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A year and a half ago, Front Range traffic had all but killed my will to battle other drivers on the way to my favorite mountain bike trailheads. And road cycling always seemed like a good way to breathe in car exhaust while dodging inattentive motorists. So instead of riding a few days every week like I did when I first moved to the Mile High City, I found myself sitting on my couch. Friends told me I should try gravel cycling to fill the two-wheeled void in my life.
Although it’s technically one of the oldest cycling disciplines—simply because paved roads were rare when bikes were invented—the practice of riding on rocky roads has been experiencing a renaissance lately. It felt like a fad to me. Gravel bikes aren’t as fast as road bikes or as capable as mountain bikes, I reasoned. But as I found out in spring 2022, when I bought a budget gravel rig to replace my aging commuter cycle, a gravel bike can do something no road or mountain bike can: take me from my front door near downtown Denver to the mountains and back again. My full-suspension bike would be too slow to tackle such a big ride, and a traditional road cycle would rattle me to pieces once I left the pavement. A gravel bike’s plump tires and relaxed frame geometry can absorb all but the chunkiest terrain while still being fast (enough) on pavement. Better yet, even living in the heart of the city, I can reach trout-filled streams, aspen groves, and bighorn sheep, all with minimal time spent riding in traffic, thanks to the metro area’s network of multiuse paths.
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This epiphany reignited my passion for cycling, and I’m not the only one. “I think we were like 50 people strong for the first six months,” says Logan Fair, who created the Colorado Gravel Grinders Facebook group in 2016. Seven years later, the community has more than 5,600 members, more than half of whom have joined since 2020, when COVID-19 sent people socially distancing outdoors. While pandemic restrictions have disappeared, the gravel boom hasn’t. Fair says the majority of people who’ve joined since 2020 are still riding, and new cyclists are adding to their ranks all the time. The market reflects this trend. Gravel bikes are one of the fastest-growing segments in the bicycle industry, with sales jumping 109 percent between 2019 and 2021. Locally, Alchemy Bikes, a high-end bicycle manufacturer based in Golden, has seen a steep decline in riders who want a dedicated road bike. “It’s a little bit limiting,” says Bryce Wood, the company’s operations manager. “People want versatility.”
They also want to feel welcomed. Road riding has built a strong culture, one that’s dominated by white men and women, and mountain biking’s expensive gear, steep learning curve, and send-it-bro vibes keep many would-be riders away. But gravel cycling doesn’t have the same barriers to entry, says Marcus Robinson, a longtime cyclist and co-founder of Denver-based cycling advocacy group Ride For Racial Justice. Traffic and technical terrain are sporadic, meaning it doesn’t require specialized skills to get started. “It’s just an open road that has dirt on it,” Robinson says. “It’s the only place right now where I feel that I’m totally comfortable.”
Gravel Bike Breakdown
Any bike can be a gravel bike if you ride it on gravel, but the discipline’s growing popularity is due, in large part, to a new breed of gravel-specific bicycles (which start around $1,000). And there’s a lot more to them than simply slapping some bigger tires on a road rig, says Adam Miller, founder of Carbondale’s Revel Bikes. Here’s what makes Revel’s Rover (from $4,000) perfect for getting on, and then off, the asphalt.
For a stable ride, gravel bikes typically have a longer wheelbase and a less steeply raked headtube (the part of the frame that holds the front fork in place) than road bikes. Too much rake, though—say, an angle of 66 degrees or less—and the bike “starts to steer like a boat,” Miller says. At a 71.5-degree angle, the Rover’s headtube hits the sweet spot, he says.
Getting away from civilization safely means carrying more gear (see “Everyday Carry” below) than you would on a typical road ride. The Rover features four bottle cage mounting points, which can also be used to attach bags and other gear.
Road bike drop bars (handlebars that curve back on themselves) allow riders to tuck into an aerodynamic body position. Gravel bikes have drop bars, too, but the lower parts of the bars also flare out to give the rider better control on bumpy terrain.
Skinny tires go fast. Fat tires provide better traction and a more comfortable ride. The Rover comes with 40-millimeter-diameter tires, which Miller says is the most versatile size, but can fit up to 50-millimeter monsters.
