Rollin’ and grindin’ at Wild Horse Gravel
Editor’s note: This summer we are covering four big gravel races: Land Run 100, Wild Horse Gravel, Dirty Kanza 200, and SBT GRVL. This coverage is made possible by sponsorship from Canyon Bicycles, Saris bike racks, Pactimo apparel, Stages Cycling, Quarq TyreWiz, Vittoria tires, and Zipp wheels.
Some courses put the grind in gravel grinder. If you so choose, Wild Horse Gravel (WHG) can be that course, in a great way. The rugged, crusty hoodoos and hillocks of Colorado’s Western Slope near De Beque, in shades of ochre, rust, taupe, and several other colors not found in a Crayola box, make for punishing climbs and stairstep descents. Out here, it’s hard to build roads in straight lines, or on a level plane, in what is a lunar landscape. And that’s what makes it so captivating.
So, grind away, if you so choose. But also know that if grinding sounds hard, there’s another way. You see, WHG follows a new race format, the gravel sportive, which offers timed segments for those who want to race (the “competers”), and a relaxed, even mellow atmosphere for those just looking for scenery and solitude (the “completers”). It is one of eight events in the Roll Massif portfolio.
Create your own adventure, with Western flair. That’s Wild Horse Gravel.
As you’ve heard me say several times before, regardless of my state of fitness, I’m a card-carrying competer. On this day, regardless of the fact that I’d spent the previous two weeks hill walking through the heather on the Isle of Skye’s Trotternish Ridge and seaside cliffs, and had only returned to the U.S. 48 hours earlier, I couldn’t break the habit. It is embedded deep within me. So, you might think you know where this is going…
WHG is hosted at the High Lonesome Ranch, a picturesque spot that oozes Western charm. In its first year, event registration was capped at less than 250 participants. The feeling at the start line was something I’d never experienced at an event where people wore bib numbers: utter tranquility. What a relaxing and novel way to start an event. People were so coy that there were only two people actually on the start line, and one of them was Roll Massif’s own Ben Delaney. The rest were scattered in dribs and drabs within the confines of the orange fencing further back.
To the sounds of bird tweets and brewing coffee, we rolled out from the corral led by a cowgirl upon horseback. How else? We turned a sharp corner and gingerly made our way over a cattle guard. Very fitting.
Then it was onto the hard-pack roads of the BLM lands surrounding the ranch’s property. Five miles up the road, we turned left and hit a doubletrack road, complete with crusty ruts from a long, hard spring and cow patties a plenty.
We racers instantly migrated toward the front of the pack, as we do, and the pace rose, though without any violence to the effort. Eventually, we came to the final kicker of this undulating climb, and despite my seriously jet-lagged and sleep-deprived brain (or perhaps because of it), I went for it, trying to reel in pro roadies Kevin and Conor Mullervy before the end of the timed segment. I didn’t quite make it to the front, and the effort left me gasping. Such a familiar feeling, it was good to be back on a bike.
After the effort, it was all too apparent that this would be a tough day, as more than 55 miles and the majority of the climbing remained. Alas, this was a create-your-own-adventure event, and I chose suffering, as I so often do. It’s good for the soul. Maybe.
It was then nearly all downhill for the next 20 miles. We dropped down steep, precarious rock-strewn descents, crashed through sandy washes, and cruised into the small town of De Beque for refreshments. Peanut butter and chocolate chip encrusted banana bits never tasted so good.
While the temptation to lounge around in the warm grass was there, I quickly realized if I laid down, I would melt, maybe even fall into a coma, and then regret ever stepping off my bike. I knew the hardest part of the day was the return trip to High Lonesome Ranch. (Boy, what a fitting name for what I was about to experience.)
Why I didn’t take better note of the amount of climbing, and at such precipitous gradients, on my way down on this out-and-back course, I do not know. (There was also a loop option that trimmed almost 30 miles from the total mileage.) Again, I blame it on international travel.
Regardless, we began the long grind — literally, the race map used those exact words — at a casual pace. The timed segment was soon upon us, and just like that the steady incline of speed butted up against my steady decline in physiological utility. I knew this sensation would eventually rear its head; I had been waiting for it. I watched as the other handful of riders drifted away. I did not fight it. More Instagram opportunities, I reasoned.
So the camera came out and I churned through the otherworldly scenery: cotton balls in the sky, Martian panoramas all around, and every so often a hint in the distance of the rude climbs to come. Some of my fondest memories from gravel races come from times like these. It’s the solitude. It’s the quietude. It’s about the lack of a racing attitude. It’s simply nice to be outside in a gorgeous place under a warm sun riding a bike. In fact, that’s what events like WHG are all about.
After over five and a half hours in the saddle, I rolled back into High Lonesome Ranch. It was time to inhale some lovely barbecue, served by Aunt Linda, a boisterous 80-year-old whose energy level never dipped below 11. In the distance, kids rode horses, practiced their lassoing skills, and riders plunked down in the sun to relive the day’s delights. The gravel family had gathered, ridden a bike race, and now they relaxed, happily, well-fed, and satisfactorily fatigued after rollin’ and/or grindin’ their way across the Western Slope.
The gear that we rode: