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This is a boring story—or maybe it isn’t. There’s no struggle. There’s no worry. There isn’t even a flat tire. This isn’t a story about gravel bikes gone mountain biking or road bikes gone wild. It’s not a tale of slumbering mountain bikes on double track either. It’s a tale of hammer and nail, saw and wood, peanut butter and jelly—in other words, just right.
I didn’t start riding bikes until pretty late in life, and when I got one it was a road bike. I jumped right into the road world and never thought too much about anything else. Sure, I knew that mountain biking existed, and I certainly played on dirt roads as much as possible, but everything was done through the lens of a road bike…meaning, I flatted a lot on dirt, crashed a lot on trails and generally made my road bike do all the things it wasn’t supposed to do. I did exactly the same thing everyone else once did and who now puff up their chests about it in pride and say: “I’ve been riding dirt since before it was a thing.” I love how prideful we all can be about doing something as simple as riding dirt roads. I’m serious about that; and that’s not meant in any kind of negative way.
That’s always just been the way of things for a lot of us. I had just a road bike for years and years, so I rode those 23mm tires on road, dirt, trails, everything. Then, back in 2016, Stephen Fitzgerald at Rodeo Labs let me use his gravel bike, the aptly named Trail Donkey. I fell in love. It changed my bike-riding life. Full stop. From that point onward, everything I did on that bike was more or less designed to push its limits—not because I was trying to see what it could do, but because it was my tool for adventure, for discovery. I wanted to see all the things, ride all the mountains, go to all the places. In my mind, Donkey equaled unbounded possibility. At one point, it resulted in a new word: cyclo-mountaineering. It was bad slash good slash terrible slash amazing.
Writing that out, it sounds a little funny; but again it makes sense when you realize that it was the only off-road-capable machine I had. So, of course, I took it mountain biking, and I will continue to. I love my gravel bike. I feel good on it, at home, ready for anything. And why not? Most of us are roadies after all, and at this point I’ve spent easily 10,000 hours in a road-like position. Is it all that difficult to imagine that I feel better on a road-bike-type thing over bars that are twice as wide and a position that’s very nearly straight up and down and bounces?
In long, I’m a fierce defender of the gravel bike and its utility. I love it. That said, the chorus of my friends singing over and over again—“Why don’t you just get a mountain bike?”—eventually hit home.
So I eventually did. And then we went to Crested Butte, Colorado, this August as a sort of family vacation. Every year we get together with a piece of our chosen family, and we play. This time we were there to ride mountain bikes—in other words, we were going to scare the hell out of this poor roadie-turned-dirt lover. (That’s an entirely different stream of consciousness filled with much falling down, bruises, bleeding, terror…and a lot of fun. We’ll save that for the hopefully not next one, the umpteenth piece on roadie meets mountain bike. A tale as old as time…yawn.)
I’m almost ashamed to admit it but, even in this mecca for mountain biking, we still had gravel bikes in tow. We had this idea that we’d ride Pearl Pass: the crowning obstacle in one of the earliest mountain bike races in the world. The first running was in the middle of September 1976, starting in Crested Butte and finishing in Aspen. Fifteen part-bad-ass, part-crazy humans pointed their bikes up toward the distant Pearl Pass on a quest to make it up, over and down to Aspen. They rode what amounted to the most primitive of machines, these clunkers, resembling far more the gravel bikes of today than mountain bikes. They were the bare essentials: one gear, fattish tires, handlebars, pedals and a chain. And fueled by lots of alcohol. This was a race only in name.
Fast forward about 43 years…we started up the long, long road to Pearl Pass, working our way past the trails that had been our joy the last few days, past Strand Hill, Teocalli Avenue and on to a destroyed, rotten dirt road. We had heard there were avalanches up ahead after a particularly severe winter, but we thought we’d push onward. But it didn’t feel right. I had never felt like I was forcing it on these types of rides before.
I knew going in that there would be a solid chunk of cyclo-mountaineering. I knew there was a distinct chance we’d be turned around by the remnants of a monster avalanche. I knew there’d be a supreme dearth of usable oxygen. I knew I’d get a little woozy and wonder why in the world I was doing this. I understood all of these things. But for some reason the echo of the “why’s” started bouncing around in my head—across to Ryan, to Jonathan, to Ashley—and then back and forth like some malevolent ping-pong ball until it became impossible to pretend that it wasn’t throwing a party in our thoughts.
At that point, we did something funny:Wwe called it and turned around. We were nowhere near the top, but it just wasn’t happening. Instead, we went back down, rode mountain bikes and had an amazing day. Like I said, this isn’t a story about pushing limits. It’s certainly not about walking. This is pretty firmly the exact opposite. This is a story about riding a bike on the terrain it was designed for.
Two days later, we tried our gravel bikes again—this time to a climb that sounds actually as good as it is: Paradise Divide.
