The Tour of Utah Ultimate Challenge is one of the premier events in the western U.S. for a cyclist. As funny as it sounds saying it out loud, I haven’t ever participated in this race. This race report is the first of its kind for me — I am a little ashamed that I haven’t ever participated before. In my defense, it does fall a weekend after one of my favorite USCA races, the Tour of Park City. The TdPC is a great way to measure your fitness levels and speeds against other riders in your category and to let you know where you could possibly stand for LOTOJA. But because of the Triple Crank Award — a local award given to cyclists who complete the Rockwell Relay, the Ultimate Challenge, and LOTOJA — I decided to sign up for the Ultimate Challenge this year. I did two huge races on back to back weekends in 2012 in the Desperado Dual and the Tour of Park City. While I got 3rd overall in the 195 mile Desperado Dual, I really suffered through the 156 mile Tour de Park City. I did get in the top 10 of the Fun Ride division in the TdPC, but now that I am racing, I knew that putting the TdPC and the Ultimate Challenge on back to back weekends would be a huge mistake.
The Ultimate Challenge has traditionally gone from Park City Utah down through Provo Canyon, past Sundance and up and over American Fork Canyon, over Suncrest, and then up to Snowbird. That ride was tough. But as with most things, the only constant is change and the organizers of the Tour of Utah decided to put in a course change for their Queen stage. The cool thing about this ride is you ride the same course for the Queen stage that the pros do, but you just leave a couple of hours before they do. Does that mean you could get passed? Absolutely. Some people do get passed. One of my goals for this ride was to finish before the pros.
The course change this year took us over some amazing terrain. We started further north in Snowbasin, which was one of the venues for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. There is a small climb right out of the gate, and then some downhill until you start climbing up to East Canyon Reservoir. You make a swing by Echo Reservoir and then eventually turn up Brown’s Canyon for a nice little climb. After exiting Brown’s, you head into Park City, where once you reach city limits, you turn up the famed Guardsman’s Pass. This climb is sick. Like the black plague sick. It goes on for a very, very long time and is very, very steep. After you summit the climb, you can bomb down Big Cottonwood Canyon until you reach Salt Lake Valley. You make your way over to Little Cottonwood Canyon where you have to climb up to the second entrance of Snowbird for the finish line. At that point you hit the hospitality tent and try not to fall over. If you are not in danger of passing out, throwing up, or collapsing under your own weight, you probably did not go hard enough. The ride is advertised as 113 miles with only 11,000 feet in climbing. You read that right — you average almost 100 vertical feet of climbing over the entire ride. Truthfully, the majority of the climbing is in the last 35 miles. According to my Garmin, we climbed 6,159 feet in the last 35.5 miles. If you take out the 16.75 mile descent down Big Cottonwood Canyon in the middle of the two climbs, that elevation profile becomes 6,039 feet of climbing in 18.75 miles. That is a mountain bike ride profile. Ultimate Challenge indeed.
The Ultimate Challenge makes it very clear in their registration paperwork that this is a ride and not a race, but most of the people I know treat this as a race. While there are no timing chips and they only use numbers to allow you admission into the rest stops, this is too epic of a course to not treat it like a race. I mean, the pros are racing it, so why shouldn’t I? The reason they relegated the Ultimate Challenge to a ride is a couple of years ago there was a horrific accident coming down a descent that almost cost a couple of riders their lives. That was the last year it was a USAC race. I hate to say this outloud, but from everything I have heard, it was the cyclist fault. A cyclist ended up going through the back window of a vehicle on the descent, which means to me they were following too close. The course was supposed to be closed, but even then, if there is a stray on the course, you just slow down, even if it is a race. Period.
So there were six of us who ride together regularly who went up to the start together. The Infinite Cycles Racing Team that I am a part of probably had another 20 riders in the race who all planned on staying together as long as possible. But you know how those things go in a long ride like this — those who can stick together do and those who cannot get dropped. I think it is a totally appropriate attitude.
My pre-race pre-ride nutrition strategy was a little different this go round. I usually just pound some overnight oats for about 400 calories and drink as much water as I can handle. I still ate my overnight oats for the carbs and drank a ton of water, but we swung by McDonald’s on the way up to Snowbasin and I grabbed an Egg McMuffin. I know, it isn’t the healthiest choice, but I wanted it for the protein in the egg. It tasted like heaven. It was a little tough to eat the entire thing because I was so full from the oatmeal and the water I had been pounding. But in a longer effort like this, protein is a great source of calories because they burn slower. And in my weight loss efforts, it has been forever since I had an Egg McMuffin. As many calories as I burned in this effort, I could really eat whatever I wanted.
After taking care of emptying out the plumbing and shedding as much weight as possible, we all ended up at the start line at about 6:50 a.m. If I had this to do over again, I would have made a little more effort to be at the start by 6:30, which is the time they let off the first wave. It was my fault because the lines at the port-a-potties were long, so lesson learned. I was able to roll out with my five friends and the Infinite Racing crew. My goal was to stick with my buddies Brent and Brandon until the Park City rest stop at mile 77.25 or so. They both climb like mountain goats, so I knew I had little chance of sticking with them over Guardsman’s Pass. I could try, and if I succeeded I would have nothing left for the climb up to Snowbird.
