Don’t miss our photo gallery from the event by Danny Stewart, Cedar City Events
For this triathlete—and I suspect many others—my first taste of the freedom only a bike can bring was a fat-tired, hardtail mountain bike that probably weighed half as much as I did.
Many of you reading this, like me, now prefer to ride something a little sleeker. Maybe, like mine, your old companion is rusting away in your garage. Maybe, like me, you’re sometimes struck with the desire to dust it off and play in the dirt again. And because you’re a triathlete, perhaps even to race the damn thing.
This past weekend, I did just that. When the organizers of Fire Road Cycling asked LAVA to check out their inaugural race in Cedar City, Utah, this editor couldn’t pass up the chance to see some of the Southwest’s prettiest landscapes from the saddle. One freshly-tuned old Rocky Mountain Trailhead, 500 miles and 6,000 feet later I was standing on Main Street in Southern Utah with 130 or so other riders—ready to see what I was made of.
When an eight-time Ironman World Champion tells you to do something, you don’t say no.
After a neutral roll-out through “Festival City’s” historic downtown, Greg Welch’s voice faded into the distance and the support vehicles pulled away. The race was on.
The Cedar City event—first in what will become a whole series from these folks—showcases endurance over technical prowess. This became abundantly clear before our GPS’s even registered 30k: in just 11k (7 miles) we climbed roughly 3300 feet—a nice little warm-up the organizers termed the KOM, or “King of the Mountain” challenge. Some perspective? The top male took close to an hour to climb this beast. Most mortals took between 1:30 and 2 hours to finish.
Now, I love a good climb. But I’ll be honest: this one almost broke me. On climbs like this you have no choice but to mentally and physically zone out—letting nature and promises of a great view compel you forward. (I felt less wussy the next morning at breakfast when The Bachelor’s Ryan Sutter confirmed my struggles: “It was harder than I thought,” he said, “Technically, it’s not a hard course, but you’d better be fit out there.”)
Finally, a long-awaited downhill spit us out into our first feed station, loaded with chewy, grainy energy bars from a local bakery, trail mix, refreshing watermelon, bananas, gummy candies, and potato chips—all doled out by eager, cheery voluneers. What more could an exhausted rider want? (Besides maybe beer, but I’ll get to that later.)
Just after the station came a T-intersection where the 60k riders turned left and the suckers … er, hard core cyclists like me … turned right. I hesitated briefly, and then cranked my wheel right. Why on earth would I, a twice-a-year trail rider, pick a 100k as my first off-road race? Because when an eight-time Ironman World Champion tells you to do something, you don’t say no: the afternoon before the race, while chowing down on some local BBQ with my husband at the race site, one Paula Newby-Fraser managed to convince me that in order to witness Utah’s most spectacular views I’d have to ride the 100k. “Why would you be out there three hours when you could be out there for six?” She had a point. I conceded, and she assured me that I’d be “just fine.”
With that heart-breaking climb behind us, we 100k-ers were rewarded by a rolling traverse through rural Utah ranchland. Swaths of purple and yellow wildflowers decorated the fields like a child’s crayon scribbles, framed by cut red cliffs and sandstone formations. The bright blue sky overhead was broken by just enough white clouds to provide shade from the heat of the day, which was, thanks to the elevation, never unbearable. We rolled down gravel backroads, through a herd of cows parted like the Red Sea by their rancher, beside the serene Kolob reservoir and along the edge of Zion National Park’s cut cliffs.
Then, another climb. It was getting hotter, and my relationship with hills was quickly becoming dysfunctional. There were cuss words and various gods summoned, but eventually I had to face the facts: the earth beneath me would go up forever, and I had no choice but to go with it.
Thankfully, the last 20k were mostly downhill, and I even got to pretend to “go aero” on a long, winding paved road. There were a few moderately technical paths the organizers threw in just to keep us humble. I’m proud to report that I only dismounted three times—and those only because my legs were so shaky from fatigue I didn’t trust them to carry me much further.
And then, after the two men I was so proud to have “chicked” on the hills blew past me, I was back at the Main Street Park, utterly spent. And like any good triathlete, not 30 seconds off the bike I started to jabber on about how much fun it all was while bee-lining my sore ass to the beer garden for a Polygamy Porter.
That beer garden is considered by Cedar City Event Coordinator Byron Lindford to be his “greatest accomplishment yet.” He said that despite Utah’s general resistance to change, Cedar City’s “cowboy, hippie, thespian vibe” (the city hosts a Shakespeare Festival every summer) is attractive to many.
“This is Boulder 20 years ago,” he said. “People come here to train at altitude, and then they see all this town has to offer.”
Lindford said that Fire Road participants will look back and boast about how they did the race when it was just a spot on the endurance scene. He was more than optimistic that the race will double or triple in size next year, as riders spread the word about the unique race.
And he’s not the only one who thinks the town whispers of yesterday’s Boulder. “We used to barrel through here on our way up there to train,” said Newby-Fraser, who said Cedar City’s college-town feel reminded them of how the Colorado triathlon haven used to be. Her and Fire Road co-chief Paul Huddle bought a house here a few years ago. “We always wanted a place in the mountains,” Newby-Fraser said.
As it turns out, Newby-Fraser’s growing love for mountain biking was part of the inspiration for the race series. She claims her technical skills are still elementary, and as Huddle puts it, “if you didn’t grow up on a Schwinn doing sweet jumps, mountain biking can be intimidating.” He said Fire Road is for people who own a mountain bike but have never raced—yet always wanted to. “The course is easy enough technically to show people that they can be competent on trails,” he said. It’s worked for Newby-Fraser at least, who says it’s all she does now.
It’s true: trail riding is more interactive, to use Newby-Fraser’s word. It’s clear of cars and red lights. And this particular event, with its 25k and 60k distances, is the perfect stepping stone for those who aren’t sure enough of their skills to enter a more “hard core” mountain bike event. And it’s impossible to get lost: “This is Roch and Huddle level,” Newby-Fraser said (referencing co-organizer Roch Frey). They bring “Ironman organization” to a subculture of racing she thinks suffers from a really low standard. She calls this her “ideal course;” if scenery and an pride-bursting endurance challenge do it for you, it could be yours, too.
Still need a reason to come next year? It’s cheap to stay in Cedar City, and there’s lots to do in neighboring parks Zion National Park and Dixie National Forest. It’s also within a day’s drive from San Diego, L.A., Las Vegas, and many parts of Arizona and Colorado. Last but not least, it’s a great training ride for Leadville, as it was for the Velo 605 cycling team visiting from Orange County. (A team that includes Mike Dannelley, president of American Interbanc—an active sponsor of pro triathletes for years.)
“I’m a mountain biker now,” said team member Bill McCarthy. “I get to be a kid again and get dirty.”
Sounds like a good enough reason to me.
*Oh and since this was a race there must have been winners, right? Lest I leave you hanging: in the 100k, Brent Prenzlow from Carlsbad, Calif. finished first, clocking a time of 4:13:57. Newby-Fraser was the overall winner in the women’s 100k, with a time of 5:07:17.
Don’t miss our photo gallery from the event.