The Ultimate Challenge

By David Ward –

[Editor's Note: This article is about the 2011 Ultimate Challenge, a ride that mirrors a stage of the Tour of Utah, and originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Cycling Utah.]

My plan was, upon arriving at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon for the climb to Snowbird, to just ride on home. However, when I reached that point, my legs, though queasy, had not cramped, and the lure and bravado of completing the Ultimate Challenge was too much to resist.

A group of riders waves to the camera above Tanners Flat in the Ultimate Challenge, just before Stage 5 of the 2018 Tour of Utah. Little Cottonwood Canyon. Photo by Dave Iltis

I had wanted for a long time to do this ride, The Ultimate Challenge presented by UnitedHealthcare, but the demands on my time had left me extremely short on training, and particularly climbing, considering this event’s 10,880 feet of vertical gain. So as the Challenge approached, I was torn. I still wanted to do it, but was certain that, after having already climbed over 7000 before even starting the final climb to Snowbird, I would be toast.

So I compromised. I would ride the Challenge, but eliminate that last major climb, opting to head home instead. So it was that on the morning of August 6, my friend Elliot and I found ourselves rolling out from the start in Kimball Junction.

It was an open start, from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. Knowing how slow my climbing would be, Elliot and I should have been at the start right at 6 a.m. However, feeling for Elliot who had to drive in from Tooele, particularly since I collared him into doing this, I agreed to a somewhat later start, and it was nearly 6:45 a.m. when we pushed off.

It was very nippy for the first few miles. Elliot and I were each hugging ourselves for warmth and were glad to quickly come upon a few rollers to get the blood flowing. It was a refreshing ride to the first feed in Kamas. The support for this ride was excellent. Except for running short on energy drink, there was an abundance of everything else. And the signage for the route was the best I have experienced.

The first real climbing came after leaving Kamas and skirting around the left side of the Jordanelle Reservoir. Just a leg-warmer compared to what was to come, but a precursor of how slow I would be on the climbs. We descended into Midway and made our way to the second feed located on the east end of Deer Creek reservoir.

From there, we rode around the reservoir and down Provo Canyon. About one mile before the turnoff to the Sundance Ski Resort and the Alpine Loop, Elliot had the first of two flats. Aftering stopping for that, and cognizant of our late start, we figured we were close to being the last riders on the road.

By the turnoff to Sundance, we had logged 50 miles, half of the days total. In terms of climbing, though, we were just getting started. Elliot and I have this agreement. When we hit the climbs, we each go our own pace and whoever arrives at the top first waits. In practice, this means that Elliot always waits for me. But he is gracious, and willingly does so.

The first few miles up the Alpine Loop let me know what I was in for. It kicks up quickly, and Elliot was soon moving off around the bend and out of sight. I settled in to a nice rhythm, though, and actually felt I was doing alright.

About halfway up, however, I came upon Elliot, stalled on the road with his second flat. I wanted to keep riding, viscerally feeling it served him right for being so much faster than me. j/k as the texters say. Wanting to be certain he had no problems getting his flat fixed, I waited and helped. During this time, I was certain the last few riders did passed us.

We got started again and headed to the top, with Elliot again disappearing into the bends ahead of me. Soon, though, I was at the top where the next feed, and a nice ham and cheese sandwich and a large cookie, awaited me.

Refreshed and fattened, we began the descent. What I lose while climbing, I gain back descending. I love a fast descent and am fairly decent at it. Elliot, meanwhile, is a little tepid, and I had quickly moved out of his sight on this long, steep and winding descent. This was the only time all day I waited for Elliot, and my only real gratification.

After reaching the bottom, we wound through Alpine and came to the next feed. It was, in truth, too soon, but I appreciated the fact they had cold Coca-Cola there, and I took the time to stock up on a supply of sugar and caffeine for the climb over Traverse Ridge. I then slogged it up this climb, again watching Elliot put time and distance on me.

