If there was a worldwide competition for yellow, Utah would triumph every time. Its autumnal aspens are the winning hand, but it’s more than just their colour.
Their leaves are crepe-paper counters hanging by stems so close to seasonal failure that they quiver at the slightest breath, and it’s this quivering that brings their yellow alive. Set against the trees’ silvery bark and brilliant sky, this single hue morphs into a full spectral gamut of all known yellows, gold, lemon, honey, fire.
When the wind blows, the leaves ripple like sequined cloth, tick-ticking against each other, thousands raining to the ground, where they rot into orange, then brown, and then are gone.
It will be a few more weeks before these aspens are truly threadbare. In the meantime, we couldn’t have picked a finer month – late October – to come here to ride.
Fast woman, slow men
I meet my ride companions Seth and Kyle on a gloriously blue morning on the edge of Salt Lake City, a city which is just that, perched on the eastern edge of Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
But while this hypersaline lake (which would not only be a great name for a brand of electrolytes but describes water with higher salt levels than the sea) is vast, it is nothing compared to the lake from whence it came, Lake Bonneville.
Once upon a when, let’s say around 18,000 years ago, Lake Bonneville was at its biggest: 51,000km2 and 300m deep. So big, in fact, that it caused a year-long flood with water gushing into nearby rivers and on to the Pacific Ocean. Can you imagine being big enough to flood an ocean for a whole year?
However, the proceeding millennia heralded climate change and Bonneville dried up, leaving the smaller Great Salt Lake in its wake. But little did nature know that it had just created the perfect place for humans to do stupid things in vehicles, because with Bonneville’s water gone, huge, smooth salt flats emerged, and by the early 20th century the Bonneville Speedway was born.
Now of course we care not for the artifice of the combustion engine, but as Seth, Kyle and I pedal east into Utah’s Heber Valley, the conversation about bicycle land speed records naturally comes up.
Bonneville Speedway is just over 200km west of here, which would probably take around nine hours if you’re us. But if you’re Denise Mueller-Korenek, you could get there in about 45 minutes.
That’s because back in 2018, riding a bike whose back end was made from two Cannondale road bike forks bonded together and whose top tube was formed around a fluorescent strip light (simply smash the glass afterwards), Mueller-Korenek pedalled at 296.01kmh, or a hair under 184mph if you’re American.
Admittedly Mueller-Korenek had slightly bigger gears than us – the equivalent of a 204×11 – and she got towed up to speed behind a dragster, but still, it’s even more insane than a year-long flood and plenty to keep our minds occupied as we pedal away from the urban sprawl of Salt Lake City and into the mountains.
Call it how you see it
The cleft in the mountainside is at first quite shallow but as we tap along the walls have the illusion of rising up as the road burrows deeper into the rock.
Not that this is flat road. It has been rising steadily for some time, and my armwarmers are beginning to feel itchy and claustrophobic with the building heat in my body.
We’re heading towards a section of the Alpine Scenic Loop, one of those place names that embodies the American way of being flamboyantly yet formally descriptive when it comes to naming things.
Why call it ‘coastline’ when you could call it ‘seaboard’? Or ‘prison’ when it could be ‘penitentiary’, or ‘curtain shop’ when it could be ‘drapery’, or ‘opening times’ when it could be ‘hours of operation’?
• Turn your next ride, hike, or run into an adventure with komoot. Get inspired by tapping into shared community knowledge and recommendations, then bring your adventures to life with the easy route planner.
Mapping powered by komoot
I’m sure we sound the same to them, but I’ve always enjoyed this phenomenon as it lends simple things a filmic gravity. The sign we’ve just passed for the Salamander Flat Trailhead Campground is a case in point.
It sounds a bit better than the New Forest YHA. And though we’re not going to quite visit it, we’ll come within touching distance of Gobbler’s Knob. Childish, but it has to be remarked upon.
Another thing we just can’t miss is one specifically aspen-ated road, which will require a descent, then a U-turn, then a climb, but as we whizz down the mountainside the aspens gather in golden abundance, and the detour is undoubtedly worth it.
Back up to the turning we pass Elk Meadow and South Fork Little Deer Creek Trailhead, where I suspect both elks and little deer were once sighted, the latter near a creek, and on to Deer Creek Overlook, from where one can look upon Deer Creek, presumably.
