Big Cottonwood: A Beginner’s Trek

Living at the foot of a mountain range means that I am surrounded by a lot of amazing climbing opportunities on my bike.  But I’ve spent most of my time in Salt Lake City pretty scared of most of the these opportunities.  I’ve got Emigration Canyon down and recently surprised myself by making it up East Canyon with a (very) slow but steady pace. Still, I haven’t felt like a cyclist who is really ready to handle Salt Lake City’s terrain.  There’s a gate-keeper that has been standing in my way, keeping me from exploring the many varied and difficult climbs in the area.

Big Cottonwood Canyon.

When I first moved here, I asked Rob what the second easiest canyon in Salt Lake was, and he told me it was probably Big Cottonwood.  So from that point on, I rather arbitrarily felt like I needed to ride Big Cottonwood before I could tackle any canyon besides Emigration.  I put Big Cottonwood on my list of goals for the summer, but I never really found the right time to do it while training for Jordanelle.  With Jordanelle being only an Olympic distance race, I only had one three hour ride scheduled, and I knew that Big Cottonwood might take longer than that.

But with the mornings getting a little cooler than they have been and with my training focusing on cycling for a few months, it was the perfect time to tackle this ride.  Rob, being the more socially competent of the two of us, got together a group of folks from work.  We planned to drive over (the ride would be a little too long for a fun, social ride otherwise) and meet right at the base of the canyon at 9:00am.

This only sort of worked out.  Rob was running a bit later, as were another couple we were meeting there.  We ran into more delays when we got near the mouth of the canyon.  It turns out there was a big marathon going on which meant closed roads and no easy way to make it to the meet-up point.  So, a few harried phone calls and detours later, we all managed to find our way into the same church parking lot just a couple miles away from where we had originally planned to meet.

This is what happens when Rob and I take both bikes somewhere.
This is what happens when Rob and I take both bikes somewhere.
GettingReady
Everyone else unpacking and gearing up for the ride

A lot of unpacking and a bit of small talk later, and we were ready to take off—at about 10:30am.  It was a much later start than intended, and I was a little worried about the heat during the climb, but that turned out to be (mostly) unfounded because as the time passed, we climbed higher up the canyon where it was cooler.  We were climbing with one other Big Cottonwood first-timer, and she and I were a bit nervous because we had both made it partway up in previous rides and been intimidated by the difficulty.  The veterans in the group assured us that the hardest part is actually the first several miles which offered a bit of solace, but I think we were both still a little skeptical.

I wish I could convey, either with words or iPhone pictures just how gorgeous this ride is, but I’m pretty sure I can’t.  Just know that it’s by far the most gorgeous ride I’ve done in Utah.  That should be telling.  However, for the first few miles, I wasn’t able to enjoy it much.  It was pretty warm, and it was steep.  Pretty early on in the ride, you hit Storm Mountain.  Storm Mountain is what turned me around the last time I started up Big Cottonwood.  I had been (unbeknownst to me) just minutes away from the top when I finally decided that Big Cottonwood (and climbing and cycling in general) sucked and started back.  This time around, I had the both knowledge that it didn’t last forever and a few companions with hi-tech bike toys so I could know the grade and feel justified in my pain.  According to them, the grade was ranging between 9% and 11%.  Ouch.

Near the bottom of the canyon
Near the bottom of the canyon

But then, before I knew it, things felt easier.  I looked over at Rob.  “Was that the end of Storm Mountain?”  He confirmed that it was.  I played it cool, but I was pretty stoked that the worst part was (apparently) over.  After that, the ride levels out a bit into some gorgeous meadows.  And I found out what a “social ride” actually is!  I chatted with Tara (the other Big Cottonwood newbie who also happens to be a triathlete) about injuries, swimming, races, and the like.  And some of the more cycling-minded of us (in other words, not me!) played a game of charades by impersonating various professional cyclists for the others to guess.  It was… fun!  I even lost track of time for a while, and I realized why people talk about doing group workouts when training for Ironman races.  It’s a lot easier to get through a long ride when you are focusing more on the conversation you’re having than on the fact that you are still on your bike.

During a flatter portion of the ride
During a flatter portion of the ride

A few miles before the top of the canyon, the road gets fairly steep again, but it was easier for me to focus and feel positive than it was during the first steep section because I knew we were almost there.  As I was huffing and puffing up a steep grade at nearly 8,500 feet elevation, I just thought about Ironman Coeur d’Alene and how much easier it will feel to ride a much flatter course at just 2,500 feet elevation.  I foresee that being a continual comfort as I chug up the canyons here in Salt Lake City.

When we reached the top, I was most excited for a chance to get my poor, aching butt off my bike.  I was secondarily excited that I had finished a good workout and had finally climbed Big Cottonwood Canyon—and at a conversational pace, for the most part.  Tara and I high-fived to celebrate our first summit of Big Cottonwood, and we all sat around and chatted a bit before starting back down.  The ride back down was less absolutely terrifying that I thought it would be, too.  My fear of descending has mostly gone away over the course of the last year or so, so the only thing I hate about descents now is the wind roaring in my ears (but it’s worth it for the fun of going fast!).  I think the ride down may have been even prettier than the ride up, if only because I wasn’t too involved in climbing up a mountain to pay attention to the scenery.

Views from the top
Views from the top
During the descent (don't worry-- I definitely stopped to take this photo!)
During the descent (don’t worry– I definitely stopped and dismounted before taking this photo)

When we got back to our cars, we had been out for 2:38:08 and done 31.43 miles, including over 3,000 feet of elevation gain.  I was really encouraged by this ride.  Not only was I able to socialize without embarrassing myself (gasp!), I was also able to climb a canyon that I don’t think I would have had even a chance of climbing a year ago.   Plus, this ride pushed the total odometer on my bike computer past 1,000 miles (which would mean more if I could remember exactly when I got this computer—it was something this year, though).  I’ve been feeling strong and confident far more often than not lately, and I’m thankful for that.  I know that Ironman training will have its ups and downs, so I want to make sure to actively enjoy the encouraging moments.  Maybe taking note of encouraging rides like this will help when I’m feeling flat and frustrated in the future. This is just another goal achieved and puts me one step closer to being a strong, competent cyclist. So here’s to goals achieved and setting new goals in the future.

I broke 1,000!
I broke 1,000!
PumpkinPie
Homemade pumpkin pie– the best post-ride recovery food

(By the way, the first of those goals is to remember that elevation matters in regards to the sun and to be much more diligent about applying sunscreen, especially when climbing a canyon.  My poor forearms are burned to a crisp.)

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