Road cyclists don’t really like to get dirty and fear tiny rocks in the road, while mountain bikers on the other hand love to barrel down trails and don’t mind risking life and limb for a sweet ride. Then there are gravel grinders.
Occupying the middle ground between the other two, and riding bikes with drop handlebars and chunky tires, they’ll take singletrack, asphalt or gravel roads, but preferably all three on one ride.
Colorado is a gravel grinding wonderland with hundreds of miles of established routes across the state that are as challenging as they are beautiful. If there’s a better place for gravel grinding than Colorado, we haven’t heard about it.
Here are a few routes that come recommended
Circle the Zirkel
A northwest Colorado classic, the 153-mile ride circumnavigates the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness area by traversing the Routt/Medicine Bow National Forest as well as backroads in both Routt and Jackson counties. Mostly dirt roads, the route will take you into the high alpine environment and over the Continental divide at Buffalo Pass and on to rangeland of North Park and the Elk River Valley. This route isn’t for the faint of heart, and it is very important to take adequate supplies as there are no services along the mammoth route (although there may be places to stop a short ride from the route, just know before you go!). There are, however, plenty of places to camp. Routes of this nature are opened and closed depending on snowfall, so be sure to check.
Normally, we’d be inclined to say don’t be fooled by the name, but with this one you should take the name quite seriously. The 67-mile loop gains 5,000 feet as it goes from Cañon City to Cripple Creek before finally descending to the Winery at Holy Cross Abbey. Normally an organized ride (and technically a race with awards and cutoff times), it usually coincides with the winery’s Harvest Fest. In a normal year, this organized event takes place in September, but this isn’t a normal year, so if you want to punish yourself, you’ll need to do it in an unofficial capacity.
Other events to think about next year include The Pony Xpress Gravel 160 which showcases the beauty of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains as riders grind out the miles northwest of Trinidad, while the Gravel Grinder Tour of the Canyons starts in Grand Junction and ends in Moab, Utah, by way of Unaweep Canyon, Gateway, Paradox and along the Dolores River. Hosted by the San Juan Huts, the three day, two night tour is 165 miles and includes stays in the San Juan hut system.
La Strada La Plata
At around 40 miles, this route has a net gain of just 13 feet but with some decent climbs, including a 3.6-mile climb with a 4.9 percent grade pretty much straight away, so don’t be fooled. Starting on Main Street in Durango, the route takes riders around the county in a counterclockwise direction before heading back to the start point. Part of the annual Iron Horse Bicycle Classic event series, the ride has gained in popularity and even then there were 150 riders in 2017, its inaugural year.
Cyclocross or Gravel Grinding?
You may have also heard of cyclocross, and you may be wondering what the difference is. Well, the answer, specifically if we’re talking about the bikes, is not much (but it is almost certainly enough to annoy the small percentage of disagreeable individuals in either group).
Cyclocross came first, in fact it has been popular in Europe for a long time, specifically in Belgium and France where road cycling is hugely popular, but as the concept of gravel grinding grew, bike companies began to develop purpose-built bikes factoring in subtle differences that each sport needed. Both kinds of bikes have room for wider tires, both have disc brakes and drop handlebars, but there are subtle differences if you really get into the nitty gritty.