When I bridged to the break, I instantly entered the rotation and passed a small man clad in a Zia kit that rippled with energy. After a brief pull, I returned down the conga line, and the man turned to me and cried out, “MATTTI!”

Holy buckets! It was Fortunato!

Fortunato is a living legend. That he knew who I was, recognized me, and fist bump me was the cycling equivalent of running into Michael Jordan at a pickup basketball game and having him be visibly thrilled to see you there. Dreams do come true.

“What are you doing here?”
“If you want to race, you have to do gravel these days, eh?” Fortu said.
“Truth! Thanks for coming all the way up here to make this spicy!”

I would never see Fortunato again. Like Micahel Burleigh, Fortunato is from another planet. He’s just built different. If Fortunato gained twenty pounds, clamped his brakes so they rubbed, and showed up hungover, 50/50, he wouldn’t drop me.

He was not overweight. He had not clamped his brakes. He did not seem hungover.

The peloton caught us, but Fortunato just kept riding, undeterred. He didn’t so much attack as drift off the front and stay 150 meters ahead of the peloton, completely immune to mortal considerations like energy conservation and tactics. He would finish 4th.


We boomed up easily navigable gravel rollers with people attacking, the concertina effect wreaking havoc at the back, spitting people out, and I surfed the ruins of people dying in anaerobic agony, dodging crashes, floating on ripping legs. And then we hit the single track.

The field exploded. I didn’t know it was coming, but when I did, my heart sank because while the head of the lead group took off, I coasted in the entryway, and everything bunched up. People stopped and unclipped. Others seem surprised to encounter gravel on gravel race-fing roadies.


Zach and Whitney Allison produced a sensational course. It’s fast but contains spicy sections. It features lots of climbing, but not enough to make you contemplate making bomb threats. It’s long, but not long enough to ensure a vision quest. There’s a technicality, but you don’t need to be an enduro racer to survive the downhills.

I can’t say the same for other gravel races like BWR. Those race promoters design courses like someone who has just read the clinical description of psychopathy. For example, their single-track sections snake through intermediate mountain bike trails – with freaking rock gardens. River crossings? They’re class 2 rapids. And the climbing – Christ. Those bastards always stick a final 1,500 climb in the last 10 miles of the race, usually hitting pitches of 10+% and exposed, so you’re baking in the heat.

Anyway, the lead group melted into the horizon in the single track while I frantically waited behind conga lines of tentatively pedaling people. When we emerged from the single track way back onto the normal champagne front range gravel, I considered two tactics:

  1. Be smart, join a group, ride within me, eat and drink, and wait to ride really, really hard until the hour-long climb of the day.
  2. Go apeshit. Mash the turbo button and try to bridge to the front group, even if alone, or worse, if dragging an entire group of people up.

I mashed the button.

I haven’t had a shit gravel race this year. I’m not saying they’ve been outstanding, either. They’ve been ‘great’ adjacent, just hovering a few lines above the part of the results sheet of ‘fast.’ But they’d always been achieved by attacking from behind after a miserable start and catching people.

I wanted more. I wanted a top 10, and I was sick of being smart, working in a group, being patient, eating and drinking, and pacing myself well. I’m not a robot; I have a soul twisted by irrationality, hubris, and enough caffeinated gels to hospitalize a horse. Bones mend hit send.

I rocketed up to groups of riders gathering in the wake of the single track and blew by them. I tore into the vast spaces between groups with mighty pedal strokes, rendering my pedals with angry downstrokes, heedless of jamming the throttle to the full rabbit, blowing vast reserves of energy, and sending my core temperature to a pizza oven.

Eventually, all that aerobic madness dragged me to the second group on the road, and about ten of my best friends, whom I had dragged across the wastes, into a massive group of thirty. Relieved, I slotted in for an expected rotation in an unstoppable pace line that would bridge us up to the lead group in the distance, which flashed fitfully into view just out of sight.

But there was no paceline. No one was pulling. The entire group was on holiday, hitting the front and cutting into the wind with the force of a toddler on a strider bike. People were even talking in the group, seemingly content to stuff their faces with goey feeds and get into long conversations about their dogs.

So when it was my turn to pull, I put my head down and blasted the front. After a minute or so, I looked back, and a yawning gap had opened up, but all the chatting had stopped. The group was in one long line, carefully rotating as one rider after another spent themselves until they eventually eliminated the distance between us.

Good! We’ll all start working!

Except, the chatting resumed. Pulls stopped. The front group, which had gotten closer, drew farther away.

Frustrated, I pulled again. When I looked back, the same thing happened. Gap – frantic chase – caught.

Understand, I wasn’t trying to attack the group; I was trying to get everyone to work within it. But no one would unless I did, and only after losing my wheel as I locomotived on the front.

This was familiar. This felt like races ten years ago. What did this remind me of? Oh, there it is – I was caught in a CAT 4 tactical hell.

At this point, I had been boiling my insides with effort for about three hours, and if I had been smart, I’d have pulled the plug and resigned myself to sitting safely within the bunch and soft-pedaling until I absolutely had to go harder.

Video games often provide turbo buttons, but game designers always limit its use and represent its diminishing reserves with a red bar at the top of the screen. Keep mashing that button, and eventually, that red bar turns red and disappears.

Mine wasn’t red yet, but there’s no question it was yellow, just in time for the road to turn up – for an hour.

After I turned, I lit the burners again and snuck off the front. Someone else joined me. He was revving his pie plate hard and then rotating – my dude!

We reached the first ramps and put a minute into the group behind, but their collective momentum ate into our margin on the following downhill. We kept our heads down and would not yield. We both shook our heads, muttering to ourselves, “Oh, NOW you guys will ride.”

