Snowbird • If the authentication of a sport is best set and measured by the difficulty of the challenge it presents then what happened up and down the canyon and mountain roads here Saturday was the latest verification of cycling as being beyond real.
About 61 twisty miles and 7,700 steep feet of climb and descent and climb again past real.
It was surreal and unreal. It was the real-unreal deal.
It was flat/straight impressive, although the course itself was anything but straight and flat.
And that was just the latest stage — the second-to-last — in the weeklong test that is the Tour of Utah, an annual cycling race that this year covers 604 miles over some of Utah’s finest terrain and requires the complete burn of muscle and lung and stamina and heart, frying the humanity out of those who dare compete in it and suffer through it.
(OK, a brief aside here for all the uninitiated, those who are not regulars of the cycling scene: A slightly simple-minded, red-blooded American-pig type of colleague of mine once rather ignorantly diminished the sport of cycling because he associated it with a bunch of Europeans who had no clue what real sports were all about. In other words, it wasn’t football, basketball, baseball or hockey. He said, and I quote, “Anybody can ride a bike.” It was a little like saying Michael Jordan’s version of basketball was unworthy because anyone could walk out on a court and play a game of H-O-R-S-E. He connected cycling to the Stingray bike he had as a kid, the one with the elevated handlebars, the streamers flowing out of the grips, and a banana seat.
That was before a local enthusiast loaned him a high-tech racing bike and challenged him to ride alongside him for 100 miles. My friend made it, at a very slow pace, less than half that distance before he punted on the whole thing. Saturday’s Tour installment would have utterly wasted the man.)
The stage-six route included a path that started at Soldier Hollow, went around Deer Creek reservoir, up and over the Alpine Loop, a Category 1 climb, on the back side of Mount Timpanogos, down American Fork Canyon, around Point of the Mountain, through Draper and Sandy, then straight up Little Cottonwood Canyon, finishing at Snowbird, where a party erupted among those celebrating a hard day for some world-class athletes. And for some amateurs, too.
Saturday’s event had a unique twist to it, featuring something aptly called the Ultimate Challenge, which was for the non-professionals who wanted to test themselves over the same course the pros covered. They rode the roads in the morning, while the pros took off in the afternoon.
One such amateur, Mike Dunn, of Salt Lake City, the head of broadcasting at BYU, after completing his ride in a respectable 4.5 hours, said: “This was like playing Augusta the day before the Masters starts. There’s no way you’re going to score the way the pros do.”
Still, he pedaled and he survived.
Anne Perry, of Draper, a physician who works at Utah Valley Medical Center but also spends considerable training time on her bike, crossed the finish line with the fastest time for an amateur female over the last 10 kilometers, which was straight up Little Cottonwood. A finely conditioned athlete, her time was 43 minutes, 45 seconds. What went through her mind as she finished?
“I wanted to throw up,” she said.
Imagine how the rest — some of the lesser conditioned — of the 500 amateurs entered in the Ultimate Challenge felt. Some were pushed by friends up portions of the final climb.
Among the most accomplished professionals, the fastest on this day was Giulio Ciccone, an Italian racer who finished the full distance in 2 hours, 45 minutes, 38 seconds, winning the stage in great fashion, making it almost look easy. Almost. He said with a laugh through an interpreter that it was not: “In cycling, on the bike, it’s never easy. On a day like today, when it’s hot and a hard stage, it’s very difficult.”
Robert Britton still wore the yellow jersey after Saturday, heading into Sunday’s final stage, which tracks around the streets of Salt Lake City.
One of the cool, although relatively brief, aspects of the Tour of Utah, and many other stage races, is the close proximity at which spectators can watch the action. Thousands lined along the route Saturday, practically on top of the course as the athletes either pumped or blurred on by, depending on where the supporters were perched. As the racers made their way, extending over stretches of the long road, one woman randomly screamed, “You guys are amazing!”
Yeah, they were — competing in a real challenge, over a real course, in a real sport that likely would have killed most of us normal humans, were we insane enough to have tried.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.