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Thursday, October 29,2009

Classic desert tour offers both pain and delight

By Conan Bliss

A typical trip might follow an itinerary similar to this: Depart down the Shafer Trail Road around 9 a.m., with the objective of having lunch and getting a group photo at Musselman Arch. A mid-morning stop at the Gooseneck Overlook (Goosenecks of the Colorado River) breaks up the ride. After lunch, it is a pretty moderate ride to make it to Gooseberry camp by mid-afternoon.

Cyclists should be riding by 9 a.m. on the second day, with the plan to have lunch on top of the climb up Murphy Hogback. The afternoon ride is more moderate, generally dropping downward to end up along the banks of the Green River, camping at Potato Bottom or Hardscrabble Bottom. The third day parallels the Green River, contouring upstream along its eastern flank. Once the White Rim Road hits Mineral Bottom, the route turns east on the Mineral Bottom Road and climbs steeply up a grand switchback hewn out of the cliff face, rising about 1000 feet above the banks of the Green River. At this point, the Mineral Bottom road flattens and straightens out into a mellow dirt road easily traveled in a passenger car. The scenery is not so dramatic on this portion of the ride, so many riders choose to skip it and leave a car at the top of the climb out of Mineral Bottom.

What are the highlights of this classic tour? The scenery along the entire White Rim Road is truly spectacular. Sandstone spires and arches rising thousands of feet above the slowly moving river, framed by the snowcapped peaks of the La Sal Mountain Range, provide a picturesque backdrop to the first day’s ride. Pictures taken of people standing atop Musselman Arch, a seemingly wafer-thin slab of rock, have a magical appearance as if those in the photo were standing in mid-air. The sheer cliffs of the roadside drops descending the Shafer Trail Road, and ascending the Mineral Bottom Road, are heart-stopping, particularly if you happen to be taking a corner a little too quickly.

Each trip is a personal reflection of the riders on it, and it should not be without amenities. Those who plan ahead, train on their bike, prepare great cuisine and bring the proper equipment will undoubtedly have a great time. With a vehicle supporting the ride, the food and drink can be downright indulgent. Ginger-wasabi ahi downed with sake or tacos de pescado downed with Patron followed by late-night dance parties are not unheard of, although the next morning’s ride generally has a more somber tone.

On the opposite side of the riding spectrum are the hard-core, one-day tour riders. Their first hour of riding is predawn, their pedal cadence is mechanical and almost robotic, and their water consumption gigantic. Any stop is a luxury, and it is never a casual affair, as eyes are always on the clock, if there is a hope to finish in the daylight hours. These riders are in it to finish, and enjoyment of the scenery falls in a distant second place to simply completing the ride.

Which camp you fall into is entirely up to you, depending on your threshold of pain or your tolerance of pleasure. Either way, the trip is well worth the effort, and definitely merits the title of a western “classic,” a must-do for any accomplished mountain biker.

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The National Park Service of Canyonlands has instituted a reservation calendar to help organize White Rim use. http://bit.ly/NcD1tY