By Becky Furuta
If the heart of gravel racing is the wild west of cycling – where the rules are few and weirdness is welcomed instead of scrutinized – small town America is its soul.
The lure of gravel racing is in the long, off-road adventure. It’s tricky trails and hellacious hills and mud so thick it’s like riding through peanut butter and rolling roads with expansive views. It’s dust and limestone chunks and pea gravel that bury your tires like quicksand.
Due in part to its grassroots heritage, gravel remains the antidote to the technology-driven, aggressive and often super-competitive mentality of road cycling. Most of today’s gravel grinders began as small-scale events, and often with no entry fees. Despite their growth, they’re dripping with the same low-key attitude that attracted participants in the first place.
Small towns and gravel are perfectly paired. A convergence of factors have fueled gravel’s popularity, but all speak to quiet country roads with little traffic and natural scenery. The character of these towns shape the events and the way they unfold.
Trinidad, Colorado is no exception. And the quirky town on the New Mexico border may well become one of gravel’s new hotspots.
The small city of 9000 residents was founded in 1862 after rich coal seams were discovered in the region. By 1910, Trinidad was a company town. Colorado Fuel and Iron operated the largest steel mills in the West, and dozens of mines, coke ovens and transportation lines cropped up to support local industry. CF&I created small communities for the workers they recruited to come from Europe, believing they were less likely to try and organize. To the contrary, this led to one of the darkest chapters in American labor history.
Just a few miles north of Trinidad in the Spring of 1914, Union organizer Louis Tikas and 20 others were killed in a violent company crackdown known as the Ludlow Massacre. It was a bloody insurrection that occurred in protest of brutal working conditions. Three of the victims – a woman and her two children – suffocated in the dirt pit where they were hiding.
By the 1920s, the coal industry was fading but Trinidad found a new, strange prosperity when mobster Al Capone and his family took the town during prohibition. They were able to easily blend in with local Italian families who continued to call the city home. Lavish hotels, a Carnegie library, an Opera House and the oldest synagogue in the state of Colorado cropped up in what would be called “the Victorian jewel of Southern Colorado.”
None of this might have predicted that tiny Western outpost would later be dubbed the “sex change capital of the world.” Between 1996 and 2006, Dr. Stanley Biber – a colorful country surgeon – and his protege, Dr. Marci Bowers, would perform more than 6000 gender reassignment surgeries. Their work brought thousands of medical pilgrims to the largely catholic town, and Biber earned an odd brand of fame which peaked in 2005 when he was featured in an episode of the animated show “South Park.” Called “Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina,” the episode featured the show’s transgender schoolteacher traveling to see Dr. Biber at the Trinidad Medical Center.
Lately, Trinidad has taken on a new persona. Nicknamed “Weed Town, USA” by High Times magazine, the town has become a center of marajuana cultivation and sale. Thanks to its proximity to states where recreational pot use remains illegal, Trinidad has attracted weed tourism and boasts more than 30 dispensaries.
The patchwork of the town’s history is evident as you stroll through downtown.
I arrived in Trinidad late on October 1st, a day before Life Time’s Inaugural The Rad Dirt Fest. I parked near the old Train Depot, next to a Safeway that was last renovated in the 1950s. Trinidad’s vibe is distinctly “Wild West Outpost meets Back to The Future.” Skateland, across the street from where I was standing, has the original wood flooring from 1952, and everything about the interior is a perfect match. The old Fox Theater has the same marquee that existed on the day it was built, 70 years earlier. And down Main Street a few blocks is the Carnagie library, built in 1882. Narrow streets paved in red brick wind around manicured parks and lots overgrown with bramble and weeds.
If you visit Juan de la Roca at the bike shop downtown, he’ll give you a link to the entire Las Animas Dirt Series, complete with routes and historical information. There, you’ll find more than 1500 miles of gravel roads with varying topography, steep climbs, buffered descents, and views of the Spanish Peaks rising from the earth.
The Trinidad City Council and guys like Juan believe that gravel racing might be the key to reinvigorating Trinidad’s economy. The reality is that however fascinating the history of this quirky Colorado town might be, no one was pulling off the interstate to vacation in Trinidad. The expansion of gravel has brought opportunities to small towns surrounded by dirt and looking to take advantage of the growing popularity of the sport.
The gravel boom hasn’t gone unnoticed by the fitness industry, either. In 2018, Life Time, the company that operates gyms throughout the country, took notice. They quickly acquired some of endurance racing’s crown jewels, like the Leadville Series, Crusher in the Tushar and Unbound. The Rad Dirt Fest brought them to Trinidad and all it’s untapped outdoor opportunities.
Despite the detractors who decry a shift from grassroots racing to the involvement of big business, Life Time knows how to manage events. The courses at Rad Dirt were perfectly planned, scenic, challenging and fun. Aid stations were appropriately stocked, routes were clearly marked, and everyone was in good spirits. I raced both days – something Rad Dirt deemed “The Purgatory Challenge” – doing both the gravel event and the trail run. In both instances, Life Time got it right.
The ethos of gravel is decidedly different, and successful promoters know how to embrace the feel. Showing up to the start line in jorts and a hawaiian shirt will earn you enthusiasm, not scrutiny. Being new to the sport doesn’t make you a second class citizen, and no one knows, anyway, since there are no categories. Whatever bike you have will do the trick. The goal for some is to win, and for others it’s all aspirational – putting in the work to train for long distances and tough climbs. Life Time has managed to create opportunities for both the serious racer and those looking to simply test their fitness and maybe their limits.
Just having dirt alone isn’t enough to make Trinidad a gravel success story. Part of an event’s draw is the community itself, and how well they embrace the cyclists who come to visit. It’s about the community and the culture, the adventure and the Instagram images of rolling hills and farmland. It’s about getting people to drive hours in search of something different. Trinidad seems to understand all of that. City Council members greeted riders at the start and the finish. Restaurants enthusiastically marketed to gravel tourists. (Just ask me about the singing waiters at Rino Italian Restaurant downtown.) The route featured unique terrain you won’t find at other gravel events.
Only time will tell if Trinidad’s next identity is built around bikes and outdoor tourism, but judging by the reactions of participants in The Rad Dirt Fest, it’s right on track. Trinidad, like so many other rural communities, may well become a town transformed by bikes.