What’s the Buzz about Gunnison Gravel?

Nov 8th, 2022

Most of my first experiences riding gravel were accidental. The routes that I thought were paved dissolved into dirt, and I just kept pedaling. When I cycled from Alaska to California, I spent many hours pushing my loaded bike through sandy tracks. Later, when I rode across Colombia and Ecuador, I loved the hard packed dirt roads that wound along the mountain sides. These roads had less traffic and went to wilder places.  

When it finally came time to buy a new bike, I switched over to one with wider tires and rode it around Eastern Canada, splicing together routes on forestry roads, pavement, rail trails, and the occasional wayward singletrack. Since then, I upgraded to my current bike, an adventure-ready drop bar Kona Sutra I call, Enigma. Once you go gravel, it’s hard to go back.  

This summer when Maria Hennessey of SMAK Strategies sent me an invitation to a three-day gravel bike media trip in Gunnison County, Colorado, I was pretty excited. A small group of writers would be riding Gunnison’s beautiful mountain roads, testing out new gear, and glamping (camping, but glamorously!) at a gorgeous campsite. The trip was part of a partnership with Gunnison and Crested Butte Tourism Association, and we’d be guided by Maria’s husband, the polar adventurer Eric Larsen

A man loads 6 bikes onto a car's bike rack while parked on a gravel road in the rocky mountains.

Emma Brophy

I glanced at my calendar, saw that I was already fully booked, and quickly replied (and I’m paraphrasing here): I AM COMPLETELY AVAILABLE AND IF YOU TAKE ME WITH YOU, I WILL GIVE YOU ALL OF MY FIRST-BORN CHILDREN FOREVER. To my great delight, Maria responded with a plane ticket, an itinerary, and with just enough of a time cushion to read Eric’s book, On Thin Ice, and begin to mildly panic.  

I read Eric’s book while curled up in my favorite fleece pajamas, shoveling snacks into my mouth. On Thin Ice tells the story of Eric’s 2014 self-supported journey to the North Pole with his adventure partner Ryan Waters. In 53 days, they walked, skied, and swam 480 miles, dragging hundreds of pounds of gear behind them on sleds. The farther they went, the smaller their chances of survival became, until finally, at the end of their resources, they arrived starving and sleep-deprived at a tiny patch of shifting, windswept ice called the North Pole. It was, in a word, insane.  

I was captivated and terrified. This person was going to be our guide!  Would he also expect us to throw ourselves into icy waters? To test the strength of our wills against the forces of nature?  

This mild panic led me to some other key points of self-reflection. For example, that much of my “bike gear” over the years has simply been stuff I found around the house. I’m not a racer, a technical rider, or a gear junkie. My style of riding: throw some stuff in a sack, pick a point on a map, and have fun trying to get there. This has always – oddly – worked for me. But I wasn’t sure how these experiences would translate to cycling at altitude with a snow-crusted Eric Larsen and a group of industry professionals who wore full-body spandex and suckled on GU

A view of yellow, autumnal aspen in the foreground with the mountains and gravel roads of Gunnison county stretched out beyond.

Emma Brophy

Oh, well! The worst thing that could happen was probably that I’d be dead last, get lost, and then have to survive by myself for a night in the wild. I mentally prepared myself for this scenario and packed my bags.  

My plane landed in the tiny Gunnison airport, and I wandered toward the exit. Gus Reynolds, one of our trip guides, met me at the door with a piece of cardboard that said “Laura” in black sharpie. I felt extremely special, in a rustic way. Ron, whose name was on the other side of the cardboard, was already waiting with his bags. Gus shuffled us into a big white van in the parking lot, donned a sea captain’s hat, and began driving toward the mountains.  

We passed through the town of Gunnison (think saloon-style storefronts, cowboy hats, and mountain bikes!), wound along a forested road, and pulled into a dirt parking area at our campsite, Campfire Ranch. I got out of the van and looked around at rocky cliffs, a slow-moving river, and clumps of fragrant desert sage. It was like stepping into a fantasy of Colorado: simply gorgeous. 

The three of us walked toward a picnic shelter where the indomitable Eric Larsen was calmly organizing bike gear. He was not permanently snow-crusted, as I had feared! Nor did he make us cast ourselves into the river as a rite of passage, as I had also feared! Instead, he simply greeted us with a smile, and we all chatted amiably. Then he handed us individually labeled Peak Design duffels full of new gear to try on. 

I opened the duffel and found, among other things, a Jack Wolfskin jacket and fleece, a Gorewear cycling bib and jerseys, Tifosi riding glasses, a Peak Design Out-Front Mount, and an Mpowered solar light. This was certainly an upgrade from some of my past gear, which at various times has included hardware goggles (for mist protection in the Andes), ripped crocs (not ideal but fine for jungle riding), and garbage bag rain gear (works anywhere, sort of).  

As I swathed myself in stylishly functional layers, the rest of our team began to arrive. In addition to Ron Frazelle from Bike Rumor, there was Maureen Gaffney of Singletracks, Hailey Moore from The Radavist, Bill Plock from 303 Endurance, and Jayson O’Mahoney a.k.a. The Gravel Cyclist.  

Four of the invited journalists/cyclists stand over their bikes in the middle of a flowy dirt road.

