Paul Andrews

What Happens in Moab Day 2: Poison Spider and Portal

In Mountain Bike Trail Reviews, Mountain Biking on December 22, 2009 at 2:21 am

[Note: When the holidays slow news down, we reach into Santa’s bag of tricks for a hearkening back to our favorite rides. This week we’re featuring a 2004 expedition to Moab, Utah, America’s mountain biking mecca and an international magnet for mountain bikers everywhere.]

Portal and the Passion

Sunday morning dawned crisp but sunny, with nothing but good expectations. We soon discovered the Red Rock Bakery & Café’s monster cinnamon rolls, the best in Moab, and just a two-minute stroll from our condo. After breakfast, the one meal where Mad Cow apparently did not eat nearly raw beef, we loaded up the van and headed for the Poison Spider parking lot.

There were still lots of jeepers out, but a moto at the trailhead told us most of them were well up the trail. Poison Spider is pretty much doubletrack – dirt interrupted by boulders and slickrock from time to time — till you get to the hairball Portal Trail. On my first visit to Moab in 1994 I’d done this ride on a then state-of-the-art Pro-Tec full suspension bike with elastomer rear suspension and a Girvin linkage fork, and let me tell you, when I wasn’t falling over I was terrified. It’s amazing how much better rider I am with four inches rear and five up front and years of watching the masters do it. Or could it just be the bike?

By the time we more or less crested on Poison Spider, we were in Jeep Country USA. They tend to creep along even in open terrain, and I find their camaraderie in tough spots inspiring. They all stand around and help, giving acceleration tips and stuffing boulders under tires and whatnot. It reminded me of an MTB curiosity: When I lived in Cali we riders would automatically spot one another in tricky or dangerous sections. The goal is to clean the stunt without laying yourself up, and sometimes that takes several tries, any one of which can end ugly. I’ve often offered and/or suggested spotting on NW rides but nobody ever wants to do it. I get the impression NW MTBers think it’s wussy. Getting skin gashed, breaking a shoulder or tearing out a knee is much more manly, and don’t you feel proud as you lie in bed recuperating while looking forward to hospital and surgery bills. Or maybe we in the Northwest figure everyone is on their own, come what may. Rugged individualism, NW MTB-style.

We were making great time churning our way toward Portal when we found Jim, up ahead as usual, off his bike looking somewhat consternated. He quickly identified the problem: the pivot bolt from his drive-side chainstay was missing. The bike was completely disabled. We tried to think of fixes but only one solution was obvious: Find the danged bolt.

We fanned out along the route and must have looked like befuddled or sunstroked nomads to the jeepers. When the leader of a three-jeep caravan offered to help, my first thought was, wish they could. Jeepers carry lots of stuff, it’s true. But the pivot bolt was metric, jeeps are pretty much all standard thread and sizing. There wasn’t much point in wasting their time.

But growing up, my Dad taught me never to fail to offer help or turn down an offer for help. It’s part of the thing called karma. I waved down the guy and told him what was up.

“Yeah, your friend didn’t look too happy back there,” he said, referring to Jim who by now was a quarter mile away. “Whenever you see a mountain biker walking, they never look too happy.” Jason and I had to laugh. He certainly got that right.

I wish I’d been rolling my camcorder, because what happened next was worthy of a Michael Moore documentary. All of a sudden giant toolboxes began appearing full of unimaginable gewgaws and widgets. Jason, who like Jim rides an Ellsworth Truth, plucked the pivot bolt from his bike for comparison. We watched enthralled as the jeepers started trolling through their glorious mechanical stashes.

Incredibly, it wasn’t too long before someone came up with a replacement bolt. Not quite an exact replacement, but the width and threading matched perfectly. The only problem was it was too long. No biggie there. Someone else came up with spacers and a nut. In moments the repair was in place and Jim was good to go. As Jason remarked, the fix looked “totally ghetto.”

I’m not sure how you thank someone in this situation other than to repeat it a thousand times, but the jeepers seemed amused by the whole thing and all too happy to have assisted. Just another day at the outdoor office. They waved us goodbye and we were on our way.

I suggested we revise our travel plans and split for Vegas the next day, while we were still hot. But with luck like that, we knew the coming week of riding was going to be worth more than anything we could take home from Sin City.

The Portal trail skirts along a ledge 1,000 feet above town. Portal is legendary for the deaths of three riders – and, apparently, many more near-deaths – but most of it is rideable and the parts that aren’t are well-marked. To qualify my above remarks, there’s not much point in spotting on the tricky sections of Portal. If someone biffed and you caught them, you’d probably both go over the side. As it turned out, Jason rode most of the section marked off by the signs and had designs on the rest, but we prevailed on his better sense. Jim took a spill, which I captured on video, and he wants you to know that I was never in place to shoot the many jumps, drops and rockeries he cleaned. (That’s because he was always riding too far off the front!)

On the opposite trailhead we met a couple of women hikers and chatted. One had spent several years in Juneau and could one-up any rain stories we soggy Seattleites could tell her. Near the trail sign there was a metal rod hammered into the rock. I asked her what it was for, and she said it was used to tie off search-and-rescue operations, going after riders who’d slipped over the edge but were clinging to life on an outcropping below. Particularly at night, the tie-off was vital.

I don’t even like to look over ledges that high up. But as the hiker put it, “For years the big thing in Moab was to do Portal without dabbing.” And if you missed, well, that’s what the S&R, emphasis on the R, people were there for.

From Portal the trail switchbacks down to the river on steep, drop-injected rockery that’s a challenge to walk, let alone ride. I used the excuse as ride videographer to take my time, but Jim and Jason were cleaning most everything. The thought of Jim losing his pivot bolt on one of those drops made me shudder, but luck had been with us this day. Too bad Utah bans casinos.

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