Destination Utah: gravel and mountain biking unlike anywhere else – Part 1

Photo by Meg McMahon.

Our Rides to Remember series highlights two-wheeled adventures that when you look back will always stand out as more than just another day on the bike – they are the ones you’ll never forget. The ride could be an event that is so innovative it is locked into your ride calendar every year, a gorgeous route to discover when visiting somewhere new, an iconic ride with historical significance or a completely different style of challenge on the bike.

Monika Sattler wrote about her Alp d’Huez ride in July, Anne-Marije Rook reported about a 100-mile gravel race she conquered in Idaho in September, and in this issue she talks about Idaho’s neighboring state, Utah. We hope that sharing these rides will inspire you to add them to your Rides To-Do list.

The start of the year always fills me with excitement as I wonder where my bike will take me this year. I have found that whenever you bring a bike when you travel, you’ll see incredible things and meet wonderful people. If there’s one place I would like to return to in 2017, it’s the state of Utah.

Wedged between Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming, Utah is a western state known for its vast expanses of desert, the Great Salt Lake and the fact that it’s home to the Mormon Church. Between Park City and Moab, it’s also home to some of the best (mountain) biking in the world.

I had been to and through Utah a few times before but never with a bike in tow. I remedied that last year with two separate trips to the “Beehive State” during which I covered hundreds of kilometres on single track, gravel and paved roads.

I was completely awestruck by the State’s beauty, its welcoming cycling community and quality of trails. If you’re looking for a riding destination, Utah is highly recommended.

In Part 1 of Destination Utah, I will reminisce about tackling hundreds of its deserts roads by gravel bike. In Part 2, I’ll take you to Moab on mountain bikes.

Destination Utah: on gravel bikes

This past fall I took the road less travelled to the annual Interbike Expo in Las Vegas. When presented with the option between a 2.5 hour plane ride into Vegas or a three-day adventure on bikes, the choice, of course, was simple. Bikes it was!

I was fortunate enough to be part of Clement’s first ever Beehive Ride. Created as an opportunity for brands to get their new and pre-production gear in the hands of journalists ahead of America’s biggest industry get-together, the Beehive Ride took a small group of us cycling journalists across 200 miles of Utah’s rough but jaw-dropping beautiful terrain.

The ride was a brainchild of Clement’s Donn Kellogg, who had driven from his Colorado home to Interbike in years past. As miles and miles of grey asphalt disappeared below the tyres of his pickup truck, country music blasted on the radio and visions of adventuring across the unpaved red desert roads sparked in his head.

With a new gravel wheel to launch, this fall was the perfect time to make the ride a reality, and we were in for a major treat.

The riding

From desolate red desert roads to high altitude, aspen-lined single track, the scenery was truly incredible.

The route, set by Raleigh-Clement’s pro cyclocrosser Jamey Driscoll, started at The Colorado National Monument in Grand Junction, Colorado, and visited a different national park every day. It covered a daily average of 112 kilometres (70 miles) with 1524 meters (5000ft) of climbing, and the terrain ranged from chip-sealed roads to relentless gravel washboards to single track.

Combined with the heat, the riding was challenging but absolutely rewarding. As miles and miles of empty desert stretched before us and red sandstones towered above us, we felt a bit like pioneers venturing through untouched country.

This feeling was confirmed again in the afternoon when we’d upload our data to Strava and would find a shocking lack of segments.
From wading through a river to twisty switchbacks up canyons and wicked fast, bumpy descends, this route had everything an adventurous spirit would enjoy. “Wow”s were uttered every kilometre along the way and our cameras and phones were never far from reach.

Meredith Miller takes in the aspen trees. Photo by Anne-Marije Rook.

Day One: Grand Junction, Colorado to the historic Dewey Bridge in Utah
Day Two: Green River, Utah, to Boulder, Utah, via the Capitol Reef National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Day Three: Hatch, Utah, through Zion National Park and into Springdale, Utah.

This part of Utah is pure desert and you can travel dozens of kilometres before coming across another person let along a town. As such, support vehicles with water and food are absolutely critical on this route, so if you’re thinking of doing this ride, arrange to have a SAG wagon or sign up for a guiding and logistics company like Western Spirit.

The gear

On an adventure like this gear is crucial. A gravel specific bike is highly recommended, as are ways to carry plenty of water and food, extra tubes and flat fixing necessities, loads of sunscreen and layered clothing. Again, as I mentioned above, having a support vehicle is key.

Over the course of our three-day adventure, we chased one another up twisty climbs, powered through washboards and bombed down steep, rocky descents. As such, we pushed every bit of gear to its limits. If something was going to fail, it would have been on this unforgiving terrain.

This made the Beehive Ride a perfect testing ground for Clement’s first wheelset –the aluminium Ushuaia – with Clement’s MSO tubeless tyres, and Eddy Merckx Cycles’ new carbon gravel bike, the Strasbourg71.

Eddy Merckx Cycles’ Strasbourg 71

The new Merckx Cycles Carbon Strasbourg71. Photo by Anne-Marije Rook.

