*http://cyclingwithrodzilla.blogspot.com/2011/11/29th-annual-lotoja-classic-final.html It's possible I may have spoken too soon and while still under the influence of the post-ride misery of that particular event. We may have unfinished business, LOTOJA and me. More (I'm sure) on this later.
Fortunately, when you live (literally) in the shadow of two mountain ranges, the opportunities for physically challenging and visually engaging rides are plentiful. My original plan back in spring was to do the Four Canyons: Little&Big Cottonwoods, Millcreek and Emigration. But I de-laminated my new (to me) carbon fiber wheel coming down LCC earlier in the summer and the incident soured me on canyon descents. That and I had already climbed all those canyons individually this year. I was looking for something new, a road I hadn't ridden, a hill I hadn't climbed and a mountain I hadn't conquered. It was beginning to sound like I would have to drive somewhere out of town until I watched the sixth stage of Tour of Utah. The play by play and color commentators kept one upping each other when describing how difficult the climb from Midway to Empire pass was. One retired pro rider who rode the route in order to comment on it said, compared to the Empire pass climb, Mt Baldy (a hilltop finish in one of the stages of the tour of California and generally regarded as the most difficult climb on the West Coast) was like an afternoon of playing in the sandbox. From the Tour website:
Whatever legs riders may still have on Sunday morning will be tapioca by the end of Stage 6. This 75-mile loop looks relatively docile on paper. But who races on paper? The route covers terrain the Tour has never visited, including the scenic and private Wolf Creek Ranch, a 2.15-mile climb through pristine stands of aspen and beaver ponds that hits 22 percent. Crossing the Heber Valley, it briefly re-visits Heber City and Midway before winding its way to the base of Empire Pass. This climb that will set the bar for pure heinousness in length and pitch.
Sounds perfect, the only problem was this particular 9 mile stretch of road starts in Midway, a town 40 miles (and the 12,000 foot high mountain range pictured above) away from my house. The obvious answer would be to have my wife drive me there, drop me off and let me ride home assuming there was a road that went over the top. There was, in fact. State Road 224 out of Midway will take you northeast to Park City (this is Empire pass) but about two miles from the top it intersects State Road 152 (calling it a road loosens the definition of that word as much as the gravel and creosote that make up its surface) which climbs west to Guardsman pass. Tarry washboard road gives way to straight dirt and gravel for about 200 yards at the top before becoming road-bike friendly tarmac. Not ideal conditions but stopping and walking didn't sit right with me. The solution I came up with was to start at my home in West Jordan and meet Jenn (La Canadienne) at the top of Guardsman, swap to a dirt/gravel friendly mtn bike for the descent to Midway and then make the return trip on my road bike. To my surprise, Jenn committed to staying with me for the Empire Pass climb (this was my LOTOJA substitute ride, after all, and she was happy to provide support if it didn't mean driving to Wyoming) which would allow me to use the mtn bike again for the final ascent. This turn of events also meant we could document (in thorough fashion, as is our custom) the ride and its many twists and turns through photos and video (as well, of course as the first person narrative).
Which brings us to September 1st, Race (ride) day.
Original plan was to leave just before dawn but the first rainstorm to hit the Salt lake valley in almost two months threatened to push the entire ride to Monday (Labor Day), but by 8 am the cloud cover had lifted and the forecast was for 'isolated' thunderstorms. I decided to go for it and keep my fingers crossed that the weather would hold, especially given the altitude involved with this ride. There really are no atmospheric guarantees above 9,000 feet, no matter what the weather channel promises.
First hurdle (after crossing the valley) is Big Cottonwood Canyon, 14 miles and 4000 feet of climb (just for starters). In preparation for this ride I trained on the Alpine loop, riding to over the top and back. I managed to set a PR to the top of Alpine and then suffered like a dog, riding on legs that felt like rubber on the return climb. I made a note of it and took my time* climbing BCC and mostly enjoyed the scenery, which like most canyon rides was phenomenal.
*Actually finished it in 1:36 and change. Not near a PR but only 7 minutes off my best time and right in the zone 3/4 range heartrate-wise. Thanks to Pickle Juice for dialing in my training and helping me know when I can/should push more and when to back it off.
About this point I get caught by my support crew (with camera in tow).
There will not only be fresh water bottles and snacks, but there will also be media coverage, lots.
