The Trail to True Grit

Southern Utah desert country

Southern Utah desert country

A ride report by Bullet.

A few months back I had the wild notion that I should do a 50-mile mountain bike race. Now that may not be such a wild notion for many. Let me put it into perspective for you. A few years ago I found that I had been swallowed up by “life” and, forgetting what living really was, had drifted from a very active lifestyle in the outdoors. Family life and a career seemed to engulf my existence. I was run down and tired most of the time. Then a couple years ago my son announced he wanted to join the high school mountain biking team.

After a little reluctance on my part we dusted off what once were some pretty nice bikes—twenty years ago. We went out for a ride on a trail I used to ride weekly. I now understand how middle-aged guys have heart attacks. Within the first 100 yards I thought my heart was going to rip through my chest. It was then that I realized I had not been on my bike in nearly 10 years. A career working with motorcycles had made it easy for me to give up the pedals for a throttle and my waistline was proof of that.

I’ll cut to the chase here. I was determined to get back into riding condition. At this point every ride was a cruel punishment filled with embarrassment and physical agony. But I loved the trails. I loved being out there with my son and the memory of what mountain biking once was for me kept me going.

Year two with the mountain biking team came along and I volunteered to help out on the training rides. My area of expertise was bringing up the rear, of the slow group, who were all faster than me. More embarrassment and physical anguish. But I stuck with it and could feel the old legs slowly reviving. I did my best to encourage kids that may be struggling on a particular ride but more often than not I would top a hill, being the last one to arrive, because that was my job you know, to find a group of teens cheering for me because I made it. Maybe they were cheering because now that the old fat guy was there and not dying on the side of the trail, they could get back to riding. Either way it made me feel good.

Between riding with my son, the team, and spin classes at our local Rec center, I felt stronger and began enjoying my rides more and more. The passion for the trail and the hunger for challenge was sparked. I think that’s when it happened. “Hey we should do a 50-mile mountain bike race” I blurted out to my son. He was instantly all in. My son, with his endless energy, infinite stamina, who can climb just about anything in his bike’s path, was instantly on the computer looking for an appropriate race.

We finally settled on the True Grit race in St. George, Utah. 50 miles of red dirt, sand, loose rock and broken slickrock. Wow this was going to be tough. Then he says to me “why don’t we just do the 100 mile?” I quickly squelched that notion. It wasn’t long before I had the Brigade brothers on board to do the race with us, a couple of the high school coaches I had been working closely with, and some of the guys at the bike shop.

So that brings us to the reason I sat at this keyboard to begin with. Lets talk about some trails. We decided that the Thanksgiving break was an ideal time to make a quick run to St. George, about 4 hours south of us, to get some experience with the trails we would be riding in March.

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We arrived at the trailhead at about 1 in the afternoon, a little later than we had hoped due to a flat on the freeway that required a new tire to get us back on the road. The trail system lies to the southwest of town. We pulled into one of many impromptu parking areas among the sagebrush, red dirt and rocks. We headed out on an ATV trail looking for the Green Valley Race Course. I think Greenish Valley would have been a better name but I didn’t get to name it. We wound around awhile on this track with a few of the throttle jockeys and found ourselves climbing a bit through slick rock shelves and loose rock. We topped out with some pretty nice views down a small canyon and a huge valley just a little higher. Turns out we get to ride across that huge valley on race day.

None of the trails in this area were marked so we did our best to follow a digital map on one of our phones. On our way down we found some single track that traversed the slope we were on and followed it to the top of Barrel. This is another section of trail we were looking for. It was a great down hill run with typical slickrock steps and drops mixed with the classic red rock and dirt the Utah deserts are famous for. The Barrel downhill section also has a few “enhanced” features to the tune of a couple 12 to 15 foot gap jumps as well as a step down that comes off a very large, very high rock. Fortunately they were all easy to skirt around. Not even the most daring in our group were anxious to try these.

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This brought us close to where we started. We still had daylight so we headed up the dirt road to the Bear Claw Poppy trailhead. This section of trails is closed to motor vehicles. After lifting our bikes over the entry point we found ourselves blissfully streaming down some beautiful single track. I was leading and came around a corner to find the trail scattering off in several directions in front of me. We were moving fast so I went right, probably the path of least resistance. About 100 feet down I hit the skidders. The trail disappeared over a lip. Upon further inspection, the trail did continue over that lip but not for us. Not on that day at least. We backtracked and found a slightly smoother route down. Continuing on we found markers along the trail that would point us to “easier”, “difficult”, and “most difficult” sections of the trail so we could tailor our ride to our ability or mood at the time. We did venture out on some of the more difficult sections. More times than not we found ourselves walking the worst of it, all of us but my son who has earned himself the title “Goat Boy.” He was going up, down and over everything. People along the trail would be pushing their bikes up a long steep climb, the climbs we were motivated to walk down, and there he would be riding up past them.

