Pre-Loop: It wasn’t hard to talk Chad into my brilliant (ha!) idea. I dropped a quick email and was surprised when he responded that he was in.
We’d head north a few days later, determined to race the 360 mile Grand Loop, backwards. It had never been done before, but then there’s only a handful of people that have completed it in the ‘correct’ direction, too.
Driving through Moab we were shocked to see fresh snow in the La Sals, with grey walls of doom in every direction. We decided to postpone, rest a day, and more importantly…. do some fun riding with Mike:
We pedaled some wonderful trails that seemed effortless. The unseasonably cool weather was perfect for a late afternoon ride.
photo by Mike Curiak
I tried to keep my enthusiasm in check, but it’s hard to think in terms of energy conservation when you’re feeling great on a perfect day. Save it, save it… you’re going to need it.
photo by Mike Curiak
We decided to add some singletrack as an option for Grand Loop racers. I know, I know, the course is the course is the course is the course. But this course is one that needs a face lift, in my opinion. More singletrack please! Just don’t make it any shorter! We made sure of that.
Mike’s place is the perfect place to stage a Grand Loop assault. We were well rested, super packed (REI a 2 minute ride away) and full of homemade choco-peanutbutter-heaven-crack-ice-cream. Plus Mike will point out everything that’s wrong with your bike, sometimes even without laughing, and sometimes with enough time to do something about it! (It was too late for Chad’s 85 degree head tube angle, but somehow he survived).
photo by Mike Curiak
The Loop Grand: We left Mike’s house at 7am, pedaling a brief prologue to the usual finish line of the Grand Loop: the Tabeguache Trailhead (aka Lunch Loops). Final gear readying, then we were off to climb singletrack.
It was warm already – cursed humidity! What was yesterday effortless today was anything but. But the skill, pedal placement and frequent micro descents were plenty to keep the smiles about.
We saw someone crouched in the bushes. Chad joked that it was Mike taking pictures of flowers. Turns out it was.
photo by Mike Curiak
I fiddled with my SPOT, which was in ‘discotec’ mode. I’ve been pretty wrapped up in these SPOT things lately, if you haven’t already gathered. They make a lot of sense for these kind of ‘events’, and developing the tracking software has been a lot of fun.
It was not long before the hiking started in earnest.
But first! The Rough Canyon slickrock descent was sweet, a hundred and three times over. Perhaps most so because the generated wind meant cooling and drying. But I hit a few 3 footish drops on the way down (rock to rock) that landed beautifully.
This climb just about ended the lifeform known as Scott Morris, three years ago. Totally unexpected, totally brutal, I wanted to cut my head off if only to make the climb end.
A complete breeze it was this year, but we had so much in front of us that the word ‘easier’ wasn’t really in the vocabulary.
Bangs canyon stung us, roasted us, and threw wet bentonite clay at us. I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn’t expect to be hiding in the shade at 7000′ feet. The singletrack drop to Whitewater was nearly all rideable! Yeah! We hurried our water stop somewhat so as to get in front of the herd about to head up our route.
It sort of worked, and we were greeted by a gentle headwind — just enough to keep us cool as we burned rubber up the gradual climbing of Nine Mile.
Many a ‘stinger’ awaited us through Cactus Park, Horse Mesa and into Dominguez. I didn’t remember so many ramps so steep. But what goes by in seconds in the other direction is hard to take note of. I knew where all the steep descents were, since they had hurt me so badly back in ’06.
The sand was firm near Dominguez, and totally rideable. I expected to walk a lot, even with all the rain. Somehow I got the feeling that the rains would take back whatever advantage we were gaining now…
A half hour break at Dominguez gave us water and full bellies. We climbed quickly out of ‘the desert’ into grassy meadows lined by aspen trees. Finally, it was not warm.
After an entire day of climbing, we were at 9500 feet, on the divide of the Uncompahgre Plateau. We were in the game, but the game was just starting.
A grader with a view.
It was a beautiful evening to pedal the divide road. These are some of the best miles of the whole route. Big views, near-pavement surface, no traffic, and cool temps.
The cool temps were turning to cold. I layered up big time for the Love Mesa descent (Chad noted on his GPS that we were less than five miles from the route, some 100+ miles later, at that point), but it was not enough.
I was losing my feet and hands by the time we had dropped. We stopped in the middle of the road, rehydrating food and sitting in our sleeping bags, trying to warm back up.
All I remember is climbing on the “singletrack” at the end of the Roubideau traverse. Of course that was a failed memory. It was super soggy, vague and not that much fun. And it only gets harder from there.
I was dismayed at the condition of the “trail” for the first creek crossing. I didn’t remember it being overgrown and unrideable even downhill. I thought we were really in for something, but we soon merged onto a more beaten road. Ah, the Roubideau we all know and love!
