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The Skinny on Moab
By Vaughn Trevi
Date: 3/13/2006
The Skinny on Moab

The Skinny on Moab
The Skinny Tire Festival "On one ride I found myself pounding along at the head of the pack, shoulder to shoulder with Lance Armstrong’s coach Chris Carmichael...on another, I pedaled alone in the shadows of ancient sandstone sentinels, crossed the narrow neck to Dead Horse Point"

By Dave Shields

Over the years I have visited Moab, Utah many times. Its famed Slickrock Trail led the region to be tabbed a mountain biking Mecca, and as a result this once dwindling uranium mining town was reborn. Now, thanks to the determined efforts of a dedicated group of volunteers, the town is experiencing additional rebirth as a road cycling destination. Having finally pedaled its spectacular asphalt corridors, I find myself wondering, why didn’t it ever occur to me to bring my road bike to Moab before?

A couple rides - Arches Nat. Park 
Photo c.

The Moab Skinny Tire Festival was born in 2001 as the brainchild of real estate developer Mark Griffith. Less than a year earlier he’d lost his beloved older brother to rapidly spreading lung cancer. The stage four diagnosis was made in January of 2000, and by June of that year the battle was over. But over the course of those six months Mark had been forced to watch his brother’s body betray itself, and he had to witness an excruciating death by starvation. In Mark Griffith, cancer had just made itself a dedicated enemy.

Being a physical guy and an outdoorsman, the first action he decided to take was organizing a bicycle/fund-raising festival on the roads he loved. For him, it was an opportunity to put purpose to the suffering. It was also a chance to build positives out of a supremely negative experience. For the first running of his event 12 cyclists showed up. On the last of this year’s four big rides, an undulating path through Arches National Park, I found myself speaking with one of them. Tim Black from Driggs, Idaho doesn’t recall how he first learned about the event, but he says that once he attended he felt certain that big success would follow.

Riding past Dead Horse Point "The Moab terrain is anything but ordinary."

It has. This year the Skinny Tire Festival hosted nearly 800 cyclists including Bob Roll and Chris Carmichael. More importantly, they raised a whopping $200,000 to fight cancer. The total over the six year course of the event is now in excess of $350,000. The reasons for this explosive growth may seem obvious given the spectacular terrain that Skinny Tire covers, but it is the team putting the festival together that is the real reason for this success story.

For the first three years Mark and his wife Beth were able to keep a handle on things. For her the hard work was well worth it. Beth says, “It’s invigorating to provide an opportunity for people to express what’s going on for them, whether it be love or grief. Partnering with nature makes for a very healing and rejuvenating environment.”

Just as the event got too big for the pair to handle, along came Colette Johnston. She’s a Moab local whose brother was 3 ½ years into his fight with cancer (in his case, the result of exposure as a uranium miner) in 2003 when she swung a leg over her 40 pound touring bicycle to participate in her first Skinny Tire. Her eyes became liquid as she told me how her then frail brother made his way to Main Street. He stood to watch her pass as she rode by in his honor. Six weeks later he lost his life to the disease.

Colette shed 35 pounds taking out her anger on the pavement. When Mark asked her to become the coordinator for future events she gladly accepted. Cycling had rapidly become her passion and fighting cancer was her cause. Colette soon proved herself a perfect fit for taking the event to a new level.

The team added an October cycling event, The Moab Century Ride, and as word of the quality of their productions spread the rapid growth in ridership continued. On some rides a performance drum team makes reaching a specific destination all that much more worth it. On all of the treks catered lunches from local restaurants, frequent aid stations, and on the road support add to the enjoyment.

Colette dubbed the brutal climb up the LaSalle Loop toward the beginning of their Century Ride “The Big Nasty.” Soon people were flocking to see what all the fuss was about. I can guarantee you, the name is deserved. My quivering quads serve as proof. Last year they attempted to shut the Century Ride registration off at 1000, but they were over 1100 by the time they finally got the spigot closed. It was hard to turn participants away, and they are now brainstorming ways to accommodate more people, but the quality of the experience remains one of their primary focuses.

Dave  rides through Castleton

So far, they’ve succeeded spectacularly. On one ride I found myself pounding along at the head of the pack, shoulder to shoulder with Lance Armstrong’s coach Chris Carmichael (clearly a man who practices what he preaches). He told me with brutal honesty, “I thought Lance was going to die. Who could have dreamed such good would come from it?” He was obviously referring to the tenacity with which so many people are attacking the disease, and at the same time embracing their own lives. People were here to ride bicycles, but it meant much more to the majority of them than that.

It was Carmichael’s first time experiencing Moab and he spoke of being breathless around every corner. As we climbed the slope toward Fisher Tower at 25 miles per hour I knew he was speaking both literally and figuratively. If the rides of the Skinny Tire don’t take your breath away, you’d better check your pulse.

On other occasions I pedaled alone in the shadows of ancient sandstone sentinels, crossed the narrow neck to Dead Horse Point beside my wife on a borrowed Trek during her first road bike experience (note to self: buy her a bike soon, she loved the ride), and screamed down descents framed on either side by spectacular natural rock arches. The Moab terrain is anything but ordinary, and neither is this event.

Dave Shields and wife


Colette told me how complimentary the local law enforcement officers are of the guests the Skinny Tire attracts. As with most riding events, you hear the gratitude expressed to support personnel throughout the day. Her parting words to me were, “If it wasn’t for the caliber of the road cyclists I couldn’t find the energy to do this. I love what I’m doing. Each time an event nears it feels as if my family is returning.”

If that’s the case, she and the rest of the team have made a family member of me. I’ll be returning to ride the Skinny Tire for as long as they’ll have me. I heard from an inside source that Mark’s goal is to turn this into a $1,000,000 event. Given the sparkle I saw in his energetic blue eyes as we talked, I have no doubt that he’s going to find a way to do it. We’re all better for it. Long live the Skinny Tire!

Dave Shields is the author of the bestselling and Benjamin Franklin Award Winning novel, The Race. His sequel, The Tour, will be on bookstore shelves this April. By special arrangements with the publisher the Daily Peloton copies are available here.

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