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The asphalt exodus: Bicyclists and runners turn to gravel trails as a safer way to ride and run

Enthusiasts say off-road terrain provides a refuge from aggressive drivers, and more routes to explore.

Cyclists from the Charles River Wheelers along the Battle Road Trail in Lincoln. The group is among many taking their bikes off the road and onto gravel paths as a safer alternative to street riding.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Generally speaking, runners and cyclists are a dedicated lot. They love being active, being on the move. For decades, the paved highways and byways that crisscross eastern Massachusetts have provided an accessible playground for both.

More recently, however, those same roads have become more and more inhospitable. Since 2009, more than 100 cyclists have been killed in motor vehicle-bicycle collisions in Massachusetts, according to “The 105 Report” issued in late 2021 by the nonprofit MassBike. While groups like MassBike and the Cambridge-based LivableStreets Alliance are working to make roads safer for everyone, and the state enacted a hands-free while driving law in early February 2020, many running and cycling enthusiasts are taking their passion off-road.

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“There have been many times when I’ve felt unsafe on the road due to aggressive or distracted drivers,” said Amy Juodawlkis, 56, a cyclist from Arlington. “In my area, you’re mostly riding in traffic, so you’re always looking out for car doors opening, buses pulling out, lane changers, et cetera.

“Getting on the trails removes those stresses, although you always have to be thinking about riding safely in the woods,” said Juodawlkis, who leads rides for the Charles River Wheelers. “All the trails I ride on are mixed use, so depending on the trail, I could encounter hikers, off-leash dogs, runners with earbuds, horses, deer, or ATVs.”

Amy Juodawlkis, of Arlington, leads rides for the Charles River Wheelers, and encourages cyclists to stay safe when riding alone in the woods.Sylvia Stoddart

Kelly Foss, 52, of Warren, R.I., a Swansea Velo Club board member, said she continues to pedal on pavement — both to train and socially — and “every ride, we have at least one close encounter with a car.”

“It feels as though drivers are more impatient with cyclists than ever before, and that’s nerve-wracking,” Foss said. “The beauty of gravel is that there are very few cars, so we can ride side by side and chitchat.”

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Of course, both running and cycling predate the automobile, in all its iterations. Foot races may be the first true “sport,” and cross-country running — the precursor of trail running — is one of the oldest team sports.

“Starting with a few dozen participants in 1878 and picking up steam in the 1880s, cycling exploded as a sport in the 1890s, as more and more Bostonians bicycled in and around the Hub,” author Lorenz J. Finison wrote in “Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1900.”

Road improvements, and the advent of internal-combustion vehicles, relegated cycling to a pavement-centric pastime. Mountain bikes changed that equation. Through the 1980s and ‘90s, fat-tire aficionados brought these rugged rigs to the trails, and worked hard to gain acceptance, as evidenced by the groundbreaking efforts of the New England Mountain Bike Association.

Today, however, many cyclists and runners are looking to the trails for refuge.

“Being off-road or on back roads, with no cars, is the reason why I like to ride,” said Michael Salerno, 57, of Salem, a former road cyclist who leads free gravel rides through his All Day Adventures outfit. “It’s the connection and the solitude of my bike, the trail, and my thoughts.

“Distracted drivers are certainly a concern, but there are more drivers that purposely try to squeeze you into tight spots, or have other aggressive behavior,” Salerno said. “I’ve been hit by a car three times. Each one was at an intersection. The last one, the driver clearly didn’t look before pulling out from a stop.”

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Likewise, Anne Melvin, 59, of Wellesley, said “for the past three to five years, I’ve ridden with a light during the day, not just during the dark, because of distracted drivers, and I regularly have very close calls. I like being out in nature when you ride gravel.”

Plus, adding off-road terrain to your running or cycling regimen increases the available number of routes to explore.

“Over time, I’ve really leaned into the discovery aspect” of gravel riding, said Noah Leavitt, 37, of Danvers. “I’m always wondering, ‘Where does that trail go?’ And that’s a really fun way to ride. Being open to discovering new trails is a great way to find adventure in your local area.”

