Hop On

gravel bike riders below a mountain landscape

Telluride’s gravel cycling scene is picking up speed

By Jesse James McTigue

I got my first road bike in 1990: a white Peugeot with red and yellow rings on the crossbar. I was in tenth grade and needed it for fall and spring dryland training at Burke Mountain Ski Academy. When I was home in Telluride in the summers, I rode it up Highway 145 to Ophir, then to the top of Lizard Head and back. Sometimes I’d tuck down Keystone Hill and ride west up Norwood Hill or north to the top of Dallas Divide. Back then, there were few cars on the roads, and I rode at ease.

Road biking routes around Telluride remain largely the same as in the ’90s. The views are stunning, but the traffic has increased, and the shoulders remain narrow. I still have a road bike in the garage for the annual Just For Kids’ Mountain to Desert local charity ride, an annual Red Mountain Pass, or a quick hill ride in the Aldasoro neighborhood. But every year, it gets a little less playing time.

Like many local cyclists, I have diversified my quiver and added a gravel bike. Mine is an off-white Allied Able with camel-colored handlebar tape that is stunningly beautiful. Her name is Blanca.

A gravel bike looks like a road bike with wider tires. As with all mountain gear these days, there is a huge range in the gravel bike genre. There are different builds befitting riders looking for different types of terrain, from racy to rowdy, and all-road to adventure.

In general, gravel frames are longer and higher than road bikes for more stability and clearance, and some even have a small shock to dampen kickback on rough descents. Additionally, there is a large range of wheel and tire width and burliness determined by the rider’s purpose and go-to terrain.

Regardless of specifics, gravel bikes are lighter and more agile than a mountain bike and burlier than a road bike, allowing riders to access and connect the hundreds of miles and loops of gravel roads surrounding Telluride, but also hop on a segment of single track or paved road.

Popular local rides include the stunning Wilson Mesa Loop, the Dirty Lizard (a combination of dirt roads and single-track descending into Ilium Valley and weaving up to Lizard Head), and Last Dollar Pass. However, with good maps and intel, the options are endless. Species Mesa connects to Norwood; Hastings Mesa to Dallas Divide; and Dunton Road from Stoner to Rico.

But to the pioneers and purists, gravel biking’s identity is rooted in much more than the difference of the bike’s construction and purpose. Instead, it lies in the culture of exploration and inclusivity inherent to the gravel ethos.

In a 2022 blog post on BikePerfect.com titled “Gravel Biking—Everything You Need to Know About This Off-Road Discipline,” author John Ross wrote: “Gravel biking means inclusion. The genre actively eschews performance metrics, and prizes exploration. If there’s anything gravel biking stands for it is having a good time at whatever level and place you come to the sport.” 

Cyclist and author Simon Usborne shares the same sentiment in a National Geographic online post. He explains that “Leisure cycling eventually split into three tribes: road cyclists, mountain bikers, and cycle tourers. Now cyclists of all stripes are reuniting, on tracks, bridleways, and forestry roads—anything that offers a sense of escape.”

Locally, the inclusive, non-conformist spirit is alive in the organized gravel scene. Scott Benge, a local amateur racer and cycling advocate, teamed with Ridgway-based avid cyclist Tony Lee. The duo put on Telluride Gravel Race, a wildly successful event in 2022 and 2023. They ran into permitting issues for 2024 but hope to iron them out and build on the momentum in the coming years. Benge races regionally and nationally and is excited to help bring the culture and community of the larger gravel world to Telluride.

I was able to catch Benge as he was driving to Prescott, Arizona for a popular gravel festival called the Whisky 50, and asked him about Telluride’s nascent gravel scene. “As I’ve been exploring more and more our backyard, I realize we have a Mecca of maintained gravel roads with unmatched views and unmatched terrain,” he said. “Given the mesas—Wilson, Horsefly, Hastings, Species, and Ilium and Trout Lake—the riding is endless. We want more participation; more people to be involved.”

As gravel riding allows cyclists to take advantage of more riding during the fall and spring shoulder seasons and to explore the region, local riders are checking out the neighboring area in the West End, aka the terrain in and around Norwood and Nucla. Stoked by West End Cycling Adventure, gravel riding is taking off there, and the region will host an event and race in mid-September called the West End Gravel Rush.

In true gravel biking style, the organizer’s description of the event reads, “A challenging, but not too serious, single-day, off-road event, showcasing the wide variety of riding in the West End.”

To maintain the inclusive feel important to the gravel community, instead of racing from the start point to end point as in a mountain bike or road race, the West End Gravel Rush times participant’s segments. That way the faster participants can hang out between segments and at AID stations, ride certain segments with slower riders, and choose when to put the hammer down. The Gravel Rush, like all gravel events, is punctuated by a festive after-party.

As an avid, formerly fast local cyclist who is getting older and slower, and who is new to the gravel scene, I’ve already come to appreciate the welcoming vibe. Just in the last week, a friend stopped me on the street, excited to let me know she just got a gravel bike, and another friend in the school parking lot sought me out to talk about gravel riding. I can’t wait to break out the maps (or more accurately apps), explore new and old loops, and hang out with cycling’s newest rebels. If weekend events, costumes, and beer are also included, all the better. Let’s ride.

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