Monster Ride in the Mountains

Up into the aspens.
Up into the aspens.

Sweat is dripping off my face, I’m weaving back and forth like a drunk, and I feel like I’m going to puke. I feel awful, and I still have at least four miles more before I top out. I’m breathing a lot harder than I have in a long time and I’m only about 5 miles into a 9 mile climb. Pine Canyon Road out of the town of Midway averages about 10% grade with sections as steep as 20%. Pretty insane. I wonder if I should turn around and shamefully retrace my tracks back down the canyon. It would be downhill nearly all the way home. Maybe this was a bit too ambitious. After all, I’ve never ridden this road, just heard from a friend that it was really steep and challenging. Well, that is exactly what I wanted, something that would really challenge me.

I left my house in Provo at about 9:30 am and rode up Provo Canyon, past Deer Creek Reservoir to the small town of Midway.

Deer Creek Reservoir from the dam.
Deer Creek Reservoir from the dam.
The backside of Mt. Timpanogos from Deer Creek Reservoir
The backside of Mt. Timpanogos from Deer Creek Reservoir

I stopped at the only gas station in town to refill my bottles and have a snack. I choked down some Shot Blocks (not nearly as tasty as gummy bears). I began the climb on the outskirts of Midway after having already covered 25 miles. Sometimes when I’m feeling a bit down, or angry, I have this irrational desire to go out and push myself, make myself suffer a bit. Well, this ride certainly fit the bill. In fact, it was the single most difficult ride I have done.

Beginning of Pine Canyon Road.
Beginning of Pine Canyon Road.

I had heard this road was pretty steep, but having never ridden it, I was not sure what I was getting myself into. It was steep, continuous, and unrelenting. Oftentimes on long climbs there are sections of road that flatten out and give you a break from the climbing. Pine Canyon Road only seemed to have one short section, just after a sharp switchback where the grade eased off a bit, but then it pitched back up. Down low in the canyon it was hot with the heavy smell of burning car brakes in the air.

Pine Canyon Road.
Pine Canyon Road.

As I climbed higher, dark clouds began moving in from the south. About half way up it started sprinkling a bit. It was a welcome relief as the sun was obscured by clouds and the temperature cooled significantly. I would ride for a mile or two then take a short break, maybe 2-3 minutes, then continue on.

Looking back at Midway with Deer Creek Reservoir in the upper right.
Looking back at Midway with Deer Creek Reservoir in the upper right.

The scrub oak and sage brush eventually gave way to thick groves of aspens, then heavy, dark pine trees. I noticed a sign saying that the next day there would be a bike race on the road and to expect delays. I guess the Tour of Utah would be climbing this road. Too bad for those guys. I can’t imagine trying to race up a road like this. This road tops out at a saddle; turn right for Park City, left for Guardsman’s Pass and Big Cottonwood Canyon. Three guys on lightweight carbon fiber bikes had already passed me. Not much else to do but keep riding.

Aspens.
Aspens.

The thick grove of aspens I rode through near the saddle were beautiful, as pretty an aspen grove as I’ve ever seen. As I approach the saddle there were numerous cars parked and people standing along the road. Then a pack of 10 riders zoomed by followed by their team cars, spare bikes and wheels on top. This was Stage 6 of the Tour of Utah. As I pulled up a Highway Patrol Officer tells me I will have to wait until all the riders pass before I can go on. No problem, I need a break anyway. I enjoyed watching the riders as they raced past.

Tour of Utah, Stage 6.
Tour of Utah, Stage 6.
Tour of Utah support vehicles following racers up Guardsman's Pass Road.
Tour of Utah support vehicles following racers up Guardsman’s Pass Road.

They were coming from Salt Lake City, climbed up Emigration Canyon, Big Mountain to Park City, then would climb up to Guardsman’s Pass, down Big Cottonwood Canyon, then up Little Cottonwood Canyon to end the 117 mile stage at Snowbird Ski Resort. The Aussie Cadel Evans would win the stage in 4:34. This particular stage only had 12,643′ of climbing. Now I felt like a real wuss. My wimpy day of climbing would only amount to 7,100′. Of course, I’m a little older than those guys (actually a lot older), I’m packing a few extra pounds, and I’m riding a steel frame cyclocross bike outfitted for touring.

Tipi camp near the junction of Pine Canyon Road and Guardsman's Pass Road.
Tipi camp near the junction of Pine Canyon Road and Guardsman’s Pass Road.

After the last racer passed by, I followed far behind, continuing my climb up to the 9500′ Guardsman’s Pass.

Looking up towards Guardsman's Pass.
Looking up towards Guardsman’s Pass.

Just before the pass there was one last very steep section that nearly did me in, but I managed to stay on my bike, in my lowest gear, out of the saddle, until I finally topped out.

The final, rough, steep section.
The final, rough, steep section.

There were quite a few mountain bikers up top as this is the start of some pretty epic trails. It had also begun raining again, along with thunder, so I put on my rain shell. It was pretty windy and chilly as well. Strange how you can go from low 90’s and sweating profusely to rain and cold in a matter of a couple hours. That’s Utah weather for you. And of course high in the mountains you can get any kind of weather anytime of year.

Guardsman's Pass looking back toward Heber Valley.
Guardsman’s Pass looking back toward Heber Valley.

I didn’t stay very long on top. I was about 36 miles into my ride and still had a ways to go. I also wanted to get riding before the rain got too heavy. Just as I began coasting down the road into Big Cottonwood Canyon, it really started to rain, then hail the size of peas began pelting me and stinging my legs and face. After less than a mile I pulled off the road and took cover under some big pine trees.

Dropping into Big Cottonwood Canyon, just below the pass.
Dropping into Big Cottonwood Canyon, just below the pass.
Waiting out the storm.
Waiting out the storm.

It rained and hailed hard for about a half hour. When it finally started lightening up, I hopped on my bike and continued down. The road was really wet and cold water from the still drizzling rain, and from the road soaked me in short time. It was freezing cold. My hands were frozen into claws gripping my brake levers and my exposed legs were really cold. I was shivering violently.

Wet and cold.
Wet and cold.

By the time I arrived at Solitude Ski Resort, the rain was gone, and in fact, the road there was completely dry; the storm only hit higher up in the mountains. It was also getting progressively warmer the lower I rode. It was a nice ride down Big Cottonwood Canyon with towering cliffs and the beautiful creek alongside the road.

Descending scenic Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Descending scenic Big Cottonwood Canyon.

By the time I reached the mouth of the canyon it was quite hot again and I shed my shell. I stopped at the gas station at the mouth of the canyon to refill my bottles and eat.

Downtown Salt Lake City from the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Downtown Salt Lake City from the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon.

By this time I was pretty tired and did not want to ride all the way back to Provo on busy roads, so I determined to ride out to the Jordan Train Station and take the Frontrunner Train back to Provo. It was about 15 or so miles to the train station and I arrived just 6 minutes after the train left, so I had to wait almost an hour for the next train. After arriving in Provo I rode the four miles back home. I was pretty wiped out when I got home.  In all I covered 73 miles with 7100′ of elevation gain, all of it in the first 36 miles of the ride. It was a beautiful ride through the Wasatch Range but very steep and pretty difficult.

By the way, I didn’t bring a proper camera with me on this ride, so all photos were taken with my cell phone.

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