Many people are familiar with the two most popular forms of cycling: road cycling and mountain biking. Road cycling typically involves riding on a paved surface, while mountain biking involves riding on a dedicated unpaved, off-road trail. Each form uses a different style of bike.
In the last several years a new type of cycling has emerged called gravel grinding. Gravel grinding is about adventure and exploring backcountry roads and areas not normally traveled. It provides a break from traffic or the typical mountain bike trail.
Originating in the Midwest on the unpaved, gravel country roads of states like Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska, gravel grinding entails riding road-style bikes known as cyclocross bikes that have wider, treaded tires or mountain bikes on unpaved, gravel or dirt roads. This new type of cycling has been exploding in popularity throughout the country with hundreds of gravel rides and races coming onto the cycling scene. The events vary in distances, you can find them from 50 to almost 300 miles, covering a mixture of terrain.
In the Charleston area, the Francis Marion National Forest (FMNF) is the best place to experience gravel grinding. There are hundreds of miles of unpaved, gravel Forest Service roads throughout the FMNF. These roads range in condition from regularly used and well maintained, hard-packed dirt to rough, seldom-used and rarely maintained roads. There are times when you could ride for 40-50 miles in the forest and never see a car or another person. However, you may see an abundance of wildlife, including turkeys, wild boar, bobcats, snakes and maybe even an elusive bear.
Another popular local area for gravel grinding is the dike or access road around Lake Moultrie near Moncks Corner. This area has shorter sections of gravel roads, beautiful lake views and is close to populated areas. This area is perfect for newer riders and for those looking for a nice loop for shorter rides.
If you are interested in giving gravel grinding a try, pick up a Francis Marion Forest Service map before heading out into the forest. You may also contact or join the Swamp Fox Gravel Grinders group on Facebook to ask questions or find out more information about gravel group rides. There are several regular gravel group rides that take place both in the forest as well as around the lake. These gravel group rides are usually 20-40 miles in length and are suitable for beginners as well as experienced cyclists. A mountain bike, cyclocross bike or even a road bike with wide tires can be used. As there are no stores in the middle of the forest, it is important to carry enough food and water for the entire ride. Depending on the length of the ride, a hydration-style backpack may be the best option. Other important items to carry along on these rides are additional tubes and a pump in case you have a flat tire.
There are several races in the Southeast. Locally there’s the Hellhole Gravel Grind Stage Race and 1-Day Race held in the FMNF every September, which includes races from 40-160 miles in length. Check out the Hellhole Gravel Grind Stage Race Facebook page for more information.
Chris Moore is a local competitive cyclist, race promoter, USA Cycling Official, bicycle mechanic and professional engineer. He is co-director of the Mt. Pleasant Velo Cycling Club and the Hellhole Gravel Grind Stage Race.