Summer series race report: Wild Horse Gravel
An inside look at one reporter’s summer of iconic Colorado cycling challenges
Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Reflecting on my hastily planned participation in last weekend’s Wild Horse Gravel, the quote — and the man who said it — fits the day perfectly.
If anyone could blend the Wild West with the grit of gravel, it would have been the 26th president, though he may have squirmed at first thinking about transforming a cowboy ranch into a center for lycra-wearing endurance addicts. Then again, who cornered the phraseology market on the oft-repeated, “long day in the saddle,” lamentation? If the marriage of horse hooves with clip-in cleats is a union you never imagined possible, gather ‘round the fire for my Wild Horse Gravel tall tale.
From the horse-led 10-mile neutral rideout for the timed 55-mile, 5,500-foot vertical day of punchy climbs and bumpy roads to the postrace feast at High Lonesome Ranch; from the country music to the hay bale awards podium; from the grazing cattle and expansive overlooks — this was the West — and gravel cycling — in its truest form.
Groggy from a 4 a.m. start, Andy, a former 30-year Chrysler employee who derives joy in volunteering Outside, woke me up with his enthusiasm as he directed traffic to a nearby field.
“I’m not a sport person at all; I just like being around people, just like this — talking to people,” he said warmly, noting he ushered for the Rockies for the same reason.
“Trust me, you’re not doing that for the money,” he snickered. “But, I’m retired, and it gets me out of the house.”
I was unable to join the hundred-plus camper vans and rooftop tents across the way this time, and with a bevy of logistics to iron out, I was pleased with the parking-to-expo layout. Thankfully, the intimate ranch was well-signed and organized. The breakfast buffet and the showers and bathrooms — essential for a gravel race — and the bike tech stands and bib pickup were easy to access and close to my car.
Watching a man vigorously apply sunscreen as I checked my tires 15 minutes before the gun, I realized I had — in addition to possibly leaving the front door unlocked back home — forgotten sunscreen. I also had just one waterbottle holder on my bike, as the other had ripped off last season. Ahh, to be prepared.
After a rousing national anthem, I set out for my first mountain bike ride of the year with a field of former Olympians, gravel pros and everyday Joes — all led appropriately by Roosevelt himself on the lead-out horse. Looking to expend as little energy as possible during the initial 10-mile rollout, I tucked into pockets of various grupettos, enjoying the fast-moving people-watching exercise.
There was Hippy Oregonian with his sandals, long hair, button-up short sleeve and no-clip pedals attached to a steel single-speed. Looking to make some sort of statement, his surge pulled me past Fits McSteele, the guy with quad crevasses visible from space. Ever the draft opportunist, Bobby Bigwig then slid his $12,000 rig into our growing peloton. On my rustic 29er, my staring was justified, until, it led to me nearly crashing into the nice matching race kit couple to my left.
I jolted. The front door is definitely unlocked.
We turned up toward the official timing mat, a fascinating mixture of hard-cores, die-hards and people having fun.
“This is like, the group that is having fun on these rides,” one normally elite rider who elected to hang back with us for this early-season ride, told me afterwards.
Sometimes, pelotons are cold, but this race was different. A friendly warmth pervaded the course as people stopped to check on others fixing a flat, taking a sip of water, or soaking in a view. Eventually, three miles after the first aid station, where I guzzled my water bottle twice and then refilled again, I struck up a conversation with Kim, 53, whom I caught on a 15% grade 30 miles in.
A veteran of multiple Dirty Kanza’s, the 200-mile Boston Marathon of gravel bike racing, she had done the inaugural Wild Horse in 2019, on a different, “harder, more technical” out-and-back course. After pinpointing her age in the late 30s, which received a humble chuckle, Kim shared how she had inadvertently become Wild Horse’s Jerry West. Her picture on the race’s homepage was her sign to come back and ride in 2022.
During the pandemic, the former 2:08 800-meter runner at Baylor told me she had taken up bike packing, which is sort of like a rock climber saying they’ve transitioned to free soloing — more intense, rugged and dangerous.
“Everything was shutting down,” she huffed as we passed a few cyclists walking their bikes up a particularly steep stretch.
Our conversation paused as we solemnly recognized our comrades’ difficulties, and then she whispered, “I always like to stay on my bike.”
“I had done some supported bike-packing,” she continued with her story.
“I had a friend who was a very accomplished bike-packer and she and I started a tradition of going out on a full-moons.” Their first full-moon ride was a July ascent of Mount Evans, which required donning a down coat at the top.
“2020 to 2021 — that’s what I did. I didn’t race,” she said.
As she told me more adventures, our route came to what I felt was its rideable visual apex. The course’s high point, still another 90 minutes away, contained sweeter eye-candy, but this curvy section of mellow road, winding along a canyon’s edge, was pleasurable for the entire body.
“Oh wow,” another rider exclaimed. I stood up to pedal, mostly to increase my blood flow.
“Hey! You’re toosh is out!” came a voice from behind. My bib shorts had worn a hole on the right leg. I knew of its existence, but what could be done now?