Single-chainring drivetrains are popular with mountain bikers for their reliability and decreased weight, and the trend is making its way into gravel. Some riders still prefer to have two chainrings up front to make climbing easier and descending faster.
Racers want stiff bikes that transfer all their power into forward motion. That also means they can feel every pebble on the road, so when you’re riding a trail that’s all rocks—i.e., gravel—you want a supple frame that can absorb some of that chatter.
Tubes are becoming a thing of the past, thanks to goos that coat the inside of your tires to plug any punctures on the go. You’ll need a tubeless-ready wheel, however, that can create an airtight seal between the rim and the rubber.
Sizing It Up
Finding a bike that fits is less like getting a new T-shirt and more like buying a suit. So think of Zack Allison—co-owner of Bike Sports, a Fort Collins bicycle fitting studio, event organizer, and race team—as your tailor.
- First read up on what various bikes are intended for to find a match for your riding style—whether that’s smooth gravel or chunky singletrack.
- Most brands have sizing tools on their websites that use your inseam and height, but sizes can overlap, meaning a rider who’s five-foot-10 might technically fit on both a medium and a large. “That’s when you need to find a shop and have them help size you,” Allison says.
- Don’t plan on a perfect fit when you first hop on the bike. At a minimum, you’ll need to adjust the saddle and handlebars, but you may also need to swap out some parts (such as the stem, which connects the bars to your fork and can change your handlebar position drastically). “If you have pain in an area,” he says, “move things to where you have less pain.”
- Cycling has a lot of repetitive movements, and that’s a recipe for discomfort and overuse injuries, Allison says. Consider a professional fitting (Bike Sports’ starts at $250), which will check things like proper knee angle and foot placement.
The Front Range may be Colorado’s most densely populated urban corridor, but finding wide-open gravel isn’t a problem.
Paved Road | Paved Multiuse Trail | Gravel Road | Singletrack And/Or Doubletrack Trail
Accessible via: Surface streets, greenways, vehicle, public transit
As cliché as it sounds, this Aurora green space is an urban oasis, and the tangle of gravel roads and singletrack on the park’s southeast side won’t let you forget it. In rainy years, the prairie grasses and wildflowers can reach your handlebars, and you’re sure to spot eastern cottontail rabbits and prairie dogs—just watch out for the latter’s burrows, which they often build in the middle of the trail. It’s possible to make a 10-plus-mile-long loop of gravel and protected bike paths that more or less hugs the park’s perimeter, but with the 40-mile-long, multiuse Cherry Creek Trail bisecting the park, you can ride pretty much as far as you want without having to cycle in traffic.
Gravel Road | Singletrack And/Or Doubletrack Trail
Accessible via: Surface streets, vehicle
The south side of Commerce City’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal has more than 10 miles of cruisy single- and doubletrack trails (just make sure you don’t pedal onto the intertwined hiker-only routes), and if you’re lucky, you’ll spy the resident bison herd. For a bigger ride, tack on the Perimeter Trail, a 14.2-mile gravel road sandwiched between a fence and the busy streets that hem in the west, north, and east sides. While the scenery is not particularly stunning, it’s a great place to clock some miles without worrying about getting clocked by a Subaru.
Accessible via: Greenway, vehicle
Waterton Canyon is reachable from Denver by bike on the High Line Canal Trail or Mary Carter Greenway—save for the final stretch, where you have to navigate the roads and trails surrounding Chatfield State Park—so it’s a great escape from the city without getting in a car. (There is a parking lot, with a restroom, just across from the Littleton trailhead, and we won’t judge if you use it.) The closed-to-cars gravel road ascends 6.2 miles and around 800 feet along the South Platte River to the Strontia Springs Dam, but the slope is so gentle you’ll barely notice it. While the crowds typically die out after the first few miles, the views don’t, and if you’ve got burly tires—at least 40 millimeters in diameter—you can continue onto the Colorado Trail proper for chunky singletrack. Or, if you’re riding in summer, head to the swim beach at neighboring Chatfield to cool off before you head home.
