FoCo Fondo: a perfect introduction to the wild world of gravel

Inside the gravel race that takes on all that Fort Collins has to offer and what you should expect if you plan to do it

Clock21:00, Wednesday 23rd August 2023
The start of the FoCo Fondo long course under the Fat Tire arch at New Belgian Brewing

Emily Sierra

The start of the FoCo Fondo long course under the Fat Tire arch at New Belgian Brewing

The FoCo Fondo is not your daddy's Gran Fondo.

While it is a participatory celebration of cycling, like the name suggests, FoCo Fondo in Fort Collins, Colorado, is very much a grassroots gravel race built in the enthusiasm of the gravel wave that is sweeping through the North American cycling scene. With courses of different distances and terrain that spans two complete separate biomes, the race is a perfect introduction to the wild world of gravel racing.

Here you will find everything you need to know about the FoCo Fondo. From the course, to the things do do outside of racing, to even the gear to bring, we have you covered with this comprehensive breakdown. If you are looking for a gravel event or just curious about the sport in the United States, be sure to read on below.

What is the FoCo Fondo?

The FoCo Fondo was created in 2015 by Whitney and Zack Allison who were, at the time, domestic professionals on the criterium circuit with a “dirt habit.” With hundreds of miles of dirt roads criss-crossing the flat lands to the East and twisty dirt climbs to the West, the habit grew and FoCo turned from a mixed bag of all-road riding into a fully fledged gravel romp.

Fort Collins is blessed by its geography: to the west are the Rocky Mountains which run all the way north to Canada and south to New Mexico, while on the Eastern side are the Great Plains, the flowing grass lands and shallow rolling hills that spill over into Kansas and Nebraska. Once ensconced in either of the two biomes, the other seems to be a distant place and not some accessible terrain close by.

For the FoCo Fondo, this creates an interesting opportunity to do a bit of both and weld the two distinct worlds together. All that is needed is one unfortunate soggy underpass through a cow field to avoid the major highway that cuts between the prairie and foothills. The rest is the best of both the rolling hills and sunflowers and the mountain air and pine forests. FoCo Fondo has the privilege of being both.

The main event of the weekend is the “Triple Dog Dare You '' route which is a 118 mile route (that is 188km for those in metric land) with around 2,200 metres of climbing (or 7,000 feet for those in the States). While the race is in Colorado – a state famous for its heady altitude – the race stays on the “low” end of the spectrum with most of the race bouncing around the 1,700 metre point. And even though the high point hits 2,400 metres, it does not stay up high. The long, stair-step climb through the canyons, aspen trees and pine forests of the main climb of the day is immediately followed by a dramatic plunge back to the low plains below, with a fast and rocky primitive dirt road taking the course back towards Fort Collins for the final 50km of the race.

Nevertheless, do not conflate low with easy. While the ride back to the finish is easy in terms of topography, it is often where the proverbial wheels fall off riders of all ability levels. With a date late in July, FoCo Fondo is often run in piping hot temperatures. This year, those temps reached 36 degrees celsius on the road. Paired with altitude, the combination took a huge bite out of every rider's hopes that the final push to the line would be a breeze. And speaking of breeze, with the exposure of the plains comes unpredictable wind directions. If it is a headwind, as it was last year, on the push to the line, the day drags even more and the challenge grows.

With the course that mixes all these variables, FoCo Fondo is a glorious master of none. The race is not the longest, nor the hilliest. It is not the highest, nor is it the hottest. What the FoCo Fondo has in spades is the necessary mixture that uniquely suits the place the race operates from.

If you can stomach the short walk through dubious mud and the soggy ride through a farmer's field after (the enduring complaint from the finishers of the Triple Dog Dare You route), that mixture could lead to one of the most engaging days riding a bike.

A weekend fueled by bike-themed beer

While the FoCo Fondo ostensibly starts and finishes on a Sunday, the race is, like so many of these gravel events, a multi-day affair. For the beer-loving, the FoCo Fondo is nearly overwhelming, with the epicentre of the race at the New Belgian Brewing headquarters. Not only does one of America’s more beloved beer brands populate the available offerings around the race, the staging area for the race offers the rider a chance to learn more about the beer making process, with brewery tours available throughout the day on Saturday before the race.

