The Best Place in the World

09.14.2005 | 8:35 pm

I like living in the Northwest. I like riding in green countryside. I like the incredible forests. I like the big evergreens that surround my house. I like all the lakes around me. I like that it never really gets unbearably hot, nor unbearably cold.

But today as I rode my bike to work, I started thinking about Tibble Fork, and now I miss Utah something awful.

Tibble Fork — the reservoir and the trail that starts at the reservoir — is at the North end of American Fork Canyon, in Utah County. It is all singletrack and is, from a purely objective analysis, the best mountain bike trail in the entire world.


Wrong Way

Most people — in fact, everyone I’ve ever seen, except my own little group — rides Tibble wrong. They take a shuttle to the summit of the Alpine Loop and ride their mountain bikes down. There should be a law against that. In fact, I hereby decree: henceforth, all descending on mountain bikes must be earned by corresponding climbing on said mountain bikes. So let it be written, so let it be done.

There, I feel much better now.


First Mile: Ow.

That said, there’s a reason most people ride Tibble Fork down, not up. It’s because it’s unbelievably steep. The first mile, in particular, is pure agony (but it’s the good kind of agony). It’s steep and often loose, with a couple of near-impossible switchbacks at impossible angles, followed by a quick maze and climb over roots and rocks. When / if you clean that first mile, you haven’t had just a good day. You’ve had a red-letter day — the kind of day you talk about in your Christmas letter to friends and relatives.

Please, allow me to illustrate. A few years ago, my college-age niece told me her boyfriend would like to go out mountain biking. I tried to get a sense of what he could do as we drove out toward the Ridge Trail network (of which Tibble is a part). When he said, "Oh, whatever you can handle. I don’t want to put too much hurt on an old guy like you," I made up my mind: Tibble.

Instead of riding behind a guest as a good host normally would, letting the guest set the pace, I took off at race pace up Tibble. I was seeing purple spots, but it was worth it, because "the boyfriend" as I now called him in my head, was dropping off the back, fast.

I got to the end of the first mile, which is where we usually regroup and rest for the next third of a mile, which is considerably steeper than the first mile.

I waited. And waited some more. After about 5 minutes — remember, I had only gone a mile so far — he rolled up, got off his bike, knelt, and threw up.

It was my proudest moment ever.


A Brief Respite

The next third of a mile is about as severe a climb as can be ridden on a mountain bike. It’s also very muddy in the Spring. Horses tromp through it, churning up the trail and leaving postholes with every step (yeah, it’s the bikes that are ruining the trails). When the mud dries, this section of trail is pretty choppy for the rest of the year. And there are a couple of logs and waterbars you’ve got to wheelie over. And some boulders.

Once you make it past that climb, though, you’re in for a treat — a beautiful mountain meadow, with a beaver pond at the far end. A thin line of singletrack cuts through it, and your legs stop burning for the first time since you got on the bike. And that’s one of the things that makes Tibble great: intense climbs are always followed by a little flat spot where you can get your air back.

I’ve snowshoed up to this meadow in the Winter at night, during a full moon. I was the first person up there since a big snow. I tromped out to the middle of the meadow, flopped onto my back, and for a little while was the only person in the entire world. I apologize for any inconvenience I caused in making the rest of you disappear. My bad.

Anyway, a couple hundred yards later and you’re climbing again — in fact, you’ve got two more miles of climbing. It’s still small ring climbing, but you can ride parts of it in second and third gear.


The Blair Witch Move

Next up, the Blair Witch Move. This is a jumble of embedded rocks and a big root ledge. There are basically two ways you can try to ride up: the rocks or the ledge. The jury’s out as to which is better. Sometimes I can clean this on my first try, sometimes I can’t clean it no matter how many tries I have.

Why is it called the "Blair Witch Move?" A group of us were riding at night, trying this move, when we heard the most hideous screaming/yelling/dying-by-murder-most-foul sound I have ever heard. Human? Animal? We couldn’t tell. It sounded close, though. "It’s the Blair Witch," someone said. We finished our mandatory three tries at the move, and got out of there.

Afterward, we decided it must have been elk calling, or something like that. The thing is, I’ve heard lots of elk in my day (my dad’s big on hunting), and this sounded nothing to me like elk.


