Endurance and Adventure Team rider Spencer Paxson prompts us to scheme up and get the most out of big days on the bike during the longest day(s) of the year.
Since I’ve begun to keep the racing shoes in the closet more regularly over the last two years, the several-week period around the northern summer solstice (typically around June 21-22) has become my new favorite season. I call it “Solstice Season” for the span of time it affords in terms of daylight and open terrain in the high country – a chance to scamper out beyond the edge of the Shire and put to action some of the harebrained ideas that crop up during the dark winter months.
Three years is hardly a tradition, but for so many solstice seasons I have made a game out of doing something “big” (and yes, in many ways pointless) on the longest day of the year, or checking off a bucket list of long days during the three-or-so weeks on either end of the summer equinox. Each of these experiences has been wildly difficult yet hugely rewarding for me, and have helped re-calibrate and boost my attitude on riding, life, appreciation of snacks, etc. Based on these results, I would wish for anyone to achieve their own version of a big day fulfillment. So with that, a few prompts and ideas for coming up with your own outing this Solstice Season:
Something fun (fun to you…okay, “Type 2” fun) that you haven’t done before – Whether it’s a new place, a new route on familiar trails, or some feat that hitherto you have not achieved.
The right amount of challenge and uncertainty for your experience – If you are new to pushing your physical and mental limits, I recommend a very non-scientific prediction that falls within at least 60% (but less than 80%) confidence that you can pull it off. If you are experienced at pushing your limits, then it’s okay to play around with ~50% likelihood of success.
Get weird, go long – Whatever the objective, at least make it a goal of being out all day. It doesn’t all have to be on the bike, either. If possible, start at sun up and finish at sundown (with as many breaks as you need!). Enjoy the entire day! Get the day off if you can, or wait for the next closest weekend day (after all, “Solstice Season is a season). Plan for child care. Make an extra sandwich.
Have a clear concept – It can be pointless (those are usually the most fun), but should still have some kind of theme or essential mission. Numbers can help to start, but ultimately it’s not about the numbers… It doesn’t hurt to get a little philosophical, either. You’ll be going deep into the mental tank, so some forethought might help. Make a Venn diagram of reasons why you are doing it…that way it forces you to find a common center to come back to when it gets hard, and you can lean in one of several directions as you navigate the day.
Plan your logistics and break the day into units – If it’s going to be a very long day (let’s say “very long” = >10hrs), think in terms of what you can accomplish per hour, and break the day into phases. This is key so that you can imagine the entire effort in advance, but in the moment, take it one chunk at a time and that’s it.
Invite friends – Happiness in this sort of hubris is most real when shared. That said, solo vision quests are pretty good, too, but it does add to the experience to include some company for at least a portion of the experience.
IIt all started with a brainstorm amongst the Kona Adventure Team misfits. We were trying to figure out some adventures we could pair with races we wanted to hit on the calendar. Grand Junction off road was on the list so I reached out to a long-time road and CX pro-Jamey Driscoll, who lives in Park City, to see if he knew of any cool stuff in the Moab area. He immediately told me about his one-day suffer fest on theWhite Rim Trail.
So while it didn’t end up becoming a Kona Adventure Team project it did a dance in the back of my mind, gently nudging me and being suggestive whenever I heard “Utah” being talked about. Coincidentally, we made plans to go see Emily’s sister in Salt Lake City. We were going for 10 days to ski, but we weren’t skiing until the second half of the trip. So BOOM! We made plans to ship bikes, bike packing gear, camping gear, etc. (This is where, if you watch the vlog, you’ll notice I am on a BMC mountain bike rather than my Kona Hei Hei. I mixed up some labels and shipped my Hei Hei to Becca in New Hampshire rather then Utah and I sent her bike box of parts to Utah, which I obviously couldn’t use. So I borrowed Emily’s sister bike.) Once we landed in Utah, we got our bags, stole Katherine’s bike, as well as her car, and we headed south on I15. 4 hrs later, voila, we were in Canyonlands National Park.
