Leo Rodgers is shredding down a sandy, abandoned railway line not far from downtown St. Petersburg, Florida. Rodgers, 35, has got a huge smile on his face—and not only because he just hucked off a foot-high curb and landed cleanly. He’s doing the thing that he loves: riding bikes. More specifically, he’s enjoying the kind of cycling that he loves the most: gravel riding, a discipline that’s quietly experiencing a major upswing.
Rodgers has spent nearly his whole life here in the Tampa area, but this sort of riding has taken him on adventures around the country—on dirt paths through forested knolls in Georgia and desert landscapes in New Mexico and endless farmland in Kansas. He’s held his own competing in serious races with names like Dirty Kanza and Grinduro that are won by top pros.
Anyone who rides with him can’t help but notice two things: He’s fast as shit and has only one leg. As a teenager, he was a swaggering motorcycle rider who had a life-changing crash late one Saturday night in 2007. Out with friends, he did a wheelie while going more than 100 miles per hour. It was the type of trick he’d pulled off many times before, but this time he went down—launching over a guardrail and slicing his left thigh before landing in a river. Doctors saved his life but could not save his leg. After two weeks in an induced coma, he woke up to a new reality.
After some tough rehab and existential homework (“I had to ask myself, Why am I even here?” he admits), the daredevil discovered a way to find action and meaning on a different kind of bike. One day in 2010, he brushed the cobwebs off his high school bicycle. With practice, he learned how to mount and dismount it even with one leg and found he could power it with his right leg if he used a clipless pedal. “It was like being back on a motorcycle, only I was the motor,” he says. Now Rodgers’s life revolves around bicycles: He works at a Tampa bike shop, leads rides around the area, and has earned a national championship in Paralympic track cycling. “The bike is a lot of things to me, my transportation, my toy, and my prosthetic,” he says. “But most of all it’s my tool—it helps me feel free.”
That freedom, the wanderlust to pedal down unpaved roads, draws Rodgers to gravel. “Getting out there and getting lost—that’s part of the point,” he says. “I fell in love with gravel right away—the way you have to use all your skills.” Gravel adventures combine the speed of road riding with the technical challenges of mountain biking. Because the surfaces can range from packed dirt to deep sand, riders must adapt. “The terrain forces you to develop skills that also give you confidence on the road,” he says.
Be ready to sweat; gravel riding is not easy. Rodgers says it’s an organic mix of high-intensity interval work with traditional aerobic exercise. “You’re riding along and have to power through little sections,” he says. “That’s especially true at races, where you get to blow yourself up while you have fun—and then there are beers at the end.”
Use these four top gravel-riding tips
Carry tasty snacks that evoke the sport’s sweetest European traditions: performance waffles. Honey Stinger, Gu, and UnTapped make nutritionally sound treats in flavors including gingersnap, campfire s’mores, and maple.
Upgrade your Bag and Tires
Be prepared for minor repairs and changing weather. A frame bag, like Revelate Designs’ Tangle, offers space for snacks, tools, and a rain slicker. To limit punctures, go with a durable tire like Panaracer’s GravelKing Plus. It comes in a 28c size that fits on most road bikes.
Look at a Map
If you’re unsure how to find primo unpaved roads, check out gravelmap.com, which has a curated interactive database of thousands of user-generated routes in all 50 states. The staff at your local bike shop probably also knows the best trails in the area.
Trust your Speed
When faced with tricky terrain, there’s a natural instinct to squeeze your brake levers hard. Don’t. Typically, maintaining momentum is the safest and surest way to pedal through thick sand and over roots, rocks, and other obstacles.
Get the Right Gravel Bike
Wider tires, disc brakes, and a carbon frame help smooth the chatter of gravel and ensure greater control and comfort. Canyon’s Grail CF SL 7.0 has all those features, so you can ride longer and happier. $2,499; canyon.com
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