By Joel Reichenberger
Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Marsha Daughenbaugh doesn't ride bicycles -- she rides horses. The third-generation rancher in rural Routt County, Colorado, works the meadows just outside the county seat of Steamboat Springs. Decades ago, her grandfather started, and she still runs, the Rocking C Bar cattle ranch here.
So, even she found herself looking on with wonder early this summer when she played host to more than 200 Lycra-clad cyclists in her backyard. The farmyard was filled with their dust-encrusted bikes leaning on machinery sheds and the white-painted wood fencing that surrounds the livestock pens. The riders, meanwhile, stretched out beneath towering old-growth shade trees, swapping stories with each other but, also, with ranchers and ranch hands from the community.
Daughenbaugh's shady backyard has become the meeting place for two deeply entrenched, deeply passionate communities that are more often finding themselves running into one another. Recent trends in the biking industry are encouraging riders to move off the blacktop and onto gravel roads, bringing them into contact with ranchers and farmers in ways they haven't before.
"We're seeing more riders, and at all times of the day," Daughenbaugh said. "We see them out early and late in the evening, which you'd expect; but, now we're seeing them in the heat of the day, too. Ag people are not using the roads like they used to."
The Moots Colorado Ranch Rally is an effort to both show off the beauty of those dirt roads and foster an understanding between the two groups. This year marked the fifth anniversary of the event, which spends only 10% of its 50-mile length on paved roads.
Moots, a boutique bicycle manufacturing company in Steamboat Springs, has been at the leading edge of an industry shift to gravel riding, building and selling bikes specifically designed for those expansive road networks that, for many cyclists, have always seemed off-limits.
Gravel bikes look most similar to the light, fast and delicate road bikes of races such as the Tour de France, but with several key engineering differences. They're designed for a more robust tire than is found on road bikes, allowing better contact with the ground and better traction on dirt. They're also built sturdier to handle rougher roads and with a lower center of gravity to keep a rider upright on a sandy surface.
"Right now, the industry is seeing a big decline in road bikes, and gravel bikes are on a huge upswing," said Jon Cariveau, marketing director at Moots and one of the Ranch Rally's chief organizers. "We're at the point where more than 50 percent of our bike sales are gravel bikes. It's a much more utilitarian bicycle that can be used for so many things, and people love them."
Cyclists have taken to the idea, embracing the chance to get away from the crowded paved roads, where there's often little shoulder. They have also flocked to gravel bike events around the Midwest, often bringing hundreds, even thousands, of riders into places elite cyclists haven't often ventured. One of the largest events, the Dirty Kanza, drew 3,000 riders to Emporia, Kansas, in June for a 200-mile gravel road race through the Flint Hills.
There are hundreds more gravel biking rides and races popping up in small, rural communities from Kansas to Mississippi to New York, and thousands of riders heading down roads new to them.
"It's a great day on the bike," said Kelly Boniface, a Routt County cyclist who's participated in all five years of the Ranch Rally. "It's a ride, not a race, so that changes the vibe. In a race, you might not notice anything else, but at the Ranch Rally, you can look around, see the baby horses in the field. You get to take in that part of Routt County, and it lets us experience the day-to-day lifestyle of those in the agriculture community."
Those roads are anything but new. Daughenbaugh, her neighbors and their forefathers have been using them to move machinery and livestock between meadows and ranches for more than 100 years.
Daughenbaugh has been involved in advocating for the community since the 1990s. Her work helped lead to the Community Agriculture Alliance, which sought to bring together different groups and help educate county residents on the region's agriculture operations. Cyclists weren't always on the organization's radar. Encroaching development and land-use debates helped spur the group's existence, but it's become an effective way for ranchers to reach out to cyclists, too.
Moots started planning a gravel bike ride five years ago, just a year after introducing its first gravel bike, and it had a unique idea: reaching out to the people who use those roads on a regular basis.
"The first thing I said was, 'Thank you for calling,'" Daughenbaugh said. "Of all the events we've had in this area, it was the first time we had someone call to talk to us about it."
She joined up with organizers in reaching out to all the ranchers and farmers on the proposed route for the event, letting them know what was happening and how many riders to expect and when to expect them to help avoid, or at least prepare for, any encounters. Riders were given a preride safety speech about what to do if they encountered, say, a herd of cattle or a flock of sheep being moved between fields, or hay equipment in transit, situations perhaps foreign to them.
Daughenbaugh then offered up her backyard as a late-ride rest stop. This year, a local sandwich shop came through with catering, and 200 cyclists spent an hour under the shady trees on a working cattle ranch sharing a dialog and learning about a world that's admittedly foreign to them.
Five years in, Daughenbaugh said she sees some results. There are still some riders who cause frustration, but there are also some who've started making house calls to the Daughenbaughs and the Rocking C Bar ranch, stopping in to say hello, to check out the livestock and learn about the world they're suddenly riding into on a regular basis.
"I think they were surprised not all ranchers were jerks, that there were ones who were riding bikes themselves and seeing firsthand some of the dangers that exist," Daughenbaugh said. "Some of the bikers were surprised how important agriculture is to our community."
For More Information:
Moots Colorado Ranch Rally: www.moots.com/5th-annual-ranch-rally-2018-edition
Dirty Kanza: www.dirtykanza.com
Community Agriculture Alliance: www.communityagalliance.org
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