One man’s quest to find out what’s up with this gravel bike craze
We were somewhere around mile 135 when the Tailwind electrolyte concoction began to take hold. I remember saying something like, “I’m feeling great; maybe I should pull for a bit…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar around our three-person peloton as the heavens opened up and what looked like little white pellets started pelting our dirt-crusted legs. Our bikes were going about 25 miles per hour to Trinidad and as hail rained down and thunder clapped, the person bringing up the rear was screaming, “This is what gravel biking is all about!”
Instead of Hunter S. Thompson’s “savage journey to the heart of the American dream,” in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” this truth-seeking adventurous attempt at gonzo journalism sought to find — no, experience — the so-called future epicenter for Colorado’s latest in vogue endurance craze: gravel grinding.
“Yeah, what’s the deal with this gravel bike thing?” a perplexed co-worker asked when I told him of my ‘assignment,’ unknowingly crafting a workable lede with his inquiry.
When Lifetime — the owners of 30-plus events nationwide including the Leadville 100, Unbound Gravel, the Chequamegon MTB Festival and the Crusher in the Tushar (all part of the most elite professional off-road series in America, dubbed the “Lifetime Grand Prix”) — decided to add a new event to its portfolio back in 2021, they searched for a community oozing with off-road potential.
“We found that in Trinidad,” Lifetime’s Kimo Seymour told Outside Magazine in April of 2021, six months before the inaugural Rad Dirt Fest.
With 8,329 residents, the quiet seat of Las Animas county – which boasts roughly 1,500-miles of gravel veins traversing its endless plains, forest-enclosed ranches, and deceivingly substantial hills — has all the makings of the next Boulder, a haven for trail runners and dirt-driven bikers.
“Because we invest so heavily in the communities where our events take place, it was important for us to foresee that the area had potential to be an up-and-coming cycling destination,” stated Amanda Boyer, Lifetime’s marketing manager.
“And, most importantly, that the city or town would want us there. Trinidad, with its gorgeous area, dotted with Spanish Peaks, has goals for itself to be the next big outdoor recreation destination and welcomed us with open arms and an invitation to join them on their growth mission.”
I went to find out for myself.
Pains, chains and cycling destination campaigns
The ominous overcast skies exaggerated packet pick-up day’s frigid temperatures and quickened the night’s cooling as I pulled into main street Trinidad at 5:53 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 7. The quaint town allowed me to park close, and I skipped across the street to say hi to vendors and plan my drop-bag attire. Smiles, music, Ventum’s shiny new bikes — excitement filled the expo’s air as in-shape cyclists restlessly killed time, unsure how to handle energy from a final taper day. One spartan rode back and forth on a street, checking his GPS, a soldier of the plan. His face had an icy demeanor. After some quick math, I imagined myself finishing at the same time tomorrow. Could be cold, I thought. Better ride fast.
“It’s super cold,” Christian Farrach, a Miami cyclist and native of Columbia, said in his puffy exactly 24 hours later. Farrach finished the Stubborn Deloras — the signature 165-mile route with 11,345 feet of elevation gain — in 9 hours, 37 minutes and 2 seconds. “I suffered for half of the race.”
His Miami training partner, Tim Rea, who finished third overall in 8:53:11, concurred. “We were freezing,” he said. “Miami is still like 85….we come here and we’re like full-winter.”
He pauses, then concludes, “Yeah, we’ll come back for sure.”
The ‘cold’ (the high was 62) was a little unexpected, at least according to the nifty coffee table book promoting the burgeoning gravel scene — and it’s year-round rider friendly climate — given to every competitor.
The marketing tool was put together by Juan Alberto de la Roca, founder of Backshop Bikes. De la Roca you could say, has spearheaded the charge behind Trinidad’s city-wide campaign to become the next big thing in gravel. In 2019, an Outside Business Journal press release, written by Backshop Bikes, stated, “Southeastern Colorado, with it’s amazing scenery, history, and culture, is the next great state cycling destination to explore.”
“If you’re looking for a new, relatively undiscovered, place to ride your bike then the Canyons and Plains region is a bucket list gravel bike destination to consider,” it continued.
The goal of the “Explore Las Animas gravel cycling tourism campaign” was to foster awareness of gravel adventure and backpacking opportunities along the southern Front Range by using a blend of film and photo content production, cycling industry and social media outreach and sports event tourism.
“Trinidad has the raw ingredients to be an amazing bike destination,” de la Roca was quoted in the release. “Diverse terrain, fantastic weather, and no crowds or traffic. With new resident and visitor growth in Colorado, and the gravel bike boom, a starting point was identified.”
