Scott Mercier: Tackling my first century ride with the White Rim Trail in Utah
Special to The Aspen Times
There isn’t such a thing as an easy century ride — 100 miles on a bike is just hard. And riding 100 miles on a mountain bike adds several layers of complexity and difficulty.
The White Rim Trail, near Moab in Utah, is a 100-mile loop on jeep trails and dirt roads sandwiched on a plateau between the confluence of the Colorado River and Green River. It’s the perfect maiden mountain bike century with just over 7,000 feet of climbing, and I’d never ridden 100 miles on a mountain bike in one go.
My Telluride dad, Bill, who helped raise me and encouraged me to race bikes rather than go to law school or business school, has wanted to do the White Rim with me for years. His idea was that I would ride, and he and my mom would drive a support vehicle.
My two biggest concerns about the ride were figuring out my nutrition and not blowing up for the last 30 miles. I figured I’d be burning roughly 800-900 calories an hour and that the ride would take about nine hours or so. Eating over 7,000 calories is really difficult, so I needed to ride at a pace where I could consume body fat as a fuel source, called the fat burning zone. The fat burning zone is at a relatively moderate intensity. As you get more anaerobic, you start to consume sugars. I also figured I’d need to eat and drink about 400 calories an hour. I settled on bars, Nutella and peanut butter sandwiches, and Dr. Allan Lim’s recipe for homemade rice cakes loaded with bacon, eggs and salt. I mixed in some Mexican Cokes for sugar and caffeine and watered down Scratch for extra calories.
The White Rim Trail is a loop, so my first decision was whether to ride clockwise or counter-clockwise. The internet seemed to indicate that riding clockwise was the preferred direction, so that’s what I did. The next decision was where to start.
My parents are 78, so driving 100 miles on rough, dirt roads and jeep trails was going to be a long day. I looked at the map and decided to start at the closest point to Moab, which is where the road from Mineral Bottom intersects the paved road heading into Canyonlands National Park.
Both of these decisions proved to be fortuitous. Just as I was getting bottles on my bike and putting my shoes on, a group of eight fit looking guys rode by. They were about a half mile up the road when I finally got going, but I didn’t want to ride nearly 10 hours alone, so I chased them down. Less than a mile into the ride and I was already well out of the fat-burning zone! However, drafting other riders is much faster and you conserve energy.
It took me about 15 minutes of hard riding to catch them. They were doing the entire loop, but self-supported, which meant they were loaded down with food and water.
Several of them had ridden the White Rim multiple times, so they let me know what to expect, including the fact that you need a permit to ride the White Rim, and I didn’t have one. Fortunately, they had a group permit and offered to let me use theirs.
Just after we entered the park, we took a left onto the Shaefer Trail road. The road drops towards the Colorado River like a stone and has incredible views and switchback after switchback carved into the sandstone cliff walls. We were ripping the descent and the adrenaline put a huge grin on my face. The road isn’t technical, but there is little room for error with the high speeds and exposed drops of over 500 feet.
We regrouped at the bottom and shed layers of clothing. The next 30 miles or so were spectacular. We were riding on a ridge just above the Colorado River. The rim of the cliffs had a white hue, which must be where the trail got its name. It looked as if the red and yellow sandstone had been bleached.
Bryson Perry, a two-time Leadville 100 winner and former professional on the road, was one of the riders in the group. He’s 40 now, and still quite fit, but humble and now involved in the youth development of the sport. It was fun to share stories of the peloton and to hear about the young riders making an impact on the cycling scene. Having someone to talk to was a nice distraction and the miles flew by.
The first real climb of the day was Murphy’s Hogback. It’s not long, at only a mile and a half, but it’s very steep, with pitches well over 20%. It hadn’t rained in awhile, so the surface of the road was covered in 2-3 inches of powdery dust, which made it slippery. We regrouped at the top and waited about an hour for my parents to arrive in the truck. As soon as they got there, I loaded up my pockets with food and bottles and told mom and dad I’d see them at the finish.
We did the ride on the same weekend as Burning Man, and a group of 20-30 people were having their own Moab style Burning Man party. They were all in costume and dancing. As we rode toward them they formed a human tunnel for us to ride through as they cheered and clapped.
By mile 70, we were riding along the Green River toward the final climb at Mineral Bottom. The road was sandy and we had a slight headwind. Our group had split and most of us were riding alone.
The Mineral Bottom climb is a mile and a half at an average gradient of 11%. By this time, I was nearly out of water and was well past the point of enjoyment. I just wanted to get the climb over with and get off my bike.
However, since I had started at the highway, I had to ride the 15-mile dirt road at the end of the day. My trapezius muscle was cramping from the jarring of a washboard road and the pain felt like someone was jamming an ice pick into my shoulders. The road was a series of stair-step climbs that seemed to go on forever. Those final miles were pure misery. I wanted nothing more than to get off my bike. My mom and dad passed me with about 5 miles to go and gave me a few water bottles and then drove off to the parking lot.
I finally crested the final climb and had a short descent back to the truck. After 7 hours and 42 minutes of riding, I pulled up to the truck. My dad handed me a towel to wipe off the dust and a cold beer to celebrate. White Rim in a day! I can’t wait to ride it again.
Scott Mercier represented Team USA at the 1992 Olympic Games and had a five-year professional career with Saturn Cycling and The U.S. Postal Services teams. He currently works as a private wealth adviser in Aspen and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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American riders invited to compete in X Games from Jan. 29-31, who have continuously tested negative while in mandatory quarantine in Austria, are expected to compete at the event later this month in Aspen.