Paved Multiuse Trail | Gravel Road | Singletrack And/Or Doubletrack Trail
Accessible via: Greenway, vehicle
To avoid paying the $10 entrance fee, you can stash your car at the Morrison park-and-ride lot on South Rooney Road and cycle into this Lakewood park for free. It’s also reachable from Englewood along the Bear Creek Trail. However you arrive, expect some technical riding as most of the park’s trails are singletrack, ranging from the smooth-ish dirt on the 6.6-mile Mt. Carbon Loop to chunk on the North Park Trails. Bear Creek Greenbelt Park, which connects to Bear Creek Lake Park to the east, is also home to various unpaved trails worth exploring.
Paved Multiuse Trail | Soft-Surface Multiuse Trail
Accessible via: Greenway, vehicle
It’s easy to crank out miles on the High Line Canal Trail—heading west, it rises less than three feet every mile, on average—so it’s a good thing that, at 71 miles, it’s one of the longest continuous urban trails in the country. The first 35 miles or so from Waterton Canyon to Cherry Hills Village are gravel; then the route becomes paved pretty much the rest of the way to Green Valley Ranch, near DIA. Cottonwoods along the 140-year-old canal offer shade in the summer and a show in autumn, and you’ll also pass the occasional farm, pond, and park, as well as plenty of tidy backyards.
Paved Road | Paved Multiuse Trail | Gravel Road | Singletrack And/Or Doubletrack Trail | Soft-Surface Multiuse Trail
Difficulty: Easy to expert
Accessible via: Surface streets, vehicle, greenway
When people picture gravel riding, Boulder County is what they see. The area’s network of soft-surface regional greenways, multiuse paths, open space trails, and pastoral farm roads can be strung together for choose-your-own-adventure spins ranging from easy meanders to century rides. Standouts include the 2.3-mile Teller Farm Trail, a sojourn through farmland still used for crops, cattle grazing, and beekeeping; the 14-mile Coal Creek Trail, which connects Lafayette, Louisville, and Superior; and the East Boulder Trail, a mix of single- and doubletrack that snakes through the rolling prairie of White Rocks Nature Preserve, home to bald eagles and snapping turtles. While most of the gravel routes are easy to moderate, linking them into a longer loop usually requires navigating surface streets and speedy exurban traffic.
Bucket List Rides
Four epic gravel routes spread across the state’s most epic terrain.
At just 17 miles, this relatively short—but steep—gravel route winds through Mineral County’s ghost towns and bristlecone forests. Ride the loop counterclockwise and, after suffering through around four miles of climbing, you’ll be able to cruise the rest of the way.
Expect a steady climb from Cañon City through rock tunnels and along trickling Eightmile Creek to Cripple Creek on this former railroad bed turned gravel legend. To make a 65-mile loop, take Shelf Road, which snakes down a neighboring canyon, back to town.
Stephen Beneski, co-founder of the Colorado-based publisher behind Gravel Adventure Field Guide, curated this 71-mile ride—which runs along the northern base of 9,633-foot Fishers Peak—for the company’s Trinidad/Las Animas County pocket guide. “You pass these arroyos, which are like mini Grand Canyons,” he says, “and pronghorn sheep run with you for miles.”
Hikers have the famed Zirkel Circle (a 10.4-mile loop around the Mount Zirkel Wilderness). Cyclists can make their own 153-mile circumnavigation of its namesake mountain by connecting various gravel and paved roads starting in Steamboat Springs. Check out thedirtyroads.com for a map and route description.
Leaving the blacktop behind means you need to be prepared. These nine essentials will help ensure you make it back home on two wheels instead of two feet.
Pump or CO2 Canister
Both will refill your tire, but we prefer a small hand pump (even though it takes a lot more work), because it can be used again and again for free.
Bike-specific models include the most common hex wrench sizes and screwdrivers to keep things tight. Some can even mend broken chains.
Food that can replace the salts you’re sweating out—such as these chews ($2.45) from Boulder’s Skratch Labs—are a must.
If your bike still uses tubes, you’ll need an extra one if you get a puncture.
Having a patch kit can be the difference between riding and walking if your spare tube gets damaged.
There are some breaches even tubeless sealant goo can’t cork. Carrying a plug kit (or a spare tube) can get you rolling again.
Use these to remove and re-seat a tire in case of a nicked tube.
Wind and Rain Protection
Colorado’s weather, especially during prime riding season, is volatile. Any light shell will work, but we dig that the Summit Barrier jacket (men‘s and women’s, $85) from Pearl Izumi can pack down to the size of an orange.