Emma Brophy

As we chatted and tried on our clothes, it became clear that we were all coming from different perspectives and areas within the cycling industry. Some folks were racers, others commuters. Some people wore spandex, other people had mountain bike shorts. And this is what I’m reminded of, over and over, within the world of cycling: everybody belongs here. Every style of riding, fitness, and experience are part of the human equation that makes cycling so special and so fun. If you love bikes and biking, you’re on the team.  

That evening we took a tour of the Gunnison Crested Butte ICElab (Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship), to learn about small outdoor businesses like Shefly (crotch-zippered pants which make it easy to pee in the wilderness), First Ascent (actually good instant coffee), and Pact (outdoor bathroom kits that turn your poop into mushrooms). Then we hustled back to our campsite for a good night’s rest in an array of cozy canvas Springbar tents.  

The next morning, we woke up and started organizing our bikes for the day’s ride, a 47-mile gravel route over a 3,000-foot pass. Eric, Gus, and our photographer Emma Brophy would follow us in the van in case we needed snacks or words of encouragement. Everyone in our group had different preferences for how fast or far we wanted to go (there was an option to do parts of the ride in the snack van if desired), so as soon as each person was ready, we were free to ride.  

Eric showed me the bike I’d use, a beautiful Revel Rover with Topeak bags. I was still in the mindset that something unexpected might happen which would leave me stranded in the wild for one or more nights, so I stuffed my Topeak bags with everything I’d need to survive a cold evening on my own in the woods: extra layers, a set of contacts, a full meal, several quarts of water, and rain gear.  

No one else packed anything because, duh, we had a support van and were coming back to the campsite! But my years of wayward solo adventures with no phone or GPS have instilled in me a deep attachment to primal self-reliance. Even on an impeccably organized, van-supported group bike glamping trip, I was prepared to SURVIVE!  

Laura rides beside another woman on a dirt road with haybales behind.

Emma Brophy

Once I was confident of my ability to live in the wild, I strapped on my sweet Sweet Protection bike helmet and pedaled out of the campsite onto the road. After a few miles of pavement, I turned onto smooth gravel, which marked the start of the day’s route. The road wound slowly upward, flanked on each side by evergreens, rocky cliffs, and babbling brooks. As I pushed the pedals, my mind slipped into the flow, and I smiled wide. There’s nothing like fresh air and a bicycle to spin you into a feeling of fullness and freedom.  

I believe you can access this feeling anywhere on any bike. You just need to breathe deep, keep pedaling, and let your mind drift into its own detachment. But of course, there are certain advantages to riding a well-oiled steed on stunning mountain roads while dressed in high-functioning threads.   

Riding the Revel Rover on Gunnison’s groomed gravel was like riding to heaven on the back of a beautiful angel. The bike was so light and fast! When I wanted it to go somewhere, we went there together! I felt free to soak in the desert air and just glide. The miles slipped by and before I knew it, I crested the top of the pass and looked out onto a mountain range, blue and jagged.  It reminded me of every long bike tour I’ve ever been on; when everything feels special and fleeting and made from gratitude.  

A photo of a wall tent and its open doors at dusk, lit with solar laterns

Emma Brophy

By evening our entire team (including me!) made it back to camp. Eric and Gus cooked us a delightful dinner and we all sat by the campfire, chatting about the day. Everyone had their own story about how they got there and what they loved about cycling. At night we retired to our lantern-lit tents, and curled up in toasty Klymit sleeping bags to dream through the chilly desert darkness.  

Over the next couple days, our group sampled more of Gunnison’s stunning high desert plateaus, mountain ranges, and buttery gravel roads. We learned that Gunnison has over a thousand miles of dirt roads, just waiting to be mapped as multi-day routes. The county welcomes adventure cyclists, especially those with a genuine love for the outdoors and a spirit of adventure.  

On our last evening, someone lit the wood-burning stove in the largest tent, and we all crowded inside to watch Eric give a presentation about his polar adventures. He set up a projector —powered by Jackery solar panels — and chuckled his way through videos of extreme trips to cold, icy, snowy places around the world. 

A high perched view of a cyclist riding on a smooth gravel road in a lightly forested landscape

Emma Brophy

It was still completely insane. And it was also humbling. This person filled our water bottles, washed our dishes, and handed out donuts! He spoke openly about his recent bout with cancer and listened when we shared our own stories of life and loss. Adventure is ultimately a human phenomenon. Whether it’s an expedition to the North Pole, a long bike tour, or a media trip to Gunnison County, we’re all surviving our own experiences of the unknown and letting it shape us in the process.  

I’m grateful that my “accidental gravel” adventures with homemade gear somehow led to “riding to heaven on the back of a beautiful angel” with this group of lovely humans in gorgeous Gunnison County. By the end of the trip, I was quite thrilled with my spandex bib and GU electrolyte packs! And there was a part of me that wished I really had gotten lost — ideally in the evening on our last day — so I could just keep pedaling into the unknown on those epic mountain roads.  

Creating Multi-Day Cycling Routes on Gunnison’s Gravel

Additional Info

Three of The Adventure Cycling Association’s long distance routes also pass through beautiful Gunnison County: the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is unpaved, and the Western Express and Great Parks South are paved. Each of these is a beautiful connector to the rest of Gunnison. You can download the Adventure Cycling’s Bicycle Route Navigator app or GPX files to access additional route information like water sources, elevation, grocery stores, and campsites. These three routes are also available as paper maps

Useful Resources:
Adventure Cycling Interactive Map

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