Gravel Fest returns, keeping the spirit of gravel cycling alive, for free

Rider Hannah Bingham rolls down Routt County Road 44 next to the Elk River during the 2018 Steamboat Gravel Festival, which kicks off for its second year Monday.
David Epperson/Courtesy photo

Maybe it’s a broken record at this point, or maybe it’s like a pop song that never gets old. Either way, let’s say it again: Gravel riding is the hottest thing in cycling.

Steamboat has ample opportunities to race or ride hundreds of miles of glorious dirt roads in Routt County, including Gravel Fest, which is making its return in 2022.

The weeklong, free-riding series emerged in 2018, took a hiatus in 2020 and 2021, and is finally back and looking to get back to where it started just four years ago.

“It’s not a race. It’s more about really friendships and getting out,” said co-creator JR Thompson. “The first two years, some of the relationships that formed through Gravel Fest, through people out riding their bikes on dirt roads are kind of friendships that have continued.”

Gravel Fest 2022 will take place May 16 through May 22, featuring five days and 350 kilometers of riding. The rides, which people can do on their own or as a group, range from 21 to 73 miles and conclude at local breweries for a post-ride social hour.

With the hype surrounding gravel riding, Thompson could easily charge for Gravel Fest, and people would certainly pay, but he chooses to keep it free.

As an ex-professional racer, Thompson said he’s paid plenty to race over the years, as have many others.

“I’m now 52 and I don’t want to pay money to ride my bike,” he said.

Steamboat Springs 2022 Calendar

Find a full list of Steamboat’s 2022 races here, or at

Thompson loves broadcasting the gravel routes around Steamboat Springs so much he co-founded, a website that has dozens of biking routes available for those looking for rides in certain areas or of certain lengths. Thompson makes his money through Veloscapes, which offers private and custom gravel tours.

New this year is a focus on raising awareness and funds for nurses. Thompson will soon implement donate buttons on the Gravel Fest website and will encourage people to donate throughout the week.

“Nurses are just those people, to me, they just amaze me,” Thompson said. “They take care of you. After COVID, we saw first hand, they were running out of protective equipment and were truly on the front lines. … It’s a profession that is the backbone of our health care system, and they have a tough job, and we’re losing them at a record rate right now.”

Another new element is the Gravel Fest 350 Challenge, which Thompson hopes encourages people to come out every day and accumulate 350 kilometers of riding over the five rides.

Each day concludes with a social hour at a local brewery, and each ride has a featured brand as a way to bring in more members of the cycling community in the Yampa Valley.

“I wanted to showcase some brands that have given back to the sport of gravel cycling. … The post-ride events, I kind of have this saying, it’s kind of cliche, but ‘Friends who ride together, stay together,'” Thompson said. “It’s been in this town for a long time. The friendships you have riding your bike is something you always have.”

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