All year long, gravel races and events seem to pop up in towns across the US. With its approachability, it’s no surprise that “gravel” has become so popular with cyclists in disciplines spanning the continuum between mountain and road riding. IMO, the most successful of these races are the ones that embrace and exemplify the values and character of the communities in which they are based. Having lived in Fort Collins, CO for nearly fifteen years, the FoCo Fondo is a special one for me, as it shows off some of Northern Colorado’s incredible mixed surface riding with multiple expertly-curated routes while also fostering an inclusive and comfortable environment for a diverse group of riders.
A few weeks ago, at the tail end of a trip to the Choice City, I jumped in a course car with locals Peter Discoe and Taylor Kruse to document the event.
Back when I lived in Fort Collins (this was around 2015-ish) I remember group rides led by Zack Allison and Jake Arnold that were the precursor to what is now the FoCo Fondo. It wasn’t that long ago, but many of us hadn’t yet bought into the burgeoning “gravel bike” market and were comfortable exploring the dirt roads north and east of town on ‘cross bikes and hardtails.
Those rides were a way to keep pedaling during shoulder seasons when our beloved singletrack was covered in snow and mud, in addition to finding common ground, er… surfaces, with roadie friends. We’d ride all day, sometimes pack gear and camp, and simply appreciate the stunning Front Range landscape – and roads that traverse it – so close to home.
Fast forward to 2022 and the FoCo Fondo is in its 7th year, now with Zack and his wife Whitney at the helm. The event is packed with 1000+ riders spread across five routes ranging from 12 to 145 miles. It’s got a primo partnership with New Belgium/Fat Tire, utilizing the brewery mothership as its primary venue.
And probably most important, the race event now offers a variety of community-building and inclusivity initiatives such as BIPOC scholarships, a non-binary category and prize purse, free childcare, and a substantial donation to Fort Collins’ Safe Routes to School program, and other social and training activities throughout the year.
A Choice City for Cycling
Consistently ranked as one of the most bikeable cities in the US, Fort Collins is a pretty okay place to host a cycling event. With wide downtown streets – designed to give horse-drawn carriages a full turn radius – it’s almost like Abner Loomis and other original town planners envisioned the extensive bike lane infrastructure that would eventually be built.
The city takes its platinum status from the League of American Cyclists seriously. Developed in 2014, the city has been building out its Bicycle Master Plan, each year adding miles of protected bike lanes, shared use paths, required bike infrastructure in new developments, support for non-profit cycling advocates, traffic calming, community bike share program, and continued expansion of a low-stress street network. The list goes on. And on.
Building on the City’s efforts, the local community noticed years ago that bikes are good for business, too. New Belgium, in particular, was founded with a mutual love for beer and bikes, and the company has supported non-motorized travel from its inception. We talk a fair bit on this site about the toxic relationship the cycling industry has with booze, and it’s something I personally struggle with. Still, there’s no denying New Belgium and other Fort Collins breweries’ substantial cycling-centric support to their employees and community.
As the title sponsor of the FoCo Fondo, New Belgium went above and beyond just lending out their headquarters as the event venue. They provided two houses for Ride for Racial Justice (BIPOC athletes) and one house for Stamina Racing Collective (for non-binary athletes). In addition, they matched the prize purse in the non-binary category on the 145-mile Triple Dog Dare You Route ($3,000). Additionally, they provided the top five prizes in the Gambler’s Prime.
But Fondo riders didn’t just descend on Fort Collins to cruise around the city streets and sample the latest IPA at New Belgium. They came for the groads! Abutting the scenic foothills and hogbacks of the Rocky Mountains, the agricultural lands surrounding Fort Collins have a well-maintained network of unpaved and variable roads that, until recently, might have been its best-kept secret. To the east, the roads are rolling and fast with beautiful views in all directions. To the north and west, they contour around expansive ranch properties, into steep canyons, and climb toward Red Mountain and Soapstone Open Spaces. You could even argue that it’s a gravel lover’s paradise.
As professional bike racers turned entrepreneurs, the Allisons run Bike Sports, which provides experiences, training, bike fitting, personal cycling support, and a focus on community building. While planning and running the Fondo (in addition to maintaining professional cycling careers) is a substantial undertaking, the duo work year-round to encourage diversity in cycling and get more people out on bikes.
Chatting with Brooke Goudy after the race, this hit home for me as she commented:
“Zack and Whitney work beyond the FoCo Fondo. That race was a one-day event and [they are] always working to ensure voices of the Black and Brown community are being uplifted.”
I have plans to profile Bike Sports in more detail as part of a future story I’m working on, but in terms of the Foco Fondo, I think it’s important to note these efforts.
The inclusivity aspects of the FoCo Fondo haven’t materialized in a vacuum. During the last six years I lived in Fort Collins, I worked as a City Planner and was ingrained in the City’s community engagement efforts as it grew from a big town to a small city. When new development was creeping into historically segregated and disenfranchised neighborhoods, City government was investing substantial time and money toward listening to and attempting to address residents’ concerns.
