Five years ago, Brad James went for one last ride, then sold his road bike. He’s never looked back.
These days, you’ll find him exclusively riding his gravel bike on the unpaved dirt roads throughout Boulder County.
For 50-year-old James — and many other Colorado cyclists — gravel riding is now king. Instead of riding from stoplight to stoplight on paved roads and living in constant fear that a distracted driver will hit them, cyclists riding on gravel can more or less relax and enjoy the scenery. They can head out on their bikes and just explore, turning down random dirt roads and seeing where they lead.
“I would get on my road bike and say, ‘Let’s go hammer out an hour-and-a-half, two-hour ride and I want off the bike,’” said James, who owns the Sports Garage bike shop in Boulder. “‘I’ve seen the majority of these roads a thousand times, there’s tons of traffic. Let’s just get a workout in and be done.’ The gravel bikes give you the ability to explore. You could’ve lived in Boulder for 30 years and there are places you’ve never seen on your road bike.”
Maybe you’ve heard people talking about gravel riding, one of the hottest trends in cycling. But what is it, exactly? And what makes it so special? Perhaps more importantly, how do you get started and where can you ride in Colorado? We’ve got answers.
What is gravel riding?
Gravel riding, aka gravel biking, isn’t really anything new, but it has become more popular in recent years. It’s a super simple concept: Hop on your bike and start riding on dirt and gravel roads, as opposed to riding on paved roads.
Cyclists have long been riding on dirt roads. They’d often modify their road bikes, putting on bigger tires that could tackle the ruts and bumps of unpaved roads.
In recent years, bicycle makers decided to get on board with the trend and start making bikes specifically designed for gravel. Better equipment has made it easier for more people to start gravel riding, thus boosting its popularity.
In addition to bigger tires, gravel bikes generally have bigger frames and are just all-around more comfortable than road bikes.
“The gravel bike will replace the road bike because it can do so much more,” said Whitney Allison, a pro bike racer and bike-focused business owner in Fort Collins. “You’re not just limited to one specific thing. With a mountain bike, you’re limited to pretty much trails, otherwise, it’s going to feel really slow. With a road bike, you’re pretty much limited to roads or super light gravel.”
Put another way: “Gravel bikes are like the SUV of the bicycle world,” James said.
What are the perks of gravel riding?
As more and more people move to Colorado, new development continues to skyrocket. This means there are more stoplights in town, more cars on the roads and just generally more people and built-out areas.
Gravel riding harkens back to simpler times, when you hopped on your bike and just started riding — for fun, without worries or disruptions. Many Colorado dirt and gravel roads are basically free of cars most of the time, which makes them feel safer to cyclists.
Another perk is exploring new areas on two wheels. Road cyclists are limited in terms of where they can go … as you might expect, they pretty much stick to paved roads. And mountain bikers typically stick to trails. But there are thousands of miles of gravel roads, which opens up tons of possibilities for cyclists.
By and large, gravel bike enthusiasts will tell you the sport is much more laid-back and welcoming than road cycling. It’s just a different vibe.
“In the road bike world, they were pretty snobbish and super clique-ish,” said James, who once was an avid road cyclist. “If you didn’t have the right gear, a lot of times people wouldn’t feel accepted into groups. There were a lot of people intimidated by straight-up road cyclists who sported their spandex. Gravel is freaking bring what you got, come all, we’re all here for just fun. You can show up to a gravel group ride and there’ll be plenty of spandex but plenty of people in baggy shorts and baggy shirts — and nobody cares.”
That accessibility is one of the main reasons Rose Barcklow and Laura Karpinski founded Gravel Bike Adventures, a website and gravel bike community for women and LGBTQ cyclists. Though COVID-19 has put a damper on their community rides this spring and summer, they plan to organize them again as soon as it’s safe to do so. Each week, they also research, test and document gravel routes on their website, which is a helpful resource for other riders.
“We really want to show women and the LGBTQ community that you can go out and ride and you don’t have to have that mentality of racing,” Barcklow said. “I usually say road biking is like running and gravel biking is like hiking. You’re really slowing down, appreciate that you’re on a new adventure and you don’t really know what’s going to happen.”
How do I get started?
You don’t need to be a hardcore cyclist to try gravel riding — far from it, in fact.
One of the best ways to get started is by going out and riding with someone who’s familiar with a particular region. There are also regular group rides in cities across Colorado, so a quick Google search can help you figure out where and when these rides take place.
As for your gear, consider visiting a bike shop and trying out a demo bike. You can rent a gravel bike for a few days or even a full week to see how you like it. A bike retailer will make sure the bike fits you, too.
