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.
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.
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.
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.
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.