De la Roca’s nifty book, complete with dozens of routes of varying lengths, even seems to know which bike-rich communities could be lured to the state’s southern corner. On a page dedicated to Fishers Peak State Park, Colorado’s newest, it boasts of the peak’s vastness: 39,000 acres and 3,000 feet of elevation gain. Then it states, “To put the size of Trinidad’s Fishers Peak in perspective, Vail has 5,289 skiable acres. It has the same vertical gain as most 14ers.”
Rea has ridden in Boulder and Vail before, but what those places have in cycling tradition and warm weather (Boulder) or steep trails with jagged mountain views (Vail), he sees Trinidad trading for fast, flowy, smooth routes of endless variety, difficulty and length.
“Really good, nice gravel, beautiful course,” Rea said looking back on his day. “It was really nice.”
Fifty-five athletes set out from downtown Trinidad for the 165-mile option, under the blanket of a thick 7 a.m. fog which obscured Fishers Peak’s midsection. A steep climb on a brick road — “is this the cobblestone section?” remarked a humorous rider attempting to liken our journey to the famous Paris-Roubaix classic — brought us off the main drag, and after only a few turns through town, we hit our first gravel patch. Figuring we couldn’t have been farther than one mile from the stone buildings, coffee and art shops shaping the historic downtown, the whole ‘gravel paradise potential’ talked was immediately legitimized.
Still acquainting myself with my week-old gravel bike, I kept my distance on the first downhills. It was a disciplinary exercise in conservatism, suppressing the competitive voice inside, all the while knowing the arduous nature of my present chore would only harden by letting the quickly establishing groups go this early. By mile 9, I had lost sight of the leaders. “Well, there’s always next year,” I laughed inside, mimicking the mocking phrase my twin brother and I used to utter as kids when our woebegone Madden franchises lost in the playoffs. A man on a mountain bike with his daughter flew by.
I was alone. Briefly.
Just then, Nik Karbelnikoff and his friend, James Scheurer, hopped on my wheel. Knifing through the wind, the Boulder riders pushed our mini-peloton to new heights. As we passed cyclists, some joined, but most dissipated in our wake before they could react. On a steep climb, I liked my cadence and kept it, pulling ever so slightly ahead.
“Not now — long day ahead of us,” Karblenikoff exhaled. Early into a ride 60% longer than any I’d ever attempted, I tried to convince myself I knew what I was doing, and pressed on. Karblenikoff, whom I would later learn was fresh off of a European bike-packing trip, probably was wiser.
The VP of Operations at Orum, the youthful-looking 36-year-old’s jovial aura and Patrick Dempsey-like stubble drew a striking resemblance to my old college track teammate (who, if he sees this, would be the type to forever cling to the Dempsey reference). When I saw Karblenikoff at the first aid station — we backtracked an extra 200-yards to get to the outhouse … so take that podium placers — I sort of wondered if he was in fact my teammate, who, according to social media, now lived in Denver. Crazy stuff like that could happen in Trinidad, I figured.
As the fog stubbornly refused to lift, the 29-mile prelude loop was somewhat robbed of its expansive views. Rolling past ranch signs and small homesteads, objects crystalized at the last instant. “Watch out for cows,” the race starter had warned during the race start’s countdown. “Like…seriously, watch for cows.”
Following a close encounter with one, those prescient words played on repeat for 20 minutes — the first of many mantras. When you strap in for a 10-hour day in the saddle, self-talk becomes both a primary form of entertainment and an illuminating introspective record of what is never anything but a slightly condensed Odyssey.
Leaving the plains
“I loved it when you got into the mountains — that part was beautiful,” said Pedro Camargo, another member of the Miami contingent, speaking of mile 60 onward. When I reached that particular checkpoint, I loaded up on fluids and caramel-flavored wafer cookies, which I was devouring ad nauseam at that juncture.
“These are literally the only reason I do these bike events,” I said to a teenager working the aid station, our last until mile 104, as I grabbed another handful. My half-truth garnered a laugh — from my wife — which was good enough. I stalled for about 10 minutes, mostly because I overheard someone say the next aid wasn’t actually until we’d circled back to this exact point, 66 miles from now. I was almost positive that couldn’t be true, so I went to the outhouse line for the truth.
“No, I think there’s something at 104,” a man replied. Then, as he stuffed granola bars in his back bib pockets, added with a disheartening level of depression in his voice, “This is where the course gets like, pretty hard, I think.”