The “gravel bike,” a cross between the road and mountain bike, is the fastest-growing segment of the bicycling industry, for good reason. The bikes are remarkably versatile, with a more comfortable geometry and beefier tires that can handle all but the most challenging terrain, yet are equally at home on connecting roadways.

“Around Boston, we often have to stitch together off-road trails with some road riding and paved bike paths,” Juodawlkis said. “When you’re looking for longer rides, there’s not a ton of options to just stay in the woods.”

The goal, said Leavitt, is to keep the amount of pavement to a minimum.

“I’m not necessarily uncomfortable on the road — I used to bike commute into Boston — but it’s just a more enjoyable experience to be away from the cars,” he said.

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Runners feel much the same. Ben Kimball, 50, of Greenfield, recently published “Trail Running Eastern Massachusetts,” a guidebook detailing more than 50 trail-running sites, ranging from Massasoit State Park, North Hill Marsh, and Myles Standish State Forest to the south, Mount Pisgah, Upton State Forest, and Callahan State Forest to the west, and Ward Reservation, Willowdale State Forest, and Ravenswood Park to the north.

The MIT cross-country team practices on the gravel Battle Road Trail. Matthew J Lee/Globe Staff

Off-road running and cycling, while free of distracted or aggressive drivers, still present challenges. Trails, with rocks, roots, and undulating terrain, can be unpredictable.

“It’s important to stay safe when riding solo out in the woods,” Juodawlkis said. “If you don’t know the route well, it’s easy to get lost or end up on trails that are too hard for you. Having a well-scouted route and a bike computer with GPS, or a phone with a map app, is essential for solo riding and preferred even if you’re in a group.”

Off-road advocates suggest beginners take precautions before tackling the trails. “Most first-time trail runners are afraid they’ll either get lost or go too slow,” Kimball said. “My advice is to start small, and get to know your local trail systems well. Navigation is a skill you can develop pretty quickly.”

Since 2009, more than 100 cyclists have been killed in motor vehicle-bicycle collisions in Massachusetts, according to “The 105 Report” by MassBike, and many are turning to riding on gravel trails instead of roads.Matthew J Lee/Globe Staff

Many running and cycling clubs, as well as local shops, now offer off-road group runs or rides. Moreover, organizations that host fund-raising rides and runs have gotten into the act. For example, Essex County Greenbelt added a “gravel grinder” option to its annual Tour de Greenbelt ride on Sept. 17, and the iconic Pan-Mass Challenge offered PMC Unpaved in western Massachusetts on Oct. 1.

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There are plenty of trails to choose from. For example, the Charles River Wheelers often meet to ride the Battle Road Trail loop that runs through sections of Lincoln (including the Minute Man National Historical Park), Lexington, Bedford, and Concord, and offer suggestions for rides all over Greater Boston in places like Framingham, Needham, and Winchester. All Day Adventures posted on Facebook about a 23-mile ride from Salem to Gloucester. The Swansea Velo Club plans group rides that include towns like Rehoboth, Somerset, Dighton, and Berkley, and New England Mountain Bike Association chapters offer group outings throughout the region. Also check with your local bicycle shop, which may offer rides not affiliated with a club.

Frank McCarthy, 27, manager of Marblehead Cycle, said the key to gravel riding is to simply try it, even if you don’t own a dedicated gravel bike. A mountain bike or even a touring bike with knobby tires — in most instances — will do just fine.

“Many new riders are intimidated to go on group rides at first, thinking they will be too slow or not skilled enough,” McCarthy said. “Trying to encourage and [assure] them that all abilities are welcome is something I strive for. We all started at zero once. It’s great to see the realization creep in when people see they’re more capable than they thought.”

Leavitt agreed. “The initial response of newcomers is pleasant surprise at the amount of trails available to ride,” he said. “It’s almost like unlocking a secret world of cycling.”

Brion O’Connor can be reached at brionoc@verizon.net.