Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Tour Week Mountain Stage: Little Cottonwood Canyon

What to say about Little Cottonwood Canyon?   LCC is the most challenging of the 4 big local canyon rides so of course it was the first one I attempted back in early 2010.  I don't remember much about that ride other than I was so out of breath that I had to stop midway up to drink and eat, and then finish.  The experience had me so cowed that I didn't even make the attempt again in 2011. La Canadienne is quick to point out that I'm not the rider I was back then.  It's true, much has changed in the last two years.  I'm about 15 pounds lighter for one, I'm on a lighter, faster bike.  Still have the standard crank up front but the 11/28 crank out back has made all the difference in the world.  I can't say enough good things about it.  

Even so, my experiences on LCC are still burned into my memory.  As I gleaned the internet for LCC info I found that there were several local riders who felt the same way:

Depending on your perspective, this is about the best or the worst that Salt Lake has to offer. Average grade is 7.3%. To put this ride in perspective, you've heard of Alp D' Huez? You know, the brutal Tour De France climb? Well Little Cottonwood is almost exactly the same profile - distance and grade - just without all the switchbacks.
Distance: 8.38 miles (one way)
Total Elevation Gain: 3472 feet

Elevation Profile: 

ride elevation profile

Little Cottonwood Canyon, Panoramic Shot by Ryan Houston

Alpe d'Huez Profile

The climb up Alpe d'Huez is 13.8km at an average gradient of 8.1% with 21 hairpin bends marked with panels honouring the winners of each stage that has finished on the Alpe. Photo: clarkmaxwell
The climb up Alpe d'Huez is 13.8km at an average gradient of 7.9% with 21 hairpin bends marked with panels honouring the winners of each stage that has finished on the Alpe.

“Little” Cottonwood Canyon doesn’t mean smaller or easier than Big Cottonwood Canyon. It means shorter and steeper. Unless you’re using a triple chainring, there are few places to “spin” so climbing Little Cottonwood is all about putting power to the pedals. It’s a climb that is well respected in the local cycling community, and those outside the spoked circle will just chuckle dumbfoundedly when you mention where you rode.

This is easily the most difficult ride I have ever done in my entire life; only 8 1/2 miles and it took me at least 90 minutes, if not longer.

This is what it is...steep and challenging and a test of mental/phsical stamina. How can one complain? If you don't like it tough, go to Emigration.

This is the monster. This ride gets right to the point; climbing. The section near Tanner's Flat is the most difficult, sustained climb. Some of the other canyons are more scenic, but none is more challenging.

I biked up steamboat's storm peak on the switchback's to the top, and to date thought that was the hardest thing I've done...UNTIL! I moved to Utah, decided, oh, that would be fun, and took almost two hours to get to the top. Most of the time I wanted to ride over the cliff to end my pain.

Over the last several cycling seasons there have been several  rides that La Canadienne has said "I'll never" to.  In 2010 it was Suncrest:


In 2011 it was the Nebo Loop:


It's now 2012 and the exploits of the Canadian cyclist have been well documented.  She's taken her game to another level and responded to every challenge I've proposed, but I'm still reluctant to introduce her to the Beast on the East bench.  But it's what's next.  Right?  So with three weeks of flat riding at basically sea level (our every other year pilgrimage to La Canadienne's homeland:  Ottawa, Ontario) looming on the horizon it only seemed proper that we finish strong and big (or Little, though Little has no place in the description of our proposed canyon ride).  Go Big, then go home.  That's the plan for La Canadienne.

Rodzilla's thought bubble for this photo:  "I really hate those bikes, maybe if I hide them from mom and dad we can spend more time at the pool."  Like all good comedy it's funny because it's (at least partially) true.

Another early AM start, but not early enough.  Kids are already awake.  Mathis is out of bed and angry because he woke early to watch the tour online only to find that it's a rest day (no riding).  But this photo gives me an opportunity to thank Swedish Matt for upgrading his bike rack and selling me his old one (at a huge discount).  Cycling is an incredibly expensive hobby.  If you think golf is bad you have no idea.  I started biking in 2008 to save money on gas.  It's cost me far more than it's ever saved me.  But I have saved tons of money along the way by picking up what wealthier or more advanced cyclists have cast off or deemed as obsolete (shoes, wheels, jerseys, etc.) I in turn have tried to do the same as I've preached (with mixed success) to brothers and friends the gospel of the bike.  Anyway, no more stuffing our bikes in the van and listening for the tell tale sounds on carbon fiber hitting carbon fiber or of pedals caught in spokes.  Thanks again Matt.