A few other pieces of advice:
- By and large, gravel riding feels safer than both road biking and mountain biking. But it still has risks. Since you’re riding in remote parts of Colorado, there aren’t many people passing by who could offer you assistance if you get injured or need help. Similarly, there aren’t a ton of convenience stores or gas stations you can pop into if you need quick calories or some water. Be prepared and be careful.
- If you’re a road cyclist, remember that a gravel ride will take longer than you expect, so plan accordingly when it comes to water and food. “We basically have to double our road biking time for gravel,” Barcklow said.
- Always ride with someone else. As mentioned above, gravel riding can take you to some remote places, so it’s a good idea to have a buddy who can get help if needed.
Where should I go gravel riding in Colorado?
Technically speaking, you can go gravel riding anywhere there are dirt roads. But that’s not very helpful, is it? Consider making a long weekend out of it and visiting these up-and-coming gravel biking destinations in Colorado.
Fort Collins is one of Colorado’s best gravel riding destinations because it has the perfect blend of in-town amenities and easy-to-access, long gravel rides, according to Zach Allison, a longtime gravel enthusiast and pro bike racer.
“Fort Collins is pretty dense, but it’s not crazy dense,” he said. “You can get out of town really quickly.”
You can also access diverse gravel terrain, he added. Long, open stretches, mountain bike trails that are easy enough that you can hit them on your gravel bike, challenging climbs, rolling hills — it’s all here.
And the best part? When you get back, sweaty and dusty, you can hit up all the other things that make Fort Collins great — the breweries, restaurants, hotels.
Allison should know. In 2016, he co-founded FoCo Fondo, a gravel ride (choose 12, 25, 50 or 100 miles) and festival that takes place each July.
He also co-founded a bike adventure and tourism company called Bike Sports with his wife, Whitney Allison.
Through Bike Sports, the Allisons offer multi-day gravel riding vacations and camps for people who want to spend a few days exploring all the region has to offer, on two wheels. (Their business also includes a gravel racing team, a bike fit studio and a separate website called Gravel Graceland that describes gravel routes in northern Colorado.)
If you’re new to the world of gravel, the Allisons will take you out on a guided adventure tailored to your goals and fitness level. A typical itinerary includes three days of riding between 40 to 60 miles each day (with a support vehicle driving behind), followed by beers and dinner at a Fort Collins restaurant or brewery. Through partnerships with local retailers, they can also get you set up on a demo gravel bike to try out.
“It’s really a full, super fun weekend of recreating but without having the stress of trying to figure out where to go or traveling with your bike,” Zach Allison said.
Boulder is already a hotbed for all things cycling, so it stands to reason that it would be a haven for gravel riding, too. Similar to Fort Collins, it’s pretty quick and easy to get out of town and onto dirt roads, without a lot of hassle.
James, the Boulder bike shop owner, recommends heading north and west on your gravel bike during the warmer months. When he has an afternoon to kill, he’ll ride up Sunshine Canyon and just go where the gravel roads lead him.
Pre-COVID-19, the store organized big group rides throughout the year. Those are on hold for now, but keep an eye out for when they start back up again.
When you arrive back in town after your ride, of course there are dozens of craft breweries, distilleries, restaurants, coffee shops and stores to check out, too.
Want to really get out of town and explore new scenery on your bike? Head for Steamboat Springs.
Steamboat has long had a gravel riding culture. But now, this mountain town is becoming a destination for cyclists across Colorado and beyond.
And it makes perfect sense. Steamboat is accustomed to having thousands and thousands of visitors each year during ski season — there are hotels, restaurants, bars and tons of activities. The region also has a strong history of ranching, which continues to this day, so there are “endless gravel roads” to ride on, according to Amy Charity, who helps run SBT GRVL, a Steamboat gravel cycling event that started in 2019.
“We literally have over 600 miles of dirt roads around Routt County, which is incredible,” Charity said.
And Steamboat’s gravel riding is accessible. If you want something challenging, it’s here. If you’re just getting started, you’ll find easier rides as well.
“People gravitate toward it because it’s like, ‘Wow, we can just spend our day on our bikes and explore these cool places we’ve never been,’” Charity said. “The feeling is a little bit freer, that you can go anywhere. It’s not about how fast we’re going, this is about exploring and, ‘Oh wow, did you see the elk out here, there are llamas on this road, there’s buffalo on that one.’”
If you’re new to the area, Charity recommends heading north out of town. There, you’ll find gravel roads everywhere.
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