The White Rim Trail is more of a 4X4 road, honestly, as long as you have 4WD and your truck (or whatever) isn’t lowered you could probably drive it. It starts in Canyonlands National Park, inside of the Island in the Sky zone (actually just next to the Island of the Sky Visitors Center).
The Island in the Sky zone is an area of Canyonlands National Park that sits high above the surrounding areas. It is a large plateau that has a drivable paved road in and out, which acts as the main artery for entry and access. As you drive in there are hiking trails that branch off of the paved road and drop down to the rim below. There are also numerous campsites up high on the plateau as well as other camping areas down on the rim.
If riding clock-wise, as we did, you immediately drop down Shafer Trail, which is a dirt road. It is located a mile before the Visitors Center as you enter Island in the Sky and it wastes no time in getting you down to the rim. ( *Pro tip- you can actually drive down the road to Shafer campground, which lies outside of the Island in the Sky park permit boundary and camp for free. We were going to do this but the road was closed because one of the switchbacks still had ice on it.)
So. Many. Switchbacks!
Once down at Rim level the miles fly by. You quickly pass a vast overlook for the Colorado River.
Not 5 min later you pass a pull off for Muscleman Arch, which sits at ground level and as you walk up on the arch it slowly separates itself from the edge of the rim. You can actually walk across it, which is a little scary but we heard no rock movement upon our crossing.
For the majority of the ride you are 20 feet or less from the edge of the rim. Thus, the views are extremely accessible and incredibly immense.
Forward progress was slow and we covered only 30 miles in the first 3 hrs of riding. The constant stopping and taking pictures/ picking our jaws up off the rock slabs (from the awe inspiring views, not crashing) didn’t get us to our stopping point, mile 66 Potato Bottom Campground, any faster. But we were savoring the day and the time in the saddle. The views demand a slow pace and laid back attitude. Also, this was our first dose of real sun and warm weather since our training camp in Malaga Spain in January.
We passed a granite slab overlooking Monument Basin and spotted some fairly deep puddles.
We stopped to filter some water. This is the perk of doing the Rim Trail in the spring. You would be hard pressed to find any water on the White Rim at any time of year, however, during the winter and spring the temps stay cool enough that when it rains it stays on the ground for a little while longer.
With Green River being the only permanent source of water on the route we thought it was a good idea to stop.
Topped up on water we crept on, weighted down and bloated like tics. Passing White Crack area, little did we know we were about to start hitting some steeps. If Murphy’s Wash up to the bottom of Murphy’s Hogback was tough then ascending Murphy’s Hogback (mile 55) was like Alpe d’Huez. Of course, you would fare better if you were trying to make the loop happen in 1 day but then you wouldn’t be having any fun and you wouldn’t have enough time to appreciate the splendor and wonder of the extraterrestrial terrain.
We had a big long descent and then 10 miles to our campground. The shadows were growing longer and the sun was lighting up the tips of the majestic rock towers surrounding us.
After 6 hours, moving time, we rolled up to Potato bottom Campground, exhausted and elated. Our asses were sore from all the sitting, it is quite hard to stand up a lot with so much weight on the bike, but we both relished the throbbing of our sit bones, and elsewhere, because the views were truly unimaginable.
We collected water from the Green River in a collapsable shower bag because there is a lot of sediment rushing along with the precious H2O. You have to collect the water and let it sit for 30-45min so that the particles fall out of suspension and you don’t completely clog your filter system. So we planned on letting ours sit overnight.
We fired up the Jetboil and dined on couscous, tuna packets, a bit of trail mix and crawled in the tent at 8:30. Lights out.
After sleeping 10 hours we crawled out of the tent for breakfast and got on with day 2. Cloud cover had set in thickly. We took our time packing up, eating breakfast, and filtering our water from last night’s collection.
On the road at 10am we quickly warmed up on a climb out of Potato Bottom that overlooked the Green River in a big way.
Intermittent drizzle kept us company for the first hour of the ride. At this point we had done about 12 miles and reached the mineral bottom road junction. This is where the “trail” part ends. Mineral bottom road is a 2WD rated and maintained section of dirt road that drops off of Island in the Sky Rd about 8 miles from the Visitors Center when you are driving in.