My strategy took a blow exactly .378 miles into the ride. I had taken a spot at the back of the pack and it was there we hit the first climb of the day. It was a short one at almost exactly one mile, but the group decided to put in a decent little effort on the climb. I averaged 288 watts for almost six minutes, which isn’t amazing, but it was too early in the race to put out this type of effort. I looked behind me and saw my buddy Juston about 100 yards back about half-way through the climb. I decided to back it off and let the Infinite group go on the incline. The thought was Juston and I could catch the group on the downhill that was approaching.
Thinking we could catch the group on the downhill was a mistake on our part. The downhill section into the valley was 7.5 miles long, and we averaged 35.4 mph on this section, but we just couldn’t catch the group. We both ride and race enough to know that on a long, straight downhill you are unlikely to catch a group of 10+ people if they are putting forth any type of effort. While we kept the group in our sights, we just couldn’t latch on. That means I lost two of the wheels I had wanted to suck for about half of the day.
The good news is I wasn’t alone. I had Juston, we caught our friend Dan on the downhill, and once we were in the valley we caught our buddy Moj too. It was good to have the extra wheel because from mile 9 until mile 35 we had a gentle uphill as we passed through Morgan and rode by the East Canyon Reservoir. The 26 miles on this section mostly featured rollers and a couple of bigger climbs, but nothing like what we were facing later in the day. Once we crested the small hill just past the reservoir, we had averaged 18.4 mph. Moj and Juston both dropped me on the hill, but it wasn’t long before I caught them again on the downhills. On that short downhill section we averaged 31.2 mph and only pushed 114 watts, which was a welcome break from the 225 watts we had averaged on the climbs on the previous section.
Once you hit the town of Henefer the downhill stops and you have a long grinding false flat as you pass by the Echo Reservoir and the Rockport Reservoir. This section ends when you make the turn to go up Brown’s Canyon and is about 25.5 miles long. Moj, Juston, and I were motoring through this section. We would catch a group, sit on for a minute, decide if we wanted to stay with the group, and then move on. The challenge with a bike race is if you catch a group on your own, you will more than likely come to the conclusion that the group is too slow for you. Case in point: we came up on a group of about 30 riders who were in a rotating paceline. There were several different teams and obviously different skill sets represented, so I was impressed how well the group was working together. The group was moving at about 19 mph, which was a little slower than our group of three people. Somehow I got about seven people ahead of Juston and Moj in the paceline and of course took my short turn at the front. I didn’t think I pushed the pace up that much.
When Juston got to the front, Moj was on his wheel. The kid that was on Moj’s wheel just gave up and created a break in the paceline. If you don’t race bikes, just know that this is a huge party foul. HUGE. I figured out what was going on about 20 seconds after it happened, so I looked up the road and Juston and Moj were about 100 yards off the front. They didn’t surge or try to drop the group, but one rider who decided he couldn’t hold the pace killed it for the entire group. I had a choice at this point — stay with this group or get out of the the paceline and sprint and bridge up to my buddies. I decided to make the sprint, and it was one of those efforts that hurt, but if you don’t make the break at that point, you won’t make it later.
Somewhere in this segment I had a flat. I have been flatting a lot this season and I don’t know why. I have migrated from the Michelin Mach 4 tire to the Continental Gran Prix 4000 and the Continental Gator Skin tires. I use the Gran Prix’s on my Zipp 101’s, which I was using for this race. I have also started using the XLC Thorn Resistant Tube. This tube literally can stand up on its own without any air pressure in it. It is really, really robust. With that, it does add some weight, which you have to decide is worth using these tubes. But that being said, this was the first flat I had gotten in probably about 1,500 miles with this tube. No matter how much the tubes slow you down, you will still be faster when compared with the time to repair a flat.
Once I had pulled over to fix the flat, a SAG wagon pulled up and a local bike shop employee jumped out, brought a tube, his tools, and a pump and started working on my flat. I have to say short of having my rear wheel replaced like the pros do, this was really nice. For you locals, this rock star was from Bingham Cyclery. I haven’t ever bought anything from Bingham’s, but I can tell you I will now. I appreciated the assistance.
We passed through a couple more towns and finally made the turn up Brown’s Canyon. This segment is only 6.9 miles long and has about 4.0 miles of climbing. Juston, Moj, and I hitched onto a strong group on the climbs of this canyon and held on. I was glad that we did because it forced us to go a little faster than we would have on our own. It is funny how much harder a carrot that is dangling out in front of you can make you go. We tried to jump on the front and lead out, but this small team would always pull through. I am not sure if they wanted to prove how cool they were or if we were going too slow. Either way, it was nice to sit on a wheel and enjoy a draft for a while.
In the next installment we will start up Gaurdsman’s Pass and then eventually make it up Little Cottonwood Canyon to the finish.