Nothing like the wide open space and mountaintop vistas of Guardsman to make you feel small and irrelevant.
That tiny dot on the rt side of the road, rounding the bend, is me. Just 6000 vertical feet of climb and 50 miles to go.
Summit of Guardsman pass. Five thousand five hundred vertical feet and thirty three miles are in the books but the road (which has featured for the most part smooth if somewhat challenging tarmac) is about to get considerably more difficult, you might even say combative. Time to swap mounts and maybe suit up. It may be 85 degrees in the valley but at the summit it's considerably cooler. I'm drenched in sweat, dropping down 4000 feet at speed is bound to be more than a little uncomfortable.
So I swap shoes, bikes, eat some food. This is key and probably what has been my Achilles heal on past big rides, poor nutrition = poor performance and reluctance to repeat the event (see LOTOJA pledge above).
Truth be told I haven't ridden my mtn bike in more than a year. I got it down the night before to make sure the tires were inflated and the brakes worked and left it at that. The plan was to ride it on the dirt but in the interest of time (and not delaminating my remaining carbon fiber wheel) I decide to stay on it for the entire descent.
It's a good thing too, because the road is poor. Dirt, then a washboard, creosote surface somewhere between pavement and dirt and then pavement. Potholed pavement. The kind of road that you get when the road is covered with ice and snow and impassable 6 months of the year. And it's steep. How steep you ask? Steeper than anything I've ever seen or imagined. Climbs in cycling, for professionals on racecourses at least, are given categories based on length and average grade. A category 4 climb is relatively short and or not very steep. Category 1 climbs are at the other extreme. Then there are HC climbs:
For a local reference, the Big Cottonwood Climb to Brighton ski resort would qualify as a category one climb. Throw on the extra four miles and 1300 vertical feet of Guardsman and we're talking HC. Little Cottonwood, shorter but much steeper than BCC is also classified as HC. So I've seen (and conquered) HC climbs before, but the problem with no longer giving a categorization is that there really is no limit, or at least classification, as to how bad it can get. "Worse than we're willing to talk about" leaves a huge top end continuum of suffering and no parameters with which to gauge or prepare yourself. The road I'm riding down is not just beyond categorization, it's beyond comprehension. I really can't believe my eyes as I'm dropping down the tight, potholed, impossibly steep switchbacks. There's no way I would have been able to keep my road bike on this road on the descent. It's difficult to believe they were even able to pave a road as steep and treacherous as this. I'm beginning to think it's not just beyond categorization, it's beyond capability. Had I not watched the immortals on the pro tour race on this same road six days ago I would really doubt that climbing it on a bike was even possible. I know that the Wasatch Back version of the Ragnar relay runs up this road on the way to their finish in Park City. But let's be honest, most of those relay participants, at least the ones I know personally that have done it (that would be Swedish Matt and my brother Nigel) aren't running up these switchbacks, or even jogging them. By this point they are walking, so it's more of a hike than a run. What I'll be doing then is essentially hiking up this mountain but hiking while carrying a bike, a saddle bag and two bottles of water.
HC: hors catégorie is a French term used in cycle races (most notably, the Tour de France) to designate a climb that is "beyond categorization", an incredibly tough climb. A climb that is harder than Category 1 is designated as hors catégorie. The term was originally used for those mountain roads where cars were not expected to be able to pass.
I get to the bottom and share the news with Jenn (La Canadienne) in the event she didn't notice the nightmare that was the last nine miles of road she just drove down: 'This hill may be more than I'm ready for, maybe more than I'll ever be ready for. I'm not throwing in the towel (yet), but you may want to have a towel available, just in case.'
The ride is fairly relaxed for about ... 200 meters? Then it smacks you like a Tommy Boy 2x4 to the face with a 15% pitch and stays that steep with no sign of slacking. The road that disappears around the bend is at least as steep as the road you are currently on, maybe steeper. On a grade like this you really need to stand to generate the torque required to turn the cranks, but standing requires more energy and isn't a long term solution to the problem at hand. I would say on a hill like this I can get out of the saddle for about one minute before I start to tire and have to sit back down, but sitting down on a grade like this requires so much effort, both upper and lower body, that I begin to pull the front tire off the road, so I stand again. About a mile in the sky opens up and the weather that has been kind for 4 hours stops cooperating. The road is now slick enough that when I stand the rear wheel breaks loose and I get no traction, so I sit again and try not to gauge how long it will take me to cover the next 8 miles at my current pace (which is hovering between 3.5 and 4.5 mph).
