How Trinidad, Colorado is transforming itself into a gravel cycling hotspot

Tiny Trinidad, Colorado hopes to become the capital of gravel cycling. What goes into creating a gravel destination, and does Trinidad have what it takes?

Photo: Stephen Beneski

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Rumor had it that Trinidad, Colorado wanted to become a gravel cycling destination.

So two years ago I drove to the small city of 9,000 people with my gravel bike in tow. For a route suggestion, I reached out to Juan de la Roca, owner of a local bike tour business, who was pushing for Trinidad to proclaim itself the gravel capital of the U.S.A. He sent me a link to the Las Animas Dirt Series, a list of curated rides complete with historical and cultural notations and GPX files already loaded into Strava.

I parked at the old brick train depot and pedaled out of town along a riverfront bike path that abruptly ended in an overgrown bramble. The line on the map quickly deposited me on a dirt road with nothing but a sprawling expanse of ranchlands and 1,500 miles of gravel roads ahead of me. The riding was excellent: gentle topography buffeted by big views, plenty of animal sightings, more cattle guards than cars.

But, as I poked around town post-ride, admiring the wealth of stunning Victorian architecture lining the main drag, I also noticed an absence: aside from my own, I hadn’t seen a single bike.

A handful of small towns and cities across the United States have shown us that a robust cycling tourism economy is possible, especially if built on the shoulders of a sell-out event or a tangle of perfectly cut trails. To simply stake a claim — as Trinidad is attempting to do — without the foundation of a marquee event, bike-adjacent infrastructure, and a local cycling culture, is a much more challenging proposition. While Trinidad already has great gravel riding, the ride is only one slice of the pie.

So to become a gravel capital, how does a place like Trinidad capitalize?

Cyclists line up their bikes outside a storefront in a small downtown area
Emporia, Kansas has been transformed by Unbound Gravel. Photo: Brad Kaminski

Small towns transformed

Before the popularity of Unbound Gravel — the race formerly known as Dirty Kanza — had you ever heard of Emporia, Kansas?

The small city of 25,000 on the eastern edge of some of the world’s last remaining tallgrass prairie was unlikely to have crossed your radar. Similarly, in the mid 2000s, the people who lived in Emporia didn’t know much about the tiny bike race that would someday transform their town.

“When the DK event started, that first initial race in 2006, there were maybe five people in all of Emporia that could comprehend riding 200 miles on gravel,” said Rob Gilligan, Emporia’s mayor.

Fourteen years later, you would be hard pressed to find any local who isn’t well aware of the early June event, or the $5.5 million financial impact it has the on town during race weekend. The event has cultivated a legion of fans in the cycling world, and thousands of locals have become involved, either directly through employment, or as stalwart spectators.

Casey Wood, the executive director of Emporia Main Street, a group aimed at Emporia’s economic health, says locals didn’t immediately understand that a niche gravel race could transform their town.

“It was a bit of an unknown,” Wood said. “‘You wanna do what and how?’ We always joke that before DK happened in downtown Emporia there had never been a biergarten on public property. And after the first year, when things didn’t implode, you saw people thinking, ‘Oh, this is something we can get excited about.’”

Now, Emporia is practically synonymous with gravel, and no one needs any convincing that the event is etched into the fibers of the town. Gilligan said that tourists come to Emporia throughout the year to ride the dirt roads used by the race.

“You could pick any weekend between February and November, and I promise you will find a bike rack with an out-of-state license plate,” Gilligan said. “From anywhere within a reasonable day’s drive, you’ll find visitors who’ve decided to come to Emporia for the weekend and ride their bikes.”

Chlouber smiling in a t-shirt, cowboy hat, and massive gold belt buckle
Ken Chlouber founded the Leadville 100 in 1983. Photo: Brad Kaminski

Across the state line in Colorado, the town of Leadville has similarly been transformed by a thriving bike race and endurance sports culture. The Leadville Trail 100 MTB race and the Leadville Trail 100 run launched a summer-long series in the town. When people refer to the races, just saying the name of the town is enough, which is exactly what the race series’ co-directors Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin intended.

In the early 80s when Chlouber lost his job at the Climax molybdenum mine northeast of town, he and Maupin went on a crusade to find something that could bring some money — and joy — back to the residents of the little city that sits at 10,000 feet. They debated ideas — a fair, a 10K run, a festival of sorts — but went with the looniest one of all: a 100-mile foot race through the thin, alpine air.

Apparently, out-of-work miners are not a hard sell. According to Chlouber, they embraced the concept with aplomb. The loony idea was actually genius: a race of that length and difficulty would force people to come to the sky-high city to train, stay in hotels in town in the days before and after the race, and pump money into restaurants, grocery stores, and cafes while they were there.

