When your mountain bike bites you
What it's like to ride The Whole Enchilada in Moab
I’m writing from a coworking space in sunny and humid Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, today. But this story took place 1,800 miles away in Moab, Utah.
This is a story about being the weakest rider on an expedition to conquer one of the country’s most legendary mountain bike trails. I attempted it, and almost made it.
Hopping right in today. Let’s bite some trail.
Big thanks to Patrick for his comment on last week’s post about lessons learned from a decade+ of words for a living, and for sharing it on LinkedIn! I really appreciate it. His company eBusiness Brands, is the go-to for helping product companies grow online — check it out.
When your mountain bike bites you
Among the thriving mountain bike culture in the American Southwest, one trail separates the riders who can boast of their accomplishments from those still earning their stripes.
The Whole Enchilada, a behemoth ride comprised of two trails covering nearly 27 miles of the Sand Flats National Recreation Area outside of Moab, Utah, is the real deal: A ride that defines the region’s best mountain bike destination. Its length, its views of the canyon country, and its unforgiving passage that requires riders to first ascend and then descend Burro Pass, ride cliffside along Porcupine Rim next to exposed dropoffs into the Pinhook Valley, and descend 7,000 feet from the alpine into the desert, combine to make this one of the most challenging — and celebrated — rides in the entire country.
I was invited to attempt the trail by my buddy Neal in the fall of 2018.
“Am I good enough?” was my first question. To this, Neal had no answer. He had to text a mutual friend whom I’d recently done a ride with in order to find out. I’d only become serious about mountain biking a few years prior. To that point, the toughest rides I’d done were by comparison cruisers that seasoned riders lapped in the morning before work.
For better or worse, Neal was assured that I was, indeed, good enough to embark on this adventure. He sounded far more convinced than me.
I described my setup. A hardtail Giant Talon bike, 27.5-inch tires. A helmet, sans facemask. Knee pads. Mountain bike gloves. Tire irons and a basic repair kit. A dumb belief that my general knowledge of backcountry travel and best practices could outweigh my lack of a bike worthy of such an expedition.
“You’re going to have a hell of a time on a hardtail, dude,” Neal said. “You really need dual suspension.”
Yet I brought my hardtail anyway.
We departed Denver on Friday morning, arriving early Friday evening to meet the rest of our crew that had come in advance of us and set up camp.
The desert’s hot air loosened its grip as we ascended from Moab into the La Sal Mountains. We camped a ten-minute drive from the trailhead near the base of Geyser Pass. Our campfire lit the night and illuminated the pine trees around us. Stories were told and laughs were had that first evening, very few of them by me.
I’d retreated into my head. I felt not nervous but anxious, overtaken by the desire to begin making my way down the trail to stop worrying about how over my head I’d jumped in and start living in the moment, focusing only on the bumps and turns in front of me.
At the trailhead in the morning, we gathered for a group photo, did a bit of stretching, and then we pedaled off, adrenaline providing more force than confidence.
Two minutes later I was on my face in the dirt.
We hadn’t gone more than a half-mile before coming across a small rock drop. As I approached, three riders in front of me hopped over the gap with no problem. One even shifted his bike 45 degrees mid-air, a stylish twist that made the drop look easy.
I slowed in my approach, which proved to be a mistake. Rather than letting the momentum of decent speed carry me safely to the trail below, my front tire eeked off the rock and fell downward, pushing the bike towards inversion and tossing me over the handlebars.
I hit the ground with a thud. I didn’t slide more than an inch or so, the force of my fall sending me straight to the ground. The bike lay toppled just behind me. I grunted audibly, pain registering in my right arm.
Neal was right behind me and saw the whole thing go down.
“This is gonna be a long day,” Neal recalled thinking as we discussed the fall later.
The fall proved to hurt my ego more than my body.
Back on the bike, I proceeded down the trail without incident to the base of Burro Pass. Here, we attempted to pedal uphill but the 1,000-foot ascent became increasingly steep. We had to dismount and walk our bikes up the trail most of the way. This took about 40 minutes.
At the top, 30 or so other riders had paused to regain their breath after the climb. Many were taking photos of the mountains below us, this being the high point of the ride at around 11,000 feet.
The descent down the north side of Burro Pass was fast and challenging. Small rocks embedded in the trail made for a bumpy ride, but not an overly challenging stretch of trail for an upper-intermediate rider. At a few points, I paused to let faster riders pass me by, and by the time I reached the Beaver Basin cut off the rest of the group had been waiting for a few minutes.
At this point I wondered aloud how many tourists to Moab attempted this ride, being entirely unprepared for its length, difficulty, and the backcountry wherewithal required.
Multiple groups of visiting bikers had arrived at the trailhead that morning via shuttle from Moab. Most were not from the area, were on rental bikes, and overhearing their conversations, I’d gathered that many were less experienced in the wilderness than myself.
