American Fork Canyon is, quite simply, the main reason I wanted to move to Alpine, Utah. Which is to say, American Fork Canyon is home to Tibble Fork, the Ridge Trail, Timpooneke, South Fork Deer Creek (aka Joy), and Pole Line Pass. That’s right: American Fork Canyon is home to a mountain bike Royal Flush.
But those are all mountain bike trails, and American Fork Canyon is home to an exceptional road ride, too: the Alpine Loop. And it must really be spring now (finally!), because on Saturday I went on my first AF Canyon group ride of the year.
It was a good group, too: Dug, Mark, Jason, Eric, and me. Thinking it was high time I show off the great road ride I’ve got here, I put on the helmetcam, set it to record — with more than five hours of recording time on a card, it’s easier to just record the whole ride than capture clips — and rode out to meet the rest of the group, all of whom would be dropping down from the Suncrest development.
I rolled out of my driveway, thinking it would be cool to start the video with that — showing off this ride I do from my front door. I was a few minutes early, so I figured I’d just slowly climb up the South side of Suncrest until I saw the group descending, at which point I would turn around and join them.
Almost immediately, a couple of cyclists — guys I don’t know — passed me. The headwind was pretty harsh, so I stood up and caught up to them, then just sat in, letting these two — riding side by side — act as a really excellent windscreen.
“I should include these guys in my video,” I thought. “Just to confuse people. Everyone will wonder what happened to the two riders who were there for the first part of the first climb, and then just disappeared.”
Then the group caught up, and we made our way to AF Canyon, getting ready for the carnage the climb would no doubt create. The first group ride of the season up a serious climb? No way that won’t turn into a battle.
I’m 120% the Man I Used to Be
Here’s the thing: Eric and Jason are working hard to get a fast time at Leadville this year. Dug’s weight never varies. Mark’s calves look like big twin-chamber hearts.
And I am 30 pounds over racing weight.
Mark, oddly, turned around before we even got to the climb, to go wait for a friend who was only 40 (?!) minutes late for the ride. (The fact that Mark would get to the turnaround point about 5 minutes after the rest of us did shows Mark’s in good form this year.)
Jason and Eric took off the front. Dug, briefly torn between obeying his shepherding instincts and wanting to see if he could contest the lead, rode with me for a few minutes and then bridged the gap.
This gave me an excellent opportunity me to contemplate what thirty pounds equates to. For example, a very lightweight freeride bike. Or a three-year-old child. Or three gallons of water (imperial gallons, not US gallons).
Or my subcutaneous layer of fat.
I may not be the walrus, but I look the part.
“Oh well,” I thought. “Maybe I’ll be able to hang with the group on the descent.” I thought of the video and how it would show Dug bridging the gap and how much he would like that part of the video, and decided I would edit it out.
I Can Suffer When Needed
Between the Timpanogos Cave parking lot and the Tibble Fork turnoff, the road levels off for a couple of miles. And, luckily for me, Jason, Dug, and Eric were not trying to devastate me even further by forming a paceline and increasing their gap on this section.
And in short, I caught up.
“This will be an excellent section on the video,” I thought, as I pulled even with the group. “Perhaps I will play it in slow motion with dramatic sound effects.”
And then we passed the Tibble Fork turnoff, veered right, and were at the base of the main climb.
Jason and Eric immediately shot off the front. Dug kept me company for a few moments until he realized that I had nothing interesting to say — and in fact had no excess breath with which I could say anything whatsoever — and then he went on ahead.
But I couldn’t just sit back there, letting everyone go miles ahead of me. Not without at least a token fight. So I pushed. Hard. Like there was something at stake.
Which of course there was.
There always is.
Giving it everything I had, I reeled Dug in. And then together, we reeled Eric in. Jason was up ahead in the distance — sometimes you could see him, sometimes he was around a corner. So I pretended he didn’t exist.
Thinking that perhaps I had just a little more in me, I pushed harder, and dropped Dug and Eric for good.
Except, of course, I hadn’t.
The thing about giving a climb everything you’ve got is, the sound of blood in your ears pretty much blocks out every other sound.
And so I was surprised when Dug and Eric caught up with me. “At least,” I thought, “They are having to work for it.”
At least, it is my fervent hope that they were working for it.