Whatever we’re looking at, though, it is quite spectacular. It is the landscape for which the terms ‘vast’ and ‘God’s country’ and ‘holy moly’ were designed. The road twists into the distance, a perfect grey snake with a fine yellow spine.
The once green scrub covering the mountainside is now a range of ruddy shades, from tawny to signal red, occasionally interrupted by clusters of glinting aspens. There are no cars. There is no one. Just three riders and miles of road. A bird caws with startling clarity, just like in the movies.
We reach the appositely named – for us anyway – town of Midway. Property out here is incredibly expensive, Salt Lake City being one of the fastest-growing cities in America, and like all urban sprawls people are getting pushed further out.
Here, though, is where you’d want to be – not pushed but drawn. The town has a Little House On The Prairie meets 1950s Americana feel about it. Red barns and tractors mix with diners flying the American flag and rusty pickups.
Like all good travellers and their hosts, we exchange chat about property prices, and in the same way Americans have a highly accurate and most willing ability to describe people in pounds as well as hair colour, Seth and Kyle are able to talk about the houses we pass in terms of detailed analysis of square footage.
The upshot is that a first-time buyer might expect to pay similar amounts in Midway as in London, with the only real difference being that here £440,590 will get you four bedrooms and a basketball hoop over your double garage.
We stop for food in quite the most interestingly decorated cafe (OK, coffee station) I have seen – the old tin signs for garages and motor oil, sure, but ceilings adorned with child-sized cars taken from a fairground ride being piloted by knitted monkeys?
The ratio of cranberry jelly to turkey in my sandwich is alarming, but I eat every sickly-sweet piece because apparently we’ve got a sizeable climb ahead.
We leave Midway and, much like Salt Lake City, as soon as we’re clear of the town en route to Cottonwood Canyon, the roads go from four to six lanes wide and then a more reasonable two.
I raise this observation with Seth and Kyle, and they explain this is no coincidence – the Salt Lake City area has a very deliberate layout, all thanks to the city’s founder, Brigham Young.
Quite apart from the brilliant name, Brigham Young was the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormon Church) who in 1847 led his pioneering flock away from persecution to settle in these parts.
As the town was being built, Young decreed that every road should be wide enough for an eight-oxen cart to turn in the street without its driver ‘resorting to profanity’. Hence the sheer scale of the roads in the Salt Lake area – the roads between every block are 132 feet (40m) wide.
Kyle explains the roads are also a huge grid, with the streets named in reference to one point: Temple Square, a ten-acre site in whose southeastern corner sits Salt Lake Temple (the original blocks were all ten acres, believed to be the size of the plot of land Young allotted to each Mormon pioneer homestead).
Subsequent roads radiating away from Temple Square are labelled in line with their proximity to it. So one block over to the south is 100 South (100 S), 45 blocks over is 4500 S; S 400 E is therefore south of Temple square and four blocks to the east. It’s kind of ingenious, if slightly fanatical. Me, on the other hand, I’m not feeling too clever.
In his day, Eddy Merckx used to show up on the start lines of races complaining about having a stomach upset or a headache or a sore knee. Whether he genuinely felt this way or if it was brinkmanship was never fully known, but he did win a lot.
I’m in a very different place, however. I feel awful. As we reach Guardsman’s Pass – height undisclosed, length ‘long’, difficulty ‘it’s a real bitch, man’ – Kyle and Seth drift ahead until they are diminishing specks up the road. I have become heavy as a lead-filled Hindenburg.
The views are still stunning, the road as quiet as always, billiard smooth and pleasingly shaped, but I am struggling. I engage my Woeful Eddy, running through the list of reasons why I am in such a sorry state: the 6am start; the fitful night of jetlagged sleep; the previous day spent jammed in seat 24H, watching a tiny monitor while downing plastic cups of cold red wine; the surfeit of cranberry jelly. I feel indescribably exhausted in legs, chest and soul.
Up ahead I’m sure I’ve just seen Seth pop a wheelie, which only adds to my low morale. Then I notice some numbers I’d previously neglected, and things become simultaneously clearer and compounded: 2,236. It’s the height in metres I’m currently at.
I just hadn’t noticed. Perhaps it’s the way the land has raised up as one, combined with its soft roundedness, that have given these Cottonwood Canyon mountains a hill-like air, and as we all know hills aren’t high.