New Belgium Brewing is one of the main sponsors of the Foco Fondo and puts support behind cycling objectives in a number of ways, with sponsorship of local racing, programs that support cycling infrastructure in the town of Fort Collins and the Legion of Los Angeles team. The brewery itself has many elements of cycling woven into its aesthetic – with the popular “Fat Tire” being born from the founder's journey throughout Belgium on his mountain bike. In fact, every employee gets a Fat Tire special edition bike after their first year with the company, as a tour guide explained while we explored the brewery's many different processes and operations. The tour guide herself would go on to ride the race the next day.

With the brewery as the backdrop, and the company being a 30 year staple of Fort Collins’ culture and economy, the sponsor partnership is akin to an endorsement from the city itself to the race and the racer that they are welcomed and appreciated during their weekend at the Northern Colorado town. Serendipity between the city and the race is unmistakable.

Outside of the brewery and the happenings in and around the official race itinerary, Fort Collins is a town filled with things to do for any interest. There is Horsetooth Reservoir with its turquoise water and mountain views. While Horsetooth is a popular speed-boating and water skiing location, it is also a popular place to paddle board and kayak. For a more rugged lake experience, the Red Feather Lakes are just up the mountains from Fort Collins and are surrounded by the higher peaks of the Rockies.

In the city, there are opportunities to go to plenty of live music events every weekend, ranging from concert halls, to a jazz-themed hotel and outdoor free to listen shows. Thrifting is a popular activity in the city as well, with vintage shops and record stores providing a true blue American feel. With July being the prime time for produce, and Colorado being a surprisingly bountiful producer of fruit, there are fruit stands on a number of street corners around the city.

One such peach stand was across the way from the Lyric where the FoCo Fondo kickoff party was held on Friday night. The Lyric is a movie theatre crossed with a bar and the party happened to be followed by the premiere of the Barbie movie, offering around 30 minutes of cross pollination between the gorp-core wearing crew of cyclists and the pink-clad cinephiles. All in Fort Collins Friday night.

Where Fort Collins lacks is in affordable lodging options and diverse food choices. The food, while good, is mostly derivative of classic American bar and grille options, with some good Mexican restaurants in the mix. The lodging, while somewhat plentiful, is expensive and camping close to town is very limited. With the popularity of Fort Collins as a weekend getaway or stop on a road trip of the American West, the demand is high and the supply does not always stack up.

The verdict

The FoCo Fondo is unlikely to be the centrepiece of any season. There are too many events that are bigger in reputation and challenge for that to be the case. But FoCo Fondo is the type of event that is just a delight to do and a part of a weekend that can get anyone excited to be around bicycles. With a difficult course, fun things to do around the race and an exceptionally welcoming atmosphere, FoCo Fondo is the perfect precursor to a bigger goal, or one stop on a summer time vacation. It knows what it is, does it well and doesn’t try to exist much further beyond that.

Our gear recommendations

Tires: 40mm with a light tread. There are rocks and some more gnarly bits, but this is not Unbound so more tire would probably be a drag, literally. Most of the ride is on quite tame surfaces and rolling resistance is important for any rider. Some riders could get away with a slick, or a narrower tread in the 35mm ballpark, but only for an experienced and technically excellent rider.

Gearing: For 1x, we would recommend a 46t or a 44t chain ring with a wide range cassette. For 2x, a 50-34t set up or a 48-31t would be the way to go. While it is not long, a couple of the stair steps get up to over 12% and they are late in the game, so sacrificing a straight chain-line down low would be worth it for 95% of riders.

Hydration: Packs are your friend. For many races under 200km, a pack is not needed if you are able to stop to fill bottles away from the frenzy that is the front of these gravel contests. Yet FoCo Fondo is not a normal gravel race. With its unique combination of heat and altitude, dehydration is often a riders biggest downfall on this course. Plus, the aid station distribution was not ideal with 40 miles between apparent water stops at one point. Having the capacity for more is worth the weight.

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