We detour to the house of 'Juice, to drop off the chest strap I accidentally took home with me when did our lactate threshold test.

The original plan was to ride this together.  'Juice and I pushing each other to the top as fast as our lungs and legs would let us and then dropping down to finish the climb with La Canadienne.  Alas, Pickle Juice (he of the chronic knee problems that finally forced him to buy a goofy egg-shaped pair of rings up front to take the pressure off of his ailing joints) climbed Little Cottonwood last week and is now (again) nursing knees that won't let him ride.  So instead of climbing mountains, he's going to work (sap).  Good thing we catch him before he's left though, before saddling up I forgot to apply sunscreen.  In any ride there's a checklist of things, not as critical perhaps as a pre-flight check list for pilots, but probably nearly as extensive.  Most rides you're bound to forget at least one (if not multiple) items on that list.  Then, as soon as you remember, you spend the next mile or two arguing with yourself if it's worth it to go back.  Extra snacks?  Probably not.  Arm warmers just in case?  Nah.  Water?  Yes, if you're planning on this ride lasting more than an hour.  Helmet?  Definitely.  Sunscreen is one of those fence issues. We're only going to be riding for 2 hours and yeah it's at altitude and yeah I'm sure to get burned but of the things that will kill you on a bike, skin cancer is probably the slowest and least immediate.  That said, I'm glad we find the 'Juice at home and the only things that will get cooked today will be my quads and calves.

Little bit of a cheat.  We slept in, so now we have to cut the ride short(er) and start at the park on the south side of Wasatch.  It's something we've been doing lately and it feels like a violation of long held but never spoken ethos:  You should drive your road bike to a ride, that's what slack jawed, unshaven  mtn bikers do.  But we've been doing it. Quite a bit recently.  It cuts out about an hour each way which is good if you're schedule is busy, but it still feels, you know, like a cheat.  That said, if your ride ends at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon (and you don't start it from Snowbird ski resort) you're going to get a workout.  Cheat or no cheat.

We still get in some climb, enough to get the juices flowing and legs awake.

This is traditionally where we hang a left and pursue a kinder, gentler grade and a less demanding ride.  Today we go right ... to the top.

The traditional 'Me with my pie-hole wide open and the Canadian Cyclist in the rearview' canyon self portrait.  Only we're not quite in the canyon yet, and this is the last time we will see each other until I reach the top and go back down* to retrace my steps with La Canadienne.  It's true that this is her first time up this canyon and generally we conquer the unknown together but some suffering is better done alone.  It's like going through  labor** sure in theory it's nice to have a friend/coach alongside you as you go through it and if that person happens to be your spouse, so much the better, but when you're really up against it, you're the one that has to deal with the pain and generally (at least in La Canadienne's case) when it gets that bad having someone at your side passing along trite words of encouragement or worse critiquing and trying to modify your technique for dealing with the crisis at hand?  Well that's just going to end badly, and possibly result in the spilling of blood.  At least that's my stalwart wife's mindset when she cuts me loose to do my best/worst to the road in front of me.

*I have to admit that I'm still on the fence about this.  The only two times I've done this climb I was in no mood to climb it again when I was done.  I have plans to do all four Salt Lake Valley Canyon rides in one day at the end of the summer, so I suppose it's time to start embracing the climb and climb again mentality.  I don't have to be happy about it though.

** Disclaimer to female readers, this analogy came straight from my wife.  I don't pretend to know what childbirth is like, nor would I ever be foolish enough to compare any pain I've felt on a bike ride with labor pains.

What to say about the first four miles of this climb?  They are a bludgeoning the likes of which you won't find in any other four mile length of road in this state.  The average grade is almost 9% and there just isn't a stretch of pavement where you can scale back your effort and collect yourself.  You're pushed to the red just in the attempt, trying to do it quickly seems like not just a fool's errand but a pipe dream.  I settle in and accept a pace that drops at times below 5 mph.