With that purveyor of positivity in my rearview, I set out along the route’s first sustained climb, which reminded me of my daily mining road routes (minus the cold and plus the oxygen saturation). Establishing a rhythm, I imagined embodying Marco Pantani. The late, great, bald Italian climber seemed to pull his pedals up mountains instead of mashing them down, as if a divine, ethereal cord drew him to the summit. I passed three riders, then four. Having shed my long sleeve and gloves, my skin basked in the warm sun as my bike flew up County 44’s smooth gravel. Like Camargo, it was the high point of my day.
Ahead, the mountain biker — perhaps the only one in the 165-mile race — who’d passed me 70 miles ago, riding with a young girl, came into view. Madeline and Jeremy Harvey — father and daughter – came to Trinidad as a precursor for her big debut in another Lifetime race in 2023.
“All three of us are doing Leadville 100 next year, so it was kind of a, not gear-up race, but a have fun, see what we can do,” Madeline, who will be gunning for a sub-10 hour time in the marquee mountain bike event next year, said. The third piece of the velo-inspired triumvirate referenced is her brother, Connor, 18, who placed sixth in the Rad Dirt Frijole (38-mile).
After getting second in the 60-mile Gunni Grinder two weeks prior – a missed turn may have cost her gold – the Arvada youngster was anxious to try something bigger. “After that, we decided we had to do this,” her father, an LT100 veteran, explained.
Comforted by the bonding process I was leaving behind — and the fact that I knew someone would be coming if I ended up with a flat — I maintained my cadence and road ahead. For the next 20 miles, I carefully rationed the first of two 24-oz water bottles, hoping to break into the second only if I got desperate. At mile 83, the course tilted down —finally — a squirrely forest road. Then, thunder, rain, and eventually hail joined the third movement of this never-ending symphony….you know, the movement you want to fall asleep during but can’t because your neck and bum hurt from sitting too long in a concert hall.
Descending daintily, I thanked my lucky stars for being where I was when I was; washed out, muddy ruts would have been catastophic for a greenhorn like me. Soon, I was in my element, climbing again. At first, the hail and rain on my neck offered cool refreshment, but the sensation quickly morphed into something like shards of glass pecking holes into my salt-crusted skin. Though my body heat was dropping, my psyche remained optimistic as I internally prophesied the rain would pass and I’d eventually be grateful for this momentary spell.
Lost in my daydreams and haunted by the noises of my once-virgin chain — the shiny new-bike-feel was officially gone as I could literally hear dirt forming impenetrable colonies on my cassette — I realized I hadn’t seen a course flag in half an hour. It was the most isolated I’ve ever felt in an organized event. The scene — man vs. self and man vs. nature (and maybe even man vs. machine) was the drama only a truly rugged gravel event could cultivate. This was what it was all about.
“I really like the remoteness of it. It’s so easy to get out … Last year, on the climb, I went two hours without seeing a single person or car. It was so awesome,” said John Keller, the baddest and raddest of all Rad Dirt people. Keller finished in 8:33 in 2021 to win the inaugural race. The Lifetime Grand Prix pro returned to Trinidad because the gravel scene here is, well, what gravel is supposed to be.
“It’s a great course. The atmosphere here compared to other races is way different,” he said. “There’s just, like, no elitism here, especially this year. A lot of the other races have just gotten really elitist and exclusive. Like, you’re not a part of this special club — it’s not fun.” The long course, he said, adds a true “adventure” element, especially in the precarious mountainous 44-mile stretch between aids where riders were appropriately warned in pre-race meetings, “you’re on your own.”
Scheurer believes Trinidad’s roads are similar to what he and someone like Keller, also from Boulder, can see daily back home.
“Particularly northeast Boulder around the farm country,” he said. “The riding isn’t really anything unique to Trinidad — similar routes exist in the front range,” he continued. “What was so special is it felt like a small town, it felt like a small event, it felt like a privilege to be guided through a route that I couldn’t have made myself.” His tone almost wishes for De la Roca’s hopes for the region to not come to fruition.
“If it blew up and everyone knew the routes down there, that feeling would’ve been lost.”
Soon, the clouds cleared and the sun and wind had dried my skin and clothes until, by the time I saw another human — 52-year-old Burt Baldo, another Miami-based rider – you wouldn’t have even known what climate calamities I had passed through.
“How far have we gone?” I asked, riding sans GPS or watch, when I caught the elegant rider. Baldo looked at his computer and replied with an accent and smile, “96 miles.” I finished my bottle and broke into the next, knowing I was going to make it.
