By Kenneth Evans –
Whenever I pick up the latest edition of Cycling Utah, I always flip to the commuter column first. Reading the inspiring accounts of otherwise unheralded cyclist’s offers a refreshing primer before delving into the rest of the magazine. As a veteran commuter, I feel a kinship to everyday cyclists who ride beyond the slipstream of support vehicles, prize money, and notoriety. While not generally regarded as such, they are athletes in their own right, and their stories beg to be told.
One such athlete is Hardin Davis, former owner of Acoustic Music and cyclist for all seasons. Covering 26 years and spanning a sizable chunk of the North American continent, Hardin has amassed a stack of spiral notebooks cataloging 134,000 miles of racing, touring, and commuting history.
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2014 edition of Cycling Utah. Sadly, Hardin Davis passed away in May 2017 after an illness.]
Although stories gleaned from the tattered pages are worthy of a documentary, it was one chapter within the journals which tendered the focus of this interview, his summer commute from Park City to his store in Salt Lake City via I-80.
We met on a pleasant June afternoon at Acoustic Music where Hardin had just arrived by bike from Park City, and with gleam of the ride still in his eyes, related the details of his commute.
“The commute is the same anyone would take in a car: down Route 224 to Kimball Junction to Jeremy Ranch on the brand new bike path along Rasmussen Road, then to Parleys Summit on Kilby Road. I ride I-80 eleven miles to the Foothill Boulevard exit and down Parleys Way. It’s 26 miles to the house my wife and I own in Salt Lake where I change into work clothes and switch bikes, then another three miles to work. When time allows I take the Mountain Dell exit and ride over Little Mountain. Occasionally I’ll ride to Big Cottonwood and over Empire Pass, or over Big Mountain and through Coalville. Now and then I’ll ride up Olympic Park for extra climbing, but most days I’m in a hurry”
Sensing incredulity in my expression, he wanted to make it clear.
“I don’t do it every day. Typically I’ll stay about three nights a week in Park City and rarely ride round trip, although I have. Still I’m cycling one way or the other just about every day. The ride to Park City takes about two and a half hours; I leave work after six, so there’s a short window of summer daylight, roughly from the end of May to early August, when I can ride safely before dark. Outside that window I can still take the route, but it necessitates lights, reflector vest, and warm clothes, or I can hop on the free bus anywhere east of Jeremy Ranch and get home that way”
Clarification duly noted, his tone of understatement lie in contrast to my own perceptions of commuting on bike through multiple mountainous counties in one day. Lung bursting climbs, winding descents, and navigating a bike within nerve-wracking proximity of rumbling 20 ton behemoths evoke trepidation and twitching calf muscles. But Hardin offers more pragmatic insights into the experience.
“Actually I think Parley’s Canyon is one of the safest roads to ride anywhere. There’s a wide shoulder all to yourself with rumbles between you and traffic. Vehicles in the right lane, up and down, are mostly slow moving trucks that push faster cars into the outside lanes. I sometimes pass a nervous trucker on the descent, though even the slowest trucks are faster than I am uphill. And lung bursting? Parleys has a maximum 9% grade, and many sections are much less, it’s one of the easiest climbs in the Wastach. I’m more nervous riding Big Mountain, with no shoulder and large trucks pulling boats right next to my elbow. No three-foot rule applies to these folks!
It’s not nirvana though. Besides the noise, my biggest problem is road debris. You have to pay attention every second when descending. In spite of reinforced tires and thick tubes, I still get a lot of flats, 15 or so this summer, almost all while descending. I’ve become quite good at roadside repairs. I try to be prepared, carry the necessary gear, and built a good fitness base, and an attitude that I can handle the unexpected. T.S. Elliot said he felt his life was served out in coffee spoons, I think mine might be measured in tire patches.”
Add in a bunch of elevation gain, hours in the saddle, and a trailer, and the measure becomes even more impressive.
“Sometimes when I need to move stuff between two residences I’ll haul a trailer, I’ve got a Burley and a Bob. Obviously this makes for a slower ride so I’ll save those trips for a weekend. Now and then I carry instruments to and from work or jam sessions, life banjos for instance. The Bob is my banjo-mobile.”
Images of a cyclist hauling a trailer up Parleys conjured mixed feelings of admiration and concern. As a more recreational rider myself, I picture encroachments by rude motorists, injuries, and/or mechanical failures necessitating frantic calls for help. But I was surprised to hear he’s enjoyed a relatively trouble-free commute throughout the years.
“Although I’ve always carried a cell phone, I’ve never once had to use it. Confrontations? Never had one. I’ve taken a few winter-time tumbles on ice, but never been hit by a car. I don’t take risks, obey traffic laws, and yield to cars at every opportunity. I try to be visible and reactive and so far it’s worked and I’m still here to talk about it.”
A soft knock on wood follows the last comment, but I reckon his good fortune is mostly a function of road savvy rather than luck. Nevertheless, stuff happens as the saying goes, and one such portion of stuff involves a humorous encounter with a UHP trooper.
