Winter is a cruel season for a cyclist living in a ski town like Steamboat Springs, Colorado. If it's not the record snowfalls, it's the biting cold and ice covered roads that make any form of cycling a masochistic death wish. I like pain as much as the next guy, but at some point sanity has to come in to play when your only options are riding in snow over your hubs, or ending up as the hood ornament on a Hummer.
Fortunately, the cycling Mecca of Moab, Utah, is only about 5 hours away. And as ski season winds down there is a mass exudes from the Colorado high country to the spring conditions in Canyonlands; and; I am always one of the lemmings. Even though I may have ridden but once or twice in the new year, I quite enjoy the self-flagellation of heading to Moab and whipping my system with a one day, self-supported ride of the 103 mile White Rim Trail. First scratched in to the sand and rock during the hunt for uranium in the 1950's, the trail is now a centerpiece of the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. It's always an entertaining, if not occasionally epic, ride.
The White Rim Trail can be ridden in a shortened point-to-point manner, in stages with camps, or in the aforementioned loop. It is typically done in three to four days, replete with support vehicle. I'm going to have to give that multi-day thing a try; for even though I see the park in a way few visitors do, I know I'm missing at least as much as I see. I still have yet to make the three mile loop out to White Crack and it's absurdly gorgeous views, and when I look at guide books I see the names of slot canyons and arches that I have yet to lay eyes upon. Instead of taking in the sights, I'm always pushing for the finish.
Remember, you don't have to do the whole thing in a day, so be aware of your skill and fitness levels before you go. Multi-day trips require a permit, and some campsites are reserved almost a year out. Most people ride the route clockwise, theoretically the easier way. But I typically ride counterclockwise. And although there are few technical demands along the rim, if the ride is packed in to one day there is a surprising amount of climbing (around 6,000 feet), and occasionally long passages of energy sucking sand.
My trip began when I parked my van at the Island in the Sky visitors center and started riding my trusted Trek Fuel east down County Road 139. It was 7 a.m. and I was loaded down with almost 200 oz of water and enough food for 10 to 11 hours of peddling. I sailed up and down the pavement towards Mineral Bottom road. A left at Mineral Bottom put me on dirt, and the miles continued to click away on the fast, smooth downhill toward the Green River.
Suddenly I heard a subtle and disconcerting “tink.”
I slowed and looked down at my wheels. There, on the non-drive side of my rear wheel a broken spoke flapped like a shattered appendage. Hmm. I stopped and contemplated the situation. My fancy rear wheel had only 18 spokes, nine per side, now eight on the non-drive side. The wheels were seven years old; I had no phone or support, and I was only twenty miles in to a 100 mile ride. Another Hmm. I broke the spoke off and kept riding.
The trail takes on a decidedly 4X4 character as you drop down switchbacks cut in to the sandstone cliffs and approach Mineral Bottom and the Green River. By now I'd knocked off over 25 miles and the day was beginning to heat up. Over the next six miles I was with in spitting distance of the Green and my pace was fast and smooth. I was feeling good, despite the fact that this was one of the first rides of the year.
Just past the Labyrinth Camp Site the trail drops into a particularly sandy wash; as I powered up the small incline out of the wash I heard a familiar sound, “Tink.” I stopped and looked at my rear wheel. A second spoke dangled uselessly from my hub. I was now about 33 miles in, and down to seven spokes on the non-drive side. Hmm. More contemplation. As luck would have it I was at a hiking trail junction that would take me the 1200 vertical feet back up to the Island in the Sky, and near to my car. I kept riding instead.
Past Hardscrabble and up and over the Fort Bottom Trail ridge the bike held tough. Down to Potato Bottom and through the sand I rode. My mind paid little attention to physical pain, hunger, or thirst. Although I kept on top of these, I was preoccupied with analyzing whether I could complete the ride, or if I'd end up walking out in a dumbass epic. Each second produced a new analysis. One second I knew I could finish the ride without incident; the next, I'd see myself slowly shuffling up some steep nasty hiking trail, my bike slung uselessly over my shoulder, while the moon rose and the coyotes howled.
About 45 miles in I heard the third fateful “tink.” I was now down to six spokes on that side, and the wheel had such a “wow” that I had to unhook my rear brake to enable the wheel to roll freely. A few miles further was Murphy Hogback, and another hike-out option. I made the ridge without incident. Having gone 15 trouble free miles I decided to do what any sensible rider would. I kept going. I put my rear brake back into service for the descent off Murphy Hogback, but as soon as the trail leveled out I disconnected it. It would stay that way for the rest of the ride.
Up and down, over rock and through sand, the trail juts in and out with each curve of the white Toroweep Formation sandstone. Punchy little climbs permeate the route, and by the time 80, or so, miles had rolled under my wheels I was feeling rather small. My rear wheel continued to hold tough, but my body did not. I still had plenty of water, and I was good on food, but none of it sounded very tasty. Man can live on bars and gel for only so long, and by now I was fixating on a burger and beer reward at the Moab Brewery.
I was beginning to roll through patches of shade as I worked past Lathrop Canyon and Musselman Arch towards the Schafer Trail. My legs were fried, I had seen the amazing terrain and vistas of the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands in the best way possible, on two wheels, but by now I was driven by desires much lower on Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
My heart always sinks when I reach the bottom of the Schafer Trail. Although it's only a three mile section of the ride, it's punishingly steep coming right at the end. Ride a little, push a lot, ride a little. After a seeming eternity I reached an area I could ride consistently. Only a foot or two of soft dirt and sandstone chips separate the road edge from a several hundred foot drop. The sky and the distant LaSal Mountains took on the pink-purple hue of the setting sun. I reached the paved road and turned toward the Visitor Center, another White Rim down.
As I drove toward Moab, the sun said ado, and a pleasant exhaustion settled over me. A RedBull staved off my incessant stomach rumblings as I made my way through town. Empty barstools shouted my name as I walked in to the Brewery and within minutes I had a pint of Derailleur Ale and the decadent burger I'd been craving since mile 80. All in all, it was a great day, and as the alcohol percolated through my brain I thought about the seven years of faithful service the Trek had given me, and I began to wonder, was it time for a new bike?
I really can't condone this type of behavior by others. Having ridden the rim a number of times before, as well as some 24 hour solo races and 100 milers, I was familiar with what to expect; how my body would react, my nutritional needs, and equally important, the knowledge that I could push on for hours even if I bonked and was out of food and water. Because, well, that happened to me once before while riding the White Rim, but that's another story.
So if you're ready to add an endurance adventure to your riding resume, I highly recommend Moab's White Rim Trail. Mid-March through early May is the best spring time to ride, and mid-September till the snow flies is best in the fall. Summertime temperatures are just too brutal to attempt an all day ride. When you arrive in Canyonlands National Park you'll get a rudimentary map and a park newsletter, but a better resource might be the “Moab South” map from National Geographic's Trails Illustrated collection. If you don't feel ready for the entire rim in a day, then take a few days. Do some research in to the area, know your limits, and most importantly, enjoy the ride.