As soon as the rain starts, it stops again and we're back to sunny (and now hot), pretty much the rest of the way. I hit the first of three murderous switchbacks and my Garmin pegs the grade at 22% and keeps it there for what feels like 2 weeks but is actually about 1/4 of a mile. Still, a quarter mile of 20+% grade is difficult to comprehend. I realize I can't sustain this for much longer and thankfully, the road listens and I hit my first relent. In the video above the road drops from 20% to about 8%. It feels like a party but it's not a party that lasts. A couple hundred meters and were back to double digit grades and speeds that come close to triggering my Garmin's 3mph auto-pause feature.
The original plan was to just meet Jenn at the top and swap bikes, but she has managed to find places to park and cheer me on. It's a good thing too, I need a regular connection to reality because what I'm contending with seems decidedly surreal.
A photo that Jenn took because she was bored (I assume). This is taking a while and patience is required on both our parts. The photo does illustrate the fact that she did not prepare (footwear-wise) for any strenuous activity. But as it turns out (see video below) you don't need to be wearing your Asics lightweight running shoes to keep up with me on this hill. A Flip-Flop clad Jenn can keep up with (is in fact, even faster than) me on my bike at this point. I want to be embarrassed by that fact but I'm watching the video and remembering the ride and what you see is what I got. I couldn't speed up (or back off) if I wanted to.
Jenn's attempt to describe in photos how ridiculously challenging this terrain is. This particular switch pitches to what I have to assume is above 30%, just for the turn, but still. It's more like a skater's half pipe ramp than a road. I'm forced to move to the outside of this hairpin (and directly into descending motorists) on this stretch, because there's no way I pedal up that, even on fresh legs (and we're well past that point).
Photograph it, film it, describe it all you want.
You just really can't do it justice without actually riding it yourself. I'm running out of words.
Continuously quote-worthy professional cyclist Jens Voigt famously said that when his body protests the physical trauma he's putting it through he yells "Shut-up legs!" and that generally works for him.
The problem on this climb is that it's not just my legs that are telling me it's time to call it good, it's my heart rate that keeps climbing to an unsustainable 170 and above, it's the muscles in my neck and shoulders that are cramping up and as we get closer to the 9,000 foot elevation, it's my lungs that have stopped believing that there's enough oxygen available to do the work I'm asking of them and let me know that fact by feeling like two bags of fire in my chest. So what I have is a chorus of protesting parts, all making strong and cogent arguments that what we're doing is maybe not possible. Continuing under these circumstances requires almost complete focus and control, mind telling body that it's OK, the current disequilibrium is manageable, if only for a moment but manageable. We'll deal with the next moment when this one is over, for now just keep doing what you're doing. The only thing I can compare it to is Yoga (which I haven't done a lot but enough to understand the concept), in that you have to use your mind to relax yourself to the point that you can override your body's natural sense of what is physically accessible, to stretch beyond that to a new level of possibility. Every foot I climb on this hill feels like the result of complete and constant involvement, both body and mind. I'm not sure how long I can keep up the physiologic ruse but as long as it keeps working I'll keep doing it.
Did I just say I thought the really difficult part was past? I may have misspoke. It's hard to believe that the Tour of Utah not only road this route, but raced it. Levi Leipheimer, in fact, broke away from the main peleton, caught and subsequently dropped the leaders on this very stretch of road less than a week before. I'm having a hard enough time keeping enough forward momentum to keep my bike from falling over. Attacking on a hill like this is something I can't even mentally process. Truly astounding.
As I climb the mountain, the scenery begins to change. Scrub oak gives way to fir trees, then to aspens. It's really beautiful in retrospect, which is the only way I'm experiencing it. All I see at the time is the constant hill which ranges from almost reasonable to painfully oppressive. After about the halfway point I say goodbye to the malevolent 20 % grade switchies and my brain begins to win the war of attrition with the body it is directing. I settle into, if not a rhythm at least a routine.
Settle into the saddle and pedal hard till the ground you're covering tells you it's steep(er) again, then on your feet and push until you hit a reasonable grade or you get too fatigued to continue rowing and go back to the saddle. Repeat (repeat, repeat, repeat). As I did it I envisioned trying to fell a very large tree. You keep sawing till you hit a knot in the wood too hard to cut through or the saw gets too hot, then you get out the ax and whack away until your shoulders won't take it any longer, then back to the saw.
