The seriously tough gravel race that I didn’t want to end

A sweaty, sea-level Scotsman has his mind blown by Roll Massif's gravel sportive

Jack Luke at the 2019 Roll Massif Wild Horse Gravel

Roll Massif — a new event company based in Colorado — recently launched three road sportives, two gravel events, one mixed event and two mountain bike races scheduled for 2019.

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I was invited to take part in Wild Horse Gravel, its debut gravel event, and the mind of this sweaty sea-level Scotsman was blown for five consecutive days. The Colorado landscape, the quality of the riding, the (almost) wall-to-wall sunshine and the event itself was one of the most impressive things I have ever experienced. I didn’t want the trip to ever end. Here’s why.

What is Roll Massif?

Cyclists riding on gravel at Wild Horse Gravel
Wild Horse Gravel is held at the High Lonesome Ranch, near Grand Junction, Colorado
Justin Balog

Dubbed “the new American sportive”, Roll Massif is kicking things off with a series of eight events, building upon a number of longstanding events and bringing a number of existing event promoters under one banner.

Wild Horse Gravel was based at the High Lonesome Ranch, an appropriately named ranch around 40km north-east of Grand Junction. The event is run in an enduro style with two timed segments over the course of the 117km course.

A prelude to a wild adventure

While the Wild Horse Gravel was my main focus, it was not the only thing I got up to in Colorado.

Ben Delaney at base of Flagstaff, Boulder
Former BikeRadar US Editor and all-round hardman, Ben Delaney, took me for a roll up Flagstaff
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

I flew into Denver on Wednesday afternoon and after a pizza and sleep, was dragged out of bed early on Thursday by former BikeRadar US Editor, and Roll Massif frontman, Ben Delaney for a razz up Flagstaff.

Flagstaff is a spicy 7.4km, 603m climb to the West of the city and is a staple of the Boulder cycling scene. It was just the thing I needed to reset my time-confused body.

Ensuring I’d get the full Colorado experience, a big dump of snow arrived overnight, freshening conditions and keeping me alert on the slippery corners on the way back down.
Specialized Diverge Pro with bags fitted at Roll Massif Wild Horse Gravel
Specialized Boulder was kind enough to lend me a Diverge Pro for the duration of the trip
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

Specialized Boulder was kind enough to loan me a 2019 Diverge Pro for the duration of my trip (expect a review on it soon) and I was delighted to have the chunky 38mm-wide Sawtooth tyres on the rather treacherous and freezing cold descent.

Jack Luke on Flagstaff, Colorado
The spicy climb was just what I needed to wake up my jet-lagged legs
Ben Delaney

While a touch cloudy when I rode it, Flagstaff still offered atmospheric views and I would imagine the views would be incredible in clear conditions. If you’re in the area, this climb is a must and a great way to wake your legs up after a long journey.

Snow filled Adidas cycling sunglasses
This was not the weather I was expecting in Colorado
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

Roll Massif Tour of the Moon / Tour de Vineyards

Following our morning spin, we took the four-hour drive westward towards Grand Junction. This is the base for two classic rides in Colorado: the Tour of the Moon and Tour de Vineyards.

These longstanding events were formerly run separately but have now been rolled up into one under the Roll Massif banner.

We tacked these two rides together, riding most of the 41-mile version of the Tour of the Moon and taking in a taster — in every sense of the word — of the Tour de Vineyards in the afternoon.

Jack Luke and Chris Case riding in Colorado National Monument
The Tour of the Moon takes in some truly mind-blowing landscapes
Roll Massif

The former is based around the Colorado National Monument. A mind-bending road through the national park climbs quickly out of Grand Junction and travels through a — as the name of the event suggests — lunar-like sheer-walled desert canyon landscape that completely blew my mind.

I have never ridden through a more impressive landscape and it took great concentration to avoid veering off the road as I gawped at the grandeur of it all.

The novelty of riding on smooth roads, let alone the landscape I was in amused me endlessly
The novelty of riding on smooth roads, let alone the landscape I was in, amused me endlessly

A long, winding and perfectly paved descent dropped us down to the valley floor near Fruita. We then took a pleasing, rolling route back to Grand Junction, passing through town before heading towards Palisade and the Wine and Fruit Byway.

Book shelf cliffs above Grand Junction
These incredible cliffs loom over the whole of Grand Junction
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

This near pancake-flat road amused me — the novelty of riding in a straight line followed by hairpin, 90-degree bends for miles on end is unlike anything I have experienced before. The contrast of the bare slopes of Mt Garfield and its astonishing book cliffs looming above the verdant fruit farms and vineyards also kept my mind well occupied.

Jack Luke drinking a refreshing glass of Colorado vino
A flow of fine wines washed away worries of tired legs
Josh Patterson

We finished our ride with a tasting session at Mesa Park Vineyards, with a flow of delightful wines washing away any thoughts of tired legs after a long day on the bike.

Note that if you do want to ride the National Monument, either as part of the event or on your own, you are required to have front and rear lights fitted to your bike because there are several long, unlit tunnels along the length of the course.

Roll Massif Wild Horse Gravel

We then hightailed it back up the I-70 towards De Beque — a tiny five-by-five block town with a population of just 504 — which sits at the base of the Roam Creek valley.

High Lonesome Ranch morning light
The High Lonesome Ranch is set among the most incredible of vistas
Justin Balog

The High Lonesome Ranch, the staging post for the Wild Horse Gravel sportive, sits at the back of this valley at the end of a 10-mile long gravel road. Again, the fact we were driving a car on a public road that was unpaved was wonderfully novel.

