I swear the woman was bred with one too many DNA dipped in cruelty.
It wasn’t so much what she did, although I suspect Hannibal Lecter would have given her a toothy grin of approval. What got to me was the profane chuckle I heard after she did the “deed.” It oozed with creepy, depraved amusement. For the brief moments that I encountered her, I thought, this crazy sociopath isn’t going stop with me. She’s going to humiliate every poor soul that rides past her, and scar them for life.
Little Cottonwood Canyon, and the two-lane ribbon of black asphalt that circuitously climbs its granite floor to Snowbird and Alta, is renown for being a vehicle eater. At nine-miles long with gradients that tip over 10 percent, the road routinely fries engines on the way up, and melts brakes on the way down. It’s common to read news accounts of motorists who launched themselves into oblivion after failing to scrub enough speed before entering one of the canyon’s sharp turns.
All of which makes Little Cottonwood Canyon — the uphill part, not the downhill part — appealing as a denouement to decide the winner of a bicycle race. The famous Tour of Utah, that bicycle stage race in August that attracts some of the world’s top professional cyclists, has used Little Cottonwood for the past few years to incinerate the lungs and legs of pros that earn a living racing a pedal bike.
My chosen vocation is to write, photograph and edit. But my beloved avocation is to ride a bicycle as often, and as fast, as I can. Since 1983 I’ve competed in countless amateur races and finished a few with good results. I even started and directed a couple of bicycle races in the 1980s, one of which still exists today after 31 years: The LoToJa Classic, a one-day, 206-mile race from Logan, UT to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming. And, oh yes, you read correctly. All 206 miles are ridden in one day. The current men’s record? A few minutes under nine hours. And for the women? About nine hours and 35 minutes.
But despite more than three decades of training and racing, and compiling more than 120,000 miles on a bike, one thing has remained constant: I’m just a weekend hacker. The pros that ride the Tour of Utah, or the ones you watch on TV in the Tour de France, I couldn’t ride one mile with them. More truthfully, at full race speed, I wouldn’t last a city block. They’re that fast, and not just because some of them are amped on performance enhancing pharmaceuticals.
Although any chance of cycling greatness passed me by long ago, I still entertain dreams of riding faster and farther each year. I also fantasize about going to France, Italy and Belgium to experience the aesthetic and mystique of some of professional bicycle racing’s most famous climbs like the Col de la Madeleine, the Col du Galibier, and Mount Ventoux, or famous spring classics like Paris-Roubaix, de Ronde van Vlaanderen, and Milan-San Remo. Being a first generation Dane in America, wanting to ride my bike in Europe is hard-wired into my psyche. But because such a trip won’t come cheap, and other costly priorities must come first, I won’t fly to foreign soil anytime soon.
That’s why when I was offered a media pass to ride the “Ultimate Challenge” at last month’s Tour of Utah, I gushed out a “yes!” like a junior male teen that just got asked to the prom by the prettiest senior girl in high school. Billed as “America’s toughest one-day cycling adventure,” the Ultimate Challenge gives weekend hackers and hopeless pro wannabes a truly deluxe gift: To ride the Tour of Utah’s “Queen Stage” from start to finish with feed zones and other benefits. And the Ultimate Challenge is ridden on the same day as the Queen Stage, with the start about four hours ahead of the pros.
Now, the word “queen” here has nothing to do with royalty. It also has nothing to do with being pampered or coddled. Instead, it has everything to do with pain. In bicycle stage races, which can last up to three weeks (like the Tour de France), it means the hardest stage or day of the entire event. And that usually means big miles and big climbs — lots of them.
At 114 miles long and more than 12,000 vertical feet of climbing, the Queen Stage of this year’s Tour of Utah was indeed all about pain. It started at Snowbasin Ski Resort east of Ogden, and after a swift descent of Trapper’s Loop to Mountain Green, it meandered south and east through Morgan, Henefer, Coalville, Wanship and past Rockport Reservoir before ascending Brown’s Canyon, the day’s first major climb. After that, the course continued west to Park City where the real gifts of the day unfolded.
