The Hammer and I stood together in the Canyonlands Visitor Center. Our arms wrapped around each other for warmth, although it didn’t seem much like either of us had much heat to give to the other. We weren’t talking, because we were too cold to talk.
All about us stood other cyclists — twenty or so in all. Some were part of our group, some were complete strangers. All of us were taking shelter against the cold. The wet. The wind. None of which had been part of the forecast, which called for a perfect day. Which — foolishly — we had believed, and dressed accordingly.
Together, we smelled very much like a Wet Dog Convention.
We had been standing there for forty-five minutes, the entirety of which I had spent thinking of cogent, clear-headed arguments for, once (if!) this weather cleared up, we abandon this ride, head back to the car, and call it an unlucky day. Maybe we could salvage the day to some degree or another by driving down to Moab and going on a shorter ride sometime in the afternoon.
I took a deep breath and, with eloquence born of urgency, began to state my case.
Earlier That Day
I hadn’t begun the day with misgivings about this ride. To the contrary. Confident in assurances from the TV weather report cross-checked against two iPhone weather apps, we didn’t even look out the window when we woke up in Green River, Utah early in the morning (Green River’s a lot cheaper to stay at than Moab).
We made our way down to the breakfast room, where I impressed The Hammer with my breakfast-eating prowess. Since I’ve been keeping a lid on my superpower lately, she had sort of forgotten exactly what I’m capable of, so my volcanic pile of scrambled eggs — with outlying isles of cinnamon rolls and mini-muffins — startled her.
I ate it all with no difficulty.
We then went back to our room, grabbed our luggage and took the elevator to the ground floor and walked outside.
Into any icy, rainy, windy, drizzly hell.
“This is OK,” The Hammer said. “The weather report said that early in the day there might be some rain as far south as I70. I bet it will clear up by the time we get to Moab.”
The Hammer, alas, was dead wrong. The wipers stayed on as we approached the top of the Mineral Basin climb: the starting point of the annual RAWROD (Ride Around White Rim in One Day).
As we arrived, the rain slowed. A little. Maybe.
“Are we going to do this?” I asked, with about as much enthusiasm as you’d expect.
“The rain really is supposed to stop,” said The Hammer.
So we unloaded our bikes and put on the only extra riding clothes we had brought on this trip: knee warmers, arm warmers, and lightweight windbreakers. Neither of us had anything but mesh-type cycling gloves.
Last, we slung our heavy Camelbaks on. Unlike most years, this year’s RAWROD would be unsupported; we’d need to carry everything we needed for the 100-mile ride. (FYI: 150oz of water is heavy)
It was just past 8:00 a.m., our agreed-upon time for starting the ride.
Things Go From Bad To Worse To Even Worse
We had a small group riding together — Heather and Kenny, The Hammer and me, and Todd W and Joao B. It was cold and drizzly, but we warmed up quickly enough; when it’s cold and wet outside, I’m always grateful to start a ride with a climb.
The problem was, we were riding toward the rain clouds. And we were catching them.
Soon, it was raining harder, and the surface of the road turned into a slick, sticky mud. We’d wander from side to side of the road, looking for some magical line that — for no reason that conventional physics could explain — was clean and dry.
By the time we finished the first twelve miles — which brought us to the lone paved section of the White Rim loop — we were soaked through. Our toes and fingers were icy cold, and our bikes were heavy with mud.
We began to talk about whether the smart course of action was to just call it a day.
Photo by Todd W
“Let’s keep going at least for now,” someone said, though I don’t remember who, because I’m pretty sure that my mind is protecting me from remembering these traumatic moments too clearly.
And so we kept going, now on pavement. Which was faster. And wetter. And colder. And windier.
And in short, it was truly, truly awful.
By the time we got to the Canyonlands National Park entrance, I was more convinced than ever that we should quit this ride while we still had a chance of saving our bikes and not being stranded in knee-deep mud in the middle of the wilderness, where we would be eaten by dingoes or the Utah equivalent thereof.
The ranger at the toll booth did not quell my anxiety.
