A Destination Made for Two-Wheel Exploration
Steuben County, New York
Sun breaks over Mount Washington spilling soft morning light into Pleasant Valley, as Hammondsport (the tiny village at the southern end of Keuka Lake) awakens. You can hear young Glenn Curtiss before you see him, tires chewing gravel, his teenaged-legs churning hard as he flies up the road into town, Tank Waters giving chase, no doubt, the rest of the Hammondsport Boys somewhere behind them tasting dust. It's 1897, and Curtiss is nineteen with an itch for going fast so he begins racing and winning, all while working for the small bike shop on the square. Soon, he owns the bike shop, then another in nearby Bath.
You could say Glenn Curtiss and Steuben County were both made for cycling. All these years later, in Steuben, you still hear tires shredding gravel. You still see people of all ages and abilities spinning their wheels along scenic backroads through the countryside, past vineyards and farmland, rolling up and down hillsides, at times quietly meandering below a canopy of trees as they weave their way through forests and past wilderness hiking trails. The views are breathtaking, the rides cathartic (grueling if you want, tranquil if you don’t).
You’ll find some pedaling past Amish farms on rural highways while others attack mountain bike trails at public areas like Erwin Wildlife Management, or cruise around small town streets for a true and intimate look into local life.
Local cyclists continue the tradition of selling bikes to others (in shops like Wheels Unlimited) and of blazing trails through grassroots efforts like those at Mossy Bank Park, a small wooded beauty hidden atop a hill some 500 feet above the Cohocton River as it ambles east carrying water that will eventually find its way to the coast. A club of devoted riders who love the challenges and the rewards of riding in such a beautiful place gather regularly at nearby Steuben Brewing for two-wheel fellowship and great brews. Through the efforts of a few, the Keuka Gravel Classic has elevated the quality of the gravel riding experience, offering a competitive 50-mile jaunt that draws top amateurs and professionals, like Curtiss White, 2022 US Men's Elite Cyclocross National Champion, while those more interested in simply getting out and taking in the incredible scenery can enjoy the non-competitive 25-mile short course ride.
Unless you’ve felt it yourself, it’s difficult to describe that insatiable need for speed, for getting outdoors and zooming as fast as your legs will carry you. If you have felt it, however, you know the deep down feeling you get after riding whether it’s competitively at breakneck speeds or serenely taking the stunning scenery from two wheels.
Back in 1897, a decade before he became “fastest man on earth,” Glenn Curtiss could be found speeding around the small town of Hammondsport on his bicycle. Part of the local cycling team known as The Hammondsport Boys, Glenn was the fastest cyclist in town and he loved to race competitively with his racing buddy “Tank” Waters and others.
If you’ve never head of Curtiss, don’t feel badly. Many of the most important contributions to our lives were made by people whose names we’ll probably never learn. People like Glenn Curtiss who drew aeronauts, balloonists, and inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell to the small town of Hammondsport in the early 1900s making it the “Cradle of Aviation.”
Like the Wright Brothers, Curtiss started with a love for bicycles. First, he raced them. Then he opened his own bike shop on Hammondsport’s Village Square. Unlike the Wrights, however, who focused on bicycle manufacturing to support their early aviation endeavors, Curtiss revved up the horsepower on his bikes.
In 1907, he strapped one of his early engines onto a bike which he rode on a beach in Florida at 136.4 miles per hour becoming the “fastest man on earth.” His ability to make powerful engines drew the interest of aviation enthusiasts, innovators, and adventurers including Bell with whom he created the Aerial Experiment Association.
Whether you come to Steuben to race or simply to ride and take in all the natural beauty, you’ll want to spend some time in the small town of Hammondsport (voted “Coolest Small Town in America” and home to world-class wineries, award-winning breweries, and stunning Keuka Lake, the most unusual of all the Finger Lakes) and at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum which showcases a wide range of vintage bikes from Penny Farthings to early motorized bicycles, as well as several iconic transportation innovations that Curtiss had a hand in creating as a motorcycle and aviation pioneer.
Sightseeing on Two Wheels
Keuka Lake offers the perfect cocktail for fantastic cycling: endless miles of low-traffic dirt roads, vistas of the lake and its rolling vineyards, award-winning wines and local craft beer, and a rich history of cycling enthusiasm.
The Keuka Lake Gravel Classic was born from the Ramble around Prattsburgh race which began in 2008. Evolving into the Keuka Lake Gravel Classic under the leadership of Steuben Brewing, the event offers a competitive 50-mile, 5,000 feet route for racers and a non-competitive 25-mile ride (both of which offer exciting climbs and descents) for anyone interested in taking in the breathtaking scenery.
With Men’s, Women’s and Nonbinary Gender Expansive Fields for the Long Course, as well as non-competitive fields for Adult Men, Women, Nonbinary Gender Expansive and U18 Boys, Girls, and Nonbinary Gender Expansive for the Short Course, the KGC is truly a race for everyone.
After the event, riders and their entourages celebrate with great food, live music, excellent craft beer, prizes, and fun for the whole family at award-winning Steuben Brewing Company.
“This event isn't just for competitive cyclists,” said Event Director Blaine Mays. “All levels of riders are welcome.”
In 2023, the event will also be the host of the NYSBRA Gravel Grinder Championship.
Other Cycling Events and Finger Lakes Cycling Options
The Hills on Fire Enduro XC, which takes place each August, offers easy access for spectators and a challenging 7.5 miles mountain bike course through a hilltop forest about 500 feet above the valley below with a good mix of single and double tracks and featuring several timed segments. Another August favorite, the Tour de Keuka, is a charity bike ride around Keuka Lake offering panoramic views of the lake and surrounding countryside.
In addition to these popular annual events, 2023 will also see two new gravel races: the Birdseye Brawler on July 9 and the Cameron Crusher on October 8 blending gravel, maintained dirt roads and seasonal roads, touches of pavement, double track and single track riding and, potentially, a unique and gorgeous way of experiencing Steuben’s stunning fall foliage.
Nearby, throughout the sprawling Finger Lakes National Forest (NY’s only National Forest), cycling enthusiasts test themselves with the Highlander Cycle Tour which offers course options ranging from 30 to 100 miles and degrees of difficulty “from family-friendly to an incredible climb exceeding 10,000-feet!”
Gravel cyclists looking for less of a race and more of an enjoyable exploration enjoy the Catherine Valley Trail, a nearly 12-mile gravel track that runs from Watkins Glen, at the southern end of Seneca Lake to tiny Pine Glen. Speaking of off-road adventures, if you’re seeking scenic rides away from the roads, head for one of the very first “rail trails,” in the country—the Keuka Outlet Trail. At seven miles long, this multiple-use trail is open to the public year-round, is well maintained and generally considered an easy, enjoyable route.
Many of the towns have small parks have bike paths, like Kanakadea Park in Hornell, while a number of small state forest lands scattered throughout Steuben County also have designated cycling paths, like Greenwood State Forest ad Birdseye Hollow which has hiking trails, but also multi-use trails that can be used for a mountain bike excursion in a tranquil setting.
For more About Cycling in Steuben, check out how to Experience Wine County by Bike
One scenic byway routes in western Steuben connects two State Parks and takes you through part of the Finger Lakes Rustic and Wild footprint which has a number of highlights including the majestic waterfalls at Stony Brook State Park, as well as excellent culinary experiences at Savor Vineyards, Railhead Brewing, and Cider Creek Hard Cider.