By Emily Houston
Loudoun County is one of the most popular places in the nation for bicycling on unpaved roads, a pastime known as “gravel grinding” or “gravel riding.” As depicted on gravelmap.com, a nationwide rider-created database of gravel roads, Loudoun’s unpaved road network dramatically stands out.
Unpaved roads are marked on the map in bright yellow, and Loudoun is a spider web of interlocking yellow threads. In stark contrast, surrounding rural areas such as the 93,000-acre agricultural reserve in Maryland, and the West Virginia panhandle, mostly lack those vibrant indicators of unpavement. A section of Maryland around Westminster, which runs northeast into Pennsylvania, is populated by numerous yellow dots indicating bits and pieces of gravel, but clearly, Loudoun’s visual prominence on Gravelmap displays a place where, unlike anywhere else in these mid-Atlantic states, an entire network of gravel roads exists.
Nicole Davison, who owns and runs Bicycles & Coffee in Purcellville with her husband Scott, says, “We just happen to be sitting in the middle of some of the best gravel in the world.” Their shop caters to the Loudoun gravel scene, selling bikes specially equipped for the terrain with tires that glide over the gravel. “We love the personality of gravel,” she says.
Riding gravel in Loudoun offers a unique experience that attracts riders from all over the country. The ability to ride loops of up to 100 miles, largely on gravel, is a big draw. But it’s also the varied terrain, historic houses and barns, dry-stacked stone walls, wildlife, and the sometimes unexpected scenes that excite the cyclists the Davisons take out. Recently, their group encountered a fox hunt and found themselves on a back road surrounded by dozen of hounds. Out-of-town visitors on the ride, some of whom Davison says are nationally-known cyclists, “couldn’t believe it.”
Danielle Nadler, managing editor of Loudoun Now, got into gravel riding with her husband after years of road riding because they were scared they would be hit by a car on the paved roads. Paved road riding “just wasn’t fun anymore,” says Nadler. “The second you go from pavement to gravel, the whole atmosphere changes,” she says. The gravel roads slow everything down, including the traffic. “Drivers are much more low key on a gravel road,” she says. “We found a safe haven on gravel.”
So why and how does this unique and rare network of unpaved roads even exist?
In the 18th and 19th centuries, up to the time of the Civil War, Loudoun’s economy was not just agriculturally-based, but owing to its outstanding agriculture, Loudoun was Virginia’s richest county. Realization of that richness depended on getting goods to market, and people to and from distant locations. According to Richard Gillespie, Historian Emeritus of the Mosby Heritage Area Association, Loudoun’s early settlers “staked out this rich land with a purpose … trade.”
Water-borne transportation (canals and the Potomac River), and railroads were not sufficiently responsive to Loudoun’s commercial and general transportation needs. Roads worked, however, as they connected prosperous, ambitious Loudoun farmers (and others) to the growing ports of Alexandria, Georgetown and Baltimore. As a result, Loudoun developed more than 200 years ago the most sophisticated network of rural roads in the young nation. And, through a series of circumstances, that remarkable network has come down to us largely intact. Loudoun’s agricultural success would be severely interrupted; trade suffered mightily from Loudoun’s catastrophic Civil War losses, and after the war, from the lack of tax revenues to build and maintain roads.
In this respect, Gillespie says that because increased taxes were directed to pay for the new public school system established in Virginia after the war, “There was little money for public or private investment in road infrastructure well into the third decade of the 20th century. … The existing roads, patched and repaired from time to time, would just have to do. In this sense, they were preserved—or at the very least, not modernized or replaced.”
Horses, or more specifically, the “equestrian lifestyle,” helped preserve Loudoun’s unpaved roads, too. Beginning in the 1890s, the financial/industrial “elite” discovered Loudoun as ideal foxhunting territory, according to Gillespie, and “purchasing farms in the northern Piedmont of Virginia became all the rage. For the Hunt Country set, keeping the region underdeveloped was an asset. … Dirt roads were ideal for riding and for crossing in chase of the fox without rapidly moving modern automobile traffic to interfere.”
Politics also were instrumental in the preservation of Loudoun’s rural roads. When Harry Flood Byrd became governor in 1926, he instituted a “pay-as-you-go” approach to road funding—no bonds would be sold to finance road construction and improvement, which would occur only when enough taxes and fees were collected to pay for it. In 1932, the Byrd Act became law, putting control over most county roads into the hands of the state government. “Somehow, Loudoun did not fare well as highway funds were allotted,” says Gillespie. This shortchanging likely was attributable to Byrd’s resentment of his political rival, former Gov. Westmoreland Davis, a Loudoun resident at Morven Park, and owner of the Loudoun Times-Mirror which often was critical of the “Byrd Machine.”
Fast forward to the 1960s. “Loudoun was discovered by the ‘back to the land’ movement of young families looking to escape suburbia’s ‘little boxes’ and strip malls,” says Gillespie. “Dirt lanes and roads were part of the ambiance, and were bragged about more than criticized. With this ethic came a demand for vestiges of an earlier time,” which included gravel roads as well as village fairs, an artistic culture, a strong interest in local history, and a revitalized preservation movement, he recalls.
Today, thanks to efforts by VDOT and area residents, especially those working with the Rural Roads Initiative, Loudoun’s approximately 290 miles of gravel roads support vehicular traffic never dreamed of by the early settlers who built them, yet they endure, as do millions of miles of unpaved roads across the nation. The U.S. has 4.1 million miles of roads—2.2 million of those miles (53 percent) are gravel.
“Many of Loudoun’s roads remain uncannily as they were 150 years ago,” says Gillespie, “A thing of rare beauty and value … a national treasure.”
Nicole Davison echoes that admiration for Loudoun’s special network. “You can go to Sierra Nevada in California to ride gravel, and it’s epic, but you don’t get that sense of history that you have here,” she says. Recently, the chief engineer of Shimano Corporation (maker of high-end bicycle components) visited Purcellville from Japan to experience Loudoun’s unique landscape firsthand. “Our unpaved paradise is now world-famous,” says Davison.
Emily Houston, whose farm is bisected by a gravel road, is a board member of the Loudoun County Equine Alliance (LoudounEquine.org), editor of Horse Times magazine (horsetimes.net) and a member of the Rural Roads Committee of the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Coalition. Learn more about the organization at loudouncoalition.org.