“We’ve closed the gate down Shafer’s trail (the steep, switchbacked descent into the White Rim basin) to automotive traffic, due to extreme sticky, claylike mud the rain has produced,” she said.
But then she had something wonderful to say, “You guys look like you could stand to warm up for a few minutes. The Visitor’s Center half a mile down the road is heated.”
For the first time that day, we rode with alacrity. Urgency, even.
We were the first cyclists to the Visitor’s Center, but before long, the place was packed with other cyclists who had found themselves in the same predicament as we were.
Photo by Todd W
Some guys on road bikes. Some on mountain bikes. A group of fast guys out to do RAWROD … well… fast.
At first, nobody talked. We just tried to warm up.
Eventually, though, we had to make a decision: go, or no go?. And each of us had to make it for ourselves. Except for The Hammer, who told me I had to make the decision for both of us.
On one hand, there really was some blue sky starting to be visible, and it was in the direction we were riding toward.
On the other hand, there was the mud we’d ridden in and the near-certainty of more mud ahead. None of us could remember the gate to Shafer’s Trail ever being closed before, so we figured it must be bad this time.
On still yet another hand, there was the shame of calling it quits.
On the son of the return of another hand, there was the problem of the Inclement Weather Re-Start (which I have here capitalized because I’m pretty sure it’s an axiom): If you’ve been riding in the cold and wet and then have gotten warmed up and dry, the difficulty of going back out into the cold and wet rises by a factor of nine.
Kenny suggested we do calisthenics to get our blood flowing again, and then — to show he was serious about this — did a series of deep knee bends and one-handed pushups.
The few people who were actually at the Visitor’s Center to see the exhibits looked on in a mixture of concern and admiration.
Finally, I proposed a grand compromise. “I think we should put off making the final decision of whether we do this ride until we’ve seen how Bad (yes I meant to capitalize “Bad”) Shafer’s trail really is.”
I paused to let this sink in, because not everyone is as smart as I am and needed time to process the brilliance of this strategy.
“If the mud on Shafer starts to jam up my bike, I shall direct my woman to turn around forthwith, and we shall abandon the ride with a clear conscience. I recommend you all do the same, though I cannot — and do not wish to — compel you.”
All agreed that this was a sound course of action. Oh, and also the above text might be somewhat inaccurately quoted.
We suited back up and left the Visitor Center staff to deal with the wet dog smell as best as they could.
The Shafer Surprise
You’ll be startled to know that I occasionally use hyperbole when I write. But you must believe me when I say that I genuinely was afraid of the Shafer trail. Not just the nuisance and damage that could be done to our drivetrains, but the fear of the danger a slick, muddy road brings to a treacherously exposed, switchbacked descent.
My stomach was knotted up as we ducked under the gate that would have prevented our sag vehicle from following us, had we brought one along.
We began the descent…and the road was perfect.
Photo of Joao by Todd W
Once again, I’m not using hyperbole here. I’ve been up and down Shafer’s trail probably 15 times in my life, and it has never been in anything close to the condition it was in. For the first time, in fact, I enjoyed the Shafer trail descent, which was not loose. Nor was it rutted. Nor was it riddled with washboards.
It was a fast, fun, not-even-a-little-bit-muddy descent.
And the beginning of the best-weathered RAWROD ever. The wind seemed to know where we were and chose to gently push us from behind for the whole day. The sun came out to warm us, and then would obscure itself behind clouds before we got too hot.
I think this is the only picture I actually took the whole trip. Joao on the left, Kenny in the middle, Todd on the right, and the White Rim and blue skies in the background.
We all rode more or less together, nobody waiting long for anyone. Our breaks were short but relaxing.
The Hammer would have almost certainly been the Strava QOM for the whole 100-mile loop if we hadn’t been holed up for an hour in the visitor’s center (although she still nabbed plenty of crowns):
And — very importantly — I discovered how many NikeFuel Points one accrues if one wears one’s Nike+ FuelBand while riding around the White Rim:
And I think I’m going to award myself an extra couple thousand bonus points due to riding in the rain, not to mention an extra 5,000 secret bonus points for my astonishing exhibition of courage, continuing on in the face of near certain mud.