Salty and Stupid Cycling would like to thank all of our generous sponsors: the cities of Wendover and West Wendover, the Tooele Tourism Tax Advisory Board, the Nevada Board of Tourism, Hammer Nutrition, Boyd Cycling, ROTOR Components, Bike Hardcore, Wolf Tooth Components, ENVE Composites, Wasatch Touring, Saturday Cycles, Original Free Range, the Cache Gran Fondo, SNEK Cycling, Spinner17, Open Range Consulting, Fratelli’s Pizza, and the Wendover Historic Airfield Museum.
Wendover, UT – Each year, riders from across the continent line up to test their minds, meats, and mettle in the West Desert of Utah at the Stupid Pony, a 200-mile ride/haircut/race on the gravel of the Pony Express National Historic Trail. Following a route from Eagle Mountain, Utah to Wendover, Utah, riders experience some of the most remote, beautiful, and challenging desert landscapes in the United States where temps routinely carom from freezing to fiery, and where the only humans are the ones you bring with you. Three aid stations sit along the route, the only reliable sources of water and food along the way.
After the previous year’s weather cancellation and 2020’s dust bath, this year promised excellent conditions. Rain had firmed and set the dust, graders had scraped along much of the route, part of the Pony Express across Five Mile Recreation Area had even been chip-sealed. Would this be the fast and easy year, finally?
Hell no. Well, kinda.
Riders lined up at the Pony Express Memorial Park(ing lot) in sub-freezing temps and made their peace with a long day on the bike. Per tradition, the bathroom was unexpectedly unavailable. The parking lot murmured with the soft pre-race sounds of zipping frame bags and layers of clothing slipping on and off. After a quick round of yelling by the race director, racers and riders flew into the desert, with Andrew Kulmatiski (Logan Race Club; hereafter “AK”) charging ahead. Future runner-up Chase Witter, having driven to a nearby convenience store to use their restroom, started half an hour after the rest of the field, save the bikepackers, showing that pretty much anything can happen over 200 miles.
Bikepackers Jan Bennett, Nan Pugh, and Ryan Hostetter took their sweet time leaving and, unlike almost all of the rest of the field, made it to Wendover. So there you go.
After the traditional march through the farm roads of Cedar Valley, riders turned south to climb the new section through Seven Mile Pass, a winding, juniper-lined moto track filled with loose gravel and sand. The trail twisted along at the bottom of the drainage until it rose sharply, stepping upward over loose babyhead rocks and bedrock ledges. Shockingly, nobody flatted here. AK opened a 7-minute gap in the canyon and spent the rest of the day stretching that gap into what would become a 4-hour chasm.
While we have no idea if AK even noticed that the climb had ended, after the last kick and the summit, the rest of the riders were treated to one of the West Desert’s most beautiful descents, a swooping dive into File Mile Recreation Area in Tooele County. Immediately afterward, though, they encountered the most technical section of the entire ride: the freshly chip-sealed Pony Express itself.
The Pony Express across Rush Valley had, in its day, been one of the least comfortable roads in North America, striated with enormous washboards for its entire length and width. In a touching act of remembrance, the chip seal preserved the Pony Express at its rippled zenith, forcing riders without an appreciation for the magnificent height and regularity of its washboard to abandon the road for the much smoother moto track to its side.
Sadly, though, the Rush Valley Pony Express led to the much smoother gravel section leading from Faust to Lookout Pass. As they climbed Lookout Pass, Chase Witter made his move and brought himself back into the midst of the other riders. Lookout Pass overlooked Dugway Valley, an enormous flatland punctuated by humps of bedrock and creased by swales and dry flood paths. The chunky stretch from Lookout to Simpson Springs has traditionally been the last bailout section, the last place where it’s as easy to turn around as go forward, but no one availed themselves of the opportunity.
The pain set in near Fish Springs. After starting the day at 26F, temps soared to nearly 90F, cooking the riders just as the lactic acid set in. Multiple-Pony Women’s Champeen Jackie Baker said she was “baffled by how quickly I’d gotten to Fish Springs, even though [she] was making a concerted effort to keep an even pace and stay fed and hydrated.”
Riders started to really suffer after Fish Springs. While most people made it to the halfway point, people fell out in droves in the stretch between Fish Springs and Gold Hill. Stomachs rebelled, darkness set in. The miles after Callao in particular saw several riders climb into the SAG wagons. Baker again put it best: “The West Desert, having been repeatedly ravaged by us humans, has little reason to give us anything, but it is swift to take away.”
For everyone who made it past the lovely little oasis of trees named Callao, the climb to Clifton flats waited, a fourteen-mile slog up the depositional skirt of the Deep Creeks. According to Andrew Kulmatisky, who actually noticed this climb, it was surprisingly difficult, a series of long, steep kicks each followed by a short false summit.
But, oh, Gold Hill.
The downhill to Gold Hill was spectacular, a twisting little gravel flume ride in the semidarkness. AK blew right past Gold Hill, confusing the aid station volunteers and radio operators since no one had ever ignored the stop before.
Had he stopped, he would’ve found the world’s greatest aid station. While few tried the booter, quite a few people arrived at the finish with more whiskey in their system than when they started and less hair.
As the sun went down, the bikepackers nestled in at Fish Springs with several SAG drivers and radio operators. AK raced down Airport Way and the last few miles to the finish line, dropping riders pre-riding the Salty Lizard 100 course. He had time to catch his breath, accept his official Used T-Shirt of Mind-Bending Awesomeness, watch the sun set, and take in the fact that he’d managed the whole thing in only twelve and a half hours.
Near Callao and seven hours behind AK, Mason Garland took in the sunset on the distant Cedar Mountains, Lake Mountains, Grassy Mountains, Silver Island Mountains from across the lakebed, each range aflame in pink and then winking out in turn.
Descending from Gold Hill, they dodged rampaging swarms of mosquitoes issuing from Blue Lake, a geothermal lake halfway to Wendover. They then escaped the mosquitoes by riding the crux of the route, the five-mile climb on Blue Lake Rd, easily the worst road in the CONUS. All this in the dark, Wendover twinkling merrily in the distance.
Finally, they faced the Parent Trap, the crumbling remains of old Highway 93, a section of “road” so thoroughly ruined that support vehicles could not drive through it. Every few hundred feet, the faulted pavement blocks disappeared into fissures, forcing riders to dive into sandpits beside the alignment. This repeated itself until finally the highway dead-ended at a barbed wire fence and some stern “No Trespassing” signs that warned about lasers.
Everyone who made it to the Parent Trap made it home. Eight people total out of nineteen starting. Half of them even sprinted the last section of Airport Way before the finishing line at the Wendover Airfield Museum, where the race director waved a sweet new flashlight and flailed like a young tree in a high wind. Fratelli’s Pizza had donated the traditional post-race pizzas; riders ate in the Officers’ Mess in the museum and traded jokes and horror stories.
After Garland passed the line at a second shy of 19h, the night was finally done. Everyone found their bed or floor. They all turned in, the race director passed out on the couch and already having anxiety dreams about the next year.
Learn more about this madness at Salty & Stupid Cycling