Don't look now, but you are on Wile E. Coyote's turf. You have
pedaled into the desert surrounding Moab, the old uranium mining
town in southeastern Utah, and strange things are happening. You
shrink, made small by the cliffs and towers of the canyon lands.
Hundreds of millions of years of geological give-and-take--the
upthrust of a miles-thick layer of salt that deformed the
overlying sandstone, giving birth to arches and minarets--is in
plain view. Also, time slows down. ¬∂ If you don't believe that,
ask anyone who has competed in the 24 Hours of Moab, a team-relay
event that will be contested for the ninth year, on Oct. 18-19,
in an area known to locals as Behind the Rocks, south of this
town of 4,800. At first blush the race seems like a piece of
cake. You sign up with a four- or five-person team, sit around
your campsite sipping drinks, noshing snacks and checking out the
scantily-clad masseuses administering to one of the pro squads.
When it's your turn to mount up, you figure the 14.9-mile loop
should take you between an hour and an hour and a half; ride
three or four laps over 24 hours, with a bunch of rest between
them, and your ordeal is over.
But it's not that easy. Before your first leg, you may decide,
I'll just go at my own pace. Then you spot a rider 200 yards up
the trail and think, I can catch that clown. Or you are the clown
getting caught. So you reach down for a little more than you'd
planned to give. Or you may be tempted to try to find a line down
the minicliff that is Nosedive Hill. (Most riders get off their
bikes and carry them.) Good luck. You redline it through the
boulder-strewn technical section, too busy hucking your front
wheel over chert and ledges to take in the dramatic cluster of
sandstone fins to the west or the La Sal Mountains to the south.
You dig deep during the loop's only sustained climb, then hammer
past the most recognizable landmark on the course, failing to see
any resemblance to a woman and wondering how Prostitute Butte got
its name. With several miles still to ride, you glimpse Tent
City, the base camp replete with 80 portable toilets, 500 or so
motor vehicles and 6,000-plus people. Even though you have been
anaerobic since Mile One, you are obligated to shift into a big
ring and start sprinting. (Everyone else is.) You'll be greeted
by a cheering crowd, so you want to finish strong. Ten seconds
feels like a minute; 10 minutes an eternity. Time has slowed
That fat stratum of salt, by the way, is called the Paradox
Formation, which seems appropriate for this race. Because the
event is grueling, people flock to it. Granny Gear, the West
Virginia-based company that puts on the race, also hosts 24-hour
competitions in California (Temecula and Tahoe) and Snowshoe,
W.Va. While quite popular, none draws a field close to half the
size of Moab's. (A week before this year's race 408 teams had
registered, plus 67 certifiably insane solo riders.)
The Moab race has been the de facto Super Bowl of its discipline
since its inception in 1995--seven years before it became the
world championship of AMTRI (the Association of Mountainbike Team
Racing International). "If you wanna prove you're fast," says
Keith Bontrager, who has competed in this race for the last eight
years, "you have to go to Moab."
Could there be a more spectacular proving ground? Laird Knight, a
West Virginian bike racer who founded Granny Gear in 1990, first
came to Utah in '94. Having established a successful race in his
home state, he was scouting locations for a second one. He
arrived with a chip on his shoulder. "Moab had been so hyped," he
says, "it had to be overrated. Then I got out here and thought,
Wow! This place is cool!"
It is beyond cool, bordering on mystical. "The most beautiful
place on earth," as the late naturalist and iconoclast Edward
Abbey described Moab, might also be the most anomalous place in
Utah, with as many brew pubs (two) as Mormon churches. While the
specter of 2,000 wheeled locusts swooping and whooping around his
old haunts would've made him cranky, and possibly inspired him to
scatter tacks on the course, Abbey would've taken a tiny bit of
solace in the fact that the 24-hour racers aren't car-borne.
Automobiles are among the chief villains in Desert Solitaire, the
book he wrote about his six months as a ranger in Arches National
Monument (now Park), just north of town. By the time that book
was published, in 1968, Moab's heyday as the uranium capital of
the world was long since past, with tourism supplanting
yellowcake as the area's meal ticket. Among the tourists these
days are no small number of adventurers: not only mountain bikers
and whitewater aficionados but also rock climbers, who flock to
Arches and nearby Canyonlands National Park.
Since Charles (Hot Rock Charlie) Steen discovered a lode of
high-grade uranium ore 40 miles southeast of Moab in 1952,
nothing has transformed this town like the realization that
slickrock and mountain bikes go together like Tracy and Hepburn.
By the '90s the Slickrock Trail just east of town had become,
arguably, the best-known mountain-bike venue in the world. Of the
half-dozen companies that have sprung up to help gearheads locate
the area's epic vistas and thrills, Rim Tours is the oldest,
founded in '85. The president of that outfit, Kirstin Peterson,
has finished two Moabs and will compete with four colleagues this
year. (Their team, the Rim Cutters, is among the favorites in the
coed, open division.) It doesn't matter to Moabites that "this
signature event for our town," as Peterson calls it, is not
homegrown but was grafted onto the desert by an out-of-state
company. "The folks at Granny Gear have completely ingrained
themselves in the community," says Peterson. "It's amazing how
the whole town looks forward to this race."
It is less amazing when one considers that these events were
designed "from the ground up," says Knight, "to be about fun."
Scott Newton is a former racer who lives in Moab and manages the
Poison Spider Bike Shop. During his pro days he got a bellyful of
races "where no one's really friendly, where the attitude is,
'I'm better than you, I don't want to talk to you.' One of the
things I love about the 24 Hours of Moab is that it draws a lot
of recreational riders who do these events because it's like a
big party for them." At a garden-variety mountain-bike race,
Newton would not find himself among a team of cross-dressing men.
He would never have been inspired by the courage of Team Huge
Ass, four riders who decided a few years ago to do the 24 Hours
of Moab sharing the same pair of shorts.
Days before the race the "parking lot"--a vast, overgrazed
field--begins to fill with the first of the 500-plus cars,
pickups and RVs. Here you see the game within the game, as teams
attempt to outdo one another with the elaborate nature of their
setups. Last year the Rim Cutters groomed their site with a lawn
mower, and sofas will be delivered to the team's compound this
So upbeat is the Tent City vibe that support crew members have as
much fun as the riders. At any rate so says Peterson, who has
done both. "I missed going out on my bike a little bit," she says
of the years she has supported her teammates, "but in the middle
of the night I sure didn't."
It is the very definition of gut check: dragging your carcass out
of a sleeping bag at 3 a.m. to go suffer in the desert. Some
riders dread it, others get off on it. "It's so quiet and
peaceful," says Lori Hutchinson, office manager at Poison Spider,
"and you have nowhere to go but into your light beam."
In the predawn hours riders may hear the whine of big rigs
bearing south on Highway 191. The trucks are hauling nuclear
waste to Monticello, 60 miles down the road. Been there, done
that, Moabites can think to themselves. They've moved on to the
next big thing.
For more about sports in Utah and the other 49 states, go to
Moab is beyond cool, bordering on mystical. The late naturalist
and iconoclast Edward Abbey called it "the most beautiful place