If I was doing the pushing during the daylight hours, Chad took over the charge in the dark of Roubideau. He stayed at the front and pioneered most of the creek crossings, which were none too easy in the dark. A few times my Dave Harris special mega light helped show the way. As cold as it was, neither of us wanted to dunk a foot in the water. But we both ended up with a few dunkings anyway. It didn’t matter much — our feet were getting soaked from the dew on all the brush — dew at 11pm?!
Chad dropped his bike on one crossing, but it didn’t look major. It was major enough to ’86’ his GPS, unfortunately. We thought it was water, but we later determined it was more likely the blow. Chad began to wonder about his options if we were to split up. But at the time I had no desire to move any faster, that’s for sure. I told him we were in it for the long run.
Eventually the cold of the night got to us. About two (of 15) drainages from the end, we threw out the bivy gear and got a couple hours of shut eye. I really thought we would have made it further before stopping, but hitting Roubideau with all of the Tab in our legs was more than I bargained for.
Our nap was just enough to jumpstart the system. As the day dawned we saw what we’d been missing, and the one thing that makes Roubideau tolerable. The scenery…
Roubideau was done quick enough, then we set to climbing back to the divide road. I expected to walk most of it, but it was quite rideable, if a little muddy. Max and Josh came coasting down the hill, big smiles on their faces. It was fun to meet them and hear a bit about their ride. The biggest question on my mind was: how much snow on the singletrack just ahead? They didn’t know — they had skipped it.
I’d seen snow at ~9400′ on the Divide Road. Not a good sign.
Sure enough, there was more than enough snow to go around up there. Where there wasn’t snow, the trail was absolutely saturated with water, and often flowing straight down the trail. Or, when dry, it was like this:
What a piece of trail. And what an asinine layout.
We were not amused. The thought of bailing out to Pool Creek occurred, knowing it would be an hour+ to traverse the rest of the snowed in singletrack. But we didn’t ride all the way up here to cut corners. We froze our feet off and slid around, finally emerging on the powerline.
It was noon. Six hours to make it to Bedrock store before it closed, 65 miles away. It was possible to make it, but neither of us were in the mood to push and not make it. The snow and singletrack had really kicked us when we were already down from Roubideau. Looking at the numbers now it sure seems like we could have made it, but it’s easy to say that sitting here at home, warm, rested and far removed.
Down we go! Blasting Houser Road like it’s nothing. For some strange reason I wished I was climbing it. Certainly a better grade that 95% of the climbing we’d done to get onto the plateau (yesterday).
I made a bad error here. I skipped water up high, thinking we could get some right before Glencoe or on Glencoe. It was hard to think in terms of loading up on water — for the last 14+ hours excess water had been our bane.
There’s water up there, but very little flowing, and nothing free from cattle. In ’06 the cattle weren’t allowed back there, and streams were flowing. Oh well. Never pass up a good water source, especially when the miles to the next probable source are nearly all downhill.
Glencoe was bumpy, and Chad’s rigid fork did little to protect him from it. Any time I’d comment on how rough or bumpy a certain section was Chad’s response was always, “want to switch bikes?” He had a good point.
Glencoe was a highlight of the ride in the other direction, but it kinda sucked to descend it this year. Now, descending off Pinto Mesa was a surprise hit. Last time I was a freckle away from heatstroke the entire climb. This time it was super fun techy descending.
And then we were at the windmill in Spradlin Park. The exit point for my special off-route detour to the town of Nucla. We were low on water and with food from town we could then ride past Bedrock, riding into the night. It seemed like a no brainer.
Until, that is, we actually started to ride the detour to Nucla. It didn’t look familiar. I puzzled at the hills, the GPS, but no luck. Memory was not coming back. The road was grassed over. Only cattle trails remained. We turned Chad’s GPS on for the moment it would stay on since it held the track that would take us to Nucla. No dice. We rode back to the windmill. But then it looked familiar again, so we dropped back down again. Now the cursing began. Why can’t I remember? Why had I been so confident we’d make Bedrock with time to spare? Why hadn’t I planned on Nucla as a backup? Or carried full food?! Or filled up big on water up high?
I was beating myself up pretty good. Chad pulled it together and suggested just riding on with the Paradox, taking a break and strategizing for a store opening at Bedrock. I wanted to make it to Nucla, but the one thing I did not want to do was waste hours lost, trying to get there.
So we pushed up the steepest hill of the entire Grand Loop, back on the Paradox ‘trail.’ Paul Koski, what a piece of work! You’re awesome! That hill does lead to an incredible gooseberry mesa area, where we both could envision a primo trail network. As we crested the hill the clouds rolled in and we spied a pool of fresh rain water in the slickrock. Ditch the cow water, get some fresh stuff!
