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Colorado’s VailHalla is a gravel race five years in the making

The new event, held in Colorado’s ski country, promises thin air, amazing views, and a bumpy descent or two.

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In the summer of 2017, I drove to Edwards, Colorado with a handful of cycling editors to attend the Brevet Beaver Creek, a non-competitive and, dare I say, loose cycling event in and around the Vail Valley.

Organizer Mike McCormack—the braintrust behind the Breck Epic mountain-bike stage race—had planned a gravel-bike demo meets a choose-your-own-adventure group ride, with no prizes, no entry fee, and no pressure. Participants could try out a road or gravel bike free of charge, and then ride fun dirt roads without getting lost, suffering a mechanical, or being eaten by a bear.

Everyone got a free t-shirt.

For many of us, the Brevet was like dipping our toes into the proverbial kiddie pool of gravel cycling. For the most part it worked: I remember one editor who shall not be named crashed, and one brand representative who shall also not be named proclaimed the day’s bumpy dirt descent to be the worst time he’d ever had on a bicycle. Yep—the Brevet’s dip into gravel was, in my opinion, a rousing success. I had a blast.

McCormack told us that he had other plans with the Brevet: it was his way to test the waters for one day holding a bonafide gravel race in the area. After returning home I expected to see his email announcing the Unnamed Vail Gravel Race to hit my inbox. I waited. And waited. And waited.

A few months ago, the email finally arrived. The race, called VailHalla, was finally on, scheduled for October 1, this year. I’m headed up this weekend to see if it was worth the five-year wait.

“It took a long time to achieve, but it will definitely be worth it,” McCormack told me earlier this week. “We’ll do a great job in year one, get more terrain in year two. We’re going to treat everyone like they are a pro, so you can have a good time even if you aren’t at the pointy end of the race.”

For its debut, the VailHalla climbs up Muddy Pass from the town of Wolcott, and then traces a series of loops in an area of U.S. National Forest on the north side of U.S. Interstate 70, directly opposite from Beaver Creek and Vail Resorts. From the window of a passing car, the terrain on the north side of I-70 looks to be little more than scrub brush-covered hills. But the hills soar ever higher, and on top, the area has aspen and juniper groves. It’s also crisscrossed by a lattice of gravel roads, jeep trails, and double-track.

“Nobody knows the routes on the north side of the valley,” McCormack said. “There are viewing corridors up there where you can see for 150 miles.”

As it turns out, these routes were once used by the Vail Ultra 100, an old mountain bike race that rose to prominence in the late 1990s. McCormack’s original idea for a gravel event was to pay homage to the now-defunct mountain bike event, as the route used by the Vail Ultra 100 was ideal for the rim brakes and rigid frames of the 1990s.

McCormack believes it’s also great for today’s gravel bikes.

“The idea was for an off-road century as a way to remember this legendary race,” McCormack said. “Over the past few years I was looking at the beauty of gravel and thinking man, this original course appeals to a lot of different kinds of bikes now.”

So, why did five years elapse between the Brevet Beaver Creek and VailHalla?

McCormack told me that many micro and macro hurdles contributed to the delay. In the wake of the Brevet he had to navigate some town politics in Edwards that created an initial setback. Then, the following year, Ironman sought to purchase the Breck Epic, and the sale—and pushback from the town of Breckenridge—ate up most of McCormack’s mental and emotional energy.

McCormack returned to the gravel project in late 2019, only to see the pandemic sweep across the country and shutter most mast-participant endurance events. Then, after the pandemic subsided, obtaining permits to use the land—which is managed by the U.S. Forest Service—became the final hurdle.

“I’be been trying to get permitted since the Beaver Creek event. We’ve been persistent and have been demonstrating to the Forest Service that we’re a good partner,” he said. “We kept asking. We kept being polite.”

As it turns out, the trails and roads used by the race is a popular destination for the regional sheep herders in the summer and fall, and McCormack had to wait for sheep season to end before staging the event. Nobody wants to get attacked by a sheep dog.

There are three distances for year one: 28, 47, and 84 miles. All of the distances start and finish in the town of Wolcott, a few miles west of Edwards, with the longest event spinning two large loops. The surface is a mix of red dirt, rocks, and clay, and McCormack says that riders on gravel or hard-tail mountain bikes will enjoy themselves.

I plan to run a gravel bike with 40-mm all-purpose gravel tires. Hopefully I don’t crash or get eaten by a bear. And hopefully, that rocky descent doesn’t become the worst time I’ve ever had on a bicycle. I don’t think it will.