Carry cash (and cards) in case of, well, emergencies.
Riding in Style
With gravel riding taking the best of both road cycling and mountain biking, it’s only fitting that it cribs their styles as well. Here, our guide to three distinct characters you may see out on the unpaved roads and the local companies that can help you get the look.
These recovering racers aren’t ready to give up the form-fitting jerseys and bibs that decrease wind resistance and show off the quads they’ve spent years building.
Cycling apparel giant Pearl Izumi, whose U.S. headquarters are in Louisville, combined gravel cycling’s all-terrain aesthetic with the slippy speed of aerodynamic road tops to create this limited-edition version of its staple Pro Mesh Jersey. Men’s and women’s; $150
Boulder-based Panache took its road cycling bib—basically, padded cycling shorts with shoulder straps that keep them firmly in place—and added two pockets on the back and a pouch on each leg for stashing cell phones, snacks, and other essentials. Men’s and women’s; $209
The loose garments worn by converted mountain bikers might make them slower, but they’re also comfortable and attract less attention during brewery pit stops.
The laid-back fit and styling of this technical tee from Denver’s Pactimo mean it won’t look out of place on a mountain bike, but its long backside will keep your backside covered—even when you’re tucked over the bars. Men’s and women’s; $85
Mountain-bike-style shorts are great for riders who want more protection from trail rash in case of a crash. The Ilex shorts from Primal Wear in Denver sport a rear zippered compartment so valuables won’t rattle out. Pair them with a pair of bib liners to protect your tailbone and prevent chafing. Men’s and women’s; $100
Unlike roadies, who fawn over European cycling style houses such as Rapha and Café Du Cycliste, those coming straight to gravel don’t respect any style police.
This snap-button flannel from Denver’s Flylow can be worn to the office or on the trail, and while it may be decidedly un-aerodynamic, its stretchy nylon-spandex blend is quick-drying and rated UPF 50 for long days in the saddle. Men’s and women’s; $80
You could make your own jorts with a pair of scissors, but Boulder-based Ripton & Co. offers a wide variety of performance denim bottoms, including these shorts made from a blend of cotton, elastane, and recycled polyester that are sure to be the stretchiest pair of Daisy Dukes you’ve ever owned. Men’s and women’s; $65
Three go-to route resources for Colorado and beyond.
Although it’s focused on Colorado and the Front Range, this website features a comprehensive collection of trail descriptions and GPS files for routes across the country.
This Steamboat Springs–based website has curated a list of monumental gravel rides across the state—and better yet, it includes GPS files for more than 50 of them and a handful of in-depth route descriptions.
Visiting Mesa, Pueblo, or Las Animas counties or the San Luis Valley? Snag one of these free Colorado-made pocket guides at various bike shops in each area or order them online for a small fee.
Marcus Robinson, a bike racer and co-founder of the Denver-based national nonprofit Ride For Racial Justice, explains in his own words why gravel cycling is his last safe space on two wheels.
After the murder of George Floyd, when the country was in turmoil, my wife said to me, “Baby, you can’t go ride by yourself anymore, because you could end up in a ditch.” I made a post on Instagram about that, and my co-founder, Neal Henderson, whom I’ve known for 18 or 20 years now, reached out and said, “We gotta do something about this.” That turned into us having a community ride in Denver just a few weeks later. About 75 to 100 people showed up, and we were having tough conversations from the seat of a bike. Those conversations were eye-opening for me and the rest of the folks riding with us. We just felt energized, and that turned into more community rides and bigger rides.
Then I reached out to the organizers of the Steamboat Gravel [SBT GRVL] race, and we came up with a plan to have 25 diverse riders from across the country participate in August 2021. We got sponsors and trained them virtually. We paid for the whole thing with crowdsourcing and just going into each other’s pockets to pull it off. Steamboat is a beautiful place, but there are not a lot of people who look like us there. But the city embraced us. Nobody honked. Nobody tried to run us off the road. Everybody was waving and giving directions. The community embraced us. We have tough conversations with the organizers, which is great. They’re learning from us, and we’re learning from them.
