Epic Routes: Rollins Pass Adventure on a Gravel Bike

Rollins Pass is a high elevation mountain in Colorado that can be ridden as part of a route from Denver. We tried Specialized and Fjallraven's latest bikepacking gear on the chunky pass.
Photos: Andy Cochrane unless otherwise noted.

There are buckets of definitions for the word “adventure” and trying to define it can be tiresome. Some say it’s when things go wrong. By that meaning, I had an adventure going to Safeway for feta cheese this summer, but that’s a story for another day.

Those who may want to free it from those borders say that adventures can be smaller and more digestible. I think you know an adventure when it happens.

Late in the summer, I was invited to try out some new bikepacking and touring gear produced by Fjallraven and Specialized. Typically, media trips are not adventures. There are flights in, itineraries, presentations, shuttles, backup plans, and finally, gear testing. You, the media, are often doted on and well-fed and fanned to keep moods high and coverage positive. But when you organize a group of people who mostly haven’t met to ride from one city to another, and then take a train from a major city to a mountain town, and then ride up and over an alpine pass, and back to the starting point all with whatever fits on your bike, how can you not have an adventure and an uncommon and refreshing media trip?

Specialized and Fjallraven released a collaborative line this spring embracing “The Great Nearby,” an idea that great adventures can happen close to home. Remember my Safeway anecdote?

“In 2050, two-thirds of Earth’s population will be living in towns and cities,” reads a sentence from the collaboration release. The gear, including a full line of frame bags, apparel from bibs to button-ups, and backpacks is made to be functional, durable, and multi-purpose. I tried out a few apparel pieces and a full frame bag set which I’ll recap below.

The route

The idea is that we would start in Boulder at the Specialized Experience Center and leave our vehicles there. Then, we’d ride 30ish miles to Denver and stay the night. The next day, we planned to take an Amtrak train from Union Station to Winter Park and bike another 30ish miles from Winter Park up and over Rollins Pass to Rollinsville and stay the night. The next day we planned to ride from Rollinsville back down to Boulder, another 30ish miles.

Day 1: Boulder to Denver, 35 miles, 1,200 ft

Being from the Denver area, it felt counterintuitive at first to park in Boulder and ride to Denver and stay at a hotel that’s 25 minutes from home. But, after an hour or two cruising my 40lb rig along the bike paths that connect the two cities, I wondered why I don’t ride like this more often.

Adventures and vacation are about disconnecting from regular responsibility and even though I was in my home city, I was still disconnected from work. The last thing you want to pack on a bike is a laptop. I also felt more easy about taking the risk of bikepacking or touring — something I hadn’t done before — in a familiar city, where if something goes absolutely wrong, there are support systems close by.

In the morning, we set up our bikes with the Specialized x Fjallraven bags. I wondered how many chamois, shirts, and socks I should bring. I hate traveling without a book, so I packed one not realizing I wouldn’t read it at all. I stuffed a phone charger, light, power bank, water filter, clothes, and snacks into my bags and said, “Huh, I guess that’s all I need.”

The ride from Boulder to Denver was easy going and mostly bike path and road. On a lightweight gravel bike it would have been zippy, but it took a little more time loaded down with gear. Still, it was a great warmup for what came next.

Day 2: Denver to Rollinsville, 37 miles, 3,200 feet

We woke up at a downtown hotel around 6am. Our Amtrak intended to depart at 8am, but we were notified at 6:30am that the train had struck a moving truck in Nebraska, and Amtrak was wrapped up in safety inspections and post-crash management and couldn’t offer a definitive departure time. Suddenly, we were six bikepackers stranded in a city, wondering how we would get ourselves to the next destination. There just aren’t many convenient options to get a crew with loaded bikes from the city to the mountains without calling for a serious hand up.