Tanner may well be that, but the road going past this spot is anything but.

I told La Canadienne that after Tanner Flats you were home free.  It's true, the grade drops as low as 6% at times from here to the finish, which after what you've done to that point feels like a walk in the Thanksgiving Day parade, but I have a feeling that having 5 miles left instead of three is going to feel daunting after the physical beat down of those first four miles.  It is to me anyway.  In the past when I've given incorrect data on a ride it's been met with the scorn and anger you would expect when your misinformation falsely understates the expected level of suffering. La Canadienne has learned and generally recons her own rides, but on this occasion she has no desire to know, she's just going to tuck her head and pedal in blissful* ignorance.  It's probably a wise move on her part.

* bliss not included

Six miles in you hit Snowbird.

It's a teaser, you want to think you're done, but you're not.  You want to think you're close.  But you're not, not really.  It is about this point that I realize that I could be pushing a lot harder than I have been.  I don't remember ever thinking that on this climb before.  So I put the camera away choose a bigger cog and concentrate on the push and pull of cranks.  Two miles to go and I want to finish this in under 1:15

Every other time I've done this ride I've stopped at the parking lot, never making it to this point.  This is the kind of thing Strava will do to you.  I'm fairly certain the 'whole enchilada' ride is going to end when the pavement does, so that's where I go.  And honestly, the climb isn't as bad as I remember.  Part of that, a large part I'm sure, is the fact that every other time I've done it the ride has started in the shadow of those mountains across the valley (add an additional 20 miles and 700 feet of climb). But it's been plenty challenging and even feel like I might have pushed harder early on and arrived sooner,I still feel OK with my 1:11:06 finish time.  I take longer than necessary talking to the camera and taking hilltop victory photos.  Finally I get back on the bike and start rolling.

We meet up far sooner than I expected.  I make the 180 degree turn, pull out my camera and expect to easily pull alongside her and then in front to film her victorious finish.  But I'm in the wrong gear and riding one handed, so she's able to pull away from me (at least that's what I tell myself).

I put the camera away, find the right gear and push to within a few yards.  I get the camera out and ... (let's try again).

No dice!  She's having her own Thibaut Pinot breakaway moment

Forget the peleton, forget the team.  It's a one man [woman] show at this point.

Fun is fun but I've got to get out in front so I can get video of her triumphant arrival at the summit.

Not gonna happen.  I give up on my legs and try to let technology (ie the telephoto option on the camera) get me close.  Mixed results (mostly bad) there.

The tale of the tape is pretty much the same as Big Cottonwood and most of her rides lately:

She finishes the ride in 1:27:00 and garners multiple top ten finishes (albeit out of fewer and fewer female contenders, there aren't a lot on Strava who are even making the attempt) for both the ascent and descent.


If I was afraid that she would be broken by the climb I needn't have been.  She's actually a little ... what?  Irritated?  Disappointed, is probably more accurate.  After everything she heard she thought it would be more, bigger, longer, more difficult, more painful.  Apparently we need a larger mountain.  She does make the case for no more 'cheat starts'.   When you only climb a hill you don't have time to really hate it and hate yourself for doing it (again).  There's something about suffering on a ride to the point of wanting to quit, not just the ride but riding altogether, that is ... pure.  It's perversely what keeps me coming back for more, that sense of being pushed right to the limit only to find that your limit has changed, that you are stronger, more capable, more conditioned than you imagined you were when you got in the saddle that day.  I guess she (we) will keep looking for that.

The descent takes us past more cyclists than you would expect on a Tuesday morning, most of them struggling, some mightily.  One female cyclist is doing the 'it's so steep I look like I just learned how to ride a bike' weave.  I don't think she slows to the point that she falls over, but it's tough to tell.  Descending LCC is a white knuckle, brake pad burning blur.  What is obvious, even at speed, is that not everybody is going to end their ride today saying to themselves 'no big whoop', even if that's how La Canadienne feels.

We roll back to the van and bid adieu to our mountain stages, at least for the next three weeks.

Next up (after I finish the Rockwell write up):  The Gran Fondo d' Ottawa

A century bike ride we signed up for in the capital region of Canada (part of our cycling-themed 20th wedding anniversary gift giving).

So until then,

au revoire.

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