“Riding down the canyon one June morning I was pulled over by a Highway Patrolman. He swaggered up to me and sternly informed me that bikes weren’t allowed on any Interstate Highway in Utah. I countered with a little swagger of my own by responding, ‘who told you that.’ He replied that his dispatcher told him, in other words, he didn’t know what he was talking about. After a long yet civilized discussion, neither of us was able to recite the relevant law. I said I would research the law and if he never saw me again on I-80 he was right, otherwise I would be carrying documentation proving my point. We were near the Mountain Exit so I agreed I would leave the Interstate and ride home over Little Mountain. So for any Cycling Utah reader curious about this, it’s Utah Code, Title 41, Chapter 6A, Section 201 regarding laws governing bicycles on Utah highways. It’s hard to prove a negative, but there’s a UDOT directive called the Bicycle Suitability Map that specifies where bikes are allowed, which is anywhere except I-80 from 5600 West to Foothill and all the urban sections of Utah including St. George. It’s a myth that you cannot ride on the Interstate where there is a ‘reasonable alternative.’ You can ride anywhere except in prohibited areas. Most of us would choose a reasonable alternative anyway, but I carry documentation along with my gear, and haven’t been stopped since.”
Not much is going to stop Hardin from riding any reasonable alternative any time, not even a foe I consider more ominous than bravado wielding troopers, the capricious Wasatch Front weather. But again Hardin offers an encouraging dose of pragmatism when speaking of riding in wet and cold conditions.
“Every commuter deals with weather, it’s a matter of proper clothing and not worrying about it. Now and again I’ll get caught in a ‘scattered shower’ but it’s no big deal, it’s just water, like stepping into a shower.”
It’s just water, classic Hardin Davis, although a hint of humility is evident when alluding to winter.
“Winter is a little tougher. A few years ago I was caught in a snowstorm, it was so cold my derailleur froze and I had to walk a few miles home.
That’s nothing compared to a ride I experienced during the Iron Horse Classic in Durango, Colorado.
Anyone who remembers Andy Hampsten competing in the Giro in the 80’s will relate to me riding down from Molas Summit, with no warm clothing, through three inches of slush and no guardrails. When I arrived back in Durango I was nearly frost bitten, hypothermic, and incoherently wandering the streets. Fortunately Marc Schaeffer dragged me into his car and saved me from disaster. Now that’s a weather story.”
Weather, believe it or not, is the reason Hardin settled in Utah in the first place. Raised in New York, he was assigned to Fort Douglas in 1967 to fulfill a stint in the Army. Impressed with Utah’s arid and relatively temperate climate, he decided to make Utah his home.
Upon release from the Army, he earned a degree in History from the University of Utah, and then spent the next decade pursuing his other passion, music. An accomplished finger picker, he formed the Jordan River Uptown Band and toured the country and even Canada. In the 80’s he recorded a long-playing short selling album titled, “I’ve Got Plans.” In 1985 he purchased Acoustic Music (now run by his step son Brian Winter) and became a figurehead in the burgeoning local acoustic music scene.
It was during this musical period when he met and married his wife, Sandi Olson. They became training partners after, unbeknownst to him; she signed him up for a triathlon. Although he almost drowned, they found common ground on bikes, eventually completing several RAGBRAI’s in addition to a cross-country tour.
“It was a great adventure; totally self supported, we ate our way across the country, each of us gaining eight pounds.
Sandi’s an indomitable commuter, often riding to her job in South Jordan. I call her the galloping Granny on her mountain bike, trying to ride 65 cycling events this year to match her age. I’ve got nothing on her.”
And I’ve got nothing on him, especially when considering a bold type footnote to his history, a solo ride from Salt Lake City to Washington DC.
“I rode to my 50th High School reunion, the ultimate commute I guess. I wondered if a 68 year old could ride a century a day for four consecutive weeks, but I felt good all the way; over 2700 miles in 28 days, the only day off was a rainy day in Hazard, Kentucky. It’s a great way to see the country and eat as much as you want, about 5000 calories a day.”
In addition to touring, Hardin accrued a solid fitness base competing in regional and national road racing events. At first “I got dropped in every race” but gradually his times improved and eventually he reeled in podium appearances in several Masters Nationals, although never winning a national championship outright.
“I made the podium-top-five in several Master’s Nationals. The local scene got better and better, and two local guys (my age) John Haney and Ken Louder both won national championships. Maybe I played a part in their success, pushing them.
Racing is not a hobby, it’s hard and needs to be a lifestyle if you really want to be good.”
Although he’s scaled back racing miles since 2006, he still incorporates a training mindset into his Park City commute.
“Sometimes I ride intervals while ascending Parleys. Training is an inherent part of riding and no matter what level, you always feel better if you’re in better shape, you go faster and enjoy it more.”
There are obviously other venues other than I-80 to facilitate fitness, and for Hardin it’s a matter of logistics, but he does hope his presence on the interstate will inspire others.
“I guess I’m not much of a joiner, but see myself in the role of advocacy by example. Whenever I’m in Parleys, I hope that at least one of the hundreds of drivers who see me think; maybe I could get on my bike and ride a little. I hope I’ve convinced one Highway Patrolman to that.”
Certainly I’m convinced, in view of his dedication, attitude, and perseverance, to regard Hardin Davis as the consummate cyclist.
And at 69 he flouts age as nothing more than a chronological measurement subject to amendments of relativity, where time slows proportional to revolutions on two wheels. And the stack of notebooks containing all the hand written data, the thousands of miles, stories, and adventures; all could be condensed into a four-word singularity.
He loves to ride.
Editor's Note: Hardin Davis passed away on May 19, 2017. His obituary is on the Salt Lake Tribune website.