[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.]
Porcupine Rim ranks second, behind the Tahoe Rim Trail, as my favorite ride anywhere. No matter how often I do it, I want to go right back the next day and try all those places I didn’t ride quite the way I wanted. If I lived in Moab, I’d be riding up on the danged thing every day. I mean, I love Tiger Mountain and all the Cascades rides we have in summer here. But for grandeur, technical challenge, endurance, speed and just plain fun, Porc Rim is in a class all its own.
I like doing it as a loop, admittedly not the preferred method. Most people are going to shuttle up Sand Flats Road to the trailhead, then ride down to the river, where another shuttle vehicle awaits. I like doing the ride as a loop from town. Yes the road climb up is a chore. And boring. Often there’s a headwind. But we’re talking process here, earning your verts, paying your dues. Heck, folks, it’s even paved now. The first times I rode it back in the ‘90s it was dirt and gravel most of the way. As for the river side at the end, yeah you’re whacked by then. But it’s a fairly gradual grade back up toward town. By the end of the day you’ve chalked up epic numbers, more than 5 hours on the bike and 4,000 feet of climbing. You feel like you’ve accomplished something.
I’d tried to talk Jason into doing the loop, but he was having none of it. He wasn’t big on doing Porc Rim anyway, so we waited till he left town for his grandmother’s funeral. Jean-Pierre was back with his family, so it was just Chance Richie, Jim Lyon and myself. No problem: We had lots of company on the trail.
It can get dastardly hot and dry up on the Rim, but the weather continued to bless us. One year I went through a 130-ounce bladder and was still dehydrated. I used only about half of my regular 100-oz. bladder this time. After the road ride up the trail bullets down a bit, deceiving you into thinking you’ve crested and can cruise the rest of the way. Uh-uh. There’s a lot of climbing left, much of it up risers and ledges and rockeries and whatnot. It’s all rideable, at least certain lines are, but even so you need some kick in your quads to get up and over the tough bits.
When you do top out at the Rim, you have one of the unutterably magnificent promontories the sport of mountain biking provides. Usually lots of other folks are gathered as well, doing lunch breaks and talking mtb. We ran into a group of big boingers, no one under 6 inches, about to head down the first bombing run. One guy was riding a Banshee, the Canadian outfit that makes among the toughest and heaviest and best-named bikes out there. My favorite is the Banshee Scream. Or maybe the Morphine. Anyway, he was on the “cross-country” model, the less spiky-named Chapparal, on which he proudly proclaimed he’d gotten the weight down under 40 pounds. It was brand new and he said he’d gotten a deal because he worked in a bike shop in town. His other job was in a restaurant. “I wait tables so I can afford to work in a bike shop” was the way he put it.
He was no Tinkerbell either. I wouldn’t want to get in his way on the downslope.
As gnarly as the Porc Rim climb is, the really rough part is the long descent back to the river. You can plain rip along numerous sections, but you can also get going too fast for your own good. And your equipment really takes a beating. Still, there’s nothing else quite like Porc Rim’s descent. Amasa Back offers a taste, but it’s much shorter and lacks the extended straightaways.
There are lots of drops on the descent which you can do or ride around, but the killer is a 5-footer at the end of a long bombing run. “Now that – that’s a commitment,” as Jim put it. I’ve seen guys ride off it, but you know what? That was several years ago, and they were on hardtails and a couple of what would today be considered “soft tails” – 2 to 3 inches of rear travel. Even with today’s big-drop bikes I see fewer riders doing that one — why is that?
One problem is that it’s usually wickedly windy at the big drop. The other is that it comes up on you fast and your instinct is to bear to the right and slope down it, not go off the front. By the time you reconsider at the foot of the drop, your momentum is gone and you’re starting to think a little too much. What I always think is, “Do I wanna try this, or do I wanna be 100 percent sure I’ll ride tomorrow?”
This time out the wind was whipping things around pretty hard and we bagged on it. I thought for sure the long-travel gang ahead of us would’ve gone off it, but there were no tracks below. Even with 8 or 9 inches, that thing is a commitment. And this may get at the point Craig McKinnon and others have made on the BBTC list: Big-hit bikes do little to enhance actual riding skills.
Following one long rip Jim stopped with that look on his face again. This time he’d lost a retainer from his brake lever, rendering it inoperable. So we did the funny penguin-walkaround thing, tiny little steps with our heads cocked. Miraculously, Jim found the barrel which, inserted, gave him back lever action. But the bolt was nowhere to be found.
We weren’t going to flag down any jeepers up on this section like we did on Poison Spider. And Jim runs Magura Marta brakes, so it was unlikely we’d find anyone with spare parts. Jim could continue with one brake, but on the hairball sections of the lower trail you really want both brakes. The solution: Duct tape. I always carry a few inches of the stuff in my bladder pack. Jim borrowed a slice, taped in the barrel, and we were good to go.
The ride along the river is almost as harrowing in spots as Portal. I rode more than I usually do, but not all of it. It’s a joy just to stop and take in the view every so often. You want to be able to call that slide back up in the camera of your mind.
Porc Rim always seems to serve up an unusually high percentage of bike Bettys, and toward the lower section we caught up with a number of them. Repeatedly Chance drew more than just passing interest, leading me to nickname him Chance Romance. He’s a happily married guy, but out on the trail they don’t know that. Jim’s married too, but on our first day out, up on Slickrock Trail, he mentioned to a group of riders that he was a Slickrock virgin. “We L-O-V-E our virgins in Utah!” one of the women riders responded — quite enthusiastically.
In any case, with Chance you’re always making new friends. I’d never ridden with him and was worried that Jim’s, Jason’s and my radical politics would put off a Texan Navy officer, but we never missed a beat. If you ever run into him on a ride, be sure to say hello. He’s on the shiny new Santa Cruz Heckler in candy apple red.
Back in town I hung out at Poison Spider bikes while Jim tracked down replacement hardware for his brake. There was a gnarly old guy with a bike-bus, a long trailer packed high with his life’s belongings, and two pretty tired dogs. I’d seen pictures of him around, and he’s in one of the guidebooks as well. “We used to cover 100 miles a day,” he said, nodding toward the pooches, which by the way were equipped with their own saddle packs. “Now we do 100 a week.” Hey, the journey is the reward. That’s what I always feel like after the Porcupine Rim loop.