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CO2UT- A Desert Gravel Race: Colorado to Utah and back again in 125 miles

The CO2UT 125-mile gravel bike race starts and ends in remarkable downtown Fruita. Fruita is a small town on Colorado’s Western Slope formerly best known as an agricultural center and has more recently become a sports town with the Colorado River, Grand Mesa, and the start of the Kokopelli Trail (145-mile trail connecting Loma, CO to Moab, UT) all within a short drive or ride. Fruita is positioned like no other. The North Fruita Desert area, known locally as “18 Road,” and the McInnis Canyon area (eastern end of the Kokopelli trail, and a proper trail network in its own right) have transformed Fruita into a mountain biking destination. Seemingly endless camping is available, and the riding in the two areas is diverse and vast enough to challenge anyone. There is also gravel; lots of gravel. Which leads us back to the 2021 CO2UT 125-mile gravel bike race which took place on May 22, 2021.

From Fruita, the CO2UT race rides north to the 18 Road area below the stout Book Cliffs, which form the northern boundary for the entirety of the ride, where it turns west towards Utah. Directions matter out here for a couple of reasons. One is that you really do need to know where you are going, and where you have been, because you may need to find your way back… and there is very little, if anything, out in this desert. Second, the winds in this part of Colorado can be brutal. Thankfully, with the 6:30 a.m. start time, the riders had a fairly consistent springtime breeze out of the east to push us along on the western journey on the “stick” part of CO2UT’s lollipop route. A diversity of wind was expected on the loop portion, and incredibly by the time we were heading back east again on the stick, we had a robust cross/tail wind.

The gravel surfaces varied from some pretty painful washboard roads, eventually onto even more painful seldom traveled ruts that were pocked with cow hoof prints. Roads like these were a low point on the CO2UT, but thankfully amounted to less than 25 miles of the total 125. Other surfaces we dubbed “high, wide and handsome” – smooth and fast. Lesser quality but still fast and enjoyable gravel roads were plentiful too, and mercifully free of bovine tracks baked into the gravel like dinosaur tracks. There were some sections of ancient broken-up tarmac, as well as some crushed stone style gravel roads, where a strip of ridable terrain was usually available for those skilled enough to stay on the line. At some point we cruised by a meager sign indicating we had left Colorado and entered Utah. The landmark was understated and seen in reverse order about 40 miles later near the conclusion of the loop touring Utah. To enter a new state in an extremely remote area on a bike is something to experience, and to do it during a 125-mile gravel bike race is even better.

Good cloud cover, gentle lover-like winds, mostly good surfaces, just under 7,000 feet of climbing, 125 miles went by in about 8 hours of blissful riding (shorter for the speedsters). The climbing snuck up on us with mostly gentle grades allowing the total vertical to gradually increase as the miles spun by. There was the occasional reminder though, for example the 18% slope at mile 50-ish; but climbs like that were few.

The inaugural CO2UT was delayed twice – the race was originally planned for fall 2020 and rescheduled to an earlier date in spring 2021 – due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even so, or perhaps because of the extra year of planning time, organization of the race was superb.

The CO2UT had exceptional aid stations and carrying “extra” food and fluids on this particular cool weather day was not necessary.  For the 125-mile riders, aid was available about every 20 miles (1.5-2 hours). Out in the middle of the desert, as far as 60 miles from the nearest…well, anything…volunteers were handing out ice-cold Pepsis to the cyclists, as well as Cheetos, Fritos and Funions. There was sports food as well.

In terms of what to ride, I was on a steel gravel-specific bike with 40mm tires, a friend on a carbon cross-bike with 38mm tires. The race organizers recommended a minimum of 40mm tires and suggested 43-45mm. Anecdotally, most people were riding wider tires (40mm and up), and those on skinny tires suffered in the sand, ruts and on other technical surfaces. In terms of how to ride it, race organizers required GPS, turn by turn written directions, a “rescue person” as well as back up batteries and a phone. They seemed pretty nervous about folks getting lost in the desert. Requiring this level of redundant navigation on what was a very well-marked course was driven by the extreme remote nature of the roads. The course is truly out there, with only the occasional oil rig or cattle corral on the side of the gravel. There is nobody to bail you out should you crash, have a severe mechanical, or simply have a bad day. In other words, it’s perfect.

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