Bighorn Gravel brings off-road cycling craze to Eagle County
Community event offers more than just 20, 50 and 85-mile routes
Gravel cycling is getting big, and one of its big local stars is giving Eagle County its own big event.
Multi-time U.S. cyclocross national champion and 2017 Unbound Gravel runner-up Jake Wells has logged thousands of miles on the valley’s remote dirt roads. When Venture Sports owner Mike Brumbaugh joined the in-vogue gravel movement, the pair’s training ride conversations reached an obvious conclusion.
“We were like, ‘somebody really should put on an event and showcase our area,’ and we pretty much just said, ‘I guess that somebody should be us!’” recalled Wells of the Genesis 1 of Bighorn Gravel, the weekend extravaganza sure to go well beyond its 85-mile race (and $10,000 prize package) as well as 50-mile and 20-mile rides.
The June 25-26 weekend will be Eagle County’s full-fledged introduction to gravel’s main pitch: a celebration of the cycling community’s inclusivity.
Beer, food, games, expos, camping — and of course an expertly designed, knock-your-socks-off course — provide a welcoming entry point for just about any person in need of quintessential mountain-living weekend plans.
“Our goal is to open people’s eyes to what you can do on these bikes and what we have in our own backyard,” said Wells.
“We want to take this event on and take it to the next level so it becomes a pillar of our Eagle County community and also something that the greater gravel community can look to as an example and say, ‘Oh I’ve never seen that at an event before — that’s cool — we gotta have that at our race.’”
Wells, who’s seen a thing or two throughout his decades-long elite racing career, and Brumbaugh, a seasoned veteran for all members of the bike community, are perfectly positioned to create a gratifying experience for the pros and the joes. The duo used many of those long rides to flesh out Bighorn Gravel’s vision.
“We started looking at taking my experience with the events I’ve been a part of and just saying, ‘You know, what have I seen that has gone really well’ and what are the things that I’m like, ‘Yeah, maybe that could have gone better,'” said Wells, winner of the MidSouth Double, and finisher of the 350-mile self-supported Unbound XL.
“That allows us to put together something that we feel is a great experience for the rider.”
In addition to the “non-negotiables” — porta-potties within striking distance of the start, free showers for the growing crowd of van-life bikers, well-stocked aid stations and safety measures along the route — the town of Gypsum’s involvement in the Bighorn event has given organizers a leg-up in the rapidly rising world of gravel races.
“Between the two of us, we have a lot of connections in the industry, but additionally, I think because we both have established this place in our community, we’re also able to lean on the community a bit, too,” explained Wells, who spoke at length about his gratitude toward numerous sponsors, including co-title sponsor Alpine Bank, who have stepped up to help get the event off the ground.
“The thing that I think makes our event more unique is that we’re partnering with the town of Gypsum and everything is going to be headquartered at the rec center.”
For $7, families with young kids can have full access to the center — including the pool, weight room and showers. For families looking to kill time while mom or dad is enjoying an epic day in the saddle, there will be plenty to do. Food trucks, bouncy houses and Craftsman’s beer garden — a launch pad for the Edwards restaurant to share its “ever-changing cast of craft beers showcasing the best of Colorado and beyond,” — provide a place for community members even if they didn’t sign up to race.
“Anybody can show up on Saturday and take part in the expo or on Sunday and watch people finish, grab a beer, get some tacos,” encouraged Wells.
The “Luxury Bighorn Gravel” and “Vanlife Bighorn Gravel” race packages provided another unique twist. Winners of the former contest receive a two-night stay at the Grand Hyatt, complimentary SUV from Dollar Rent-A-Car, a night of fine dining at Sweet Basil in Vail Village, and two comp entries to the race. The two lucky recipients of the latter get a night at the starting line in a fully outfitted van from Dave and Matt Vans “stocked with your choice of cuisine (bark eater, carnivore, or omnivore.)”
A true community event
For the skeptics pre-labeling the event as simply another “hardcore race” they’re unwelcome to participate in, Wells has a message.
“If you want to just dip your toe into gravel and see what it’s all about, I think there’s plenty of opportunities for people to come out and experience this world that we’re trying to open people’s eyes to,” he stated.
