Taking the Road Less Paved
Gravel biking has been called the next frontier in cycling.
By: Jennifer McCourt, Discovery Routes and Matt Foulk, Ghost Gravel
Adapted from article in the 2022/23 Almaguin Highlands Community Guide
The gravel bike entered the cycling marketplace less than a decade ago and it has seen an absolute explosion in popularity. With its grippy tires and drop [handle] bars, the gravel bike is quick on pavement, but also capable of conquering more technical off-road trails. That ability to go anywhere makes riding a gravel bike feel like you’re a kid again! Couple that with a “gravel” community that is inclusive and not concerned with who comes first and you’ve got the makings of a cycling revolution.
Unlike a city ride, a self-supported gravel cyclist or ‘bikepacker’ can ride uninterrupted for hours, exploring new places on and off the beaten path. Across the Almaguin Highlands there are 100’s of kilometers of backroads, some maintained by municipalities or local roads boards, and still others forgotten over time, tracing the original roads into the Northern reaches of Ontario.
One such old road, the inspiration for Northern Ontario’s first major gravel cycling event, is the Old Nipissing Ghost Road.
Discover a ghostly gravel biking adventure!
A quick history lesson:
After the signing of the Robinson-Huron Treaty of 1850, the Nipissing Colonial Road was built to give lumber companies access to the area’s vast tracts of timber-rich forest and to lure pioneers North with the prospect of free land. For years to come, stagecoaches bumped along the road between Rosseau and the prospering Village of Nipissing. By the turn of the century however, with the white pine forests exhausted and settlers disillusioned with the farming potential and harsh northern climate, the Old Nipissing Road fell into disrepair. The final blow was in 1886 when the Northern Extensions Railway originally planned between Gravenhurst and Callander re-routed away from the Nipissing Road.
And for the next 100 years, the Old Nipissing Road, faded from its former bustling, glory, became a playground for adventure-seekers and a source for companies still interested in extracting its natural resources. In the early 1990’s, a local group of trail enthusiasts, the Forgotten Trails Association, teamed up with Discovery Routes to have the Old Nipissing Road designated as part of the Trans Canada Trail. It became one of the very first sections of the Trail in Ontario with its history commemorated in plaques telling tales of the classic Canadian struggle of survival in a land that could be as cruel as it is beautiful.
Birth of the Ghost Gravel
Fast forward to 2018 and a chance sighting of the Commanda Museum by Matt Foulk, an avid Toronto cyclist and history buff originally from the UK. Pulling off the 522 to read the informational plaque he was immediately drawn to the history of the area and eager to explore the Old Nipissing Road on two wheels.
Three weeks later he returned with his gravel bike and rode solo from Commanda down to Magnetawan. What followed were three years of exploratory rides, research and discussion and finally in August 2021 the Ghost Gravel test event became a reality. Fifteen cyclists from across Ontario were handpicked to try out a challenging 140km route and the response from the riders and the community was overwhelmingly positive.
Emboldened with that success and the lifting of pandemic restrictions August 20, 2022 will be the return of the Ghost Gravel with an increased ridership of 60. Two routes will be on offer to riders, a 150km and 100km option, starting and ending at South River Brewing Co. with funds being raised for mental health charity CAMH. Local, national and international sponsors have come on board with partners including South River Brewing Co., Parry Sound Bikes and Cannondale and support from organizations including Almaguin Highlands Economic Development (ACED) and Discovery Routes is strong. The gravel biking event promises to put Almaguin Highlands on the map as a destination for cyclists with a passion for adventure and exploration.
Find out more about the Ghost Gravel.
For cyclists who prefer a smoother ride or just like to go it alone, Discovery Routes in partnership with ACED has developed a number of self-guided rides throughout Almaguin Highlands including road, gravel and mountain bike adventures.