This was a relief in terms of continuously moving forward, from this intersection we literally climbed straight up off the Green River. And by straight I mean lots of switchbacks. Basically, the opposite of what we started with on Shafer Trail.
After pounding some modified Clif Shot bloks we put the bikes in the easiest gear and got on with it. We managed only a few paper boys and by the time we got to the top we decided the climb wasn’t so bad because you could see all the switchbacks we hit on the way up and it felt pretty bad ass looking down on the menacing snake which induced a good bit of uncertainty.
We thought the going would be faster and smoother but, alas, we were mistaken. The road rolled on and on for 12 miles and while Mineral Bottom road is a maintained road and suitable for 2WD vehicles the braking bumps and small divots caused by rain erosion rattled our teeth and punched us in the taints incessantly and without wavering. Thus, for the first time on the trip we were looking forward to finishing up.
At least on the “trail” part, the first 72 miles you expected uneven road surfaces, rocky ledges, and bumpy potholes. However, on the “maintained 2WD” we had expected to fly along on smooth hard packed dirt. The views ceased to be as big and jaw dropping. They were all behind us now as we headed east destined for the pavement of the Island in the Sky Rd.
The temp started to drop a little and the intermittent drizzle became a steady rain by the time we hit the pavement and had 45min left.
Emily got in my draft and we motored to the parking lot. In hindsight, we should have stopped at the park entrance, but we were hungry, cold, and wet. Plus, we left our park permit in the car so it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. We never touched the brakes when we blasted by the guard shack and he/she no doubt radioed ahead to be on the look out for two disheveled looking cyclists with a “stop for no one” attitude on their faces.
We rolled up into the parking lot, dropped our bikes, unlocked the car and immediately started putting clean dry clothes on. About the time Emily got some pants on a Park Ranger pulled up with lights a blazing from the top of his head duty F350. He asked us to “Step to the front of the vehicle” and when I asked if I could put my mesh bag in the car so I didn’t have to put it on the wet pavement and drizzle he said “No. Just put it on the ground.” Ha! I put it in the front seat and we both played dumb as he read us the riot act while reviewing our park permits, and passes. Luckily, we paid all $75 of permits that were necessary because I am sure he was looking for a reason to slap a big ticket on us.
We continued to get dressed once the Ranger left us be. We threw the bikes on the car and got out of Dodge.
The lack of phone service out in Canyonlands area was bittersweet. I had so many pictures and stories I wanted to share but I was stuck with them all to myself and Emily. The 45min drive in to the Island in the Sky was actually quite therapeutic on the way out. It forced us to relive a lot of the trip, talk through low points and high points, and actually refined our perspectives with parts we had forgotten about as we were caught up in the hustle and bustle of moving forward.
We got out of the wilderness on March 13th, which was my Mom’s birthday. I figured telling her about it was as good of a birthday present as there could be. I sent her a few pictures to prove it!
If words aren’t your thing, the link below has my vlog, which depicts our actions but doesn’t do the landscape justice! It wasn’t a difficult feat to get the ride done and so I recommend if you are in the area and have a nagging urge for adventure that you check out at least part of it. Whether on foot or bike the Island in the Sky area is worth the trip.
Last year Adventure Team rider and 24 Hour Solo World Champion Cory Wallace took on the task of raising money to help build a coaching/training center in Nepal. His goal was to complete the Annapurna Circuit in less than 24 hours. Completing the Annapurna Circuit is an incredibly challenging athletic feat on its own. It is comprised of 220km of extremely high altitude riding while ascending over 6000 meters throughout the process. Completing the Annapurna Circut in just 24 hours is…well… something that perhaps only Wallace can do.
He’s back at it this year and on November 20th is attempting to break his time last year of 23:57 with the goal to raise $6,500 for the coaching center -the only of its kind in Nepal. Wallace is giving away two of his world championships jerseys- one for the single highest donation and the person who donates and most accurately predicts his completed time in the comments section on GoFundMe. Want to play along? Check out the fundraiser here.
Stay tuned for his result and donate to the campaign!
Video by Gaurav Man Sherchan and photos by Cory and Patrick Means.