Mark Twain famously said, “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” The author’s well-known observation is often thought of as a derogatory comment about the unpredictable nature of the Northeast’s weather. However, on occasion, it cuts the other way and serves up something special, like a slice of spring during the dark days of winter.

Winter gravel biking

I fondly remember an unseasonably balmy day a few Februaries ago that served up 60-degree temperatures and an unforgettable ski day. After numerous winter forays bundled up on Mount Washington, it was pure luxury to skin into Tuckerman Ravine in a tee shirt. Although my ski partners and I had to layer up as we climbed into the gullies, warm digits and soft snow hinted at the spring days looming ahead in the bowl, but without the crowds. The icing on an all-time day was drinking beers in an almost-empty Pinkham Notch parking lot while wearing flip-flops.

Recently, New England’s fluctuating winter weather delivered another day with temperatures threatening to push into the 60s. Unlike a few years ago, this day came on the heels of an already unspectacular winter, that is if you like snow and/or ice. Not one to let the opportunity for a proper adventure—or the chance to wear short-sleeves in mid-February—pass, I dug my gravel bike out of the gear room, called a riding buddy, and prepared to revisit some of my favorite dirt roads.

Mixed surface biking
Credit: Tim Peck

Many riders often call gravel biking “mixed-surface riding,” by which they usually mean a combination of paved and unpaved roads. In fact, gravel bikers have a whole vocabulary to describe the rocky, stony, and pebbly paths we travel, which range from well-maintained dirt roads to forgotten forest paths—we’ll talk effusively about luxury, champagne, and Cadillac gravel when describing the sweetest surfaces to ride on. The mild winter weather so far this season left me thinking the roads would be in pretty good condition, with minimal snow to shrink the shoulder and only sort-of salty. I’ve long been a proponent of making the most of the conditions, and this stray spectacular day offered an ideal opportunity to take a break from riding the trainer and log some real miles.

The conditions I encountered took the idea of mixed surfaces to new levels. The unseasonably sultry mid-February temperatures delivered every type of mud imaginable, from frozen solid to peanut buttery. There was even a strange combination of the two that was just soft enough to make pedaling feel impossible and produced a noise that sounded eerily similar to a flat tire. To keep things interesting, there was also a mile of hike-a-biking on a still-snow-covered Class 6 road.

Gravel biking or mud biking
Credit: Tim Peck

While the day riding gravel didn’t deliver the same Type 1 fun I found a few years back in Tuckerman Ravine, it did offer some solid Type 2 fun, which, in all honesty, sums up most gravel rides. At times, the ride’s challenging conditions had me considering pulling to the side of the road and quitting. But it also delivered spectacular views of distant white-capped peaks, adrenaline-fueled descents, and an unfamiliar warm wind on my face. In other words, all the hallmarks of a memorable outdoor adventure—and just enough pleasure to make you forget the pain.

On the odd early spring-like day, like on my gravel ride, it’s easy to forget that it’s still winter, which I did. With a late start (I was waiting for it to get really nice out) and conditions that put the grind in gravel grinding, I found myself pushing the pace—and clearing thick layers of mud from my lights—to get back to the car before the sun dipped below the horizon. It turns out that the sun still sets relatively early in February, no matter how great the weather may be.

Sunset on a gravel ride
Credit: Tim Peck

While sunset, and the drop in temperature that came with it, precluded a celebratory parking lot beer (and I opted for down booties rather than flip flops), it did stay nice enough for me to dig the hose out and give my bike a much-needed rinse when I got home. A universal trait of all the mud I encountered was that it was sticky and covered everything, including, as I discovered the next morning, the inside of my truck. It’s a wonder there’s any dirt left on the roads.