In our "Roads to ride" series we share exactly that, some of our favorite roads in the region. Here's one of Cooper's, County Rd. 397. Words and photos by Cooper
I am pedaling steadily down the long, straight pavement of Old Highway 63. I’m on my way out of Ashland, MO, on an unseasonably warm winter day, and feel eager to touch tires to the tamped down “gravel highways” that come with the winter season. The highway service hasn’t yet coated the roads with fresh gravel and, without a dearth of snowfall this winter, country roads are smooth as a banana peel. This is the “transport stage” of my ride—in which I hurry my pace to reach more desirable pathways—and a brief handful of miles later Christian School Road transitions from asphalt to a gentle downward gravel grade—the best part of the ride has begun.
Passing Jemerson Creek, I curse the shorter daylight hours. It would be a joy to extend the ride a bit and climb up to Cedar Tree Lane—which, headed west, boasts one of the most exhilarating descents south of Columbia and north of the Missouri River. Entering Hartsburg, I soft pedal and enjoy the warmth of the bright winter sun. The Katy Trail is soft like warm butter, but smooth, and is a joy despite its sogginess. My anticipation continues to build as I turn off the trail to Soft Pit Hill, and at the top of its granny-gear justifying climb I enjoy a banana in the sun while a local dog barks from the edge of its property.
I am on some of my favorite roads, en route to my “favorite road”, and it’s a wonderful day to be on the bike, especially in early February. Soft Pit rewards with a gentle stretch of blufftop pavement, and an ensuing descent that flattens on its way northward to Claysville. In season, the Claysville Store caters an impressive plate of fried chicken, and I can’t wait to ride out as soon as it opens. I’m not yet to my favorite road, but the ride is fantastic this close to the river. Small homes with gardens and goats emit smoke from leaning chimneys, and a group of younger men gathered around a four wheeler wave with characteristic midwestern warmth.
Just past Claysville, I access the trail, and via a short, private stretch of dirt, I find myself nearing Highway 63. The highway is easily crossed, and I’m at my favorite gravel road, County Road 397.
This past spring, after meeting some buddies for brunch at Dotty’s in Hartsburg, I broke a spoke on the elicit double track I took from the Katy Trail to County Road 397. Even with the nagging mechanical my enjoyment of this choice gravel road was not diminished. County Road 397 incorporates two large climbs, both of which reward the rider with long descents, descents with long lines of sight that allow the experienced gravel cyclist to rip down them without thinking about touching the brakes.
Today, without a thought of “training” in my head, I climb in an easy gear and rest at the top of the first climb to hydrate and enjoy the view towards Jefferson City. Mindful of the shorter daylight hours, I cap my bottle and spin along the hilltop, past a gaggle of white cows that slowly stare at my lyrca-clad visage. Before long I’m blazing down the hill, pressing my back flat to gain speed and gleefully unweighting the bike over potholes and washboard sections. I’m headed north, and as I bomb the hill I make a mental note to reverse this route come Spring. Headed northward on 397, this descent becomes a set of stairsteps, with three short climbs interspersed with flat sections.
A long, flat straight rewards my brakeless descent with a half mile of twenty mile-per-hour plus coasting, and the road curves gently between hewn rock and Cedar Creek.
Before I know it I’m climbing again, a long slow grade with a pack of dogs at the top. On past rides, I’ve sped northward past these german shepherds in anticipation of the coming descent and wary of their potentially unfavorable canine nature. Today, I’m in the gambling mood and come to a stop. The dogs prove friendly, and their timid approach is rewarded with some head-scratches and kind words on my part. A small terrier with a lame hind leg and one eye stands to the side and barks resolutely, stubbornly refusing to sniff my outstretched hand. The daylight is failing, but it’s still warm, and I take a break to straddle my top tube and enjoy the dog’s company.
At this point, County Road 397 is done. It’s maybe a handful of miles long, but its topography makes it a local gem. I’m glad to have made it my destination today. The road is still bathed in sunlight, but I leave the dogs so I can make it back before the failing daylight brings uncomfortable temperatures.
The rest of the ride is immensely enjoyable. County Road 397 runs into 389, which, headed northward, begins with a fun descent and, in the spring, meanders through beautiful green fields traced with thin cow trails and wide creek-bottoms. I will follow 389, which turns into Burnett School Road, all the way to Route Y, which will lead me back to the car at Ashland. This stretch of gravel is beautiful, and worth its own post, but this section of my ride is spent with an eye on the clock, and it passes quickly. Burnett School is a road Cedar Cross riders will know from its somewhat-sketchy wooden bridge and triplicate creek crossings. Today, I focus on getting home to food. I pedal over the bridge, through the winter-dry creek beds, and up a short hill to Route Y, which is a truck-harried blur into Ashland.
On the drive back to Columbia I devour a tall order of french fries. I spent the day anticipating Country Road 397, and loved the opportunity to ride it in late winter with comfortable temperatures, but primarily the experience has whet my appetite for the coming Spring. The regional gravel scene has exploded, with a plethora of choice gravel rides and races scattered throughout the state. I’ve already registered for several, and after my ride I plan to register for more. I’m chomping at the bit for a beautiful Spring spent grinding Midwestern macadam roads. Gravel season is just around the corner, and it’s gonna be a good’n.