The following was contributed to TandemBicycling.com by our friend Ed Sibby.
My eleven-year-old Julian and I accepted a personal challenge, and committed to a four-day ride around Bryce Canyon in Southern Utah. The terrain alternates between paved and dirt roads and trails, and proved much more difficult than we could ever imagine. Although the Utah Cliffs Loop, which it is commonly called, is somewhat well-known, what the days in the saddle taught us both, is that it should not be undertaken by the faint of heart.
Day 1- 69 miles, 6350 ft. climbing
We left St. George Utah and began a climb into Zion National Park, where the temperatures climbed above 100 degrees. Our progress was slowed by the fifty pound trailer we pulled throughout the ride. Approximately half of the miles were on fire roads and dirt trails which made the progress uphill even slower. The profile was undulating, but the majority of the day would be spent grinding uphill. Our group consisted of five riders, three of whom were experienced long-distance cyclists, (including Julian and I, who were riding the Tandem, as we had completed the San Francisco to Santa Monica trek in only four days last August-Our final day on that trip was a 200 miler from North of Pismo Beach into Santa Monica) but none had any experience with self-supported rides. Julian and I recognized even before our lunch stop that we were in for a very difficult trip however, and as we climbed the final 1,200 ft dirt road on the outskirts of New Harmony, we were in pretty rough shape. Of course, upon arrival, we had to break into our trailers despite the level of fatigue, because we not only had to set up camp, but also cook dinner. It was a ritual repeated those trail nights, and the cumulative effects of having to do so were significant.
Day 2- 70 miles, 6828 ft. climbing
We woke up from a fitful sleep with a great deal of trepidation. On paper, we knew that this day was the toughest in both mileage and elevation. The day started with a relatively flat profile, but soon we left paved roads for their off-road counterparts, and the pace seemed consistent as we rode into Cedar City for lunch. We knew as we pulled out that the longest and highest point lay 19 miles ahead of us, nearly 10,000 feet in elevation and 5000 feet higher than we stood. Ten miles in, the going was so slow that our strongest guys took about ten pounds out of the trailers of two of our riders in order to increase our overall speed. Julian and I were both showing the strain of the Tandem weight penalty, and Julian requested several breaks that time and company could not allow.
It rained during much of the climb, but the temperature was cool, so there was liittle complaint regarding the wet conditions. We made the Overlook at 9910 feet elevation, and headed down several thousand feet of descent into Hatch, where we were able to get a fresh set of riding clothes after making camp in a beautiful valley just outside the town. The level of exhaustion was tempered by the knowledge that the hardest day was now behind us. That evening proved the coldest of the trip, and we all felt the chill of the 30 + degree temperature we faced throughout the night.
Day 3- 72 miles, 5007 ft. climbing
Day three began earlier, as we made it a point to get up before sunrise in order to get a jump on the day. It took us longer to pack out as the temperatures were so cold that we were struggling with the zippers and tie-downs, with our numb hands betraying us. We began with a short descent into a climb that was all dirt, and it didn’t take long for the cumulative effects of the first two days to begin taking a toll on the riders in varying degrees. We made good time due to the slightly flatter profile, which took us through many back roads and steep dirt ascents. We pushed beyond our initial planned stop, and ended the day in 95 degree temperatures, pitching our tents near a campsite several miles outside of Zion National Park. With three days behind us, confidence was building that we would all complete the ride barring any illness or injury.
Day 4- 87 miles, 3400 ft. climbing
We again attempted to make an early start, and fared much better than previously. We knew it would be a very hot day, as we were going through both Zion and through high desert into St. George. The initial climb of just under 1000 feet gave way to the longest descent of the ride, and took us all the way through the Park. Stunning in its beauty, I cannot hyperbolize the feeling of having this slice of heaven under two wheels as we swept through Zion’s cliffs. Because the tunnels in the Park are prohibited for use by cyclists, we were forced to wait for chaperones in the form of both RVs and pick-up trucks. After nearly an hour of waiting, dis-assembly and re-assembly, we were back on our way, and did the longest dirt climb of the trip. The Rockville section took us up 1300 feet of climbing in three miles, and reduced our speeds to a snail’s pace while pulling the dreaded weight behind us. Cleaning this section was a major feat on the tandem, especially since a few of the others were forced to walk sections due to tire slippage. We descended down to the city of Hurricane for a lunch with our support crew and strapped the helmets on for the final section of thirty mile desert trail. As we moved into the desert separating Hurricane from St. George, the temperatures soared above 110 degrees, and every rider felt the shock and awe of the sun’s impact cooking the ground under us as we continued to turn the pedals over. Thoughts turned back to the hour we lost waiting for our bikes to be brought through the Zion tunnels, and I knew I was not alone in wishing we had that hour back. We had enough water, but it became difficult to drink as we were sipping that which was almost to hot to ingest. The remoteness of the terrain made the last section that much more difficult; we couldn’t see the city until the last mile of the desert crossing. After 30 miles of pushing, we reached our final destination of St. George, exhausted but thrilled for having completed the journey with a strong group of riders who had invested in one another’s success.
Total distance- 296.7 miles
Total elevation climbed- 21,585 feet.
Total time on ride- 39 hrs. 40 minutes
Total seat time- 31 hrs. 18 minutes
Average speed- 9.6 miles per hour
Editor note – Ed Sibby and daughter Julian are an awesome pair of tandem mountain bike riders. Their ability to work as a team and complete the many treks they have encountered is a testament to their skills in commmunication and team building. Good work!