The spirit of gravel
“It’s 3:37,” the reply came when I asked for the time of day. Preparing to leave the mile 126 aid station, I imagined the winner, probably Keller, coming through the streets, already done with his day and ready for a shower and a burger. I was half right.
Keller actually came through at 3:05, obliterating the course record despite soloing much of the second half. The girls winner, Emma Grant, came through a little over 60 minutes later, seventh overall.
“I went into this race with sub-8 as the goal, so I think that’s doable,” Keller told me at the awards ceremony …way after he had finished and only a little while after my day had concluded. “It’s harder to be alone for the whole second half.” The week before, he raced the 150-mile Gravel Locos in Pueblo. In essence, this was just another Saturday for the 25-year-old.
“It’s been a very stacked year,” he said of his crammed schedule, a mix of road, gravel and mountain bike races. His last two months reads like a hardcore cyclists’ bucket list, with finishes at Leadville 100 and Steamboat Gravel on back-to-back days, the Green Mountain stage race in Vermont and even a showing at the Golden Gran Fondo sprinkled in with many other rides. No matter what opportunities come his way, though, he’ll still head south past the Walsenburg exit for the Rad every year.
“Honestly I love the atmosphere. It’s a very family-friendly thing,” he answered when asked about what brings him back. “I’ll always come back to this.”
Pulling out of the third-to-last aid, my legs felt shockingly powerful. Right before turning onto the interstate frontage road, which would soon direct me back onto the mostly flat and open gravel I started the day on, I saw a figure waiting next to his bike. “You ok?” I asked, slowing down. “Yeah — just waiting for my friend,” came the reply. I sped up, hitting the gravel with unexplained energy, perhaps sensing, even then, the possibility of finishing before cold darkness could set in. Despite averaging what felt like a fast pace, I was quickly swallowed up by two riders, including the one I had just spoken with on the side of the road.
Karbelnikoff and Scheurer.
“It’s just like this morning,” Karbelnikoff smiled, obviously remembering our draft pact that broke off at the hill so long ago, when things were different. When we all had clean bikes and were all full of innocent hopes and dreams. And usable carbohydrate stores.
I hopped behind Scheurer, self-consciously not trying to screw anything up, while also trying to hold my own, like a seventh-grader succumbing to some locker room peer pressure. I kept my wheel inches from a fall for us all, amazed at Karbelnikoff’s strength.
“This is the longest I’ve ridden in a day, but I did a bikepacking tour before this,” he would tell me at the finish line when I asked about his fitness. There’s more to the story than that, though.
“Every year I start thinking about my sobriety anniversary in September,” a recent Instagram post of his reads.
“In 2012 it was the beginning of the final downward spiral that would be my bottom that December. My best friend’s dad lost his fight with cancer on Labor Day weekend. In late October Hurricane Sandy cancelled the NYC marathon, the only thing keeping me somewhat together. Heading into November my drinking was completely out of control and I was broken. Sadly, much of my time revolved around the fear of others knowing I had a problem. 10 years later I’m on an adventure with two great friends riding bikes in the French and Italian Alps. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect while on the bike and my thoughts always turn to gratitude. Gratitude for how much things have changed, how big life can be, and most importantly the freedom I feel.”
On one of the endless straightaways, Karbelnikoff was hammering — probably could have left us both — but he stayed with Scheurer, who was starting to hurt.
“So many highs and lows in a 165-mile day,” Scheurer stated. “I was spent and in a good amount of pain by the time we got to the last 40. We then realized we could beat our goal.”
My neck and my tailbone hurt more than my leg muscles. A coughing fit awaited a single deep breath, the toll of nonstop steady-state aerobic work. We flew through the next 20 miles, and eventually, on another hill, I got a few lengths ahead. I paused, waiting to regroup. Karbelnikoff said they might dial it down for a bit, and I replied I’d probably see them at the aid station, three miles away. I had stopped for aid, even if I didn’t feel like I needed it, at every point in the race, but on this second-to-last one, I blew through, breaking my word. I was hungry — to be done.
Six miles later, a stray cyclist appeared in my rearview. It seemed impossible at this point … hadn’t riders distinguished themselves by 155 miles? Apparently not. It was Baldo again.
I slowed, letting him catch me on a humble switchback. He was still in full pants, a long sleeve and vest — a combination I didn’t envy in the slightest at this point. I was amazed he’d caught me, and almost as stunned that when he did, he decided to just sit on my wheel, as if I was going to be of any service to him at that point. I didn’t try.
