Fort Collins is a veritable Shangri-La for gravel riding these days, and locals Whit and Zachary Allison have doubled down on its ease of accessibility and almost year-round quality and vastness, dubbing the northern Colorado destination Gravel Graceland.
We took a road trip up to Fort Collins this summer as part of our annual circuit of bike races to check out the scene. And with perfect weather, grand hospitality, and ideal riding conditions, I highly recommend checking the FoCo Fondo off of your Front Range or gravel race bucket list.
Personally I love how all of these burgeoning gravel races are grabbing on to a moniker to help them stand out. Usually they are perfectly apropos and begin to tell a story about what that unique location offers the gravel world, from Vermont to Arkansas, to Patagonia, Arizona, to Whitefish, Montana, and seemingly everywhere in between.
The riding around Fort Collins is smooth and undulating. Flat but not flat with a NoCo wind that can often keep you on your toes. The Fondo course is an enticing mix of wide rolling rural gravel roads, two track and other off-road sections, and county roads.
I feel like when I was riding the foothills trails and gravel roads of Fort Collins nearly 30 years ago as a college student, we could never have imagined these events and the bikes we would be riding today. Hell, I couldn’t even afford a helmet back then (if you had a bike at all, you were officially a cyclist, and that usually included jorts and flat pedals), much less the rig and gear I’m lucky enough to use today (stay tuned for more on that!).
According to the group’s website, FoCo Fondo was “born from curiosity, adventure, and a humble brag about the amazing bike-centric community in Fort Collins,” back in 2015. By the end of 2019, Zack and Whitney Allison, “made the full leap to the mixed terrain lifestyle and racing scene and founded Bike Sports, and in 2020 they brought FoCo Fondo under the Bike Sports umbrella. Pushing to new limits of participation, racing, exploration, and general enjoyment of bike events and vacations by bike, we’re proud of our community, our event, and we can’t wait to share FoCo Fondo with you,” the duo says on the site.
They invited me to come up and experience what they had helped create in this special locale.
FoCo Fondo, like any good local grassroots org, does a lot of behind the scenes work as well to continue to grow the sport — including scholarship programs, free training rides, a Women’s Celebration Ride, a donation to Safe Route to School, partnering with Ride for Racial Justice, and more.
Co-founder Whitney Allison raced professionally on the road for many years and made the move to gravel last year, securing some solid wins and podiums last year at events like BWR Utah, SBT GRVL, and Unbound Gravel. She owns and operates Bike Sports, alongside Zack Allison. “In addition to our own gravel-racing program, Bike Sports runs FoCo Fondo, Gravel Graceland Experiences, a route website, a video series (launching next month), and a bike fit studio in Old Town Fort Collins,” she says.
Having cut my microbrew teeth in the early 90’s suckling from the tite of then fledgling New Belgium in “The Fort” as we called it back then, I was more than a little excited to return. New Belgium is one of the most sophisticated and largest breweries I’ve ever had a chance to tour and spend time at, and its sister location in Asheville, North Carolina, is equally spectacular. We couldn’t wait to get checked in to The Elizabeth and head over to The Rio for some margs and an early dinner before the Saturday morning shake out ride, where I would re-discover, this time on my race bike, all the great gravel Fort Collins has to offer.
I think this is true for everyone of their undergrad town, but Fort Collins is certainly one of the most nostalgic places in the world for me. The last time I rode through here was maybe 10 years ago for the finish of the Ride the Rockies, before “gravel bikes” were officially officially a thing, and I remember welling up with tears of joy winding my way down the picturesquely perfect roadways leading into town from the west. Years after I moved away and would infrequently visit to fish the Poudre Canyon or some other first-class outdoor recreational endeavor in the area, I mourned its insane growth — but returning this summer as a guest made me really appreciate Fort Collins even more and in new ways.
Although New Belgium was a part of FoCo Fondo since its first grassroots year in 2015, bringing on Fat Tire (a New Belgium brand) as a premier sponsor this past year was huge for the event, organizers say, and the ride began and ended at its legendary HQ in Fort Collins. “Fat Tire is providing opportunity for us to continue to expand our efforts to bring new gravel riders into the fold, increase diversity, and create unique solutions within the event space with the environment in mind,” said Allison. With New Belgium pioneering the craft beer scene and now more than 20 breweries in town, some are calling FoCo the Napa Valley of Beer.
A Stay at the Elizabeth Downtown
The relatively new Elizabeth Hotel right in Old Town around the corner from the city’s iconic pubs, restaurants and historic walking corridor anchors Fort Collins as an almost upscale travel destination, quite a far cry from the way I remember it 30 years ago.
I literally could not imagine a better place to stay when participating in the FoCo Fondo. This collection (owned by Marriott) truly elevates a stay in Fort Collins and provides the ultimate convenience and sophistication for a busy race weekend. Even staying with my two young children they were gracious and made the whole trip worthwhile.
You Can Do It
Head to Fort Collins July 23, 2023, for the next annual Foco Fondo and experience Gravel Graceland for yourself. You got this.
—Definitely Wild is a column by EO Contributing Editor Aaron Bible. He has been writing for Elevation Outdoors and Blue Ridge Outdoors, among other outdoor publications, for more than a decade, covering cycling, skiing, gear and mountain life. The opinions expressed here are strictly his own. Follow him on Instagram at @DefinitelyWild.
–Race photos courtesy of Foco Fondo and Josh Weinberg (@jweinberg on Instagram).