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First Annual Heart of Ohio Gravel Grinder

Today I did an adventurous ride from Bolivar to the town where I grew up, Adena. I’ve done this ride a few times in years past, by taking the most direct route, which involves taking the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail from the Akron area down to Bolivar, then a few back roads and State Route 800 to New Philadelphia, then US Route 250 to Cadiz, then local roads into Adena.

I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with this direct route. It’s very scenic, especially the section that runs along the shore of Tappan Lake, but that’s balanced by the need to dodge semi-truck traffic going to and from the Walmart distribution center in nearby Wintersville.

My goal for today’s ride was to find a less-traveled route along the many county and township roads off the beaten path. Many of these roads are just a gravel surface, so I thought that maybe this route would become the basis for an annual event like the many “gravel grinder” endurance races/rides that are becoming popular throughout the Midwest. Every ride needs a name, so I came up with the “Heart of Ohio Gravel Grinder,” a.k.a. the HOGG Ride.

I scouted out the route ahead of time using Google Maps, and made notes on what I thought would work. A month or so ago, I drove the route ahead of time as a sanity check. Online mapping data can be sketchy sometimes, especially on rural back roads, so I wanted to find this out when I had an easy bail-out option in the car, rather than stuck out on two wheels. The information was surprisingly accurate, though, and I had to make very few refinements to my route notes before I actually pedaled it. Google Maps estimated about 60 miles from Bolivar to Adena by this route. You can see the turn-by-turn details at the bottom of this post.

I packed up the Salsa Fargo bike to get ready a couple of days in advance. Although the route would be taking me through a couple of small unincorporated villages, none would have even so much as a convenience store or gas station to stock up on water or snacks, so I had to bring enough with me. I also wanted to pack enough to be prepared for any weather conditions. This year’s early Spring in March has paid us back with a return to cold days and sloppy conditions, including some hail and sleet earlier in this April week.

For packing up the Fargo, I settled on the frame bag, packed with the usual emergency repair supplies, and some snacks (one Clif bar, one pack of Clif Shot Bloks, and some trail mix). In the oversized Revelate Designs Viscacha seat bag, I packed my rain gear: waterproof jacket, waterproof pants, waterproof shell gloves, and neoprene socks. Also in the seat bag were my change of clothes for when I arrived in Adena: sweatshirt, pants, underwear, socks, and sneakers. I used a small handlebar bag to keep my phone and wallet close at hand.

I put two water bottle cages on the front fork mounts, and for the first time, used the bottle cage mount on the underside of the frame’s down tube. For a cool day, I figured one bottle of water per 20 miles was enough; if it had been a hot summer day, I would have found a way to use all five bottle cage mounts, or maybe would have used a hydration pack.

I woke to find almost an inch of snow on the ground this morning. I almost bagged the ride idea completely, but I had plans to meet some friends for breakfast anyway, and since I already had the bike gear packed up, I figured I may as well toss everything in the car and see what happens.

After breakfast, I headed south and drove to Bolivar. More snow and sleet continued to fall on the way, but things cleared up to just a little overcast about when I passed the Akron-Canton airport, and by downtown Canton, it was actually sunny. In Bolivar, it was a little overcast again, but thankfully dry and pleasant.

I left my car at the Dairy Queen just off of Interstate 77. In deciding what to wear to start off, I decided on my Endura Humvee 3/4-length cycling shorts, SmartWool liner shirt, Surly wool jersey, DeFeet wool socks, Lake winter cycling boots, SmartWool cap under my helmet, Pearl Izumi windproof fleece gloves, and Pearl Izumi convertible windbreaker jacket/vest.

I got started pedaling around 10:45am, and hopped onto the Towpath Trail where it continues just south of town from Fort Laurens State Park. This section of the Towpath runs for only a few miles, beginning with a relatively smooth surface of fine gravel. After about 3 miles, a posted sign warns that “This section of trail suitable only for hiking.” The trail turns into packed dirt like a typical hiking trail; rough in some spots, interspersed with some tree roots, and even a few rocks. It’s not a problem, though, on a fat-tired bike for anyone with any singletrack riding experience.

Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail near Zoar

The trail dead-ends on State Route 800. Here, I was already starting to heat up, so I made a quick stop to peel my sleeves off, taking advantage of the convertible jacket’s ability to, well, convert into a vest. After a quick jog on a brief stretch of gravel, I was onto the back roads.

The route was much as I had hoped and expected. Traffic-free rural roads, although not as much gravel as I had thought there would be. As the flatlands of northern Ohio transition into the foothills of the Appalachians, this area consists of a series of undulating ridges. You’ve gotta climb up to get to the top of one ridge, then follow a gently rolling road along the top of the ridge for a while, then dip down and back up to get to the next ridge.

The weather reared its fickle face throughout the morning and afternoon. There were a few sprinkles of rain early in the ride, but nothing serious enough to warrant digging out the waterproof gear. There were hail showers that lasted only a couple of minutes. It was that wacky kind of back-and-forth, where I’d be hearing the hailstones bouncing off of my helmet, but could look across to the adjacent ridgeline and still see patches of blue sky and sunshine peeking through. The temperature was in that odd “in-between” stage, where I would get too hot and sweaty cranking up the hills, and then too cold from the breeze on the descents.

And man, those climbs–of course, always worse than what you remember them being when you drove them in a car. I found myself in my granny gear more often than I expected. A couple hills that stand out in my brain are Brown Hill Road and Herbert Road.