“We had said, whatever we do, it will start and end in Leadville and it will have Leadville in its name,” Chlouber said. “We didn’t ask any of the local businesses for money, we wanted to bring money to those businesses.”

The first Leadville Trail 100 was run in 1983; 11 years later the mountain bike race debuted. In 2019, the Leadville Race Series, which includes those two races as well as seven other summertime Leadville-based events, brought in $18.5 million in local economic impact to Lake County.

Emporia and Leadville are just two of numerous small towns and regional areas that have been transformed by cycling tourism and bike racing. In Colorado, Crested Butte and Fruita attract thousands of mountain bikers each year. Tiny Stillwater, Oklahoma, is now known within the international gravel community as the home of The Mid South gravel race. Across Northwest Arkansas, investment by the Walton Family Foundation in trail networks and bike parks helped attract marquee events — the Epic Rides MTB series and Big Sugar gravel races, among others. In 2018 the Walton Foundation pegged bicycling’s economic impact to the area at $137 million. Across the country rail-trails have revitalized countless small communities.

Woman on her bike, looking at a small white church
The author rides past a small church on the outskirts of Trinidad. Photo: Stephen Beneski

Cycling isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but within it is a realm of possibility that has major implications. And nobody knows that better than the people in Trinidad who have viewed cycling as a potential savior for the town.

“Every community knows that they need and want a better economy,” Chlouber said. “There’s no better or quicker or easier way for Trinidad to get their economy rolling than a bike race.”

Route finding in Trinidad

Trinidad has seen its share of booms and busts, and the sculpted bronze canary in downtown reminds visitors of the area’s coal mining past. Adjacent to the sculpture are new cannabis dispensaries — a sign of the town’s new boom. In the early 1940s the town was one of the wealthiest in the state; today, around 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Local leaders have identified outdoor recreation, and cycling specifically, as a way to bring in tourists as well as long-term residents. Wally Wallace, Trinidad’s director of economic development, believes that outdoor recreation, when added to other projects like historic tourism and creative industries, can help revitalize the town.

“In any community you need to have 10 exciting projects happening, and when you reach that 10 you have critical mass,” he said. “I’m convinced that last year we hit that. There are so many awesome things happening that it’s just snowballing.”

The first roll of Trinidad’s cycling snowball occurs eighteen months after my initial trip. In October, 2020, after an invitation from Wallace, I return to Trinidad to attend an off-road cycling symposium, hosted by the city’s office of economic development.

Rarick in a bike shop
Troy Rarick helped develop Fruita, Colorado, into a cycling destination. Photo: Courtesy Over the Edge Sports

I’ve been to this sort of event in Boulder and Denver, and the venue is usually a bike shop, industry office, or bar. In Trinidad, we meet at El Rancho, a cavernous Mexican restaurant at the top of a hill that slopes northward into town.

As I walk in the door, I scan the room, looking for familiarity — a “bike person” — but see none. Instead, there are a few men in stiff cowboy hats, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife official, some administrators from the junior college, Mayor Rico, Wallace, a few others, and my friend Juan de la Roca.

After intros and tacos, I lament to de la Roca that there is no good way to ride from my motel to downtown, where the next day’s events will occur.

“No, no no!” he tells me, pulling up Google maps and zooming in on my interstate hotel. “There’s a killer gravel road behind the hotel that will take you all the way to town.”

In the morning, when I follow the very rudimentary directions he’s given me, not only have I avoided cars and noise and pavement, I’m plunked into the tiny, unincorporated town of Jansen. An impeccable white one-room church sitting in someone’s yard makes me double back to take a photo. The rest of the route runs parallel to the Purgatoire River, where efforts are underway to restore native habitat along its banks.

This is the kind of gravel town experience that I’m looking for, and one that is reminiscent of the advice given to me by Troy Rarick, who helped transform Fruita, Colorado, from a bankrupt rural outpost into a mountain bike mecca.

“Every trail leads from coffee to beer,” Rarick had told me.

There was only one problem in Trinidad. I had to ask how to find this cycling infrastructure, and the only person who seemed to know about it was the one person I knew. I’ve done a lot of traveling to ride bikes and, absent a friend with all the beta, there are usually two options for finding out where to ride: the bike shop or another cyclist on the road.

In Trinidad, I hadn’t seen either.