During the 1971 Tour de France, the first stage to Strasbourg ended on a gravel track where Merckx narrowly beat Roger De Vlaeminck in a sprint. Merckx would go on an win the Tour, but that initial stage win was memorable enough for Eddy Merckx Cycles to name its new carbon gravel bike after it.

Touted as a “multi-faceted racing bike that can take a few knocks”, the carbon version is a progression from its older, aluminium sibling with some neat added features.

I rode the Ultegra spec’d mat silver edition with Shimano BR-RS805 disc brakes. The new frame adopts 12mm thru-axles in the front and the rear, and is ready for electronic shifting with a re-enforced derailleur mount and even comes with a cover plate for a 1x build.

The new Merckx Cycles Carbon Strasbourg71. Photo by Meg McMahon

The frame also has internal cabling; plenty of tyre clearance, and a big tapered headtube and a stout chainstay for stiffness.
The Strasbourg also sports some neat, well-thought out features like a chain catcher, extra bolts for bottle cages and accessories, fender and rack mounts on both the front and the rear, and Kevlar striping on the downtube and back of the seattube to protect the frame against rocks and road debris.

Over the three days of riding, I found the bike to be lively and responsive yet pleasantly dampening and trustworthy as we bombed it down technical descents. It was also agile and handled well through twisty singletrack. Overall, my first impressions were that the carbon Strasbourg is a well-thought out and capable adventure bike was a joy to ride.

Clement’s Ushuaia wheelset with the MSO 36mm tyre

While the carbon frame soaked up some of the vibrations, the wheels and tyres definitely took the biggest beating. Sharp rocks, gravel, relentlessly bumpy roads, and poor line choices can be absolutely disastrous, but luckily Clement’s Ushuaia wheels were made for abuse.

Featuring sealed bearings, a 28-spoke pattern and a 23mm (26mm external) hookless rim made to hold tyres up to 50mm (!), the aluminium Ushuaia wheels are made to withstand whatever you might put them through.
Versatile, the wheels are quick-release and thru-axle compatible and accommodate either Centerlock or six-bolt disc brake rotors. And despite their beefiness, the wheelset comes in at a claimed weight of 1620 grams.

I rode these wheels with Clement’s fast-rolling, 36mm MSO tyre and Effeto Mariposa sealant. Well over 300 kilometres across rocky terrain would be challenging for any tyre, and flats were inevitable. However, all things considered there were only a few and tyre burping was never an issue.

One particularly gnarly descend saw us dropping 3000ft (914 metres) at once on very rocky roads and there were more than a few times where the rims hit rock and I feared the worst. But the wheels held up impressively well. Whereas other wheels may have taco’d under such stretch or at the very least get knocked out of true, the Ushuaia wheels presented no visible damage.

It may be a short testing period, but we were far from kind to our gear and Ushuaia wheels proved to be impressively resilient.

Cheers! Photo by Meg McMahon.

The food and lodging

Everywhere we went in Utah, the people were super friendly and the food and accommodations were great. But a few places stood out as a must-visit should you find yourself in this part of Utah.

La Pasadita Taqueria in Green River, Utah. Photo by Meg McMahon.

Breakfast tacos and burritos at La Pasadita in Green River.

Located at a deserted gas station on the side of the road in Green River, this taco truck would have easily been overlooked if it wasn’t Clement’s favorite taco truck. The breakfast tacos had been hyped up even before we set off from Gran Junction, and indeed, the fare did not disappoint.

It was an odd but beautiful setting: an empty gas station turned into an outdoor eatery. Festive flags hanging overhead, glistening as the sun crested the sandstone hills, and us, a random group of cyclists arriving too early, huddling together and clutching our coffee and horchatas for warmth. The food was prepared quickly and was everything it had been hyped up to be: delicious, authentic and filling. Perfect for fuelling a long day in the saddle. A look at the mouth-watering menu told me that La Pasadita Taqueria is a stop you should make no matter what time of day you pass through Green River.

Hell’s Backbone Grill. Photo by Meg McMahon.

Blue Mountain Lodging and Hell’s Backbone Grill

Boulder, Utah, is among the most remote towns I have ever visited in the US. With a population of around 200, it’s barely big enough to have a post office, yet it’s home to one of Utah’s most-acclaimed, farm-to-table restaurant called Hell’s Backbone Grill.

Conveniently located on the grounds of the 20-bedroom Boulder Mountain Lodging eco-resort, the restaurant is operated by chefs Jen Castle and Blake Spalding. They run their restaurant according to Buddhist principles, with a commitment to sustainability, environmental ethics and social and community responsibility. As such, they only serve organic, locally produced and seasonally appropriate cuisine, and grow many of the vegetables and fruits in the restaurant’s two gardens and on their six-acre farm.

In stark contrast to the Taco Truck earlier in the trip, this restaurant was upscale, five-star fine dining and truly special. Who knew this existed All. The. Way. Out. Here.

Rich, fresh and flavourful foods; nice wines; tired legs and sunburnt faces – we all  shuffled back to our cabin-like lodging in the eco-resort with full bellies and smiles on our faces that night.

Video:

A video posted by Meredith Miller (@mmcyclist) on

Check back soon for Destination Utah – Part 2, in which I’ll take you to Moab on mountain bikes.