Up and down, up and down, then drop into Tab creek for a couple hours of rest.
Knowing that time was on our side, we waited for the sun to lower before hitting the climb to Spring Creek Mesa.
It was quite an evening to be on a bike. Rideable trails, fresh (?!) legs, dry / clean (!) clothes. Not a care in the world.
The sun set behind the La Sals, our target for tomorrow. A bit of nighttime descending (look out for cows!) led us to a boulder studded campsite, just above the Delores river. Perfect for a full night’s rest.
I woke after ~6 hours, more than primed and ready to ride. But there was nowhere to ride — the store would not be open and we needed food. Best let the sun come up.
The morning light brought more enjoyable riding, through the San Miguel and Delores gorges. We wondered why anyone would want to detour around this fabulous stretch, in favor of more hike-a-bike! It’s one of the best parts. Note the remnants of the flume in the upper right of the above photo.
Bedrock was just open when we got there, and provided plenty of tasty treats, both for our bellies and our feed bags.
Bring it on, Carpenter Ridge! It was warm, but the goal was clear: attain the ridge.
It was awesome to see Chad ride nearly the whole thing, with 180+ miles of brutal SS’ing in his legs and grades beyond 10%. The big rest had led to excess energy, and I began to think it was going to be too easy to knock this thing out in under 3 days. Kokopelli’s trail seemed so close, and we were ready to launch our assault.
Uh oh. Rumbles over our shoulder. We tried to outrun it, but bikes are not fast and road routing never favorable. Pull out the rain gear and prepare to get pelted by hail. We descended out of the hail and cold only to be greeted with goopy mud. Pretty soon the only way to even push the bike was to follow the water running down the ruts.
It was not a comfortable place to be, mostly because we were in a huge meadow, with no tree cover, and the lightning crashes were frequent and none too far. “Knock it off already, we get the point!” Unfortunately there was very little we could do, since travel was in the sub-2mph range. I suppose we could have ditched the bikes and fled for trees, but that was about it.
Across Taylor Park we could see another cyclist, and he was riding! What??
It was Marshal. I still don’t know how he was riding, or how he wasn’t freezing in the picture above. I guess he didn’t get pounded by hail at 9000′, but still…
He was having a tough day, but seemed more upbeat about the mud than either of us drowned rats. We said goodbye and soon spied another rider. Is that Harris? No way! It didn’t compute, but nothing really did. Both Marshal and Harris had started after us and were going the other direction on the Grand Loop.
Yep, that’s everyone’s favorite kind of mud.
We kept pushing along the meadows, occasionally trying the road. Paco the sheepherder came by to ask if we had seen his shoe. He was wandering the meadows like us, looking for it. I tried to express (in pathetic Spanish) how impossible these conditions were for cycling (and how nice it’d be to be on a horse!). Chad teaches Spanish, so he had an interesting talk with Paco. He said that the road would dry out in a couple hours. We didn’t really have a couple hours to wait, though.
So we pushed on. Eventually the trail went down and Chad disappeared while I was poking at my bike with a stick, trying to get rid of mud so my wheels would spin. After a while I couldn’t see Chad’s foot prints — he must be riding!
As quickly as I got on I realized that my rear brake was gone. The mud and snow back on the Tabeguache trail had brought the pad to near nothing. The hailstorm had been the final blow — I was braking on pure metal.
I wasn’t yet sure that this was a good thing to do, so I was hesitant to use the rear brake. What happens when you overload the bike (with mud) and use only front brake? You go down!
I almost got a face full of mud, but just barely got my feet out and over the bike, and somehow kept myself up as I slid down the sloppy road.
No sign of Chad, I cleared the bike and hopped on again. The mud flew as speed increased, and somehow the tires did not lock up. I found him washing his bike off in a small puddle. We were demoralized, but the current road looked rideable.
After stopping to thoroughly clean the bikes in a running ditch, we were pedaling, gingerly, again.
Kokopelli’s Trail, at last! I had hoped to be here four hours ago! We filled up big time on water at Fisher Creek. What we didn’t treat was being blasted off the mountain.
Ack! More peanut butter of the worst kind. With “clean” bikes we were unwilling to have them pile them up, so we carried for some time. The rain had been 4-5 hours ago, but this road seemed worse than if it had been freshly rained on.
Every once in a while we’d put the bikes down only to confirm that it was still too sticky even to roll the bike along our sides. But it did not last long, and soon we were blasting through wet sand, finally on the big descent out of the mountains.
We were both happy to be back in the desert, and beginning to feel our soggy feet dry out. I knew that our timing was bad, though. No matter what we did we would find ourselves in the heat of the day on Kokopelli’s trail. We would soon wish to be back in the mountains.
