Our friend Jonathan Lee took a team from Reno and Salt Lake City to the Rockwell Relay last month. These guys aren’t used to night riding or 24 hour events, so we hooked them up with a whole mess of lights and batteries for their 580 Mile epic! The Rockwell Relay is an endurance road ride through the spectacular Utah landscape from Moab to St. George. Jonathan rides for the Audi Reno team and works for the Reno based Cycling training startup TrainerRoad.
One of the things most amazing about long rides and 24 hour races is how you ride and ride and have high points and low points and inevitably find your unhappy place out there somewhere in the wee hours of the night. Riding all day and night is hard, for sure, but the real challenge is cranking through that unhappy place and leaving it out there in the desert where you found it. Here’s how Jonathan and his team lost themselves and found themselves in Southern Utah. -Mike
The Rockwell Relay
I’ve never been an endurance sports junkie until a few years back. Having spent my youth being pounded into the ground on motocross tracks I was familiar with suffering, but cycling has taught me to suffer in a whole new way.
The strangest part? I love it. But if you’re a cyclist, then you know that is actually much more common than one might think. Events with intriguing story lines and ample suffer potential draw me in like a moth to flame and no matter how many times I’ve been burned, I keep coming back!
To be honest, when I considered doing the Rockwell Relay, I figured that this would be a relatively easy race. It had the intriguing storyline of covering 580 miles from Moab, UT to Saint George, UT. But with a team of four riders, each covering 3 legs of the course that added up to roughly 50 miles per leg, it seemed like it would be a cakewalk when compared to my regular five to seven hour training rides.
As irony would have it, I would end up eating a super sized serving of crow, but whether it was my pride or my “little boy on Christmas Eve” excitement to ride at night, I ignored that voice that said, “this may be tougher than you think”.
Day 1: RNO>SLC
My friend and co-worker Chad Timmerman and I made our way from Reno to Salt Lake City to meet up with the rest of our teammates who were locals to the SLC area.
With restless legs, we decided to use the internetz to look for a local Wednesday night criterium, and as luck would have it, the DLD Criterium was taking place just down the road from the RV rental.
After racing with some sketchy roadies on a technical crit course, we ended up doing well enough to pad our egos (as if we needed that…) and decided to get in a good feed at Red Rock Brewery before calling it a night.
Day 2: SLC>Moab
After a good rest in the RV at the ever luxurious Wal-Mart parking lot, we met up with our teammates and RV driver before making our way down to Moab.
On the way down we went through everything from politics to race strategy and found ourselves once again, with padded egos.
After a drive through amazing MTB country, we checked in and picked up our race packets as the internet-famous “Fat Cyclist” was serving chips and bratwursts to race entrants. We stand firm in our conviction that this is just one of his ploys to slow the competition with bubble-gut inducing food the night prior to the race, but regardless, a group of people that willingly barbecue in southern Utah heat are determined.
A quick shake out of the legs provided the first opportunity for all of us to ride together, and the good news was that none of us required training wheels or a push up the hill, so we were golden!
But the first mistake of the trip was to be made that night. The always popular pre-race choice of pasta was selected, and I foolishly thought I would be immune to the normal effects of Italian food on my digestive system. The effects were nearly immediate, and while I won’t get into specifics, I felt as if Gandalf was in an eternal battle with the Balrog somewhere within my intestines.
Mistake #2 came shortly thereafter as our RV driver parked uncomfortably close to a building while we slept. As you can easily guess, the RV’s carbon monoxide sensor blasted our ears as our RV driver went crazy trying to find the carbon monoxide sensor was. After some opening of windows, shutting down of generators and quick googling, we found where the sensor was and were able to pull our RV driver back to sanity.
Day 3: Moab>Torrey
I awoke on race day feeling nothing remotely close to fresh, ready or stoked, but after a quick breakfast and a stop or ten to the restroom I was on the line and ready to kick off the first leg.
The race requires each team member to select which racer number he will be. The commonly accepted refrain was “Rider 1 has a lot of climbing, rider 2 has one hard climb at night and one really big descent and rider 3 and rider 4 have hot and windy stages”. This all proved to be true, but each rider had almost all of those things.
The race started off with 15-20 mph head cross winds as we climbed our way towards Monticello. I was looking to work on establishing my climbing rhythm with this race as I was using it as preparation for XC Marathon National Championships, but I was discouraged to find minimal climbs.
As we would soon find out, the elevation profile in the race handbook was greatly exaggerated and I was faced with a lot of 3-5% endless roads rather than +7% climbing.
Just the same, I was able to put in good efforts on all the climbs that we came across in the 57 miles. Not long after we left Moab, the winds increased and before we knew it we had 30-40 mph head winds and a bunch of riders so shaky and nervous that they resembled Don Knotts in The Shakiest Gun In The West.
I quickly deputized myself and ordered a rotating paceline that allowed us to hold a decent pace into the first transfer.
With my confidence still riding high, Chad took over on leg 2 and proved his confidence by breaking away from the pack early despite the winds and riding solo for nearly the whole stage.
This was a crazy move, but equally crazy was the decision by our RV driver to pull off the road into a silt bed, also known as mistake #3. Instead of resting and recovering after my ride (who wants to do that anyway?) I got to work on my tan lines standing in the middle of a Southern Utah highway flagging down foreign tourists asking if they had a tow strap. After an hour or two, a couple with a big diesel truck were able to tow us out, but we feared we had left Chad out in the blazing heat and wind with no support.