Once we descended into the valley, we later found out the main part of the descent is called the “Three Fingers of Death.” The trail took us to the left on one of the best rollercoaster single tracks I’ve ridden in a long time. It was fast and smooth with just enough technical sections to keep you on your guard. Once we reached the end we made our way back through a wash that was relatively uneventful but not a bad ride. We wanted to experience as much of the trail system as we could otherwise we would have taken the same trail back for a repeat of the rollercoaster fun.

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We made it back to the truck just as the sun was setting after riding 16.7 miles and climbing 1,860 feet. Not a bad day on the bike. So we loaded up and headed for the hotel. After checking in and cleaning up we headed across the parking lot to Smash Burger for dinner. I am really not much for burgers generally but these guys do it right. After eating I called the wife to reassure her that all was well. I let her know how much fun the trails were and that we were not riding anything crazy. Then I handed the phone to Goat Boy and what is the first thing out of his mouth, “we rode this section called the Three Fingers of Death….”, so much for reassuring her.

The next morning was crystal clear and in the upper 40’s when we started the climb up Zen. The climbing on these trails is a bit deceiving. They don’t look too tough on paper. 600 feet of climbing in 3 miles, that’s not bad, until you realize you’ll be climbing slick rock stairs and bouncing through soccer ball sized rocks most of the way up. Still it wasn’t a killer but it was more difficult than we thought it would be after researching it.

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Once at the top of this climb you start riding through a lot of broken up slick rock that takes you close, but not too close, to the cliff edge looking down on the Bear Claw Poppy trail. The Zen trail is not your average mountain bike trail. To say it is technical would be an understatement. The first third of the upper section had us off the bikes to overcome obstacles about every 20 yards or so it seemed. It was unique and pretty entertaining at times but not your typical racecourse. The awesome 360 degree views of the desert landscape made it well worth the effort though.

We soon found ourselves on the downhill side weaving through the rocks and dropping off the ever present shelves. The Zen trail is not one in the area that is well marked, and somewhere during our rapid descent we missed a turn and ended up on the dirt road back to the truck rather than keeping with the single track. Zen, as we did it that day, was 6.4 miles and a total of 860 feet climbed. By now it was nearly 60 degrees and we were itching to put down some miles.

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Another section of trail we wanted to ride was on the other side of the valley so we loaded up and headed out. On race day we will be riding but we were looking for quality miles on single track to get to know the more technical parts of the course rather than the dirt roads that will be connecting everything.

After a short drive and asking a couple of other riders loading up, we found our next trail. We headed to Barrel Roll up the single track from the paved road. After a stout climb of about a mile or so we found ourselves at the trailhead proper and started in the clockwise direction. What can I say? The views were not as grand, but the trail was a single-track riot that was fast in places with some pretty technical obstacles to keep you honest. Barrel Roll was the most entertaining ride for me. It is everything you want in a great trail. Fast twists and turns, some rock hopping, and a few sketchy drop offs to keep the pucker factor in check. It was great fun and I can’t wait to do it again; although, I believe we will hit that section of trail about 30 miles into the race. I may feel differently about it then.

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So we were still feeling good after finishing Barrel Roll, checked the map at the trailhead and moved on down to the Rim Rock and Rim Runner trails. After dropping quickly into a wash and climbing about as quickly up the other side and out, we headed up an ATV track to the fence and the start of the single-track. There are several offshoots along this trail. All are well marked, and the views along the edge of the rim are spectacular. The riding here was much like Barrel Roll but less technical, which was nice because we were all starting to slow down a bit.

After all was said and done, we couldn’t quite make it back to the truck without another blowout. That’s right, we had a sidewall blowout about a quarter of a mile from the truck. Poor guy had to replace a tire on his truck and his bike all on the same trip. We finished the day with another 15 miles and over 1500 feet climbed giving us a total of 21.4 miles and 2360 feet of climbing.

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And there you have it. A report on some amazing trails in southern Utah that rival those of legend in Moab, and a little story of how a short fat guy was rescued from couchpotatodum, reborn into biking, and thrust himself into the world of endurance racing.

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