride to tackle in summer when the mercury soars, thanks to abundant shade and the cooler air at higher elevations. “Anything out of Camp Sherman would be really scenic,” she says. “But once you’re up and rolling along this ridge, you just get incredible views.”
Expect to grunt your way up about 3,500 feet of climbing on roads that are evenly split between primitive U.S. Forest Service roads and hard-packed gravel.
Over the Rainbow in Madras
One of the last railroad wars of the American West took place in Central Oregon in the early 1900s, when dueling companies raced to complete a line from the mouth of the Deschutes River deep into Central Oregon. Only one company made it, but the legacy of those days makes for some great gravel grinding, especially in winter when sun bounces off the basalt canyons and brings some welcome warmth, and the dreaded, tire-puncturing “goat head” thorns of late summer have yet to get numerous.
Dirty Freehub calls this history-filled, 42-mile-long loop out of Madras Over the Rainbow thanks to the abandoned Rainbow Tunnel that workers blasted through the rock to keep the grade within allowable norms. The route, which is hard but not quite challenging, Linda says, starts off at the Erickson Aircraft Collection — a worthy stop on its own with its assortment of vintage aircraft — and rolls along the Deschutes River, past historic homesteads and down into yawning canyons on a mix of gravel, pavement and a few snippets of singletrack.
“What’s really cool is how you’re riding on some of the roads that were the old rail lines they put in,” Linda says. “For me it’s all about the adventure and getting outside, and you know, just seeing nature.”