We sent our next rider up the road with a different car to be ready at the transfer station, and when we arrived, we found he was already on the road and Chad was looking like a shriveled prune under the shade of a trailer. After enduring serious heat, +50 mph headwinds and a brutal climb he could hardly move without cramping, but he was ready to get in the RV and get going.
As soon as Chad was on board, we sped up to catch our third rider and found him carrying a strong pace with a good group of guys. At this point the winds were more confused than a tranny in a men’s restroom, which still has me wondering if it had relented any, but luckily, Alex was hanging tough with his group despite losing a set of glasses.
After a solid and smart ride by Alex, our fourth rider was up. Ryan is a relatively new rider and had only been training for a few months prior to this event, so all of us, including Ryan, had low expectations.
But once again, we were proved very wrong! Working his way around the northern part of Lake Powell, Ryan battled the winds like the rest of us but was able to link up with a couple of strong guys.
He hung tough all the way to the close of the stage where we were getting our night gear ready.
When we showed up to the transfer station it was pure chaos as riders struggled to charge lights, switch batteries, install mounts, and test light angles. We had done our homework and each had an F3 light from Jet Lites with a spare Lithium Ion battery in our jersey and mounts on our bars and helmets, so once again, my confidence was booming.
As I set out through the moonscape of Cainville, UT, I was battered with more headwinds before linking up with two riders. We were working together and keeping a very strong pace as we moved closer to Capital Reef National Park.
While the sun was nearly set and our paceline was carrying on strong, my cohorts turned both of their lights on. I decided to run on borrowed light until it got completely dark, and when that time came, I gave my bar-mounted F3 a soft press. A loud “whoa!” came from my friends in the paceline as they thought a car was suddenly right behind them, but after seeing that it was my light, they were fitting in as many questions as they could in between breaths and pulls.
As we neared the exit of Capital Reef I realized I had made mistake #4 at some point in the last 10 hours. I didn’t fuel properly and hadn’t gotten proper rest before riding at the very foreign time of 8:30pm. I began to feel drained, my mental processing was foggy, my power was all but gone, and I couldn’t decide if my migraine or stomach cramps would kill me off first.
I ended up dropping off the back of my paceline companions and crawled my way to the transfer for 10 miles. It was at this point, alone, deep in the bonk, in the middle of the desert, surrounded by towering rocks, cliffs and the occasional deer that I began to not think I was crazy for being afraid of the boogie man as a child. I then realized my light was on low, so I switched it to high and all was clear as day!
As I was trying to recover from the hellacious bonk, Chad turned his F3 on and charged up a very steep and consistent 20 mile climb. As he worked his way up to 10,000’, the temperatures had dropped over 70 degrees from his last stage into the low 30s and he still had a big descent to do.
Chad is a very skilled and experienced rider, but we still assumed he would take it easy while descending down a steep mountain road at night, but he turned his light to high and charged the thing while simultaneously freezing himself.
Alex’s next stage was going to be a 100% night stage as well. A healthy dosage of climbs and descents awaited him, and he chose to mount his F3 to his helmet instead of his bars.
This turned out to be a great choice as his leg ended up covering one of the sketchiest stretches of road I have been on. Hell’s Backbone is a twisting and undulating stretch of road perched atop a spine of sandstone dividing two gorges around 200 feet deep. Instead of sleeping, I couldn’t help but look out the window at the moonlit terror that was Hell’s Backbone.
While working his way over the tricky terrain, everyone that Alex was riding with asked him “What kind of light is that thing!? A high beam from a car!?”
Alex ripped into the next transfer station and handed things off to Ryan. He set off at dawn while we set off to get a free breakfast burrito from race support.
After our RV driver had dozed off at the wheel a few too many times, we gave him a break and took over the driving duties. As we scanned the road for our rider, we were worried after reaching the transfer station without seeing him.
After backtracking, covering the final half of the stage twice and calling local authorities to see if anybody had been airlifted, Ryan came crawling into the transfer station looking worked.
We thought he had gotten lost, but apparently our RV driver had passed him while dozing off at the wheel (mistake #5) and Ryan was so exhausted he couldn’t carry much more than 15 mph.
My final stage was supposed to have the most climbing of all, and that was about the only thing I was looking forward to. At this point we were all so sore and tired from battling those relentless 50 mph winds on long and boring desert roads that we just wanted to get it over with.
But I was pleasantly surprised with my last leg! Although much of the climbing was below 5%, we had left the desert and found ourselves in gorgeous alpine country. To close out the stage, we finally had a steep and curvy road with fast descents following each ascent.
Chad’s final stage saw him finish off the rest of the climb up to Cedar Breaks at 10,000’ before descending all the way down to 5,000’ at Cedar City, UT.
While the descent looked awesome on paper, it ended up being extremely long and rather uneventful, but thank goodness it was over!
Alex had reached a low point before his final leg but you wouldn’t have known it by his effort. He brought us back into the desert heading straight west from Cedar City.
He linked up with another strong group and they worked together all the way to the transfer station.
As Ryan was waiting for Alex to arrive, his family surprised him by showing up with posters and a whole truckload of encouragement. When it was his time to go, he looked like a new man!
He linked up with one other rider and they absolutely hammered it into Saint George, UT. While they worked on maintaining a 23 mph average, we worked on devouring a delicious mixed berry pie from Veyo Pies. If you’re in the area, this is a must visit.
As we all crossed the finish line, we were glad it was over and not anxious to get back on our bikes any time soon. 580 miles of hot headwinds will do that to you, but all of us had overcame a low point and we each gathered some pride from that.
The Rockwell Relay was definitely an experience I will always remember, but not sure it is one that I will do again. Night riding, however, is now a regular part of my program. I’m hooked!