The neighborhoods around New Belgium brewery where the race started and ended, for example, are known as “Tres Colonias” and were built to house workers from the area’s prevalent yet tumultuous sugar beet industry during the early 1900s. The neighborhoods are located relatively close to downtown Fort Collins. Still, they lacked basic infrastructure improvements (paved roads, stormwater mitigation, sidewalks, etc) until long after the rest of the city and residents have generally felt neglected. But, in recent years, the local government has proactively collaborated with neighborhoods to ease impacts of new developments and also invested substantial funding for improvements.
All around the city, similar initiatives continue to take place and, while they’re never perfect or able to please everyone, a culture of empathy and empowerment permeates many adjacent activities and stands out to a visitor like me in contrast to my current home of Phoenix, AZ where individualism is often prioritized.
During the weeks leading up to the Fondo, the drought-stricken Front Range had been experiencing a welcomed wet monsoon season with fairly regular evening storms rolling through northern Colorado. The race day forecast called for a strong chance of precipitation and, as I pedaled home in a downpour from dinner the night before, I worried that my plan to visually document the event would fall apart.
Thankfully, the rain held off and, with a pre-dawn wake-up call, Taylor and I arrived to a soggy start line at New Belgium where Peter was waiting for us to load into Brave New Wheel’s shop truck and head out on course. With five groups of racers departing every hour between 6:00 and 11:00 am, we knew it wasn’t physically possible to cover everything – even with Taylor’s expert drone piloting skills – so we started the day leap-frogging the early 145-mile riders and then backtracked south to meet up with the other groups throughout the day.
Early morning fog greeted us as we drove out to rural Larimer County to catch the lead group. Freshly graded roads were in perfect condition with the added moisture from the night before. The diffused light was a dream for this photographer, as I’m used to dealing with intense direct sunlight at home in southern Arizona. Waiting along the roadside, standing in wet tall grass and gazing west at the cloud-covered Rockies, I realized how much I missed those county roads.
We stuck with the first group out past the small town of Carr, through the permitted private singletrack section under HWY 287 and across Robert’s Ranch Preservation Trust, and up most of the climb to Red Mountain Open Space before turning around to regroup with the 102-mile riders.
The aid station at mile 76.5 on CR 80 was the line where 102-mile riders turned back and the 145-milers kept climbing. There was a strong party vibe with cold towels, bacon, and tequila for those feeling spicy. But despite the provisions and atmosphere, we could tell that many riders were ready to be done.
The route back toward town wasn’t all downhill, though, and riders were digging deep on the climb back up toward Park Creek Reservoir. As we passed our friend Logan on the climb, cameras pointed right at him, we heard him muttering his appreciation for catching him at his best (worst). Back on the flat county roads, we spotted a few spectators lined up to cheer on friends and loved ones as they pedaled the remaining miles to the finish. We also started to see 32 and 53-mile riders around this point in the day and followed the large group south.
Waiting for riders to roll through, I chatted with Wendy who was there to watch her daughter Shea complete her first 100 mile race. Later on, I caught up with Shea and asked what made her choose to ride 100 miles for the first time in this particular event, to which she commented on the nostalgia she had for the roads north of Fort Collins where she grew up. She lives in Durango now and it was a meaningful experience for her to ride a challenging distance on the scenic roads where she spent her childhood.
Around the time we turned onto County Road 60 near Douglass Lake, there was a sudden traffic jam, which seemed strange for this rural zone. When we pulled up to the intersection, we were immersed in what seemed like a Critical Mass ride, but with riders on horseback rather than bikes and we were the cars that couldn’t move. I was so enamored with watching see these beautiful Arabian horses dancing in the streets and I forgot to grab my camera until it was almost too late. Fortunately, I snapped a few photos of this incredible encounter as they trotted off, quickly clearing the road for the Fondo riders to continue on their routes.
There was a mandatory “oasis” stop with about four miles to go for each group of riders. The oasis went through the yard of some generous volunteers and was set up like a mini ‘cross course to challenge the most serious racers with a small dose of fun and provided respite in advance of the finish line for those so inclined. I thought it was pretty hilarious that, despite their best efforts and Super Soaker marksmanship, the Party Police just couldn’t sway some riders to turn into the oasis grounds for the entertaining 30-second detour.
And then it was over. Peter, Taylor, and I convened back at the brewery as most of the 145-mile riders had finished and the other groups were trickling in. There was a great band playing, delicious food vendors, and other local businesses showing off their goods. My family had ridden the 12-mile loop earlier in the day and I was bummed to miss out on that while I was out on the longer courses, so I left to regroup with them and didn’t stick around the festivities long enough to see the podium awards. Plus, after holding off all day, a rainstorm finally came through that helped encouraged me and other folks to scurry off. If you’re looking for podium photos or a list of finishers, head over to Foco Fondo’s website. You can also find all of my photos there, which are available to download for personal use.
Thanks to Zack, Whitney, and the FoCo Fondo crew representing Fort Collins in such a positive way and for your generous hospitality while I was there. Thanks to my homies who took such good care of me and my family during our stay. I miss you all and look forward to visiting again soon!