So gravel turned this light on. Our members think it is the best thing ever because they’re able to take their families out cycling and don’t have to be afraid of riding in the hustle and bustle of a city. I won’t go back to racing on the road. I don’t need that stress, and I don’t need the arrogance of it. And while mountain biking was new at one point, it was never really accessible. It takes a lot to do it. It’s technical, and gravel is not. We’re slowly working through our community, trying to get the grandmas and grandpas and the aunts and the uncles out on bicycles to show them how accessible it is and that they have every opportunity to do these types of things. Once they get out there, then the smiles begin.
Gravel has actually become more inclusive, not only toward Black folks but also for transgender folks, for LGBTQ+ folks, too. I think it’s so inclusive because it’s so new. The old ways of thinking and racing have gone by the wayside. Gravel is a place to be safe and express yourself and not be worried about, you know, getting hit or shot. We have younger, more diverse folks and more people who are more in tune with the universe, shall I say. They are carving out a space that looks like them. —as told to Nicholas Hunt
Find a Friend
Like all things fun, gravel cycling is best when shared with others.
Best for Changemakers
Marcus Robinson’s nonprofit, Ride for Racial Justice, works to make everyone feel safe on a bicycle through an athlete program that funds the participation of cyclists of color in races and community rides across the country, including one in Colorado Springs this month (date TBD).
Best for Digital Natives
With more than 5,500 Facebook members, Colorado Gravel Grinders is a great place to find IRL riding partners and group outings online, as well as to swap routes, trail conditions, photos, and advice.
Best for Cube Dwellers
The only dress code when riding with Boulder-based Thank Gravel It’s Friday—which hosts Wednesday after-work women’s outings, Friday gravel spins, and monthly full moon cruises—is to wear a T-shirt.
Best for Gravel Newbies
The 10- to 25-mile gravel rides put on by meetup.com’s Colorado Front Range Road & Gravel Cycling Group are no-drop, meaning you won’t get left behind even if you’re slow.
Best for Anyone & Everyone
Boulder’s Full Cycle Bikes helps organize gravel outings on Wednesdays with Ride or Die Collective, a community of women, trans, femme, and nonbinary cyclists; on Thursdays with Boulder Cycling Club; and on Sundays via its own beginner, intermediate, and advanced shop rides.
Gravel races are some of cycling’s most accessible and welcoming competitions, not just because of the community that surrounds them, but also because you often don’t need a racing license from the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s governing body, to participate, says Bike Sport’s Whitney Allison. These six local contests can get you started.
Mileage: 25 | 67
A moose led the peloton during the 2021 running of this Winter Park event put on by the Ride Collective, a Colorado-based event organizer that runs eight road, gravel, and mountain bike races in Colorado and New Mexico. So that should give you a pretty good sense of the terrain you’ll be riding through during the four-year-old race, which happens every July.
Mileage: 12 | 32 | 50 | 118
Founded in 2015 by Whitney and Zack Allison, the FoCo Fondo offers the same prize purse for the top finishers in the men’s, women’s, and nonbinary categories. This year’s event, which took place in Fort Collins in July, had four routes, but only those riders who completed the 118-mile course in a specified amount of time received bolo ties as finisher medals.
Mileage: 15 | 38 | 72 | 110
Take advantage of Pueblo County’s long riding season at this new four-course event with appropriately spicy names: the Mild, the Lil Chile, the Half, and the Whole. The race, which takes place this year over the weekend of October 14, is part of founder Adam Davidson’s mission to help boost cycling and cycling tourism in southern Colorado.
Mileage: 53 | 93
The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, which sees roadies race a train from Durango to Silverton each May, is one of the most famous cycling to-dos in the state, and the event—which also includes mountain bike contests and untimed rides—added this gravel battle to its schedule in 2017.
Mileage: 37 | 69 | 100 | 142
This race in Steamboat Springs partnered with both Ride For Racial Justice and All Bodies On Bikes, an organization that encourages all shapes and sizes to ride, to help bring 45 diverse competitors to the 3,000-plus-person event this past August. Want your legs to hate you even more? The event hosted a Friday-night hill climb this year.
Mileage: 46 | 67 | 112
In 2021, wellness conglomerate Life Time added the Rad Dirt Fest (September 30 this year) in Trinidad to its roster of more than 30 national triathlons, marathons, and bike races, which include Kansas’ iconic Unbound Gravel event and the Leadville Race Series. Expect a slickly produced event and a competitive pace.