By Scott Morris
Yes, it’s a strange obsession.
I pour over Google maps and spend rainy weekends driving back roads in search of the Holy Grail of bicycle routes.
Our little corner of northwest Alabama, south Tennessee and northeast Mississippi holds many hidden gems. Some of my favorites: a loop off the Natchez Trace Parkway to Lutz; a ride that traverses the Freedom Hills Wildlife Management Area; and a challenging climbfest through the peaks above Waterloo.
In the past year, however, the idea of extending rides beyond the pavement has multiplied the scenic options.
A new movement in the world of bicycling involves a category of machines called gravel bikes. These are set up similar to road bikes with drop handlebars, but have wider tires and tougher construction to tackle gravel roads and hard-packed trails.
I’m not in the market for a gravel bike. My dear wife has placed a moratorium on more trucks or bicycles at our house. That’s OK. My old mountain bike fits the niche.
Last winter, I used it to combine the dirt roads of Key Cave National Wildlife Refuge with adjacent paved roads for scenic routes that would be off limits to a fragile road bike. More recently, friend Wayne and I pieced together the Richard Martin Trail — a gravel Rails-to-Trails pathway in Limestone County, Alabama — with paved roads through the Elk River Valley in south Tennessee.
The alternatives in this valley — which encompasses Athens, Elkmont, Pulaski, Prospect and Elkton — are almost limitless. And the goat cheese sandwiches at Belle Chevre in Elkmont add a tasty bonus.
If the Holy Grail of bicycle routes requires sprawling farmland, hardwood-covered hills and little to no commercial development, the quest to find it is getting closer.