The train ride and not relying on others for support was a major goal of the trip, but as the new Amtrak departure pushed deeper into the day, we grabbed some lights from REI, and Avery hailed an Uber to get her truck from Boulder and drive us to Winter Park. By 2:30 p.m., we pushed from Winter Park up to Rollins Pass. The ascent was a tame 4×4 road, wide in parts, with a track of ruts and loose rocks. If you like technical mountain bike climbing, you’ll like the climb up Rollins Pass on a gravel bike.

The peak is the most daring, with one of the sketchiest and fun hike-a-bikes in my record book. But once we summited, we were rewarded (depending who you ask) with a looooong and techy (for a gravel bike) descent. The added weight of my gear and the 47mm-wide tires I used made for a planted and confident rigid bike to plow through chunder. I felt like a small bus in spandex.

We expected a five or six hour ride and at about 7:30-8pm, we mounted lights and finished the push to our cabin in Rollinsville. The week before, someone on a local trail forum mentioned how absurd it was that people ride Rollins Pass on a gravel bike. Sure, it would have been a quicker and more comfortable descent, but the gravel bike was a better all-arounder.

By 9pm, we rolled into our cabin, tired, hungry, and smelly. Twelve hours prior, we weren’t sure if we would have made it out of Denver, but we were happy to hit our first objective and the most challenging day of the route.

Day 3: Rollinsville to Boulder, 37 miles, 2,700 feet

Photo: Matt Miller

After 70 miles and 4,500+ feet of climbing, my legs moved like an old lawnmower and sputtered to gain motion on the third day. Out of Rollinsville, we had a long climb up the Peak to Peak highway until Ward where we made a turn for Gold Hill, the most magical pit stop you ever did see.

Gold Hill Road has some fast, open straightaways with loose rock and some smoother sections. After a quick stop at the Gold Hill Store and Pub, an unassuming store built of worn wood selling pastries and drinks, we had a short climb and a finger-numbing descent down the switchbacks toward Boulder.

Day three had some notable climbs, but they weren’t as punishing as the previous day up Rollins. The most challenging part of the day was dealing with temperamental weather, but such is fall in Colorado’s high country. With stops in Nederland and Gold Hill, and a lot of descending, the last day was also more easy-going than the previous day. By early afternoon, we rolled back into the Specialized parking lot covered in rain and muck, bones cold, but spirits high.

The gear

Installing the Specialized x Fjallraven frame bags was a straightforward but tedious task and I learned that setup is dependent on personal preference. How you plan to use the gear will determine the layout. The bags use velcro loops and different bags can share loops depending how they are aligned.

The material and zippers are sturdy and the bags all seem to function well. I had space for everything that I needed, though I did have to reconsider my necessities as I packed.

The most challenging part of installation was the hardware that attaches the saddle bag to the saddle rails. The installation required some fidgeting and unfortunately with no LocTite on the bolts, mine unthreaded after the rattlefest down Rollins Pass. I found I needed to do semi-frequent bolt checks to ensure everything was tight, and I will add some LocTite on the threads before my next trip. The dry bag was easy to use and pack with a locking vent.

The frame bag isn’t as big as some others. Depending on your bottle cage alignment inside the frame, it may or may not play well with bottles. I relocated my bottles to the sides of my fork because they interfered with the bag and I was left with a mostly open front triangle. On larger size frames, this may not be an issue.

The top tube bag and frame bag were easy to access for frequently used items. Everyone loved the snackbag, a little cylinder-shaped pouch with a draw string on top. I liked the mesh outer pocket, where it was easy to fit a tube of goo or other small items.

The takeaway

I’ve tried many disciplines of mountain biking but before this trip I had not tried touring or bikepacking. This likely doesn’t qualify as the latter, but that’s alright. Touring felt like the most appropriate way to get started. Like mountain biking and backcountry trips, there’s a learning curve to what you do or don’t actually need to bring, and this trip was a great lesson. I feel more comfortable now committing to a bikepacking trip in the future.

This route in particular was an excellent way to mix in close-to-home amenities with a day in the alpine backcountry. Rollins Pass is another beautiful high elevation summit in Colorado and I can’t think of a better way to experience it than on the bike with a few great people.