By John Higgins
Gravel grinders, those long challenging rides on dirt roads, started in the Midwest due to a lack of interesting rides and races for both road and mountain bikers. Although the Intermountain West presents an overabundance of interesting rides for any type of cyclist, dirt road races are proving to be surprisingly popular in this area. The Crusher in the Tushars, held mid July in Beaver, UT now attracts a high calibre field and sells out promptly. The Fire Road Cedar City is also quickly gaining notoriety, for all the right reasons.
Held on the Saturday of the July 4th weekend, this year marked the 4th Fire Road which offers up 3 metric distances: 25km, 60km and 100km, as well as a short kid’s race. This year the event attracted riders from 20 states, from California to New York and Texas to Minnesota. Some 300 participants fronted up, with two thirds taking on the 100km course. Participant diversity is huge, from young kids to octogenarians, tri-athletes, road riders, mountain bikers, and “what the heck, I’ll give it a go” local riders. By far the most popular vehicle choice is a hardtail mountain bike, due to the nature of the descent. A fewer crazy “crossers” line up, as well as those on fully rigid mtb’s, but what goes up faster will come down slower.
Starting on Main Street in Cedar City, and finishing only a block away at the City Park sounds easy, but there is a lot in between. Heading out of town on pavement with a mass start neutral rollout, the pace quickens when the lead moto pulls off and soon the dust is flying as riders jockey for a smooth line on a dirt road. Ten miles in and the pack thins quickly when the road tilts skyward on the first of two stout and sustained climbs for the 100km participants. Who knew there was an interesting back route to Kolob Reservoir from Cedar City? More back road backcountry exploration follows, revealing surprising views for those able to divert their focus from the steep pitches of the second big climb up Oak Creek. The 100km route offers up 7,500 feet of climbing, and the 60km route offers not a lot less at 5,000 feet.
Thoughtfully spaced aid stations manned by helpful local volunteers provide needed food and beverage, and roving volunteers are on the lookout for any riders needing assistance around the route. Unlike the Crusher, the Fire Road finishes with 20km of scorching downhill and flat lands back into town. Beware the tight bends on the pavement section, the heavily gouged out loose and sketchy double-track sections, and the ball bearing gravel and even tighter turns on the scarily steep road that plunges riders from the plateau back to the valley below. It’s not all cruiser riding!
The event is superbly orchestrated by partners, Paul Huddle & Roch Frey of multisports.com. With extensive experience as a triathlete, coach, and Ironman logistics organiser, Paul and his team know how to run a professional event that has a relaxed local vibe. As a part time Cedar City resident this event is in his own backyard and is aided by the full support and assistance of Cedar City, tons of volunteers, Iron County Search and Rescue and the Cedar City volunteer police. Many out of town participants praised highly the local hospitality and friendliness, volunteer support, route, scenery and overall event organisation.
An extra factor that sets this event apart is that it is the only Leadville Trail 100 MTB qualifier race held in Utah. Lifetime Fitness who operate the Leadville Trail Series considered the Fire Road to be a worthy test for Leadville readiness. If you place well in your age category you could get offered a start in either the current year or next year’s Leadville Race Across the Sky. Otherwise entry to Leadville is via a low probability lottery, or a qualifier race somewhere else. Note that you still have the pay the Leadville entry fee, but you are in!
Paul is optimistic the event will continue to grow in popularity, and the route can accommodate a large field of riders. Not only can you register a week before this event, you can even register the morning of! No pre commitment required in January when you don’t even know how you are going to be feeling in July. Mimicking Leadville, the Fire Road rewards fast finishers with a belt buckle / bottle opener: gold for a 100km finish time under 5 hours, and silver for finishing under 6 hours. The top male and female finishers also get a dashing cowboy hat as an extra reward for spurring their steed across the line the fastest. And taking a cue from the Tour de France, those riders lucky enough to find themselves standing on the finishing podium are graced with a kiss from the trophy girls or boys. Now that incentive should give you a little extra giddy-up to ride strong!
This year the men’s and women’s overall winners were Leroy Popowski (Suwi- Slipstream) and Rhae Shaw (Liv Giant) both slipping across the border from Colorado. Both are also accomplished road bike racers, with limited (Leroy) to no (Rhae) mountain biking experience. That didn’t stop them blazing around the course, although both riders came unglued at some stage during the descent, with Rhae electing to hike some sections and Leroy grazing the ground.
Leroy made his move on the first big climb, moving up through the lead pack and vanishing from sight to establish an 8 minute lead over last year’s winner Paul Thomas after the 7 mile ascent. He kept this advantage and more, soloing around the rest of the course to the finish line. He proclaimed to barely notice the second climb, he was having such a good time looking at the scenery. Leroy returned to Utah the following weekend for the “Crusher”, finishing 4th overall to better his 10th place finish from 2013. A number of other riders were also using the Fire Road as last minute preparation for the longer, higher Crusher in the Tushars, held in Beaver the weekend after the Fire Road.
Rhae confessed to being a mountain bike neophyte, but came with strong credentials, being an ex-pro-triathlete turned road racer, achieving a 2012 Canadian National Championship in the criterium, and is a sponsored domestic pro rider who recently relocated to Boulder, CO from Seattle. Rhae showed a clean pair of heels to all of the women and most of the men on the opening climb, but then suffered a flat tire, which temporarily halted her forward momentum. No wheel car was going to show up on this course, so another competitor helped her out, and she continued on to set a new women’s course record. At the finish line Rhae paid tribute to the event organisation, friendly competitor camaraderie and especially to her flat tire saviour.
Both winners vowed to return to the Fire Road next year. See you there! Check the Race Results section in Cycling Utah for a summary of other results.