Jon Harp figured he was done with bike racing. It had taken its toll on body, mind and spirit to go faster and faster on paved roads.
Then, five years ago at age 49, the Monument man found himself buying a bike for unpaved roads.
“The road cyclists, I mean, I don’t want to throw them all into the same bag, but it’s a pretty snooty world. It’s a me-against-you world,” Harp says.”But gravel cycling was bizarre. Some of the fastest riders out there were on the same line as some woman recovering from cancer, you know?”
Adds another local roadie-turned-gravel hound, Jayson Middlemiss: “It’s not as pretentious.”
Middlemiss started the Rampart Rager five years ago, the race drawing between 150 and 175 men and women who don’t take the racing that seriously. It’s the event that made Harp fall in love with gravel.
He loves the camaraderie, the fact that you can find pros yucking it up with local Joes over post-race beers. He loves the solitude of the open road, the countryside, with about the only traffic being the tractor-driving farmer.
In a gravel race, the rutted, washed-out surface offers some unpredictability, but it’s not the challenge of a mountain bike race with the white-knuckling twists and turns of singletrack. On a casual gravel ride, one does not lean forward as roadies do, as if in constant attack; better to keep the center of gravity to account for the terrain. Turns on the loose soil can be tricky, but one often prefers to stay straight toward the horizon.
On gravel, the pressure, as in the tires, is low.
“I’d just put on some music,” Harp says, recalling his early rides east on the plains, “and disappear down the country road for hours.”
More are discovering the simple beauty of gravel.
“A big reason I love Colorado Springs is because of the gravel,” says Nick Gould, the local mountain biking wizard known for sweeping speed records across the state.
He moved to town two years ago from Durango and has ever since missed the high alpine of the San Juan Mountains. But the local gravel — those roads out on the plains or those west in the mountains, Rampart Range, Old Stage and Gold Camp roads — has made him a fan of a new genre.
“It’s kind of like a melting pot of all things cycling,” Gould says.
If it’s speed you crave, that precious wind in the face, gravel provides that on rolling hills. If it’s adventure, a long bikepacking trip, gravel provides that, too.
Last year, in her first big gravel foray, Colorado's Ashley Carelock finished fourth overall as the only woman riding in a 900-mile race across South America.
“There’s something about gravel,” she says from her home near Dolores, surrounded by the unpaved roads of Montezuma County. “It takes you places that are absolutely gorgeous.”
Gould and Carelock are two members of the gravel team Harp launched this year — two members finding quick success. Gould has taken the podium at several of his first gravel grinds in the South and Midwest. And they are indeed that: grinds, or “slogs,” as he calls the events of 100-plus miles, where each mile isn’t as easily earned as on tarmac, and where it’s easy to get off-course out in the middle of nowhere.
“It’ll bring you to your knees,” Gould says. “The type of stuff where you’re like, ‘This is epic.’”
Where once purists scoffed at what seemed to be an exaggerated fad — How appealing could a bumpy ride through flyover America be? And what’s a “gravel bike” anyway? — grassroots efforts and innovations have risen to validate a proud discipline.
On the grassroots side, what started with a few dozen participants in 2006 has become a premier challenge in Kansas called Dirty Kanza. Now cyclists have to enter a lottery to be among the field of 2,500.
Over the decade, top manufacturers have shuffled to come up with purpose-built rides, rethinking geometry and suspension systems to absorb the rattle of the roads. Bikes marketed for gravel reached about $29 million in sales in early 2018, nearly tripling the total from the same period in 2017, reported Bicycle Retailer.
And now community members look to their old, dirt roads and see economic drivers. In Trinidad, new resident cyclist Juan DelaRoca, who fled overcrowding in Boulder, is fully convinced the widely untrammeled land of Las Animas County “is a gravel bike destination in the making.” That’s the sell on explorelasanimas.com.
While the greater Front Range is under constant threat of development, “the idea that this southeastern portion of the state could possibly become a destination to ride a gravel bike, because of its rural setting and dirt roads, is really appealing,” DelaRoca told the Gravel Cyclist podcast.
Gravelcyclist.com, complete with the latest on races and gear, was started by Jayson O’Mahoney, an Australian living in Florida. That was in 2014.
“Now on Instagram we have 73,000 followers, which is bloody crazy,” O’Mahoney says. (For comparison, national governing body USA Cycling has 84,000.)
But O’Mahoney likes to think of the community as small. “Very accepting,” he calls it. “It doesn’t matter how fast you are. Nobody’s gonna judge you on the bike you’re riding or the clothes you’re wearing. It’s very much like mountain biking is, or maybe was.”
Maybe most importantly, “there’s no rules,” he says. “Which I hope never changes.”
He made that clear in a written message to world governing body Union Cycliste Internationale. In response to a proposed event, O’Mahoney criticized organizations like UCI as “toxic to the spirit of gravel riding,” saying that “rules, categories, championships etc, are antithetical to the grassroots, participation oriented gravel cycling phenomenon.”
But at its growing rate, could it all change?
“That’s a good question,” Harp says.
He thinks of people like himself, riders removed from the pro circuit who just want to blend in and have fun.
“Guys have been really intentional about saying, ‘We just want to come explore this with you,’” Harp says.