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Words by Andy Bokanev | Images by Jeff Curtes
“Ok, who’s got a headlamp?” The sudden lack of light turned the room silent save for the howling wind outside — the cause of our newfound darkness. The garage we were huddled in was the final stop after a four-hour drive from Salt Lake City International Airport, the nine of us having come together from as far away as Sydney, Stockholm, Dubai, Tokyo, New York, California and … Seattle.
The concept was simple: MAAP would bring a few people together under the same roof to explore the roads and sights in beautiful Moab, Utah, an area better known for mountain biking than anything to do with skinny tires.
After doing some research before the trip, and talking to a few friends familiar with the area, the only thing I learned was how inconsistent the weather was likely to be. Early March in Southeast Utah can be sunny and beautiful, or fierce and snowy. The forecast for the week highlighted that — morning temperatures barely above freezing and summer-like afternoons.
As we made the long drive from the airport to Moab we seemingly covered every season, starting with spring in Salt Lake City, bluebird winter over Soldier Summit and arid windswept desert for the last hour of the trip. Pulling into Moab at the tail end of the twilight hour we could make out the silhouettes of the rocks and canyons that make this place a Mecca for landscape photographers all over the world. We found ourselves imagining what it would be like to ride along these roads.
The howling winds greeted us as we offloaded our bike bags in the garage and found our beds inside the house. Then it was time for the first of several great meals prepared by local elite cyclist-turned-chef Ken: bison meatloaf. Over dinner and a few beers, the whole crew got a proper introduction.
Fort Collins, USA
I woke up five minutes before my alarm was scheduled to go off and considered setting it back by 15, 20, maybe even 30 minutes. But faint morning light was already pouring into the room and there were people shuffling around outside the door in various stages of jet lag. I walked into the kitchen and looked outside at the grey sky and then at the ground, which was covered in snow. Shit.
About an hour later we put on every single layer of clothing at our disposal and headed out for the first ride as a group. The house was located on top of a 13km long false-flat and as we rolled down, there’s barely any pedalling happening. Our body temperatures plummeted further as feeling in our extremities became a distant memory.
Once we actually got into town, the snow was nowhere to be found; the sun was shining and I found myself actually sweating. I shed a layer and took off one of my two sets of gloves. Almost immediately, the sun found a cloud to hide behind and the temperature fell like it had found a trapdoor. These temperature swings would continue the entire day.
We spent the day cruising alongside the mighty Colorado River. It was our first introduction to the colorful slabs of rock that feature throughout the region. The road twists and turns, following the canyon the river has cut out over millions of years. We were mostly silent, save for the occasional “wow” as we craned our necks to inspect an environment that was alien to almost everyone in the group.
The weather seemed to change around every bend. The sunshine and warmth didn’t last long, and were soon replaced by snow squall. The deep canyon seemed to funnel the wind, which slowly crept into my legs as we gradually turned up the pace, taking advantage of the virtually empty roads.
Maybe it’s the weather, or the fact it’s the middle of the week, but we encountered virtually no traffic along the road. We passed a group of rock climbers working on a problem by the roadside. They gave us a look like we must be crazy to be riding in this wind.
We followed the road until it ends at a salt mine. Many years ago this was a site of a big mining explosion, but these days things are quiet. From high above this area looks like a sea of brown and dark red interrupted by the occasional bright blue pool. These pools are filled with salty brine that seep up from deep below the ground. They are dyed a dark blue color to better absorb sunlight, and speed up evaporation.
We decided to break for lunch, but not before a few friendly sprints along the windswept road. We raced up and down promising each other “just one more,” until Bonsai, Jimmy and I seemed to sprint for the same square inch of pavement, bumping into one another. We looked at each other and agreed: “Ok, lunch.”
On the way back we were treated to a most welcome tailwind. The pace picked up until I was looking at my computer and could only focus on the back of the tyre just a few inches away from mine. We traded pulls at the front as we made our way through the canyon with the sunshine on our backs.