The bike: a Cervélo Áspero with SRAM Mullet build, a 38 chainring in the front, party-time 10–50 in the back and 40mm tires. It was the modern, perfect adventure tool for moderate off-road fun—with a huge asterisk (that is, it’s also fun for outrageous off-road adventures that make zero logical sense but are still fun—just not on this day).
It’s an amazing feeling to use the proper tool for the job. A road bike is wonderful on the road. A full-suspension mountain bike is an incredible machine on some wild Crested Butte single track. A gravel bike is an ideal piece of possibility on a dirt road or some lighter side trails—and, for once, we did just that. We took our gravel bikes on a series of beautiful, tough but not too tough, dirt roads. We laughed at how silly it all was: Can you imagine such a ridiculous thing as a gravel bike on…just a normal dirt road?
We climbed through the cold morning shadows in the still-shaded valley until we broke into the light about halfway up as the sun peeked over Snodgrass Mountain. To our left, the mountains of the Ruby Range glowed in that hyper-real way the mountains always do at sunrise (something I’ve been resolving to see more of in the future for a long time, but always, always failing). We passed through a sea of wildflowers: fireweed, fleabane, Aspen sunflowers, Indian paintbrush…and so many more that I don’t know the name of. I wish I did, because if you’re not into flowers after a high-country Colorado experience in the summer you’re missing out.
As with most everything in the big mountains of Colorado, we were traipsing through the workspace of the miners of yesteryear. In this case, we ran smack into it as we made our way up the hardest part of the day by way of a venomous wall of dirt road into a mostly abandoned collection of houses known as Elkton (thanks be to that 38×50 easy gear!). Quick history note: Elkton was established in the 1880s to service the silver mine just outside of town. There were boarding houses, cabins, a store, even a post office—but only for one year. Like many ghost towns in Colorado, Elkton more or less died in 1893 with the demonetization of silver.
Just above Elkton, there’s an immense switchback—the only one of the ride so far—with huge views. This is right below the fantastically named Painter Boy Mine. I didn’t know it that morning, so I won’t pretend that I did. We had a little impromptu photo shoot in that beautiful switchback though.
After that, we made our way slowly, but without any real difficulty, farther up Washington Gulch—past Gothic Mountain and then a real-deal shelf road, carved precariously out of the Mount Baldy slopes as it makes its way up to Paradise Divide. It was a beautiful stretch of road: just the three of us making our slow way up closer and closer to the bright morning light that bathed the top of the climb.
We arrived to Paradise Divide two hours into our ride. We had only climbed about 2,000 feet over approximately 10 miles; but this wasn’t a day for smashing. It was a day for chill, and for once we followed that directive. The top is a beautiful mini plateau with a pond, seemingly infinite views and little trails going every which way. We played on them for a little bit, took some pictures and then turned our attention to the basin that lay before us.
The top had been gorgeous, but when we started our way in the forward direction to continue our loop, we were confronted with this valley of utter peace and solitude and beauty. It was easily 9 a.m. by this point, but there was still no one around. It’s just this perfect high-mountain valley with a small dirt road winding its way between Cinnamon and Baldy: the Paradise Basin. And for a bike rider it really does have that feeling.
After a descent complete with an ice-cold mountain stream crossing, we climbed a little bit more to the top of Schofield Pass and began the ripping descent back to Crested Butte.
From this point, on a normal day, we would have taken our gravel bikes and gone toe to toe with one of the more famous sections of single track in Crested Butte, perhaps in the entire United States: the 401 Trail. As previously mentioned at least 10 times, we were not to be distracted by challenges like that on this day. Instead, we headed straight down Schofield Road, over the semi-permanent section of snow that blocks the way for most cars and into one of the more unique experiences for any of us.
I didn’t know there was such a thing, but I knew it was a thing as soon as our tires and most of our rims disappeared into dirt the consistency of powdered sugar. Even the slowest movement brought up great plumes of dust. It was like those pictures from Roubaix, but without the bumps, without the crazy 200 riders, without the 50 lead cars, without the caravan. We were just three bike riders swooping around making the biggest clouds of dust we could ever dream of making. It felt like we were in a cartoon, and it was amazing. I never knew dust could bring so much joy. It was just pure fun to make giant clouds everywhere we went—laughter, smiles, clouds. They chased us all the way down to the tiny collection of buildings called Gothic and the last little bit back home.
I’ve made a life of sorts out of using the wrong bike. I will continue to do so. I’m not so ridiculous though as not to recognize the absurdity of that game. I’m certainly no Luddite. All that said, I can say without exaggeration that a pure gravel ride in the immense theater of the mountains around Crested Butte aboard a gravel bike was one of the more satisfying things I’ve done in a while.
I hope to find a perfectly reasonable, logical use for my gravel bike soon; but first I think I’m going to try this sick 50-mile mountain bike loop. I think it’s doable.
From issue 91. Buy it here.