It’s not lost on me how lucky I am that Moab, Utah, is merely a half-day’s drive from where I live. I never fail to settle into peaceful enchantment and get a wild eye for adventure whenever I’m there. Moab feels like a charmed place: I always end up there with people I really like doing gratifying things that usually go better than planned.
That is why, just one week after bikepacking some of the area’s dirt roads (which I wrote about here), I returned for the Moab Gran Fondo. The 500-person event is a 60-mile ride through red canyons, high desert, alpine mountains and multiple schizophrenic weather zones. I dragged along my friend Aimee, who is training for the Dirty Kanza and is someone whom I consider a living cycling talisman.
I was woefully under-prepared to do this ride with any measure of comfort. Even so, the strategy of “start slow and taper” is my regular M.O. for getting through almost anything. “At my age,” I can apparently (and thankfully) still get away with that.
According to Aimee’s record of the ride, we accomplished 5,700 total feet of climbing–a majority of that in the span of about 17 straight miles–and topped out at 8,300 feet. The route essentially followed a popular scenic drive called the La Sal Mountain Loop, which most tourist websites recommend allowing three hours to complete. It took us about six hours by bike–including stops for food and to hide from the weather.
I admittedly contemplated turning around at mile 30. We had begun the worst of the climbing into the La Sal mountains, which were socked in with ominous-looking precipitation. Several thousand feet of ascent stretched out before us, and the temperature was already well below what had been predicted. Our supposed tailwind was actually an ongoing series of wild gusts that whipped sleet into our faces around every turn.
“I definitely don’t have the clothing for this,” I said to Aimee as we donned pitifully thin rain jackets and lamented our short-finger gloves. “I’m not sure I have the willpower, either.”
Another under-dressed female cyclist slowly rode by, caught my eye and deadpanned a response: “Yes, you do.”
And with that, we clipped in and shoved off, cranking slowly up the mountain. I spent the next couple of hours staring at the donut graphic on my stem cap, contemplating absolutely nothing. I settled into my pain cave of determined silence, emerging only to rattle off distracting swear words when yet another frigid squall blew through. My logic-crushing fear of heights meant I hugged the wrong side of the pavement for much of the ride through the La Sals, afraid that one of those gusts would send me over the unprotected edge of the road.
“At what point do I worry about frostbite?” Aimee asked, interrupting my self-imposed exile from reality.
I had no idea. I shrugged. We kept riding.
It’s important to have a day like this in your bag of cycling tricks–they serve as important reminders that, no matter what, you’re on the bike in a beautiful setting and really, truly, deep down, should do whatever you can to enjoy yourself. Thanks to my cross-country bike trip, I know better and took in the Moab Gran Fondo with tremendous appreciation. It helps that the final 20 miles are a non-stop descent back into the red-rock landscape surrounding downtown. And warmth.
The ride hurt, and my performance is nothing worth noting. Despite the less-than-ideal weather, it was impossible to not love this ride. Moab feels like the set for a fantasy novel where the main character is tested over and over in settings whose descriptions make them seem a bit unreal. Blizzards, dust storms and flash floods accompany imposing and breathtakingly beautiful landscapes. The town was crawling with Europeans last weekend and it dawned on me that there really is nothing like the Utah landscape anywhere else in the world. The fondo took us through it all–along the red slickrock canyons following the Colorado River up into pine-tree-lined mountains. When it was over, Aimee and I felt pretty damn accomplished.
I think I’ll go back next year. You should come, too. Just remember that Utah has bizarre and archaic liquor laws, so don’t expect to be handed a beer at the finish line. And don’t get caught up in road-race-Lycra fever so much so that you ride with as little stuff as possible. I utilized a frame bag stuffed with snacks, rain jacket and rain booties, and carried my camera in a stem bag. Clearly, I survived, but had I been smart I would have brought along at least one more warm layer and some dagnabbit long-finger gloves. With slightly more clothing, I’d have nothing to complain about. The Moab Gran Fondo follows a brilliant route, and exploring it with 499 friends is a perfect way to spend a Saturday.