The Good, The Bad, and The Gravel
Our universe has a strange and mystical way of creating and maintaining balance. There exists a good for an evil, lightness for darkness, yin for yang. And in the unfortunate decline and demise of US road racing events, there exists an explosion of gravel races and rides, and for good reason. Gravel is grassroots, inclusive, favors individuals over teams, and places as much, if not more, emphasis on the post ride community (read: beers) as on the race or ride itself. With new events popping up seemingly everywhere and all the time, I spent the last month traveling around Colorado checking out three new to me events. Here is the dirt!
First up was Crooked Gravel, presented by Roll Massif, in Winter Park, Colorado. Billed as a 93 or 65 mile sportive, and featuring two or three (depending on ride distance) timed uphill segments for a QOM/KOM prize, this was not so much a race, but was definitely ridden as one. A fast neutral roll out in the chilly mountain morning had a large group hitting the first gravel section at race speed, and with the fist timed segment at mile 8.6, this exploded pretty quick, especially for me, who exploded off the back soon after the road went uphill. Following the climb was a very long and sometimes treacherous water bottle ejecting descent, which smoothed out into pleasant rolling gravel passing large ranches in an open valley. I was accompanied by two dogs who gleefully chased me down the road for almost 2 miles. I hope they eventually stopped chasing the cyclists and returned home safely. I elected for the 93 mile ride, which featured the High Alpine Grind, an 11 mile forest road climb that ascended 2500 feet. The climb was bumpy, but not too hard or steep, just long. Unfortunately any views to be had were obscured by hazy skies from distant wildfires, but at least the air quality was decent. After hitting the aid station just past the top of the climb, the route doubled back on itself for an 11 mile descent down the same forest road, which was terrifically bumpy, sketchy, loose, and at times scary bombing down, especially with riders still climbing up. To make matters worse, from the bottom of the climb to the finish, 30 miles, was straight into a gale force headwind. Putting out personal best efforts in watts to be struggling into the wind and averaging 5 mph will seriously challenge anyone's mental state to keep going. This brutal finish straight into open roads and car traffic in downtown Winter Park was further unrewarded by a bland post race meal of pulled pork.
The setting at Rendezvous park was cool, with a mountain bike relay race going on, a skatepark, expo area, and a decent cover band on stage belting out classics.
I think there is room for improvement with this new event, and look forward to seeing it grow and flourish in the years to come.
Next up was Ned Gravel, in the infamously weird hippy mountain enclave of Nederland, Colorado. High above Boulder, and on the Peak to Peak highway, this town is on track to become unaffordable for the very type of community that makes it thrive. In the meantime we can enjoy hip coffee shops, small restaurants, a brewery, and even a gravel race. The race, brand new this year, is all about inclusivity and community. The first two weeks that registration was open, it was only available to women and BIPOC athletes. There were three courses to choose from, and an after party in Chataqua Park with vendors, a band, beer, and food trucks. I chose the Tungsten Course, and that featured 60 miles of a gnarly mix of terrain dominated by the Switzerland Trail, an old mining railroad grade turned into rocky Jeep road double track. Sections of the trail are pretty rough, but because of its proximity to Boulder, and high usage, there is a pretty clean line to follow 90% of the time, criss-crossing back and forth across the double track like a smooth ribbon in a rock garden. The other ten percent of the time, just hold on and send it! Descending this on a gravel bike, or mountain bike, is a blast. It's never too steep or technical, but fast and loose enough to guarantee to put a smile on your face, all the while praying you don't flat. Climbing it is less fun, only because it's so long, and just technical enough that its hard to enjoy the amazing views as you are not only taxed physically, but mentally by staying switched on and constantly adjusting your line through the rocks. In between sections of this trail the route hit up some incredibly smooth hard pack gravel, twisty canyon tarmac, and a leg breaking climb up the steepest county road in the country, the dreaded Lickskillet!! (https://www.youtube.com/
watch?v=x2BTU4Thk8Y) It's only a mile but at an average grade of 14.5%, and a max grade of over 24%, it is a slog! The course conditions were fantastic due a light rain in the early morning that held off just long enough to wait for the race to end, and then ruin the after party. This will for sure grow into a really cool must attend event, with the numerous course options and great mix of terrain making it friendly to a wide variety of people, and bikes. You might be better off on a mountain bike, or you might opt for 32c tires like me and just hope you can shred the gnar before it shreds you!
