Gravel riding first became cool in America, the long smooth-ish gravel fire roads which characterise the land scape in the midwest gave birth to a form of off-road road cycling which sparked a craze. It’s fair to say the cycling world bought in too. There were some nay-sayers, myself included, but we were all silenced the second we tried it. Gravel riding in the UK has grown in popularity recently, but it’s not quite the same as in the US. The open long, non-technical gravel roads are replaced by muddy single track and tow-paths. Well, until you get yourself out to the New Forest that is…
The New Forest is located between Southampton and Bournemouth spanning Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset. It’s a beautiful national park with villages like Beaulieu, Lyndhurst and Downton. Between the towns and villages are a series of roads popular with the local cyclists and cyclotourists but the real gem in the crown of the Forest is its network of fire roads around the woody enclosures. The gravel riding in the New Forest is some of the best available in the UK and well worth a trip. We’ve put together a route, starting and finishing in the capital of the Forest, Lyndhurst, easily accessible by bike from Southampton, by train or by car it’s the perfect guide to exploring the New Forest (and its cafes) by off road bike. The route will be long enough to make the trip worth it, and contains a mixture of road, gravel fire road and some more technical sections.
The route I’ve put together is 68km with 700m of elevation gain, it’s 53% dirt, 37% paved and the remainder is unspecified, but I can tell you from experience it’s either gravel road or bike path. The route is a figure of eight which allows for the early abandonment of the ride if necessary, though you’re a hardened gravel warrior so that’s unlikely to happen. The first loop heads north west out of Lyndhurst toward the village of Blissford then up toward Fordingbridge, turning at Frogham. Once here it takes a rolling, twisting gravel roller coaster back toward Lyndhurst.
The route starts and ends in Lyndhurst, mainly due to its accessibility. It’s the administrative capital of the New Forest and it’s pretty old – even getting a shoutout in the doomsday book in 1086 (referred to as Linhest). History aside, Lyndhurst is great for us because it’s got two bike shops and is absolutely full of cafes. A local favourite is The Lyndhurst Tea House with it being set back in the road there’s plenty of space for bikes and the coffee is good and inexpensive. As I said though, don’t fill up at this cafe stop – make it a quick one as the real prize is up next.
After Lyndhurst we set off along the best time trial course in the world, the P164 toward Beauliea. It’s probably not worth bringing the tri-bars for this one (though they are popular in gravel races) as we soon turn off and ride the gravel track parallel to the road. Up next, we have a short twenty minute spin to the best cafe in the world. This section can get a little muddy in winter, but it’s usually ok. In any sense, after the hard work of the mud you have a great reward coming in Beaulieu.
Deriving from the French for “beautiful place”, Beaulieu is a stunning little village packed with cafes, a motor museum (which is a great day out, even if you don’t care about cars) and cottages. After you turn into the village – you head up Beaulieu high street and turn into The Bakehouse. This cafe is famous for its huge portions of beans on toast, excellent coffee and massive cakes. It’s a favourite of local cyclists from either side of the New Forest. A meal from here will make you bonk proof for at least 30 miles.
Once you’ve had a full meal it’s time to head back up towards Lyndhurst. If you started your route at the train station you have a slightly shorter ride home. It’s time to head back up the final off road track into Lyndhurst. This section is flat and non-technical but it’s often worth being well fuelled for as it’s where you’ll most likely experience the famous Forest wind – going directly into your face. The New Forest is a great place to ride a bike but it’s famously windy as it’s so flat and so open!
You’re back in Lyndhurst now, full from two cafe stops and muddy from 55km of gravel. I always like to add in the post ride cafe stop to refuel for the rest of the day – which Lyndhurst is perfect for. The New Forest is a brilliant place to ride a gravel bike, with a variety of gravel and the option to ride on non technical fire roads or mountain bike style single track. The non paved sections of the New Forest open up a raft of new elevation options – while the paved roads are pan flat the wooded enclosures are constantly up and down. The hills are small but they soon add up over the course of a ride. If you want a variety of options, don’t mind the wind and you love a good cafe stop – riding gravel in the New Forest is the thing for you!