For the rest of the climb, Dug, Eric and I took pacemaking turns for our group of three. Each time one of the others passed me, I thought to myself, “That’s it. I’m done. I’m about to slide backwards.”
But each time I managed to hold on. Barely.
Once, I even considered saying to Dug as he passed me and I fought to grab his wheel, “If you want to crack me now, all you’ve got to do is stand up and attack for two seconds.”
Even through the haze of pain, though, I thought to myself, several times, “All this passing and re-passing is going to make terrific video.”
And, just to put an exclamation point on it, I stood up and sprinted to what I decided was the turnaround point, where snow still blocks the road.
It’s easy to declare yourself the winner when you unilaterally choose the finish line.
Near Death Experience
We talked for a few minutes while I gathered my breath. Mark caught up with us while we were there, and then it was time for the descent.
The first mile or so of the Alpine Loop descent is currently two parts awesome to one part freaky. One awesome part is due to the road itself: it’s a twisty, fast-descending smooth mountain road. The next awesome part is that the top part of the road has not been opened to motor traffic for the year, so you can use both sides of the road as you descend.
The freaky part is that there are boulders, tree trunks, and scree galore laying scattered on the road from winter rockslides. Those are bad to hit at thirty miles per hour.
I made a point of looking down so I’d catch some of that craziness on video.
Once you’re past Pine Hollow, the descent opens up and you can go as fast as you dare — and I mean that very literally. I have never quite spun out on that part of the descent because I always chicken out.
Eric, however, did not chicken out, and attacked hard. He blew past us on the left side of the road, fully committed. And, I suspect, really really really hoping there was no oncoming traffic around the bend.
I leaped — my legs are strong, and my big gut isn’t so much of a disadvantage on the descents — and caught Eric as we passed the Tibble Fork turnoff. He and I started working together in a furious bid to keep Dug, Jason, and Mark from bridging.
You see, there’s always a sprint finish at the bottom of American Fork Canyon: the toll booth. Big bragging rights for the winner.
I didn’t have a computer on my bike, but would guess we were north of 40mph on this fantastic working downhill. Pedal with all your might for the fifteen seconds of your pull, then drift left and coast, feathering your brakes in the other guy’s slipstream for fifteen seconds.
Rinse and repeat.
I knew this — along with the sprint at the end — would be the centerpiece of the video.
Or at least, that’s what I thought until we came around a bend — I was pulling at the moment — and suddenly faced the broadside of a bright yellow jeep, in the middle of executing an 18-point U-turn in the middle of a blind mountain bidirectional road.
I grabbed and locked up my rear brake, keeping the front brake open enough so I could still steer. Turns out that fifteen years of riding gives you some useful conditioned reflexes. Simultaneously I yelled “SLOW!” at the top of my lungs, hoping — but not really believing — that Eric would be able to get to his brakes and swerve before he touched my rear wheel.
But he did. He veered to my left, braking hard.
And there, somehow, was Dug, having just about managed to finish bridging to Eric and me, also braking hard and managing to avoid Eric, me, and the jeep.
Disaster averted and back under control, we went around the jeep. I made eye contact and shook my head disappointedly.
Two minutes later, of course, it occurred to me that this would make great video.
Big Sprint Finish
Dug, Eric, and I worked together as we finished the big working descent to the toll booth. Strangely, Dug was taking waaaaay too long of pulls, tiring himself out before the big sprint.
I, however, am not one to complain.
So, from my comfortably-rested second position in the group of three, I opened up and sprinted as hard as I could when I saw the toll booth. In truth, I attacked too early, but Dug had given me such a long rest that I felt I had it in me.
And I did.
Eric threw his bike (almost too far) at the end, but I think we have consensus that I have won my first ever toll booth sprint.
And I had caught it on video, to boot.
I had grand intentions of riding up to Suncrest with the group…until we actually got to the climb and I discovered the headwind was two or three shades beyond brutal. “Hmmm,” I asked myself, “Which should I do? Turn around and coast home, or fight a hard headwind for a four mile climb?”
Four minutes later, I was home.
I pulled into my garage, and took off my helmet, wanting to dash up to my computer and upload the video so I could start editing it down to the good parts. I knew I had a winner.
Which, of course, is when I discovered that I had left the lens cap on.