Death From Above
It's been a long afternoon in the saddle, I can only imagine how long it feels sitting in the van. Jenn amuses herself by scaling the roadside hills and looking for interesting and unique photo ops.
Watcher In the Woods
I'm Squishing Your Head
Like I said, it's been a long afternoon.
Saw, saw, saw, whack, whack, whack. Before I ruined Jennifer's knee with canyon rides (her side of the story) during Tour de France week, we planned on doing this ride together, albeit with a start in Midway and a straight shot home. I'm really glad she didn't try. She hasn't been beaten by a climb yet but this may have been the one that finished her off and made her reluctant to ever ride with me again. That said, we've ended every season with her saying "I'll never ride ..." only to fill the blank the following season with a victorious effort over the hurdle in question. So maybe Fall of 2013?
Eventually I clear the aspen groves and make it into the high mountain meadow and the junction with Empire pass. If I hang a right I can drop into Park City, stay left and it's back to Guardsman. There's no good road* that will take you from Park City to the Salt Lake Valley. So, as much as I enjoy taking in new scenery on the return trip, I'm going to have to head back to Big Cottonwood and the road on which I came in.
*Swedish Matt swears by the I-80 descent from Park City to Emigration Canyon but I'm not wild about the idea of bombing down Parley's Canyon at 45 mph, dodging roadside debris, tractor trailers and the tire treads they invariably spew onto any interstate's shoulder. Count me out on that one.
At the Empire Pass Junction we go back to semi-blacktop road. It's rough and steep but I'm used to both of those things by now. Just over a mile to go.
When the almost road becomes dirt (for real) I swap back to the mtn bike and climb the last 1/4 mile on the the fat, nobby tires. It's a nice break from the last two hours of rowing my way along on asphalt.
Honestly, the sign should say 'Next 11 and 1/2 miles' and whichever surveyor/road engineer it was that gave the 10% grade estimate should be fired (twice).
On the summit (again), only it's really all down hill from here. I snap the obligatory 'Victory For Me and My Trusty Steed' photo, only there are two steeds (one of which weighs a good forty pounds). Jenn tells me "Up! Higher!" No dice. This is as much as I have in the tank, and if you wait two more seconds we'll be taking a picture of me standing next to these bikes.
I just about clear Guardsman pass to BCC when the rain comes again, this time with sleet (for an added level of difficulty). I'm bundled up, so the cold isn't a problem but the slick roads at 50 mph (plus minimal brakes with wet wheels) are. It's been an epic (I wish that word wasn't so overused because it's perfectly apropos here) ride and I want to have the triumphant return to base, but it's not worth risking serious injury over, so I pull over and Jenn racks my bike and I climb into the chase car. Only after about two miles of canyon, the sun is out again and the roads are dry. I suspect that this is just how summers in the canyons go. I tell Jenn to pull over and I'm back on the bike and cannon-balling the descent.
According to my GPS I've climbed about 9500 feet. It seems a shame to get so close to the 10K club and not punch your membership card, so I hang a left at the mouth of Big Cottonwood and climb the seven hundred or so feet of Wasatch Blvd to the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon (and really, what's another few miles of hill at this point?), before heading toward the mountains on the west side of the valley.
I hit the homestretch on 4800 west and text Jenn to bring the boys out for a sprint finish at the top of the hill behind our house (it just happens to be a local Strava segment) but I've managed to beat her home (almost) so she pulls to the side of the road outside our subdivision just as I hit the hill. The boys jump out of the van and Mathis breaks out the cowbell for a victory salute in the final hundred meters. In the background, across the valley, you can see the Wasatch mountain range. The one we went over, Front to back, back to front.
Back to the same driveway where I started (just over 8 hours ago):
I feel surprisingly good. If I had more food (and I had started at 6:30 instead of 8:30) I think I could easily ride another fifty miles. Certainly I could have gone another twenty and made it a true century. But even without hitting the hundred mile mark it's a memorable ride and challenging. It wasn't LOTOJA but it was harder than anything I've done on a bike before, and yet (like LOTOJA) my selective cycling memory has me willing to give it another shot, hopefully not as a solo ride. Misery (and suffering) loves company after all.
PS Thanks again Jenn. I couldn't (and wouldn't) have done it without your support