“As much of a cliche or buzzword as it is, the inclusivity thing is what everyone is on board with and that’s why gravel is doing so well. It is inclusive.”
Gravel’s melting pot of elite racers and everyday cyclists means a myriad of goals at the starting line. “Some are there for personal goals,” Wells said.
“For some, it’s a time. For some, it’s ‘I want to beat my friend,’ and for some, it’s ‘I want to see if I can finish this thing.'”
“It’s rare that you get to be on the same course as these pros,” he added. “You can’t just go and jump into the Tour de France and say, ‘hey I’m just going to start in the back here and ride with you guys.’”
In the spirit of mountain bike godfather Tom Ritchey and the late Jobst Brandt, both off-road pioneers who took to remote mountain forest roads on the gear available in the mid-70s — only to innovate necessary precursors to the modern mountain bike — Wells is all for people using what they have to come and explore the area and enjoy the day.
“The excuse of I don’t have a bike and I don’t race — let’s put that on the shelf,” he laughed.
“Come bring what you have. You have a mountain bike, come ride that. And I know you don’t race, but just come and be a part of this experience and I bet you’re going to like it.”
Getting on course
Crafting a fantastic route topped the list of requirements for Brumbaugh and Wells.
“Number one, it’s got to be an amazing course, and we have that,” beamed Wells.
“We have fantastic riding right out of Gypsum. Some of the most amazing views in all of Eagle County.”
There are three events planned for Sunday: Ram’s Horn Escape, the 85-mile marquee race, Little Bighorn, a 50-mile adventure, and Gravel Curious, a 20-mile, non-competitive event. Of course, no one is checking your U.S.A. Cycling credentials or cycling categories at the gate.
“Gravel is kind of the perfect point of entry for a lot of people,” Wells said, noting how technical requirements of singletrack mountain biking and the dangers of road biking often discourage would-be riders from going all-in on the activity.
“You can go explore, you can be out for hours and hours, and it’s somewhat secluded — you’re away from traffic, texting and driving, and other obstacles on the road.”
A pair of no-drop group rides on Saturday morning offer low-key chances for newcomers. The Pinarello women’s clinic and ride and TheFeed group ride with Eli Kranefuss both leave from the expo at 10 a.m.
Wells described Ram’s Horn Escape, which includes 10,500 feet of climbing, in one word: “Rugged.”
Its mix “class 4” — Wells, apparently suffering from Mountain Games hangover aptly utilized whitewater rankings in his description — descents, long, grinding climbs and smooth, flowy downhills, as well as a 2.5-mile familiar singletrack segment by Eagle Ranch, will ensure the day “challenging, but manageable.”
The goal was to guarantee finishers feel accomplished by ensuring logistics — safety and support — enable an adventure atypical to the regular Saturday group ride.
“If we can manage that for folks, then it comes down to what else we can provide so people leave with a really good taste in their mouth,” Wells said.
“It’s the vibe after. It’s the party, the ‘gravel scene’ that is super welcoming and really inclusive whether you’re completely new to gravel and new to cycling or you’re an experienced pro and you want to come and hang out and have a nice post-race meal and beer after a hard day.”
Those interested in participating can register until June 22 at 11:59 p.m. at BigHornGravel.com.
Saturday, June 25
10 a.m. Pinarello Women’s Clinic and Ride
10 a.m. Group ride led by TheFeed High Performance Team athlete Eli Kranefuss
12 p.m Craftsman Beer Garden is open
2 – 6 p.m. Expo Clinic and Tech Talk
2 – 5 p.m. Primal J and the Neanderthals take the stage
3 p.m Kids Balance Bike Race
Sunday, June 26
7:30 a.m. 85-mile Ram’s Horn Escape start.
8:30 a.m. 50-mile Little Bighorn start.
9 a.m. 20-mile Gravel Curious start.
12 p.m. Craftsman Beer Garden is open
12:30 p.m Lead finishers start to arrive back in Gypsum
1- 3 p.m. Custom 20 takes the stage
3 – 4 p.m. Awards Ceremony
4 – 6 p.m. Coldsmoke takes the stage