After a round-a-bout in the ski resort town, the Queen Stage begins to live up to its name. There, after riding 80 miles, cyclists quickly find out if they’ve ridden enough in the mountains to prepare them for what lies ahead: Three savage climbs called Empire Pass, Guardsman Pass, and lastly, Little Cottonwood Canyon. Empire Pass initially heads south out of Park City, climbing decisively with extensive, lung-crackling gradients of 15 percent before transitioning onto Guardsman Pass, which has its own wild steepness before cresting a saddle. The combined climbing distance of Empire and Guardsman Passes is more than seven miles.
After the saddle, Guardsman Pass turns into a fast, serpentine drop that pushes cyclists’ bike handling skills to the limit. For the next 15 miles, the sweat from climbing suddenly turns to chill and goose bumps as gravity takes over and cyclists hit 45 mph while plummeting Big Cottonwood Canyon. At the canyon’s entrance, the course turns left onto Wasatch Boulevard and proceeds south for four miles to the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Those four miles between Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons are all too brief as cyclists attempt to refuel with food and hydration before hitting the day’s final seven-mile climb to Snowbird. And that’s where I found myself after starting the Ultimate Challenge that morning with nearly 600 other cyclists. I had successfully stayed with the main group until Park City, and even surprised myself climbing Empire and Guardsman Passes with some semblance of strength and will. I comfortably zipped down Big Cottonwood Canyon, and felt confident that I’d ride strongly to Snowbird.
Yet, although I choked down some food and electrolytes beforehand, as soon as I hit Little Cottonwood Canyon, I felt my strength begin to fade. Perhaps I had overspent my energy miles before, maybe it was the late afternoon heat — but without a doubt, the road’s steep pitch after a hard 100 miles and 9,000 feet of climbing, was knocking me down. No matter what I did, I kept going slower and slower, and my left foot began to go numb from one too many pedal strokes.
But this wasn’t my first rodeo. Over the 30-plus years of racing a bike, I know how to go into “survival mode” when my body hits the wall. So that’s where I went, mentally and physically. And it was working just fine — until I reached Tanner’s Flat with about two miles to go.
One of the benefits the Ultimate Challenge provides for us weekend hackers is the experience to ride the “gauntlet.” If you’ve ever seen a mountain stage of the Tour de France, you probably watched in amazement as racers pedaled on narrow roads through a sea of spectators on some of the tour’s steepest and highest climbs. The spectators are usually happily drunk, dressed in wild garb, and often run alongside the racers, yelling encouragement, or expletives, in their ears.
That is what awaited us riders on Tanner’s Flat, the last steepest section of Little Cottonwood Canyon before reaching Snowbird. The Tour of Utah attracts thousands of spectators — and a good portion of them were alongside the road, yelling and screaming at us to keep on going, that the finish line was just ahead. Despite the deep pain and lack of energy I felt, I rode through the wall of spectators, smiled, and thought, Wow, this is how it is. This is how it feels to ride the gauntlet in the Tour de France.
And then the unexpected happened. While nearing the top of Tanner’s Flat, I felt a presence next to me — but it said nothing. Then suddenly, in front of my face, just a few inches away, there was a woman’s hand, and in it, was an absolutely disgusting Maple Bar. Sunlight glistened off of the deep brown icing.
“You know you want it! You know you need it!” a woman screamed into my ear.
I thought about pushing her away, but because I was going so slowly, I would have fallen over. So I tried to ignore her. She continued to hold the Maple bar in front of my face and kept yelling, “You know you want it! You know you need it!”
And then she pulled it away, did a sick, disturbing little chuckle in my ear, and left me alone. I didn’t have the strength to turn around and see who she was.
Two miles later, I crossed the finish line. After getting off of my bike, both of my thighs began to cramp. Another cyclist who I had ridden with most of the day, but dropped me in Little Cottonwood, came up to me and asked if I was all right.
“Sure, I’m OK,” I said. “But don’t ask me if I want to eat a Maple Bar.”