“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” TS Eliot
The Salty & Stupid Gravel Fest in Wendover, UT/West Wendover, NV happened this last weekend and it proved conclusively, that harrowing amounts of moondust and fun can coexist. The Gravel Festival included three gravel events: the Stupid Pony 220-mile ultra race, the Salty Lizard 100 (you guessed it) century, and the Stupid Lizard, which took in both rides and is an event only insofar as Jeff Sumsion actually did it and managed to complete the damned thing. Put on by Salty & Stupid Cycling in Salt Lake City, UT, the Gravel Festival drew everyone, from MTB / Ultra-endurance legend, Tinker Juarez, and Team USA member John Croom (both now sponsored by ride partner Boyd Cycling), to gravel newbs competing in their first ride where they didn’t have to carry all their own drinks. And, oh, Wendover had it in for all of them. People from all over the intermountain West and beyond sprawled over Wendover, a gambling town and former airbase squished between the Bonneville Salt Flats and Nevada’s basin and range province, to ride bikes and sidle up to their limits. In this burning pile of hair of a year, a new gravel event happened, it ACTUALLY HAPPENED. It was fun. It was challenging. It was desert AF.
Thanks to all our sponsors who believed in our rag-tag group of misfits as we battled an evil corporate giant to save gravel cycling and the heart of the popular girl, or something! Boyd Cycling, Discover Wendover, Hammer Nutrition, Wendover Airfield Museum, Wasatch Touring, Saturday Cycles, Free Bikes 4 Kidz, Wendover Nugget Hotel and Casino, USA Cycling, Open Range Consulting, Peak State Fitness, Hyperthreads, TRP Cycling, the Cache Gran Fondo, and, most importantly, the cities of West Wendover, Wendover, and Eagle Mountain!
All photos in this article by Sam Rice.
The Stupid Pony kicked off affairs super-early Friday morning with a 219-mile race from Eagle Mountain, UT to Wendover on the historic Pony Express trail. COVID protocols limited flights to nine riders apiece, but, hey, it was only 30 people, of whom only eleven crossed the finishing line under their own power.
The race began in the dark in sub-freezing temps in the chapparal of Cedar Valley before shooting south to Twelve Mile Pass, a rolling dirt pass leading into the West Desert. ATV traffic and drought introduced the riders early to the weekend’s theme: moondust.
Long stretches poofed like awry gender reveals as riders skidded through. Once on the railroad grade headed north to the Pony Express proper, the washboard set in (drought + wind = washboard) and as the riders got onto the actual route, the road conditions managed to deteriorate somehow until the short paved section leading to the Lookout Pass turnoff.
Most riders were able to hang until Lookout Pass, a mild but long-winded climb to 6200’ that opens onto the incredible expanse of Dugway Valley and the most remote corners (except there aren’t any corners) of the continental United States. Some called it at Lookout, still twenty miles from the first aid station after fifty miles of riding.
Riders railed the descent from Lookout, which was fast, mildly soft, hero dirt for gravel, before running into the bone-shaking loose washboard traversing the length of Dugway Valley. With ten miles to go before Simpson Springs, the first aid station, the course started trying to shake everything loose: fillings, bottles, morale. Most riders made it to the succor of individually-wrapped snacks, bananas, and Hammer HEED served from the back of a luxury pickup only to have their humanity stripped from them by the thirty-mile crossing from Simpson Springs to Dugway Pass, a (not kidding) 20-mile 1% climb brimming with sand washes, dust, and washboard that culminated in a mile of >16% road that challenged even the SAG luxury pickup.
Dugway broke a lot of people (the author included), especially since the swooping descent toward the Dugway Geode Beds offered little respite from the washboard and actually added some exposed bedrock into the mix. Skirting the northern reaches of afterthought mountain ranges, the route drifted downward to Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge and its vast, green wetlands. Fish Springs proved a popular place to hang out, as Hyperthreads’s Finn Taylor resuscitated rider after rider with Cokes and snacks. Some (your humble narrator) called it a day at Fish Springs, too battered and salt-caked to continue.
Most riders who finished were able to scoot around the mountains toward Callao and the last 40 miles until the famed Gold Hill aid station in the Deep Creek mountains across the valley. Callao gave riders a fleeting taste of life with actual trees and green grass before the course lifted them back into the chapparal and rabbitbrush. Lucky people made it up through Overland Canyon, past the remains of the Canyon Station on the Pony Express before dark, reaching Clifton Flat at sunset. The sunset put on its full regalia for the lucky and stupid few still on course, a 2020 special composed of mountains and smoke. The road was still loose and washboard, but the descent into Gold Hill was properly fast, winding through a canyon at high speed on all the outer knobs.
At Gold Hill, the indoor cabin party was replaced by a more COVID-cautious warming tent stacked with booze and snacks. Kids ran around. Adults sipped adult-appropriate beverages and asked incoming riders what the hell they were thinking. Tales of endurance were marveled at, and a slew of riders flat out gave up as the temperatures plummeted with nightfall. Basically, if they made it past Gold Hill, they just made it, except for the unlucky few who succumbed, after nearly 220 miles of riding, to the brutality of the sand washes and sharp rocks of Lower Gold Hill Road and the Old Highway 93 frontage road.
