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A Century for the Centuries
By Staff
Date: 10/15/2006
A Century for the Centuries

A Century for the Centuries
Dave Shields at the Moab Century - Three quarters of the way up the longest and steepest section I looked to my right and recognized that my nearest fellow sufferer just happened to be Ron Keifel, star of America’s first elite level pro cycling squad,
Team 7-11.

By Dave Shields

Over the years the name Moab has become synonymous with the epic passage of time. Here, where the Colorado River has sliced a 2000 foot deep gash into the earth’s crust, and where meteorological patterns have starved the land for water thus leaving the cliff surfaces both unchanged and nearly bare of foliage, a uniquely accessible laboratory has resulted. Century upon century of earth strata are visible. In some places the contorted layers speak to the massive power unleashed by certain earth-shaping forces. In other locations the much more patient yet persistent nature of erosion feels somehow spiritual.

Riders approach to the La Sal Mountains, - beautiful and an unusual landscape for what most people think of in Moab.   Photo c. Action shots of Moab Utah

What better location for a century ride than through these centuries of change? The 1200 plus cyclists who participated in the 2006 Moab Century Tour will tell you that it’s an experience not to be missed. Proof of its quality is that, only four years after its birth, the town fills up and the event sells out early every season.

I’ve ridden this ride for each of the past three years. This time we reached Moab in a downpour. There were literally thousands of waterfalls cascading off the high cliffs above the Colorado River Basin. We took a moment to soak in the beauty. Some shot off the opposite cliff wall and fell for over a thousand feet before charging toward the canyon bottoms in a series of smaller falls. Others landed right on the roadway giving us a unique and inefficient car wash. It was a spectacular sight that we didn’t want to end. But right on the schedule that event organizer Mark “Moses” Griffith had promised, the rain did stop. Within moments, illustrating just how poorly suited desert sands are at retaining moisture, the waterfalls stopped as well.

A rider going past the Taiko Drummers in Castle Valley.
Photo c. Action shots of Moab, Utah

The route out Moab’s back door which we pedaled the next morning has become familiar, and my thighs began to quiver as we made the left-hand turn to follow Brumley Creek into the heart of the La Sal Mountains. My legs were already aware that “The Big Nasty” loomed ahead. That’s the name that the toughest section of this climb earned after the 2004 version of the event. I can assure you that it’s well deserved. My inclinometer registered gradients of 15% for several stretches. For oxygen starved muscles, sometimes the intermittent 7% gradients feel almost like downhill. There is a lot of diverse terrain interspersed, including a variety of actual downhill's prior to the summit.

Naming the Pain
"The Big Nasty", "Net Loss", "Market Correction"
Over the years the event organizers have labeled additional sections of road with red and white signs. There’s the perfectly named first tough incline- “The Little Nasty.” There’s a brutally deceptive section after an aid station – “Tom’s Misery.” There’s the short but steep bump preceding the toughest stretch – “Launch Pad.” I couldn’t help giving names to other bits and pieces of road, like “Net Loss” which is a steep plunge into a shady side canyon, followed by the thigh searing switchbacks up the opposite canyon wall which I called “Market Correction.”

The cumulative result is 3000 feet of elevation gain over seven miles. It’s been likened to some of the epic climbs of France, and I think the comparison is deserved. To me, the climb is tougher than the legendary Alpe d’ Huez, though ascending that hill at race pace after crossing numerous other summits like the Glalibier is obviously on an entirely different scale.

Ron Keifel leads the group ride.
Photo c. Action Shots of Moab UT

Riding with Ron Keifel
Three quarters of the way up the longest and steepest section I looked to my right and recognized that my nearest fellow sufferer just happened to be Ron Keifel, star of America’s first elite level pro cycling squad, Team 7-11.

I did my best to feign strength as I completed the climb while chatting with one of my boyhood heroes. As much as my legs were begging for relief, this was not the time to start traversing the road paperboy style,. Ron didn’t need to know what I’ve explained to some people before, wri-ting has claimed large chunks of the time I used to devote to ri-ding. I didn’t want him sensing just how far out of whack my ting-ding ratio is these days.