Darkness settled in as we hit the base of Rose Garden Hill. We stopped to dry out and shove calories into our weakening bodies. It was a good break, and after pushing up Rose Garden, I found that much of the ensuing techy climbing was rideable!
Perhaps the best riding of the entire Grand Loop — just hard enough for stimulating challenge (esp. at night!) but not so hard that energy usage was questionable. Actually I didn’t care much about the energy expenditure — I was having too much fun.
I don’t know why I thought descending the “shandies” would be tolerable. Slide slide, brake brake, curse curse. “This sucks” … Chad: “Want to switch bikes?”.
Chad’s lights started to die as we neared the Colorado River at Dewey bridge. We rode together with the super light on high beam. It was amusing to light up cliffs on the other side of the canyon.
We threw out the bivy gear for a couple hours rest. In my mind we were doomed to a hot slog up the Koko, might as well accept our fate and grab a wink or two of sleep.
As we packed up in the pre-dawn glow, Jefe and Matt came by:
They had started at the “traditional” Grand Loop time/location, and had ridden all night. I made Jefe laugh with my talk of “this loop is just ridiculous” and “never again.” Jefe would go on to go several hours under the previous course record, having a hell of a race.
The sun crept up slowly on the colorful cliffs of Yellowjacket. Our energy level rose just as slowly. Or at least mine did. For some reason I thought it a good idea to look at the GPS repeatedly, showing plainly that we were making little progress to our goal — Loma, some 70 miles away.
We would parallel the Colorado River for all of those 70 miles, and though I knew the air temperature was never that hot, I could not argue with my body which ached for shade and a cessation of all forward movement.
It was really neat to finally see these long miles of the Kokopelli during the day. I have twice ridden through here in the dark, and have been thoroughly confused by it. Some sections are depressingly bleak, and others wonderfully beautiful.
At some point we met Jim L, another Grand Looper heading the other way. We talked briefly, and it wasn’t until Chad and I stopped and huddled under some reeds (providing the only sliver of shade we’d seen for miles) that we tried to process the encounter. He was carrying two big bottles of soda, and among other reasons we both questioned if he was real or a mirage. Needless to say, we were getting a bit loopy from the heat and our days on the trail, and pretty soon we were laughing hysterically, still huddled under the reeds.
So many uphills resulted in walking. It was getting old. It was lonely out on the trail, and it felt like we were the only ones dumb enough to be out there.
It’s all a matter of perspective. With 300 miles in the legs and not so much sleep, moderate inclines become difficult and the sun has considerable influence. We were reminded of all this by a few supported tour riders going the other way. They were absolutely attacking the steep climb out of Bitter Creek, which to us was clearly unrideable. No one could be having fun on these steep climbs, on this hot a day, could they?
These guys were.
Back in our reality, the suffering continued. By the time we reached Rabbit Valley we were absolutely baking in the sun. The unwanted tail wind did not help.
Precious shade! I pulled out my toothbrush, realizing I had forgotten to clean the old pearly whites last night. Just then some considerate ATVers blasted by, leaving a wall of dust in my face. Thanks. More side splitting, loopy humor. I don’t remember what we were laughing about, but I had to spit out the water in my mouth at one point.
Perhaps the hardest part of the whole ride was the ‘easy’ graded road miles beside I-70, approaching Salt Creek. The tail wind made the sun feel like an oven, and I knew what was coming: singletrack, but not of the good sort.
Time to bail the bike! Erosion, stupid trail design, unrideable. But, hey, it’s singletrack and it’s been a while. My rear brake screamed every time I touched it, metal slowly scraping away on the rotor. It’s good to know that you can continue to brake with no pads, 100+ miles after destroying them.
We cooled off at Salt Creek, dunking our shirts, shivering as we put them back on, then heading back into the sun. Dark clouds were in every direction, but we had not had a hint of sun blockage all day.
There’s quite a bit of good trail, interspersed with tid bits of hike-a-bike. I was enjoying it on some level, but wanting to be done on others. It hit me that you do the best riding of the Grand Loop at the start and end, which makes it hard to enjoy fully. At least for me.
It was strange to see other cyclists on the trail, just out for an innocuous ride. We pedaled into Loma for a finish time of 3 days, 11 hours and 2 minutes. Phew. Now to endure 4 miles of interstate riding in search of hot food. Oh yeah!
2000 calories of Taco Bell later, we were strangely re-energized. We figured out a route back to Grand Junction, and once back on the road I couldn’t believe how good I felt with belly full and sun hiding behind clouds, about to go down.
370 miles, 48,000′ elevation gain, 3 days, 11 hours and 2 minutes.
Grand Loop done, backwards. Good ride Chad.