Ponsor in front of rows of bicycles
Shop owner Nic Ponsor sees potential in Trinidad. Photo: Courtesy Over the Edge Sports

Investing in a (bike) community

At the symposium I meet Nic Ponsor, owner of Criterium Bike Shop in Colorado Springs, who tells me he has had his eye on Trinidad as a potential home for a new bike shop for years. Ponsor is not only a business owner, but a champion of getting more people on bikes; his banner often flies at races, kids events, or the free bike shop in Colorado Springs where he pays for bike parts for the homeless and working poor.

Even with his wealth of experience, Ponsor is seduced by the possibility of starting a shop in a community that has never had a true bike culture.

“I’ve never had the opportunity to go into a city and build a culture and build out trails and create a destination,” he says. “So that’s intriguing and a neat new challenge.”

At the symposium, Wallace and other guest speakers explain that Trinidad has developed a three-part strategy to achieve its vision of becoming an off-road cycling destination. Becoming Colorado’s gravel capital is one of them. So is “starting local” to create a local cycling culture. Wallace and others realize that the town’s lack of a local cycling culture could create a roadblock to their bold ambitions.

“It’s a Colorado town without a single bike lane,” Wallace says.

For Ponsor, that makes opening up shop a risky proposition, but it’s a move he’s willing to consider because of the long-term vision Trinidad has for cycling. Nearby Fisher’s Peak, Colorado’s newest state park, boasts an extensive plan of proposed mountain bike trails — some of which will hopefully lead to coffee and beer. And the town has hired Rarick from Fruita as a consultant to help add mountain biking to its repertoire.

Poster art and gravel map of Trinidad
Trinidad’s riding has already inspired poster art and route maps for riders. Photo: Stephen Beneski

Ponsor believes that gravel is a good place-holder until the mountain bike trails are built, but he’s doubtful that gravel riding alone will help the town achieve destination status. What Trinidad needs is a real incentive — like a race — to get people to come ride it.

“Sometimes a big event can be the catalyst for the whole thing,” Posnor says, “And all of a sudden the people in the area see this influx of people, they see that the people are cool and friendly, they have a good time, they spend a bunch of money, and it was a fun time had by all, and then they’re like, ‘OK, let’s get on board with this.’”

This is exactly what happened in Emporia, Casey Woods tells me. The city didn’t have to convince people to participate in Unbound Gravel; they were already going to come. Rather, the city simply made sure that the locals cared as much about the event as the visitors did.

“I think sometimes when we’re looking at events like this, you can preach to the choir, but can you engage the rest of the population and get them interested in it?” he said. “The citizens of Emporia have bought into gravel cycling. They’ve taken such an interest in the sport that it’s integrated itself into our local culture.”

Of course this dynamic leaves Posnor with a potential million-dollar question: Do you wait for a marquee event to occur? Or, do you convince local and regional cyclists that the gravel riding is so good in Trinidad they should request an event?

Posnor tells me he is leaning toward the latter option.

“Not only is it foundational for encouraging events and selling the story, but it also pushes the gas pedal in terms of getting these things started and going,” he says. “If you don’t have the whole town or a portion of it riding and saying ‘let’s get out there and build trails or make maps,’ if you don’t have a bunch of people actively doing that and pushing that agenda, it’s not going to get anywhere fast.”

Trinidad from above on a summer day
Will others see Trinidad as the gravel capital of the world?

A guide to gravel

It’s been two years since my initial trip to Trinidad, and in that time the energy behind the town’s cycling ambitions has continued to build. Cycling friends visit Trinidad to ride and come home as converts. Legendary trail builder Tony Boone launched a trails program at the local junior college. Every few months Wallace texts me with ideas for cycling festivals.

One afternoon in January 2021 I receive a text from de la Roca, telling me that he has won a bid to create an official Trinidad-Las Animas Gravel Guide. The first of its kind in Colorado, the pocket-sized book will contain maps, QR codes to routes, and other helpful tidbits of information about what to do in town.

It’s a tangible step toward taking the destination thing seriously. It also takes into account a question that Rarick asked the leaders in Trinidad.

“You have to ask, ‘What is Trinidad’s special thing that we want to show the world?’” he said. “If someone came here and you had 24 hours to make them a fan of your place, what are you going to do with their 24 hours?”

These are all positive steps for the town — yet in the back of my mind I realize that there’s one route to gravel destination status that’s simply faster than the rest.

Good news, it appears, is on the horizon. As the months tick by, rumors begin to circulate that a major race promoter has its eyes on Trinidad for a new gravel race. This race represents the difference in Emporia pre- and post-Unbound Gravel. It’s the reason why someone might purchase a second home in Leadville, rather than just ride there once a year.

Should the proposed event happen, it could be the cornerstone to help Wallace, de la Roca, and the others elevate Trinidad to their lofty title: Gravel capital of the world.

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