Evacuation from a trail like this is an immense challenge at best, and impossible at worst, depending on where you are en route. Slip and fall on the Porcupine Rim section of the trail and you could very well find yourself tumbling over the edge.
“This is why I will always ride flat mountain bike shoes,” one member of our group noted as we looked out over the rim later on in the ride. He referred to the two types of mountain bike shoes — clipless, in which the rider is attached to the pedals, and flat shoes, where they are not. “It’s a lot cheaper to replace a bike than to replace myself. If I’m headed towards a cliff, the last thing I want is to be stuck to my pedals.”
Warner Lake and Hazard County sections
At the bottom of Burro Pass, the trail mellows as it breaks from the pine forest and moves through open fields of brush and aspen groves. The Warner Lake and Hazard County trails, which comprise this section of The Whole Enchilada, are the easiest point of the ride, and the only part of the ride in which I managed to keep up with the rest of my group, riding their tail for a few miles.
Then things got real.
Among the first real switchbacks as riders enter the second half of The Whole Enchilada is a steep section of slick rock with the trail cut through it. To successfully navigate this turn, one must ride down the 40-foot rock face and then cut left — mid-rock — to remain on the trail. Fail to do so and you wind up sliding down the rest of the rock face to a grove of trees at the bottom.
I know this because I failed to make the cut. Instead, in my late attempt at the turn, my back tire slid past me until I was nearly perpendicular with the trail, facing up. I put my left foot down in an attempt to stop myself from sliding any further. As I did so, the left pedal rolled around and slammed me right in the lower shin.
Blood immediately gushed from the collection of small cuts to my shin. I belted a loud string of profanity.
In doing so I lost my concentration and began sliding down again, dragging my foot, for a few seconds until I managed to regain control and stop just above the trees.
No one was around. The rest of my crew were well ahead of me, either unaware that I was trailing or tired by this point of waiting for the guy that shouldn’t have been invited in the first place.
I was glad that my gaffe had happened unnoticed, but also nervous that I wouldn’t be able to hike my bike the 15 feet or so back up to the trail without losing control and sliding back down.
Here, I recalled the many times on a snowboard I’d found myself in precarious situations (including the time I nearly flew off a massive cliff at Whistler into a pile of rocks). I drew upon my experience and realized that the best thing to do was to pause for a moment and regain my composure.
This allowed me to slow my breath while surveying the situation.
I noticed that at the far end of the rock face, about 20 feet to my right and directly underneath the rest of the trail, the rock met dirt and there was only a slight dropoff. If I could walk my bike over there, I could hop down onto the dirt and then walk my bike back up to the trail.
I sprayed some water from my backpack onto my hands and wiped my shin. It hurt, and likely would for the rest of the ride. But I was ok, and despite my second hiccup of the day, was without serious injury. The Whole Enchilada was attempting to kick my ass. But halfway through I was still standing.
Back on the trail, I rode across a few miles of Slickrock overlooking the canyon country that surrounded me. Even in my slightly weakened state, I was in awe of the beauty.
As the trail cut inward about 50 feet from the rim, I came across my crew taking a breather by the side of the trail. A few minutes prior I’d passed a junction with the Kokopelli Trail. The group was deciding whether or not to continue en route or head back to the junction we had just passed.
This junction is the last bailout point from The Whole Enchilada before it drops into the experts-only Porcupine Rim singletrack section. Neal and one other who had done the trail before were amped for the challenge.
The rest of us bailed out onto the Kokopelli Trail and eventually FR 634, winding along a mellow trail and then a dirt road until we reached Sand Flats Road, which headed towards Moab. Grateful for a smooth and easy ride after the rim section, my mood increased drastically as I no longer worried about my blood-stained shin.
I made it through the ride — most of it at least —alive, finishing with a solid “snakebite” on my shin, a bruised arm, and only slightly more confidence in my biking ability than I’d had when I arrived.
Reflecting on a hell of a day
Arriving back in town in the late afternoon, we celebrated with margaritas at Miguel’s Baja Grill. Of our group of six, two riders completed the challenge from start to finish.
I hadn’t done the entire trail. Still, I’d done most of it, and the ride was by a wide margin the most difficult thing I’d ever undertaken on a mountain bike. I’d arrived at camp the night before having done plenty of web research about the ride yet still feeling unsure of my ability to complete it.
My takeaways were as follows:
A basic understanding of how to behave in the outdoors is often more important than being an expert at one specific skill or activity. Being able to slow down and regroup each time I felt overwhelmed allowed me to stay focused on the big picture, rather than stressing out over my immediate situation.
Research is no substitute for experience.
Momentum is key on a bike. Particularly on challenging trails. Much like a snowboard, speed can actually make things easier to ride over and keep you safer than slowly inching your way along.
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