There is something unspoken about moments like this. You push until you cannot push any longer (“Who the hell is pulling so hard up there?”). We continued to inch up the pace. Just when I thought I could no longer hold on to Monty’s wheel, we made a turn into a brutal headwind and Jane pulled off the front. She said something along the lines of “Sorry I couldn’t pull any longer”. I nodded and mumbled something unintelligible, trying not to focus on the fact I can feel my pulse in my eyeballs.
We made our way back through town and stopped for a last bit of espresso at Eklecticafe. Then we began the slow false-flat back up to the house. It was by no means a long day in the saddle, but our efforts in the somewhat-rarified air (we are at about 1,500 meters) had started taking their toll. Everyone seemed to assume a horizontal position for a little while before dinner.
I made a mental note not to drink too much as the following day is a bigger day in the hills. Right at that moment Bonsai unwrapped a package he brought all the way from Tokyo — a gigantic bottle of sake. Time for Plan B.
I tossed and turned throughout the night. I noticed my roommates were also in and out of the room as both the elevation and the remaining jet lag continued to take their toll. The sun rose above the snowcapped peak just outside our door and shone on all of the kit washed the night before.
Morning number two looked completely different to the day before. No snow on the ground, no wind blowing the doors open. Clear skies and warm temperatures. After breakfast and coffee we headed for the Arches National Park.
Sitting on top of a salt bed that was once a sea, Arches National Park is home to more than 2,000 natural arches made up of sandstone and formed over millennia by deposits blown around by the wind.
Sure, I had seen many photographs of the Delicate Arch and read about the geology of the area, and I had stared out the window on flights to California and Arizona. But nothing prepared me to actually see these formations in person, as we climbed the switchbacks from the park entrance up to the plateau.
I’m pretty sure my vocabulary for the next few hours consisted mostly of “Whoa”. The rolling road took us from one arch to another, the snowcapped peaks in the distance creating the most surreal of landscapes.
We hit a crest and the road seemed to drop away below our wheels. Twenty, 30, 40 miles per hour as the smooth tarmac guided us down into the valley. The slipstream knocked the glasses off Jimmy’s helmet and they landed in the opposite lane, an oncoming car miraculously missing the shades by a few inches. The descent levels out and Bonsai rolls alongside and shakes his head: “I was so scared.”
We stopped at a picnic area at the end of the road before heading back. The night before a friend from Park City referred to Moab as “the land of out and backs,” meaning most road rides take place along the same roads. In most cases that means seeing the same thing twice and just counting back the miles waiting for the ride to finish. This could not be further from the truth in Arches.
Heading in the opposite direction reveals a whole new side to the landscape with new vistas, rocks and mountains lining the horizon.
As we made our way down to the park exit I found myself at the front of the group setting what I thought was a decent pace. And then Fiona and Jane came flying by, fully tucked on their top tubes.
With the sun getting lower in the western sky, we discussed the possibility of stopping at Moab Brewery for a beer or three. “Anyone stopping?” The resulting silence summed up the way we all felt about the prospect of lugging ourselves back up the hill after a few beverages.
The road back to the house seemed somehow steeper, longer and bumpier this time around. Maybe it was the altitude finally taking its toll. Maybe it was the day of climbing rollers in our legs. Either way all of us felt a little less than fresh.
We broke up into a few groups. Jimmy put on Tame Impala on his iPhone while I continued to stare at the back of Monty’s wheel, trying to gauge the distance to the house from landmarks noted over the past two days.
And that is when it occurred to me. I was sitting on the wheel of a Scottish guy from Dubai. Behind me was a guy from Australia that lives in New York. Behind him a girl from Sydney. And behind her a guy from Tokyo. And we were all brought together in one beautiful place just because we had a passion for riding bikes.
There is no reason why any of us should have met, but yet here we were, spending time together, laughing, exploring new roads, eating all of the food in sight and riding our bikes in one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
Maybe it was the exhaustion talking, but it felt like a sentimental moment. I realized that the favourite part of the trip for me was having these people from all around the world under the one roof. Or, after a few beers, in the same hot tub (side note: always travel with swimwear).
To be continued …