Eventually, he got the message, and rode past. Going through a narrow underpass – the only ‘singletrack’ of the race, he evaporated as mysteriously as he’d appeared. The way he’d mystically peppered himself into scenes of this day’s epic journey made him seem more imaginary boy on an afternoon bike ride and less real world Miami grownup shelling out $160 for a race entry. At that point, Scheurer and Karbelnikoff returned to the fold, and we three pedaled into the final aid station together.
“So, it’s all downhill from here, right?” I jokingly pleaded with the volunteers while staring at a monolithic uphill in my way.
“Yeah,” came a response. “Well … you have to do this first,” a volunteer said brightly, pointing at a 99-mile rider who was currently walking up the 15% pitch. “But you won’t complain after that.” Scheurer and Karbelnikoff were already one-third of the way up when I got on my bike and went after them. I almost caught up, but when I reached the last of the false summits, I had lost my Jordan-esque desire to be in front of the pair at the finish line. The feeling came as an odd, but somehow acceptable relief.
Filling that competitive void was the sun, still in the sky, illuminating the vast valley and faraway mountains I had just conquered, barely viewable along the distant horizon. Right below me were the lights of Trinidad, and I knew now I would get there safely. My wife, my daughter and my puppy — who was visibly baffled by her lack of involvement in this particular training day — would be waiting. That was satisfaction enough.
“We found our way to a dark place and just kept our heads down to work,” Scheurer said about his and Karbelnikoff’s last 40 miles. “We encouraged each other throughout the end and it was really hard. This culminated as we finished side by side; we even got the exact same time. We came to ride together and push our limits beyond what we had done before, and we persevered.”
Then, as if to sum up the true spirit of gravel, he said, “It was a moment I won’t soon forget.”
The brick road which greeted us on our first turn off main street sprouted out of nowhere, and as I took the ‘cobblestones’ and final curve into the finish, my family cheered on the corner. I smiled and waved, like I had just done a quick 20 before dinner, and rode down, the announcer blaring my name and hometown. When “Leadville” was said, I thought I caught the eyes of race director Tamira Jenlink along the chute. A flashback of one of my first rides ever in Lake County jolted me.
I’d heard howling that late fall evening, and I was scared of being tracked by wolves when a fit figure — whom I now believed to recognize as being Jenlink — on a mountain bike sped by me on the remote gravel road and simply said, “sled dogs,” before vanishing. Oh, look at how far I’ve come, I was hoping she thought, though undoubtedly she has no recollection of that moment anyway.
Thirty-five minutes after I was through the line, the Harveys came through smiling. “It was incredible,” Madeline, just old enough to have her driver’s license, said. “The roads were amazing and the scenery was beautiful.”
“We’ll be back — how does that sound?” Jeremy said when asked what he thought.
I asked him if the ride was harder than Leadville. “It’s longer … Leadville was like 10 hours for me,” he answered. “But the climbs are nowhere near as gutting.” As for Madeline’s Leadville 100 debut in 2023?
“She’s going to kill it,” the proud father declared.
I walked back to the van, locked my bike, and took cups of cold water to shower myself down before changing into street clothes. I wanted to enjoy at least 20 minutes of post-ride celebratory walking around. When I got back to the finishing stretch, I thought about the difference in this scene compared to some others. It was not the Leadville 100 finish, noisy and rambunctiously filled with fans and tourists. Things seemed to be closing up, which made me slightly self-conscious, worried I had biked too slow.
Sharing my sentiment to a degree, Scheurer remarked of possible improvements, writing in a post-race email, “If anything, I was bummed some of the sponsors (Muc-off) packed up and left before the Stubborn Delores finishers got back since I was really looking forward to not having to wash my bike after 165 miles!” I could see his point. We averaged 15 miles per hour for 10 hours and 52 minutes — including stops; that’s not exactly lallygagging. Scheurer had one other finish-line recommendation certainly worth mentioning, too.
“And I say this for many races — as a non-drinker, the beer culture in gravel and mountain biking can feel exclusionary,” he said. “The new day brewing support at packet pickup was really cool, I liked that. More options for us sober folk post-race could have been improved to make it more inclusive.”
As for the lack of relative hustle and bustle — fanfare if you will — well, maybe it’s better that way.
“It feels like a hidden gem in the gravel world. I would never have gotten down to Trinidad if not for the race and I am glad I explored it,” Scheurer said. I asked if he thought it could become a new epicenter for biking, and trail sports, like Boulder.
“I don’t, but I am glad about that,” he said.
“Some gems are better hidden.”
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