But waiting for them at the finish was an actual finish (new this year), complete with an Army truck festooned with lights and an honest-to-god timing arch. Pizza fragrances wafted, participation medals and t-shirts were handed out, snores from nearby campers waiting for the next day’s Salty Lizard 100 drifted, and, eventually, in adventure vans and on the steps of the Wendover Historic Airfield Museum, while SAG drivers and race directors combed the desert for strays and stragglers, eleven finishers fell asleep.
In the morning, Tim Tait – who’d time-trialed the entire course ahead of the likes of T.J. Eisenhart – and Jackie Baker, both of whom had raced the Utah Mixed Epic the previous month, donned the Winners’ Used T-Shirts of Glory, and Ashley King and Jeff Sumsion, who was, by then, out finishing and thus dominating the Stupid Lizard, were gifted with brand-spanking-new sets of Boyd CCC wheels. Benjamin Fichailos came in second for the Lizard, only four hours behind Jeff’s time over 320 miles of riding. Jesus.
Saturday morning dawned on the assembled tents, RV’s, adventure vans, and famous aircraft of the Wendover Airfield Museum. Resembling something between Mad Max and a family reunion, the inaugural Salty Lizard 100 brought a truckload of riders to Wendover, thirsty for some gravel racing after a dry summer. And oh, what a dry summer it was. With no appreciable moisture all summer, the roads around Wendover had become a maze of sandtraps, loose pea gravel, and euphemistically named “poofers,” normally hardpack sections which had been ground into deep moondust by ATV’s and which were invisible to many riders until after they’d cleared their own handlebars. There were enough mercifully hard sections to carry riders through but the theme of the day was dust. Lots of dust.
Riders lined up in age category flights boasting MTB Hall of Famer Tinker Juarez, Olympic track cyclist John Croom, and a slew of the fastest folks in the Great Basin, including what had to be the entirety of the Reno Devo MTB squad and a solid half of the Logan Race Club. Organizers John Hernandez and Becky Benson greeted riders and hustled everyone into COVID-conscious starting grids. At the “go,” riders charged off into the vast maw of the West Desert.
The riders divided into 40-ish, 60-ish, and 100-ish mile courses, but all of them shared the opening thirty miles, winding through the outskirts of Wendover on ATV and moto trails, a gradual climb to the Leppy Hills trails, and then a screaming descent toward looming Pilot Peak before grinding back up to Leppy Pass. The lowest reaches of the course suffered the most from lack of moisture – the road out of Wendover alternated between loose gravel and hardpack, eventually changing into a near-mandatory hike-a-bike with foot-deep sand for a 100-yard stretch before the riders could settle onto the Hwy 93 frontage road. The climb to the first aid station at I-80 rose gradually, still hammered by the drought, with some steep, loose dives along the railroad bed that caught at least a few front wheels.
After I-80 and the sweet succor of barrels of Hammer HEED, the race wound up into the Leppy Hills, rolling along the ancient Lake Bonneville bench past the skeletons of ATVs and dirt bikes. The course starting eating tires as the sharp rocks buried in the trail found the limits of tires aired down to the minimum for traction in the sand. At the top of Leppy Hills, the route dived sharply, starting a long and winding, relatively firm dive toward Pilot Peak. At the bottom, the poofers returned and the otherwise pretty fast climb toward Leppy Pass crusted over with washboard.
The 40-milers bombed down the paved road toward the rolling finishing trail in the hills above the Bonneville Salt Flats while everyone else pointed down from the pass and back out into the desert. The road degraded somehow. We’ll never know. But the sandpits and poofers punctuated the first ascent to Silver Island Pass, with one stretch, in particular, forcing riders from their steeds or up into the sparse traction of rabbitbrush and sage. Riders pulled into the 50-mile aid station at Silver Island Pass shellacked body and bike with white dust.
And then they got to do it again. At the finish line, riders who’d only a few weeks earlier cruised 200 miles from Logan, UT, to Jackson, WY, compared the 100-mile route to doing that whole slog twice. The last loop of the Silver Island Byway swung the racers now north on the relatively stable road toward the ghostly floating islands of the salt flats before diving south, back to the second ascent of Silver Island Pass.
Somehow, people still managed to fly on the firm and fast rip along the base of the Silver Island Mountains back to the finish. The trail was wide and firm, narrowing to a thin strip of gravel broken by water bars as it scooted 16 miles back to the finish. Riders rounded past Danger Cave, where airmen had partied in the days before air conditioning and were faced with one last loose climb: Aria “Blvd,” a one-mile gravel monster featuring sand, pea gravel, exposed bedrock, and pain. Finally at the top, riders passed the Wendover cemetery (ok, writing this, it’s suddenly weird to me how close the elementary school is to the cemetery) and through the finish at Ana Smith Elementary, finally on solid ground again. When the dust settled (HAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHHA), Maya Dixon (Reno Devo) and Tanner Visnick (Steamboat Ski & Bike Kare) posted the fastest times in the 100-miler, at 6:52:55 and 5:39:33, respectively.
Now, the normal reaction to all this would be “WTF was that?!” However, spirits were high downhill back at the airbase, where riders were directed after the finish to keep them from clumping. Smiles reigned, and a collective “WTF did I just do?” seemed to hang in the air for the podium presentations and the bike drive, as powdered-white riders watched MTB luminary Juarez give away free bikes to ecstatic area children, thanks to a partnership with Free Bikes 4 Kidz. Despite the best efforts of 2020 to thoroughly screw up the racing calendar, and lives generally (in that order of importance), the inaugural Salty and Stupid Gravel Fest happened and, most importantly, no one died. And we’re doing it all again next year!