by Bob Bestor
The rain is coming down sideways. I am soaking wet. The temperature is in the low 40’s and dropping. My knee, which in 51 years of everything I could throw at it has never given me the slightest bit of discomfort, is now giving me great bouts of it. Yet I still have many miles and a couple of thousand vertical feet of bike riding to get to the summit of Utah’s 9,485-foot Wolf Creek Pass. And it’s all Mark Satkiewicz’s fault.
Mark Satkiewicz is a bad man. He’s the CEO of Smartwool. You know, the makers of all those lusciously comfortable socks and toasty warm sweaters that we’ve carried for more than ten years at Travel Essentials? Yes, those guys. And oh, how I longed for both warmth and toastiness on the Wolf Creek climb.
Anyway, about nine years ago, when Mark was just a lowly Vice-President at the company, he decided that it would be a good idea to ride his bike from Smartwool’s headquarters in Steamboat Springs, Colorado to the annual summer Outdoor Retailer Trade Show in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Why is he bad? First off, the most inviting spot on the entire route is named Starvation Reservoir. Second, during summer, between Steamboat and Salt Lake, there are two types of terrain, scorching hot high desert and towering mountain passes. And he wanted to make the 400-mile commute (they were on their way to a trade show remember) in a scant four days. Nevertheless, he convinced another nineteen colleagues to join him and a tradition was born.
This year I got invited to go along on the ride, and I immediately said yes. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
But, as you may guess, I was far from alone in being tired and soaked to the bone. What is now known as “The Smartwool Ride” has grown considerably and I was grinding up to that mountain pass with 82 other cyclists of all abilities, myself being on the lower end of the ability scale.
And while everything I’ve written so far is true, the real truth is that The Smartwool Ride is a total blast. Sure it’s hard, but it’s never too hard. And it’s the other 82 riders (not to mention the staff of Iconic Adventures who supported the event) who actually make it worthwhile and even somewhat easy.
As you might imagine, the outdoor/travel industry attracts a certain type of person. And from that group, those who enthusiastically set out on and tackle 100-mile days on a bike make for terrifically fun and interesting company. It was kind of like a rolling cocktail party.
One tends to forget the heat when cruising down a gorgeous, gently winding desert canyon chatting with three time Olympian Emily Cook who is just about as humble and as nice as she can be and who is generously willing to share stories about her amazing career even though she met you no more than 90 seconds ago. The hills are also a little easier when new buddy D.C. is praising “the pig” in reference to his love for the barbecue of his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, or grilling me on what I know about Tupelo Hardware and whether I am worthy to wear a hat from their store. Or when Bill Dillard is offering up the story of how his Grandfather started up a little five and dime store in Arkansas, learned the ropes, and launched what has now grown to become the 330-store chain Dillard’s. I even rode in the slipstream (way, way, way back to be sure) of a former Tour de France champion. Just sayin’.
So it was four days in the saddle. Long days. Days filled with deserted back roads, bucolic rolling farmland, stunning desert vistas and stifling desert heat – until the weather changed on day four. We woke up to rain and, knowing that we had Wolf Creek Pass on the day’s agenda, pushed back our roll out time by an hour in the hopes it would pass. It didn’t.
The rain came and went throughout the morning. Each time giving us false hope that it might stay away. But soon after we got on to the Wolf Creek climb proper, it had decided that it wasn’t going anywhere. By the summit aid station, even those outfitted with the finest rain gear were soaked through.
While there was much shivering, there were only two choices. Hang out at the summit or get on the bike for the 15-mile descent down the other side. For those of you who don’t cycle, going up in the cold and rain is one thing. Going down is quite another. Going up, at least you are working and creating some of your own heat. Going down, you’re pretty much just sitting on your bike. Imagine sitting outside, soaking wet in a 35 mph windstorm. It can get cold. Not only that but the performance of road bike brakes are severely compromised in rainy conditions. This was not a good recipe for a bunch of amateur cyclists who already had 360 miles in their tired legs.
Soon though, a third choice came available – get in the support van for a safe ride to the bottom. I’m not too proud to say that I took the easy and warm way out.
Did I say that Mark Satkiewicz is a bad man? Well he is also a very strong cyclist. And as such he and his group of riders were way ahead of most of us and had already tackled the steep and freezing descent and instead of shivering at the summit were shivering at the bottom. It was at this point that he decided two things. First, that this year’s Smartwool Ride was the most epic of all. And second, that in the interest of safety, it was over. Mark is wise as well.
So we crammed into the vans and it wasn’t long before we were all cleaned up and warm and cozy after hot showers at the state of the art U.S. Ski and Snowboard Training Center in Park City. There we congratulated each other, shared the tales of our epic cycling adventure, and watched several Olympic hopefuls go through their training regimens as we ate pizza and drank beer.