Yet I am at significant altitude, and I’d estimate that there’s still some way to go. It feels a bit like finding out I’ve been spiked – I’m at once sickened by the thought and relieved to finally understand what’s happening.
Blazing trees, blazing saddles
Kyle and Seth are in picture mode by the time I reach them, phones out, snapping and chatting away at Guardsman’s summit, which is mere metres away from 3,000m in height. They are magnanimous in victory, and tell me they’re impressed given everything.
I think they’re being nice, but unable to answer back due to the sustained kind of shortness of breath running up the stairs too quickly elicits, I just smile. It is not what my lips wanted us to do; they’re parched.
Seth helpfully informs me that the air here is very salty, what with it being near the Great Salt Lake, and this exacerbates symptoms of dehydration as well as destroying cars. Still, this is the culmination of our ride in some senses, because it is very literally all downhill from here, so there is something to be heartened about.
One by one we drop down the road, the cottonwoods that lend their name to this canyon melding into an inferno of orange as we fizz by. Like the aspens, their leaves are poised to drop but they’re determined to go down in a blaze of glory.
We too plummet lower, accelerating hard out of a corner to try to set off a large electronic speed sign, which we achieve with varying degrees of success, safe in the knowledge that the road is dependably devoid of cars and uniformly smooth.
A sharp right onto a busier road signals the end of descending with abandon. The rocks tower up now, and although we’re still on a downward slope there’s a stiff headwind whistling up the road, created by the narrowness of the canyon walls.
I’m back to having to push myself again, unable to rely solely on gravity, but having lost nearly 1,500 vertical metres over the last 20km, my lungs are at least able to fulfil their end of the bargain again. For the first time since this morning I’m backing myself to finish this ride.
The aspen is more than just a tree
Utah is famous for its Populus tremuloides, or more commonly, the trembling aspen – so-called for the way the trees’ leaves shake in a light breeze. They’re pretty pretty, but they’re also pretty amazing.
A forest of aspens in Utah’s Fishland National Forest Park is officially the world’s largest living organism, because the 47,000-odd trees are genetically identical and all share the same root system.
Nicknamed Pando, the oldest tree is aged around 130 but the root system is 80,000 years old, which also makes Pando the oldest living organism. Sadly, Pando is thought to be dying, and although the cause is as yet unknown, climate change is one very likely reason.
The rider’s ride
Fezzari Shafer, $3,699 (approx £3,120), fezzari.com
OK, the Shafer is a gravel bike and this was a road ride, but hear me out: Fezzari is based in Salt Lake City so it would have been rude not to ask to borrow one, and though here be tarmac, the Shafer and I also had to tackle a few gravel rides during my time in Utah (which are coming up in future issues).
Still, I swapped out the gravel tyres (the Shafer has space for 50mm on 700c rims) for a pair of 38mm Rene Herse Barlows, and combined with the Shafer’s almost cross-country bike geometry, this made for an interesting road ride.
Trail is 85mm, wheelbase 1,064mm and BB drop 77mm (for context the new Trek Madone is 58mm, 983mm, 70mm), and this slack, long stance affected technical cornering ability, where the bike suffered from understeer.
But this also made it incredible on descents, the low centre of gravity and long wheelbase combining for stability at speed and the wide tyres offering oodles of grip. I wouldn’t choose such geometry for a straight-up road bike, but this isn’t a road bike – and it works really well off-road too.
How we did it
We flew with Delta, with direct flights from London Heathrow to Salt Lake City costing around £960 return and taking around ten and a half hours. Utah is big and you’ll want a car, so we hired a vehicle from the very delightful Adam at Enterprise, which cost £750 for nine days and was big enough to live in.
We didn’t live in the car though. We actually stayed at Kimpton Hotel Monaco in downtown Salt Lake City, and although you’ll still want to drive places there are a few walkable and very good restaurants and cafes nearby.
Try the Blue Iguana for Mexican and The Daily for excellent coffee. A double or twin at the Kimpton starts from £145pn (monaco-saltlakecity.com).
The planning for this trip was meticulous and worked to an absolute tee, so huge thanks to Vicky Brabin of KBC PR & Marketing and Taylor Hartman of Visit Utah (visitutah.com/cycling) for pulling it all together. Big thanks also to Jordan Washburn of Fezzari Bicycles (fezzari.com) for lending us a bike.