We talked about the great organization, the challenging course, the gorgeous views, and the friendly volunteers, but the really inspiring sights for both of us were the cyclists wearing signs indicating that they were riding in memory of someone who had lost their battle with cancer, or that they were pedaling in honor of a loved one who was currently fighting the disease.

Ron said, “That stuff makes me realize that this is not about me- there are people out here who really have a mission. My mom passed away in ‘98 from cancer at a time when there wasn’t as much available to patients. Now, because of Lance and these types of events, we have so much more access to information. It’s the sort of knowledge my parents tried to seek out on their own, but the doctors were kind of closed at the time. As a result, Mom went the alternative medicine route. It obviously didn’t work. Also, I find myself thinking of my teammate, Davis Phinney, who is suffering from Parkinson’s. There’s a lot of crossover research so these groups benefit from one another.”

I asked him what he thought of this climb and he gave me a more thought provoking answer than I had expected.

“The efforts that regular people are putting out here is equivalent to a pro riding the Tourmalet. Conquering a climb like this, for someone who might not have much time to train in addition to having whatever other obstacles to overcome, has real similarities to a Tour de France rider. They are both putting out all they have. I’ve got great respect for anybody who makes the decision to face down a challenge like this.”

As we talked I discovered that Ron has many traits in common with virtually all of the elite cyclists I’ve had the opportunity to speak to. He’s got a wry wit, keen insight, and a deep passion for bicycles and life.

For me, the magnum opus of the Moab Century is where it drops off Bald Mesa and plummets through layer after layer of geological formations toward the bottom of the Colorado River Basin. The organizers label this exhilarating section of chip and seal pavement “The Blue Comet.” “Comet,” I agree with, though I might choose a different color. The scenery is a feast for the eyes. The route dives back in on itself again and again through stands of golden aspen and outcroppings of red leafed scrub oak. Unfortunately, cold weather and heavy rain brought down most of the leaves a week before the 2006 version of the ride.

In the distance the orange Castleton Towers, familiar to fans of John Wayne and John Bon Jovi alike, reach toward the sky like misplaced skyscrapers. Rugged 2000 foot cliffs mark the opposite side of the river basin. It’s one of those premier spots on the earth’s surface that I always look forward to returning to. This one is all the better because of the physical effort required to gain it.

Riders in front of Castleton and the Priest and three Nuns (on the left)  rock formations. Photo c. Action Shots of Moab, Utah

I navigated the descent in the company of a very skilled pilot whose business is knowing the dynamics of holding a turn. It was Randy Ruhlman of Trans Am racing series fame. He’s currently one of the stars of the NASCAR owned Grand American Road Racing Series, and is noted in the automobile racing world for his use of the bicycle for fitness. Randy became involved with the Lance Armstrong Foundation as a result of his nephew’s diagnosis with testicular cancer four years ago. He discovered that the Moab Century fits into his hectic schedule and was returning for his second year. He brought along a check from his team sponsor and other donors for $12,000. It was great to hear that Randy’s nephew appears to have conquered the disease and is back to living an active and athletic lifestyle. Randy also had interesting insights on a number of other topics including the marketing of bicycle racing which I plan to share in a separate article.

As I have a number of times before, I rolled back into Moab feeling both exhausted and content. Event founder Mark Griffith once pointed out to me how valuable it was to attach a larger meaning to the effort on the bicycle. I couldn’t agree more with him that the fight against cancer is among the worthiest of causes. It’s a great feeling to stand in the midst of such a pro-active group of people who are putting their money and efforts where their mouth is. Maybe one day, somewhere among the strata of the gradually revealed rocks of South Eastern Utah, like the dinosaur tracks and Indian petroglyphs before it, the Moab Century will leave a permanently visible impression on these ageless rock walls.

Dave Shields is the author of the bestselling and Benjamin Franklin Award Winning novel, The Race. His sequel, The Tour, is receiving widespread praise for introducing doping issues from the perspective of the athletes. His work in progress is the story of Saul Raisin’s miraculous recovery from a coma. Dave is often seen discussing these topics on networks such as CNN, ESPN, and Fox News. By special arrangements with the publisher, personalized copies are available through the Daily Peloton by clicking here.

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