The final event for me was this past weekend's SBT GRVL in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. In only its second year, and with an international field 1,500 strong and a monster course of 142 miles of "champagne gravel" featuring over 9,000 feet elevation gain, this is for sure a monument of gravel! Everything about this event was so professional and well done, from the pre-ride information, route maps, social media hype, and the town's whole hearted welcome to thousands of dirt-crazed two wheelers. The vibe was similar to what happens in Emporia, Kansas, for Unbound Gravel, only on a smaller scale, for now anyway. I lined up at 6am with about 800 other people, including past and present world tour professionals, and probably a lot of people like me, for whom this would be their longest ride ever. The route was amazing, the dirt roads are smooth and fast, the descents not technical or scary, and a few amazing sections of private double track farm roads and even a smooth dirt ribbon on single track that blasted through a rushing creek! There were numerous climbs on course, but they were pretty short, with the only extended climb lasting 5 miles. Rolling and fast with great weather, and supported by amazing aid stations every 25 miles or so with everything you needed to stay fueled and hydrated, including real food like bananas, pickles, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and small paper cups filled with awesome amenities like Coca-cola and my personal favorite, pickle juice! Lots of riders in small groups, working together to speed along and share the workload all day, and everyone I encountered was friendly and encouraging. Full disclosure, I was hours behind the front of the race, so although we were riding hard, It felt more like a spirited group ride than a full on race. After the last climb there was a short section of paved descent, before the absolute gem of the ride, Cow Creek. This dirt road was fast and fun, about 8 miles out from town, downhill, double track, rocky, and just a blast. My feet hurt, my legs cramping in muscles I didn't know I had, and yet I was smiling ear to ear blasting down this dirt road, just humming along wishing it would never end, and at the same time, end soon so I could get off my bike!
My awesome and supportive wife was waiting at the finish line for me with clean clothes and water, and some of the Moots employees were handing cold seltzer water out. After a good 15 minutes of sitting on the curb I felt human enough to use my food and drink token on an ice cold IPA and a truly delicious wood fired pizza. Riders and bikes were everywhere, people were covered in dust and dirt, smiling, laughing, together, telling stories and high fiving new friends made over hundreds of miles of gravel. Just an amazing event, a great way to celebrate bikes and community.
I rode my custom carbon fiber Alchemy Atlas frame for all three rides. In addition, Alchemy makes a Gravel specific bike in the Ronin It was built 4 years ago, at the time as an "all-road" bike with road geometry and the ability to fit a 32c tire with knobbies as the max tire size, a 2x Shimano Di2 drivetrain and older Enve SES hooked rim wheels. I have been testing a new set of Alchemy carbon road wheels, and so far the only difference I notice is that they are faster than the Enve wheels, look for a full review coming soon! The Atlas is light, quick, and handles extremely well. I had a weird mix of tires for Crooked Gravel, a Challenge Chicane 33 up front, and a Donnelly CDG 30 in the rear. Bigger tires would have absolutely been more forgiving for Crooked, especially because the descents were long. For Ned and SBT I was able to source a pair of Donnelly Xplor USH 32 tires, and they were perfect. Run at a lower pressure, 38 in the front and 44 in the rear, they were grippy enough off-road, and really fast on the paved and hard pack gravel sections. There were a few sandy sections at SBT where I was slipping and sliding and literally surfing the dirt, but on such a long day with mostly smooth and hard pack terrain, I think a larger tire would be more comfortable, but also slower. All in all, a great machine built more for speed than comfort. Not a single flat or mechanical incident occurred at any of the rides, save for a dropped chain at Ned, blasting down a steep dirt descent with a vicious washboard section. And, thanks to my Alchemy carbon water bottle cages, no water bottles were lost or abandoned during the cumulative effort of almost 300 miles of gravel!
The Round Up
SBT was hands down the best of these events, and with multiple courses on offer, a rider could definitely spend far less time in the saddle and far more time at the expo and post race party if they so desired. It was also the furthest away from the front range, and planning on spending the weekend there is a good idea, but book your hotel or campsite early, as things fill up quickly. Ned was the next best, and for anyone dipping their toes into gravel racing, probably the best bet. It is the closest to the front range, shorter courses, so it doesn't have to take up your whole weekend, or even the whole day. This also had the gnarliest course, the only one of the three where you really should not be riding a road bike. That said, this course was also the most fun, especially if being under-biked on rough terrain excites you. As a bonus, Nederland is such a unique and cool place to spend a couple hours post race. That unfortunately leaves Crooked Gravel as my least favorite of these events. It was an exceptionally hard course, and really put the grind into a gravel grinder. As I stated earlier, my hope for this event is that it grows and improves, and I am glad I raced it, and probably would again. If for nothing else it proved a tremendously hard training ride a few weeks out from SBT.
In conclusion, the best part about all of these events is that you get to feel relatively safe riding new roads and new terrain. There is safety in numbers, and having on course support like road signs, aid stations, and course marshals stationed at intersections makes the logistics of tackling a bigger ride someone else's problem. You just get to clip in, pedal, and enjoy the scenery. The community and post ride celebrations are a great way to decompress, and share and celebrate with non riders as well. Plenty of families and children together at the events make them feel more inclusive and wholesome than your typical race. The overall winner of SBT GRVL, Alex Howes, even brought his baby onto the top step of the podium to celebrate!
Here's to getting out there, exploring new roads, meeting new people, and being part of growing our little community of dirt lovers!