Crux of the Matter

Immediately after the Blair Witch Move comes the Crux Move. It’s a brutally-steep hill, about 50 feet long, littered with loose rocks. You can’t bring speed into this move, because the approach is littered with loose dirt and fist-sized rocks, followed by an off-camber left turn. From there, you’ve got to pick your line and keep enough weight on the front wheel to steer, while keeping enough on the back to not spin out. Adding insult to injury, it gets steeper at the top. If you clean this, you have earned the privilege of thumping your chest and standing at the top of the move, shouting bad advice to the poor saps below.

In the hundreds of times (have I really ridden Tibble hundreds of times? Maybe not. I’ll bet I’ve ridden it close to 100, though, and you get three tries at any move) I have attempted the Crux move, I have cleaned it exactly once.

You know where I said earlier that making The Boyfriend barf at the top of the first mile was my proudest moment ever? I’d like to take that back. Cleaning the Crux Move was my proudest moment ever.


Endless Move

A quick zip through another meadow brings you to the last move of Tibble: Endless. This move isn’t especially technical, though there are parts that will throw you off your line if you’re not careful. But it is long. And since you’ve been climbing an unbelievably steep mountain for 2.5 miles, you’re probably not at your strongest anymore. I have never measured it, but I believe you are climbing in the red zone for just about a quarter mile.

And then there’s a little more climbing, a few switchbacks, and you’re at the top of Tibble, the best climb in the world.



At this moment, you could turn around and go down the way you came up. I’ve done this dozens of times. Or you can go down the other side, down South Fork of Deer Creek trail, which is the most unimaginative name for a trail ever. Instead of using this clinical name, we call the trail "Joy."

You’d have to ride this trail to really understand why it’s called Joy. It’s a little like being in that scene in Return of the Jedi where Luke and Leia are being chased through the forest on their motorcycle-esque landspeeders. Except it’s real, and it’s downhill, and the trails are banked to perfection, and you’re threading through the aspen and evergreen trees knowing — but not caring — that if you fall right now you will wrap around one of them, and then there’s a little jump on the side of the trail (you need to know to watch for it), and you’re pedaling in your big ring, not quite spun out but oh-so-close and then you’re suddenly in sagebrush, still flying, and the trail’s banked just where it needs to be so that you can just open it up on your mountain bike like nowhere else in the world.

And then it’s over. It ends at a little campground, where everyone regroups and tries to describe what just happened. But it always comes out just giggles and big sloppy grins to match.

Joy is the only trail that has ever brought tears to my eyes. It is perfect.


Mud Springs

Now you’ve got more climbing to do — up to the summit of the Alpine Loop, and then across the Ridge Trail — in order to get to Joy’s opposite: Mud Springs. Actually, "opposite" is a poor word, in some ways, because both are spectacular descents. It’s just that they’re spectacular in opposite ways. Joy is smooth, open and fast: a perfect ride to get someone to love mountain biking. Mud Springs is twisted, technical, and treacherous (I swear, that alliteration was not intentional): a perfect ride for someone who is already hooked and is ready to be challenged. Rocks, ledges, roots, chutes: Mud Springs has them all, in such a perfect combination that one is forced to conclude that God is a mountain biker. Or at least that the Forest Service guys in UT care deeply about the trails they maintain.


Back Where You Started

I’ve said before that I’m terrible with maps and location in general, so it shouldn’t surprise you to know that I’m still a little surprised every single time Mud Springs drops me back onto Tibble, about two thirds of the way up. I mean, I’ve just been riding all over the place, and I’m here again? How is that possible?

And yet, it is. You’re back on Tibble Fork, and get to fly down as fast as your courage will let you go. Usually, we would race it — Dug and Rick would give me a head start, because I’m the slow guy going downhill, and they’d catch me with about a half mile to go.

Flying downhill Tibble is totally different than going up it. (Yes, well, duh). What I mean, though, is you see different things, get a different perception of how long a certain part of the course is, think of different parts of the trail as the "good" stuff.

If you think about it, the people who shuttle — not just Tibble, but any great mountain bike trail — only see half the trail. Climb it, and you get to see it all.