We may have gained a march on the group behind and maintained the gap, but suddenly, my enthusiasm dropped. Have you seen Inception? When the dreamer notices that someone is manipulating their dreams, their unconscious protects them by seeking out the manipulator in the dream. At first, the world starts to look strange. Then, anything living within the dream attacks you. Finally, the landscape itself convulses, rendering everything to dust, the dream manipulator killed.

I was dying. It was still early, but my world began to seem strange. I could no longer pull worth a damn, my peripheries started to blur, and I became cross, incapable of banter with my breakaway companion.

We entered a pasture and skirted it well enough, but a few hitters from the group we escaped from, including Ben Delaney, bridged the gap.

“No one would pull back there,” my breakaway companion said as two people bridged.

"That's because you're stronger than we are."

Ben Delaney isn’t a person. Ben is something from the past, a mythological gravel beast lifted from scraps of poetry unearthed from a Viking tomb. He’s not built for climbs but moves up them all the same. His legs are cinderblocks; he’s tireless and steers his bike like a demon.

Ben looked at me. “You’ve put me through a lot of pain today, Matti.”

I didn’t know Ben knew I existed. I thought it sad and somewhat ironic that I was about to explode the moment he declared that I and my companion were stronger.

Then we hit steep, unrelenting ramps, the sort of ramps that buzz on your Garmin and display in red within the text file. Sadly, red wasn’t just on my cycling computer screen but also the indicator on my turbo. I was done as the race was getting hard, and the temperature soared to 100 F. Then, several things happened at once:

  1. Our group caught my teammate Chaz, who had been dropped from the lead group. 
  2. We started climbing a stair-stepping climb from hell, and I impaled myself on the front of my saddle and ate pain. 
  3. An impossibly veiny, gossamer-framed nose-plugged wraith glided up to our group – Aaron Calhoun had caught us.

Aaron had crashed in the opening gravel sweepers outside Fort Collins and not only had survived but managed to bridge, alone, 50 miles, froggering from group to group to reach us.

“Hey guys,” he said. “I’ll be your domestique now that I’m out of it!”

Aaron took to the front and, while nose-breathing, laid down a tempo that instantly gaped all of us. At the crest of the rise, he looked back, slowed, and almost apologized for going too hard.

I laughed grimly. “Aaron. Just go. You’re too strong.”

“Nah,” he said. “I’ll hang with you guys.”

Great, I thought. Nothing is more fun than riding with someone that constantly reminds you how much you suck.

I looked back. Chaz was gone. Ben was gone. It was me, Aaron, my breakaway companion, and the lead woman, who was sweatless, quiet, and visibly undeterred at Aaron’s violent accelerations.

Up ahead, the road swept to the right in a cruel, steep curve, and we spotted a dropped front group rider laboring up it. Oh shit.

Before we even hit the foot of the climb, I pulled the leash on my parachute. I was boiling. Sweat dripped into my eyes, and I could barely see. My breath, even in the thermal air, seemed hot. Just pedaling Z2 seemed increasingly maximal.

One by one, they left me. Aaron dropped them all without attacking, his light frame eating into the gradient, slipping away meter by meter without looking back.

I looked behind and saw the red dot of Chaz and the Mack truck built by Ben menacing not far below me.

Seventy miles down, 50 to go. The nightmare had begun.

Gravel races are best understood as a play in three acts: The Dumpster Fire, the False Dawn, and the Piper. I elaborate on all acts in another post, but here’s a description of the Piper:

The Piper (3hrs +)

In the third act of gravel, it’s time to pay the piper. Unlike the first two acts, your success here has less to do with your engine and handling ability and more with how much you’ve been eating, drinking, and using your energy. 

If you’ve been eating, drinking, and using your energy well, the Piper overlooks you. The Piper asks for your shirt if you haven’t been eating, drinking, and using your energy well.

For those racing smart, the third act is where you can beat race favorites sitting in a ditch starting into the horizon, broken. For those racing dumb, the third act is where your dreams go to die. 

The piper wasn’t just taking my shirt; the piper took my firstborn. Because I chose to race on adrenaline and ego, the last fifty miles of FocoFondo would be a parade of pain, my legs reduced to the very bottom of Zone 1, mentally trying to talk myself out of having a heat stroke. 

Ben passed me. Chaz passed me. The second, third, and fourth women passed me. Someone in the kids’ race passed me. I died again and again and again and again. 

My death was the perfect comeuppance for my ego. For 50 miles in 100, I got to feel terrible about my choices, abilities, and existence several times a minute on a loop—some lessons you have to learn even though you’ve already learned them. I wouldn’t be giving impatience or my ego the steering wheel any time soon. Probably.

Thankfully, the Focofondo finish was easy. The Gods even stepped in and offered a tailwind for the last 15 miles, easing the passage across the baking prairie. Once again, I had to thank Zach Allison for designing the course when he was in a good mood, not falling into the temptation of many gravel promoters that fill the last 10th of a course with land mines to make sure you cross the line all but dead.  

By the way, Aaron got a top 10, and Ben was top 15 – monstrous, deserved results. Chaz even revived himself and rode into a decent finish, good enough not to rage quit cycling. 

In the post-race wreckage, I lazed in the shade with my teammates and new friends at New Belgium Brewing, which was throbbing with energy and hop-fueled vibes. Fort Collins can’t be beaten even without a bike race, much less throwing in a day of gravel racing and post-race beer tents. Zach Allison, the race promoter, approached me after I crossed the line.

“How was it?”

I paused, smiled, and all I could say was, “Sheeeeeeeeeeeeee.”


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