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Q&A with a Cool Coloradan: Ben Delaney of Roll Massif

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Cycling journalist and head of communications Ben Delaney of Denver-based Roll Massif, gives us insight into what gravel riding is and how a beginner can get dirty on two wheels along the less-traveled trails of Colorado.

First, what IS gravel riding?

Gravel riding is basically riding bikes on dirt roads. The surface of dirt roads varies quite a bit —  some are treated with magnesium chloride and are smoother than many paved roads and some use truckloads of gravel as a “paving” layer. The main attractions for many cyclists are the minimal auto traffic and the sense of freedom and adventure.

What kind of gear is required?

Dedicated gravel bikes are now a thing, but certainly are not required. Many of us in Colorado have been riding standard road bikes on dirt roads for years, especially as many rides link paved and dirt sections together. Others ride mountain bikes. Gravel bikes look similar to road bikes — a rigid frame with curved, drop handlebars — but with clearance for wider tires. The wider tires add a bit of grip on dirt and gravel, but also a whole lot of comfort thanks to better suspension.

Any special skills or experience someone might need before heading out?

No! It’s just like riding a bike! As with any activity, there are certainly tips and tricks you can pick up from friends, experience and various websites (Gravel Cyclist is a great resource). But the primary things are to stay relaxed and aware of your surroundings. It really is as simple as riding a bike down a dirt road.

Why do you think it’s becoming so popular?

There are a few things at play: little-to-no auto traffic, the freedom and fitness of road riding and a manageable bit of challenge with the road surface

What makes Colorado the perfect place for it?

We have hundreds and hundreds of miles of dirt roads throughout our state, and unlike some of our neighbors to the east, we are lucky enough to have the majesty of the Rockies to ride and admire.

Do you have tips for beginners to get started?

Join a group ride. Either with friends or through a bike shop like Full Cycle in Boulder or an organization like the Rapha Boulder Clubhouse. Hire a coach like one of the great folks at Rambleur or FasCat Coaching, who can guide you through all the nuances, assist you in making gains and make it fun. And read and watch media on gravel. Then come ride our 27- or 56-mile gravel courses at Roll Massif Elephant Rock on June 2, 2019.

What is your best tip for dealing with a section of washboard (an extremely bumpy section of road)?

Be cool. Grip the handlebars somewhat tightly with your hands, but keep yours arms, shoulders and neck loose. Bend your elbows. Keep your back straight and stay planted in the saddle. Pedal a big gear, as that puts more load on your legs than your butt. If it’s just a short stretch, stand and coast over it, letting your bent legs and arms absorb the vibrations. As always, look up the road for the smoothest lines. Be aware of what and who is behind you; don’t just dart across the road without being mindful of another rider coming up behind you.

What are some of your favorite terrain types?

Let me recommend types of terrain by experience level. Smooth dirt roads, such as those treated with magnesium chloride, are ideal for beginners as they are buttery smooth. Thicker gravel roads are better suited for riders with a little experience, but even brand-new riders shouldn’t be intimidated; just take it at your own pace. Advanced riders enjoy adding some mellow singletrack trails into their riding. The best thing about gravel riding and gravel bikes is simply exploring what’s around you, whether that is visiting a new part of the state or just taking a new back road on your way home.

Are their good resources for finding good trails — websites, apps, outfitters?

Your best resources are the ones above, really — bike shops and friends and coaches. I enjoy following fellow riders on Strava and Instagram to see where folks are riding and what the topography looks like. Those two social apps are also a great way to make connections; riders are generally happy to answer questions. And the simplest way is just keeping an eye open; many gravel converts are road riders who started poking around on dirt roads among their local network of paved routes.

The sport is somewhat in its infancy. How/where do you see it growing/evolving in the next few years?

The gravel scene is exploding, in both events and gear. One trend in events is ultra-long-distance races, with Dirty Kanza 200 being the primary example. Quasi-self-sufficiency is another trend in these type races, and many gravel bikes and equipment are built for carrying extra water and gear. At Roll Massif, we approach gravel differently. We fully embrace the concepts of adventure, exploration and getting off the proverbial beaten path. But our sportives are not out-and-out races. Our focus is on enjoying the day by riding bikes with new and old friends in beautiful places. Some of the courses are challenging, and we have timed segments that will be as hard as you make them. In terms of support, we have well-stocked feed zones, so you don’t have to lug all your water and food for the entire day. 

Tell us about Roll Massif’s events — especially the Wild Horse Gravel sportive.

Roll Massif has six road and gravel sportives scattered around Colorado. Unlike racing, we don’t have categories for age, gender or skill level. You can ride with whoever you like. We have the crazy idea that cycling events should be fun. Don’t get me wrong — Roll Massif sportives can be challenging and something you should train for, but our focus is on camaraderie and riding together.

Wild Horse is a brand new event held on a luxury dude ranch, The High Lonesome Ranch, just north of De Beque. A few people will stay in High Lonesome’s rustic cabins, but most will camp out Friday night before tackling a 50-mile or 80-mile course deep into the high country of the Western Slope. If you are eager to explore never-before-ridden stretches of Colorado gravel, take in overlooks of the Colorado River, race timed segments and soak up high-altitude vistas, you’re going to love it. We’ll have live local music, provide breakfast and a post-ride cookout and appreciate the reprieve of being way out in nature together. 

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