Wrapping Up

Whenever I get to the bottom of Tibble Fork and am packing up, I feel like I’m one of very few people who knows an incredible secret. Consider: everyone in the whole world was doing something right then, but only a few of us were mountain biking at the best place in the world.

Note to my friends back in Utah: If you aren’t riding Tibble today, you are complete idiots.


Today’s weight: 164.4 lbs.


  1. Comment by Unknown | 09.14.2005 | 9:38 pm

    Ah…The Ridge Trail….I was up there just last week. It is the best network of trails in Utah I think. Easily the best singletrack I’ve ever ridden. Next time I am up there I will think of you, and lament that it is probably raining where you live.

  2. Comment by Robert | 09.14.2005 | 11:38 pm

    This is the single greatest description of the joy of mountain biking that I have ever read in my whole entire life.

  3. Comment by BIg Mike In Oz | 09.15.2005 | 1:00 am

    Where’s the wedding announcement?I read the entire post thinking "you rarely get that much enthusiasm except from recently engaged teenagers". It certainly sounds like true love. Elden Nelson 4 Tibble Fork 4 Ever And the best part is I can live my miserable life without leaving the house, just by reading your postings. It’s just like being there only not as much dirt or sweat.cheersBIG Mike (skinny on the inside)

  4. Comment by Ariane | 09.15.2005 | 1:08 am

    Your accounts of mountain biking are great reads, by the way. I don’t really have anything else to say except, "keep ‘em coming so I can live vicariously through your past experiences until I am un-dork-wimpy enough to do interesting and difficult things myself." So, that said, I guess I’ll go now.

  5. Comment by Unknown | 09.15.2005 | 1:50 am

    the only reason i am not riding that trail today is that i am in barcelona. barcelona is a cool town. but believe me, i’d rather be riding the big tibble loop. except, because of my silly choice to ride single this year, i’d be riding up the pavement to timpooneke, timpooneke dirt to pine hollow, pine hollow to 4 corners, and then down joy and the rest of what you described.damn. now i’m hating spain.maybe the only thing better than doing the ride you described (probably the best ride in the history of riding) is to ride it at night.

  6. Comment by Unknown | 09.15.2005 | 2:14 am

    Holy macaroni! I always think you can’t possibly write anything better than what you have already written and you never fail to surprise me. What a great ride! And I’m not even a cyclist.You have a magnificent gift for description and for the rest of my life, I will believe in my heart that I rode Tibble with Fat Cyclist one day in September. And wish that I could.

  7. Comment by Fat Cyclist | 09.15.2005 | 2:39 am

    dug should have pointed out in his comment that he had a moment of glory on tibble, too: once he rode the entire thing putting his foot down only once. he cleared every move i listed without stopping, without resting. he slid out only once, putting his foot down in a spot nobody ever misses. it gave a certain poignancy to an otherwise heroic effort.

  8. Comment by Justin | 09.15.2005 | 4:07 am

    Great trail, except when my girl and I were up there in June it was torn to crap by those stupid gas powered demons, stupid dirtbikers. What once was singletrack was a muddy pit. At times, it was about a 3 FOOT deep trench of mud. THREE FEET my friends, dug into the trail. Most of it was unrideable until you got to the final decent. I sincerly hope they die. Someone please tell me that it’s in better shape now…..pleaseJ

  9. Comment by Unknown | 09.15.2005 | 11:54 am

    ""In fact, I hereby decree: henceforth, all descending on mountain bikes must be earned by corresponding climbing on said mountain bikes. So let it be written, so let it be done.""I wish you were the king of mountain biking and could make this come true.

  10. Comment by Fat | 09.15.2005 | 12:27 pm

    My new dream… to go mountain biking! That sounds absolutely wonderful. Have a great day!~ Fat Chick

  11. Comment by Michael | 09.15.2005 | 12:36 pm

    Nice description Elden. Captured everything good about getting out on a mountain bike and riding up some hills.CheersMichael

  12. Comment by Unknown | 09.15.2005 | 2:47 pm

    in CA, we have a trail that sounds a bit like that. 11.x miles of technical downhill singletrack. keep in mind though, that some of us have light weight x-c bikes AND downhill gear. so while i might be the guy on sunday that is shuttling with a 42 lb. bike and a single 38 tooth chainring, i was also the guy on saturday who climbed it on a 25 lb. x-c bike. next time i shuttle it, i’ll be sure to wear a sign on my jersey that says "i climbed this yesterday!"great post. i’m keeping track of these trails for my trip to UT. i only hope i can find a local who can point me towards the trailhead!