After descending from Traverse Ridge into the Salt Lake Valley, we wound through South Mountain, Draper and Sandy on the way to Little Cottonwood Canyon. Tucked in here, though, is a half mile climb up Wasatch Boulevard that is a real challenge. It was here I began to feel the drain. I had been feeling quite well up to this point, and had been figuring I could make the climb to Snowbird. On this short but steep leg-bender, I began to reconsider.

I wound my way to the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon and the last feed. Elliot was again awaiting me, and I settled into a comfortable camping chair with a bottle of water and can of Coke . I was fatigued. My legs were tired, but surprisingly had not cramped. My mind said, “Go home”, but my heart and my pride, always more compelling, said, “Push on!”

I have climbed a lot of the famous cols from the Tour de France. I even climbed Mont Ventoux, the toughest climb I think I have ever ridden, at the end of the 102-mile Etape du Tour. Little Cottonwood has nothing to apologize for. It ranks right up there in difficulty. And on this day, it challenged me more than it ever had.

After pushing myself out of the camp chair and getting started, I rode the first three of the last six miles without stopping. Typically, I make it a goal to ride up this canyon without stopping. But after three miles, I was gassed. I stopped in the shade of a tree, leaned over my bike, ate some GU, downed some Coke (yes, I had filled my water bottle with Coke) and waited for my heart to stop racing.

Back on the bike, I kept going for another mile till I was headed up the Seven Sisters section. About halfway up, I had to stop again. Same routine, and I pushed onward a second time. Shortly after this, the broom wagon came by and asked how I was doing. I am too proud. “I’m fine”, I said.

I was not fine. In a short distance, I hit the half mile section just before the Tanner’s Flat campground., Being the toughest part of this canyon, I wondered if I could make it. I checked my speedometer, and it read under 3 mph. I was going so slow, I feared I would pull myself over with a hard push on my crank.

But I finally made it to the campground, and stopped again to recover. My head was spinning slightly. In a minute or two, I was joined by a couple of ladies with whom I had been leap-frogging, and together we gasped for air. They recovered first and were off. I waited a few more minutes before heading upward once more.

The nice thing is, at this point, the grade actually eases a little. It was enough that, instead of using everything just to turn the crank over, I could actually get back into a decent rhythm. Soon, the broom wagon came by again, and told me I only had a mile to go. She was trying to be encouraging, but I thought I only had about one-third of a mile, and I had to bolster my resolve while my heart was sinking.

I know this canyon well, and in my right mind, I would have known she was wrong. But I was just surviving, and just continued to push one crank after another. Indeed, after about a third of a mile, I saw the first Snowbird entrance. I thought this was the finish, but could see no finish banner. Thinking then that the finish was at the next entrance, thus the lady in the broom wagon saying I had another mile, I again resolved to keep pushing onward.

But as I began to rise above this first entrance, I looked down and saw barricades and an announcer’s booth. There was no announcer (he had apparently gone home), and the barricades were being taken down. But it was the finish, and that was all I cared about. I turned around and headed into the finish where Elliot awaited me. I was cooked, but I had made it.

In fact, I was not last. One person finished behind me. I am still not certain how to feel about that. In the Tour, you know, it is a hot competition to finish last and still finish. But then this was not a race, and in the end, I was only trying to just make it.

The Challenge is a great ride. It is a great test, and though not prepared, I passed. This is the first time I have ever climbed over 10,000 feet in a single day. I have come close on several occasions, logging around 9000 – 9500 feet. I hope to be better prepared next year, and to have a more enjoyable ride.

I was surprised not more people accepted this challenge, there being 200-300 who signed up. In 2009, I rode the Etape du Tour, an event which, like the Ultimate Challenge, takes riders on the exact stage to be ridden by the professionals just a few days later. In 2009, the Etape drew 10,000 riders, including several current and former professional riders. A timed ride, much like a gran fondo, it has become so popular that this year two separate Etapes were staged.

I would like to see the Challenge develop in this same way. I am hoping the promoters will continue with the Challenge, developing ways to draw more riders. And I hope local and regional riders will become excited about the Challenge, and bolster its numbers. It is an event that deserves to be continued and to continue to be the “ultimate challenge”.

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