“Shots of beam for these guys” exclaimed a middle-aged man hunched over a beer on the corner of the bar. We’d just walked into a restaurant at the top of our climb from Fort Collins, a few miles from the end of the day of riding. Half of the group was decked out in assorted shades of spandex, and a few of us were still sweating from the last few miles of the climb. The man surveyed the group, asking each of us what we do for work. “Bike mechanic” one of the riders said twice, his first response getting lost in the din of the bar. The man at the bar smirked and leaned in, responding dismissively, “So, you’re a liberal!” before moving on to test the next member of the group. But this crew is not just comfortable with being tested – they pursue it, aggressively.
The Winter Ralleye Series has long been organized and run by Colin Pinney, a machinist living in Fort Collins who builds small batch, retro-styled steel gravel bikes under the moniker of Kelpie Cycles. Escaping to the gravel roads and mountains surrounding Fort Collins, the series features long rides and overnights that can draw more than 75 riders for a single event. From accounts we heard over the weekend, the group used to consist of single-speeders with a penchant for pain. Luckily for us, the dynamic seems to have changed – after deciding to make the trip up from Boulder to join up for the “Prairie Fireball Overnight”, we found ourselves surrounded by far more reasonably equipped ten and eleven-speeders.
The group that showed up to Bean Cycle that rainy Saturday morning for the last of the Winter Ralleye Series events was a mix of veterans and first timers. James, the first rider we met at the coffee shop, had recently hand-built a frame for bikepacking as a participant in the UBI program in Oregon, a beautiful gravel-oriented steel frame with 2.35in slicks and a carbon fork. But as riders started arriving, it was clear there was no “standard” setup in this group: bikes ranged from a hybrid commuter to a Surly Big Fat Dummy with panniers packed to the brim. Later that weekend, Colin laughed as he recounted an exchange where someone asked which bike to ride at a Winter Ralleye event – he showed them two photos, a vintage steel frame road bike and a mountain bike, and told them “something in between those.”
About 25 miles into the climb to Red Feather lakes, the consistent grade was starting to feel challenging and holding the pace of the front of the group felt like a losing proposition. We stopped a few times to recalibrate, once at The Forks, a folksy western gas station with a delicious deli menu and upstairs bar. It was then I spied the goods the group had packed: a growler of beer affixed to a fork with zip ties and duct tape, a quart-size plastic baggy overstuffed with bacon, multiple packs of cookies and a hatchet affixed to a fork blade with a few wingnuts. There was no fascination or obsession with ultralight pack lists on this overnight – comfort and utility was the name of the game. My dehydrated meal seemed less appealing than when I’d shoved it into my pannier a few hours before.
Our campsite was just a few miles off the highway, a short trip down a gravel road near the restaurant. By the time I arrived, a few members of the group have already annexed two sites and a flurry of single-person tents were being pitched beer-in-hand; the ground was still dotted with snow from just days before. The fork-mounted hatchet was detached, put to use on downed branches and a fire was started in the first campsite. The rest of the group made it to the campsite at their leisure, after closing out bar tabs. More than an hour later, as the group stood around the fire talking in the waning light of the evening, a lone cyclist rolled down into the campsite alone. A cheer erupted from the group as they welcomed Dan, who had split off from the group earlier to add 25 extra miles to his trip, who then sauntered into the campsite and causally leaned his bike against a rock to join the riders huddled around the fire.
I’m told there was some late-night moonlight hiking that occurred, but I couldn’t corroborate – I was smashed from the climb, and passed out in my tent not a minute after 10:00. It seemed the rest of the group wasn’t phased, and I could understand why: from the stories casually shared around the campfire, this trip was just a sampling of the riding this group does regularly. Whether it’s post-holing over a snowy mountain passes or riding through ten-degree ice storms, it didn’t seem that anyone was willing to shy away from a challenge and a little pain. But they recounted the trips with a smile and a complete lack of pretentiousness that makes you want to be little bit crazy with them. It isn’t about how fast you are, what you ride or being cool – it’s about loving riding, and surrounding yourself with people that feel the same.
After a quiet night strangely devoid of wind, Poudre Canyon greeted us the next morning with a warm, unrelenting blast. A quick dirt-road descent out of the campsite transitioned to a loose paceline down the canyon, a group which I promptly lost sight of as the stronger riders pushed on. Stopping briefly to enjoy a view of the canyon and grab a photo, I jumped in with a second group of riders rolling by, catching a glance of the same “Don’t Be A Dick” sticker I’d seen plastered on a number of frames scattered around the camp the night before. Perhaps taking the sticker to heart, I took a few tired turns at front of the group as we counted down the miles back to town.
Colin and the band of crazies that attend his Winter Ralleye events are a singularity born of the rugged, self-sufficient nature that permeates Fort Collins. Meeting early on a Saturday to ride 50 miles to a soggy, frozen campsite on the shoulder of Spring would be a hard sell for most. But to this group of twenty, the outing was as inevitable as the changing of the seasons. Pairing a love of bikes and outdoors with an infectious “why not” attitude, the Winter Ralleye and it’s following is a testament to cycling’s ability to bring people together and make their own fun, weather be damned.