  13. Comment by Kenny | 09.15.2005 | 3:41 pm

    Elden, I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t rode tibble all year. With you gone and alot of us riding singles it just hasn’t happened. Your blog today inspired me. I’m leaving work early today for an emergency tibble. I’ll be at the trail head today, thursday at 3:00 if anyone wants to join me. I’ll be thinking of you, man.thanks,

  14. Comment by Adam | 09.15.2005 | 3:46 pm

    you’re from Utah, but live in PNW now? Me too! That explains why you’ve done so many trips to Moab.Unfortunately, I only thought Tibble Fork was good for trout fishing, and it really wasn’t all that good for that.Sounds like I missed some good rides.awesome post, keep it up!

  15. Comment by Unknown | 09.15.2005 | 4:26 pm

    Dear Fatty, an excellent explanation of an exquisite place. It was exceptional! Truly, making expeditions to exercise in exotic and extreme places like Tibble is an example of your extra desire to excel at all things XC. You almost convinced me to put off buying my new road bike to get a MTB…well, almost…ok, you did. Great blog.

  16. Comment by Zed | 09.15.2005 | 4:27 pm

    All apologies for the double-post the other day… Hey, so I know it wouldn’t have fit your literary masterpeice, so that’s why you didn’t include directions to the trail, but you gotta cough ‘em up now, eh? At least, I’m hoping you feel a moral obligation after hooking so many of us with your descriptively inclined trail literature.Just think back to Utah, you were leaving your house to go on the best mountain-biking trip ever, you pull out of the driveway and … go ahead, you finish this thought, you know, if you’d like or whatever. No pressure.Thanks again for the great story. I’m sure I’ll read it more than once during my exciting day sitting at this desk.

  17. Comment by Phil | 09.15.2005 | 7:30 pm

    Fatty, the Blair Witch scream…My wife and I heard something similar, based on your description, during our Funnymoon in E Washington. We were lying on a park bench after pitching a tent, smoked a bowl and were looking at these magical stars. And this sound came at us from far too close. I’m a former Alaskan; she’s a geologist — together we fuckin’ freaked! Never heard anything like that. A car drove by the nearby road (I pictured a stepside pickup) and we could hear the Blair Witch crash through the dry underbrush (sounded like it must’ve weighed 100 lbs). All night this thing screamed in the valley. I thought it was bigfoot (this was ‘93, pre-Blair Witch). A colleague at the restaurant I worked in told me puma in heat. Whatever. I didn’t sleep all night. – Crabby Traveler

  18. Comment by Unknown | 09.15.2005 | 9:02 pm

    Oh my God, The-Boyfriend-barf moment was hilarious!!I’m 37 now and know the joy of passing collegiate team riders in an XC mtn bike race, when my category started like 10 minutes behind them. It’s fun when the old guys can humble the young’uns every now and then. :)The rest of the ride descriptions were wonderful. We have a downhill run locally here in San Luis Obispo that I love like your Joy – it’s called East Boundary Trail…

  19. Comment by Unknown | 09.19.2005 | 7:41 pm

    >It was my proudest moment ever.I LOVE this story. It makes me want to get back in riding shape and see if my girlfriend’s niece’s boyfriend wants to go riding the next time we’re in CA. Not that there’s much hope I could make anyone puke but myself.Could your Blair Witch noise have been a barn owl? They make a NASTY screeching noise. (Ironically, barn owls screech but screech owls don’t.) It’s not really loud, but one gave me a good scare last winter up on San Juan Island at the UW marine lab. You can download the sound here: think great horned owls make a scary noise, too, but I can’t find a sample of it easily. Other than that, maybe a mountain lion?

  20. Comment by Mehmet | 10.2.2005 | 12:24 pm

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