“I guess I ought to retire these,” I jestered. There was no response as we tilted downhill and let gravity do its thing down the course’s first extended free ride. Along the way, my chain popped off, and I stopped. I rode alone for the next 45 minutes.
In every endurance bike race, there is a stretch of time where you are unhappy about your present lot in life. The wind is in your face, your chain is noisy, your feet hurt, blisters are forming and it seems like civilization is far, far away. This feeling is exaggerated when you are racing or riding a virgin course, as I was, and for the next hour, I had to grit my teeth and pedal.
It helped my confidence that I was gaining on riders during the entirety of the prolonged 4% to 7% climb, that is, until a man with a professional-looking jersey whizzed by effortlessly.
“Looks like I should have chosen your bike,” he said to me in a thick European accent.
I gave his bike the up-down, paused, and replied, “I’ll trade.”
He laughed and explained that he had suffered several flats, which probably explained why he was back in my neck of the pack. As he cruised ahead, I stubbornly matched his cadence, maintaining ground as we both caught back up to Kim. She started talking to him about Dirty Kanza, now called Unbound.
“If you can ride with someone, it’s always better,” she said, explaining how she bonded with a stranger for much of one of her attempts.
“It made 125 miles go by like that,” she snapped, and secretly I hoped we too would magically arrive at the next aid station.
Feeling fast, I went around the pair and soon came upon two course-workers. The teenagers – a boy and a girl — had mischievously wandered away from their aid station … just a bit.
“Aid station ahead,” the boy said with a cool, monotone voice. The girl giggled.
My spirits lifted, and with news of impending water, I stopped and guzzled the rest of my bottle. Forty-five minutes and about 1,800 vertical feet later, I arrived at the final aid station at the course’s high point of 8,200 feet, more than a little perturbed at the couple’s misinformation.
Enjoying the views and the fluids and in no particular hurry, I had my bike chain oiled as I munched on some banana chunks, my first bits of food all day. A college-age girl was chatting with another woman, admiring her single-speed bike.
“Wow, I can’t believe you did that!” she yelled, loud enough for others to turn and notice the feat.
“I’m glad I’ve got gears.”
“You won’t need them now,” the bike mechanic working on my chain said.
It’s all downhill from here, I thought.
I trolled out, passing the singlespeed hero, Kristi Lindquist, 51, a few miles later. This Winter Park athlete had fitness written all over her, and in fact, I remembered passing her bright Subaru jersey three miles in. The writer in me thought, even then, I bet she has a good story.
Lindquist took up running as an avenue to maintain her sanity after giving birth to twins, both of whom just graduated from college. As a twin myself, the thought of “this would be my mom if she lived in Colorado,” was cemented. A swimmer in high school, she got into marathon running after college, which led to Ironmans and eventually trail running. Then, she discovered mountain biking.
“And I absolutely loved it,” she said under the shade of a tree at the finish area.
She started doing gravel “before it became a thing,” racing Unbound (Dirty Kanza) four times and placing second in her age group last year.
“First in my age group would be awesome,” she said of her season goal.
Wild Horse was a last-minute decision for Lindquist and her boyfriend, who also raced singlespeed. Of the added challenge on the gearless rig, which she uses in training all the time, she said she pondered this morning, “I’m going to do something different.”
“Nothing really can go wrong mechanically.”
Though one does not need to contemplate gear selection throughout various inclines, she claimed a different type of mental engagement is required when there is only one choice, a take I found interesting.
“It’s fun because you have to think a lot,” she said of fixed-gear riding. Ultimately, she didn’t regret her selection, though she did joke that, “At mile 30, I was like, ‘the 30-mile might have been a good choice!’”
When her son was going through high school, his school didn’t have a mountain bike team. Lindquist and a friend launched the team, which they now coach. “We’re like, ‘Do we want to do this?’” she said.
“But it was great! It’s huge now. Tons of kids all over the state, and it’s such a positive, awesome environment.”
Looking around at the festivities after finishing, I couldn’t help but agree. Mingling with the champions who blazed the course in just over three hours were others who took more than twice that long. A country singer was providing live music as two riders listened and shared their stories over cold drinks. I wandered over to the hay bale podium and the competitive chamber of my heart started pumping faster.
Ski season — this is training for that – I thought to myself. The top step, about four feet high, was shading a toddler messing around with one of the oversized yard games. My own 8-month old, away in Wisconsin on a trip with my wife, came to my mind, and I was thankful I hadn’t broken my neck or something.
“It’s a crazy, sick little world, but it’s fun,” Lindquist laughed. I nodded in agreement.
I strolled back to the car, waved goodbye to Andy, and headed to the nearest gas station to find a giant cup of ice water. “Big gulps, huh?” I said to myself as I walked back to my car’s front door, imitating the famous “Dumb and Dumber” line. I tenderly lowered myself into the driver’s seat, responding internally.
Big gulps for big rides.
Photos from the Wild Horse Gravel event at High Lonesome Ranch on May 14. | Ryan Sederquist/Vail Daily
This summer series continues on May 30 with a run up Notch Mountain. Then we get back on the Outside Cycling Series June 4 and June 5 with Sunrise to Sunset, a 12-hour mountain bike race and Elephant Rock, the Colorado road century classic.