I crossed the line from Tuscarawas County into Harrison County around the 25-mile mark. This was a good landmark to stop and take a little break, and the sun was out again, so I decided to re-work my clothing. I figured that if I lightened up my clothing, I wouldn’t get so hot on the climbs, therefore I’d sweat less, therefore I wouldn’t get so cold on the descents. So, I ditched the SmartWool liner shirt. I replaced the SmartWool cap with a Buff headband. I swapped out the windproof fleece gloves for my thin SmartWool liner gloves. I rubbed some sunscreen on my face and ears for safety’s sake, and got going again.

With the perfect timing of Murphy’s Law, it started to hail again, and I started to shiver. I pulled over right away, and put the sleeves back on my jacket. This, finally, turned out to be the perfect combination, and I was comfortable for the rest of the day, with the exception of the hail stones bouncing off the skin of my exposed face.

During the next few miles, I had a few of those moments that cyclists live for. As I cruised down several nice long descents, with the hail stones stinging my face like a hundred needle pricks, I found myself thinking, “I must be freakin’ insane to be out here like this, and yet there’s virtually nowhere else I’d rather be at the moment.”

The sun came and went many more times, and the miles and beautiful scenery slipped away along the continuing quiet, rural, ridge-top roads, such as this one:

Gundy Ridge Road in Harrison County

After the big breakfast I had to start off the morning, I didn’t have to reach for my snack supply as much as I expected. Around the 40-mile mark, along Hanover Ridge Road, I stopped and munched on three Clif Shot Bloks. On the far side of the village of Unionvale, I turned onto the last gravel stretch, Lamborn Road, which crosses the line from Harrisson County into Jefferson County and leads into Adena.

I stopped at the top of the final granny-gear climb on Lamborn Road to look back at the ground I’d just covered:

Looking back on Lamborn Road in Jefferson County

This stretch of gravel is traditionally known to locals as Penova Ridge. Looking ahead to the final descent, I re-mounted the Fargo, and enjoyed the thrill of bombing down the hill and arriving in Adena. I arrived in town at 4:00pm on the dot, for a total of 57 miles.

Just before the final descent down Lamborn Road into Adena

So, who’s ready to join me next year for a semi-organized, unofficial endurance event? Some post-ride thoughts I have are:

  • Modify the route to make a loop ride more practical to avoid the need to hitch a ride back to my car; possibly stage a turn-around point in the nearby city of Cadiz.
  • An earlier start would also make a loop ride more do-able.
  • Let me know any thoughts and/or interest you may have in the comments.

1st Annual Heart of Ohio Gravel Grinder – Bolivar to Adena

  1. Head SOUTH on State Route 212 (pavement)
  2. Turn LEFT into Fort Laurens State Park (pavement)
  3. Turn LEFT onto Towpath Trail (fine gravel, then rough dirt)
  4. Turn LEFT onto State Route 800 North (pavement)
  5. Turn RIGHT onto Towpath Trail/Old Zoarville Rd (gravel)
  6. Turn RIGHT onto Boy Scout Rd (pavement)
  7. Turn LEFT onto Bissel Church Rd/Trail 386 (pavement)
  8. Turn RIGHT onto Riggle Hill Rd (pavement)
  9. Turn LEFT onto Johnstown Rd (pavement)
  10. Turn RIGHT onto Brown Hill Rd (pavement, some gravel)
  11. Turn LEFT onto Tabor Ridge Rd (pavement)
  12. Turn RIGHT onto Henderson School Rd (pavement)
  13. Turn LEFT onto Buck Hollow Rd/Township Rd 395 (mixed rough pavement/gravel)
  14. Turn RIGHT onto New Cumberland Rd (pavement)
  15. Turn RIGHT onto Old Roswell Rd (pavement)
  16. Turn RIGHT onto State Route 29 West (pavement)
  17. Turn LEFT onto Herbert Rd (gravel)
  18. Turn LEFT onto Roxford Church Rd/County Hwy 66 (pavement)
  19. Turn LEFT onto Beans Rd/Township Hwy 331 (pavement)
  20. At Crum Rd, bear RIGHT to continue on Beans Rd/Township Hwy 331 (pavement)
  21. Road becomes Cougar Rd/Township Hwy 105 (gravel)
  22. Road becomes Cottage Rd/Township Hwy 102 (gravel)
  23. At Harrison County line, road becomes Tunnel Hill Rd/County Hwy 44 (gravel)
  24. At State Route 151, continue STRAIGHT onto Gundy Ridge Rd/County Hwy 44 (mixed pavement/gravel)
  25. Turn RIGHT onto Hanover Ridge Rd/County Hwy 17 (pavement, then gravel after State Route 9)
  26. Turn RIGHT onto Bakers Ridge Rd/County Hwy 51 (rough pavement)
  27. Turn LEFT onto Upper Clearfork Rd/County Rd 13 (rough pavement)
  28. Road becomes Unionvale-Kenwood Rd/County Rd 13 (pavement)
  29. Turn RIGHT onto Unionvale Rd (pavement)
  30. Turn LEFT onto Lamborn Rd/Township Hwy 72 (gravel)
  31. Turn LEFT onto Lamborn Rd/Township Hwy 74 (gravel)
  32. Bear RIGHT to stay on Lamborn Rd/Township Hwy 74 (gravel)
  33. Turn LEFT onto W Main St (pavement)