The High Lonesome Ranch is an incredible sprawling ranch that includes everything from luscious meadows to high desert-like landscapes.

Tent and gravel bike at the Wild Horse Gravel
Riders had the choice of camping, RV parking, glamping or staying in a lodge
Justin Balog

Riders had the option of bringing their own camping equipment, RV parking, hiring a Summit Cycle Solutions Tent or staying in one of the High Lonesome Ranch’s cabins. As a spoilt cycling media prince, I obviously opted for the comfort of the latter.

After a solid night’s sleep, we woke early for a hearty buffet breakfast before an 8am start.

Leaving the High Lonesome Ranch in a westerly direction, riders at the event had the choice of a 117km out-and-back long route or a 72km loop that took a shortcut back along the gravel access road from De Beque to the ranch.

I knew that I’d have a much more pleasant day out on the short route but, giving into imagined peer pressure and my fragile ego, I opted for the long ride.

This should have encouraged me to take it easy at the start of the ride but… well, I obviously didn’t do that.

Roll Massif Wild Horse Gravel race start
The front of a race —somewhere I absolutely do not belong
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

The ride started with a neutralised roll out that quickly ramped up to a lung-worrying pace as we hit the first segment. I gave it all I could on this section and somehow stuck with the front group — somewhere a full-time excuse-maker like me does not belong — most of the way through until I blew up on the very last climb.

Thoroughly cooked, and with 97km still to go, the route turned eastwards and downward towards De Beque. The following 40km was a blur of wild descents, punchy climbs and some of the most impressive landscapes I have ever ridden.

A particular highlight of this section was watching Lisa and Vincent Davis, a highly competent and utterly mad tandem crew, smash through the descents at a truly remarkable pace. I am a known tandem-botherer, but the skills that my tandem partner Laura and I possess have nothing on this pair.

Dusty roads at the High Lonesome Ranch
Dusty conditions soon clogged up my entire face
Jack Luke / Immediate MEdia

The last 5-or-so kilometres into De Beque were spent behind a large semi (aren’t I clever not calling it a lorry?) that kicked up an impressive cloud of dust.

Growing up in the decidedly dreich Scottish Highlands, riding in dusty conditions is an unknown quantity to me and I rode with my mouth agape before realising that ingesting that much earth was probably a bad idea.

Rolling into the checkpoint in the charming wild-west-like town centre of De Beque, I quickly scoffed as many orange segments, M&M-stuffed bananas (they’re as good as they sound) and fluids as I could before we made our way back towards the ranch.

Climbing out of the town, we were passed by a wave of riders who hadn’t yet made it to the first checkpoint. I was alarmed when, around half an hour later, many of these same riders came steaming past us as we hit the second timed segment at the 78km mark — they were all clearly wiser than I and hadn’t indulged in the same early-ride efforts that had so utterly depleted my reserves.

The second timed segment was just shy of 20km long and included around 400m of punchy and steep climbs.

Rider drinking from bottle in high sierra landscape
I spent much of my ride like this person — drinking water then trying not to wee all over my shoes
Justin Balog

The beating hot sun definitely took its toll on my pasty white complexion along this section and I was chugging away more water than probably necessary.

The segment wasn’t a total disaster though because over the course of the segment I eventually pulled away from ride buddy and former BikeRadar writer Josh Patterson, beating him across the line a few minutes ahead — a tiny victory, but a victory all the same.

Jack Luke striking a stunning pose at the Wild Horse Gravel
I am clearly suffering from heat exhaustion in this picture
Justin Balog

After stopping to pose like an idiot for event photographer, Justin Balog, Josh and I really enjoyed the fast ride back to the ranch.

A good shower, a well-catered group BBQ cookout and a few refreshing beverages were just the order, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting a little ‘over-refreshed’ in the beautiful evening sun with new found friends.

Jack Luke at the end of the Wild Horse Gravel
Thoroughly cooked at the end of the ride
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

On the subject of eating, as a vegetarian, catering at cycling events is often a very stressful experience — so many folks get it wrong and there’s nothing worse than a crappy half-hearted meal after a long ride. However, Roll Massif did a wonderful job of catering for me and other participants with special requirements.

This may seem like a small thing to dwell on, but it deserves to be commended because I’ve had some truly terrible experiences in the past.

Though I largely have myself to blame, the ride was probably the hardest I have done of that length. It was a serious but well organised, good-natured and very amusing challenge in a truly astonishing location.

An adventure that I never wanted to end

Specialized Diverge on singletrack mountain bike trails
I indulged in a bit of mountain biking… on a gravel bike
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

We drove back into Boulder on the Sunday after the event where I enjoyed the culinary delights of this oh-so-hip city as well as some unexpected mountain biking on the Diverge.

While it could probably never compete with the landscapes around the likes of Grand Junction, the quality of the riding around Boulder is exceptionally good. I think a lifetime could be spent exploring the routes that sit on its doorstep.

While I was always going to be amazed by Colorado’s landscape, Roll Massif did an incredible job of highlighting some of the very best riding in the state in a really fun and well-organised event.

That the Colorado natives — who make up the majority of entrants to the events — were equally impressed says it all and I can heartily recommend the Wild Horse Gravel sportive (and a visit to Colorado!) to any keen gravelista.

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Many thanks again to Roll Massif for flying me out to the event and to Specialized Boulder for the loaner bike. Please take me back next year!