Words by Bobby Kennedy, photos by Cason Carroll, Jeff Sumsion, John Hernandez, Misti Cobb, and Tim Vitale
On November 8th, 14 cyclists and a slew of volunteers came together before dawn at the Lehi, Utah, commuter train station to engage in some mildly structured stupidity. The inaugural Stupid Pony was to take everyone through the West Desert of Utah on the Pony Express Scenic Byway to West Wendover, Nevada. The route runs through one of the most remote regions of the continental U.S., divided neatly between gunnery ranges and wildlife preserves. The West Desert forms the eastern border of the basin and range, with low mountain ranges walling off enormous saline valleys without shade or water. We were going to ride across it on our bikes. The Stupid Pony’s as grassroots as it gets: the City of West Wendover, Skratch Labs, Wasatch Touring (a local shop), the Wendover Historic Airfield Museum all stepped up to offer money and food and lodging, but everything else was paid for or provided by donations or volunteers. The whole thing was cooked up on Facebook in about a month. The first-place finisher, Nathan Manwaring, received an old t-shirt.
Dawn arrived and we were off, riding rigs ranging from triple-ringed starter mountain bikes to carbon wonderbikes. An alley cat from Lehi to Camp Floyd ensued, construction crews having dug trenches across the route, and the race/ride/thing split pretty much immediately, with nearly everyone getting lost before regrouping at the last heated bathroom for 100 miles at Camp Floyd State Park.
The lead group of nine flew over the relatively wooded Lookout Pass at almost exactly mile 50, which was the highest point on the course and led into Dugway Valley, where the mountains began to loom to the north and south, framing perfectly silhouetted wild horses standing on rises. The gravel was fast, the pace high, the terrain mildly downhill. Herds of antelope hid in low spots between hills; volunteers at Simpson Springs had to shoo the packs of coyotes stalking the herd from the sage lining the road in advance of the riders. The sun rose and tepidly raised the temps to the mid-60s as riders passed south of the Dugway Gunnery Range, where the military tested nerve and biological agents. Riders were warned not to lick anything.
Conner at Simpson Springs handed out Skratch Labs goodies for everyone. The front of the race had blown up, with Nathan, Jamie Sabuda, and Jeff Sumsion sloughing off six others before the long, long slog across Dugway Valley. Dugway Valley epitomizes everything that’s hard about the ride. It’s long, you see where you’re going an hour before you get there, it’s panic-attack-inducingly straight, and the gravel gets chunkier the farther up the 10-mile, 2% grade climb you get, until the final 12% pitches of washboard and exposed bedrock. Also, no shade. The sun does whatever it likes to your left side the whole time.
But after riding over the peak of Dugway down 10 miles of the worst conditions of the ride, with washboards hucking cellphones and bottles off bikes, the surface mellowed near the Black Rock Pony Express station. Riders passed through herds of sheep tended by seriously territorial dogs as riders descended through igneous formations toward the surreal Fish Spring National Wildlife Refuge, whose salt crust gives it the look of being permanently covered in snow. The leaders managed to beat volunteers to the station while the back half came through about 4:30 PM, just in time for the sun to begin setting.
After Fish Springs, the route hooked north and then u-turned south toward Callao, the first town since Fairfield, over a hundred miles past. While the leading group of three and the remains of the early break had cleared this section by 6:00 PM, the back of the train came through well after sunset ignited the peaks of the Deep Creeks. Dust from trucks fell limply into layers among sagebrush as valley inversions set in. Cows, fences, windbreaks, some ranch houses with the lights on. The riders sneaked through town, Tim, the SAG angel, met them in the dark at the only turn of note. After Callao, the riders turned northward into the foothills of the Deep Creek mountains toward Gold Hill.
Gold Hill hides midway up a long, rolling sufferfest that particularly hurt while living in a dim bubble of light. The road washed out in the white headlights, making it hard to figure out if it was smooth hardpack or powdery sand. It didn’t matter for the first six riders through, who didn’t even have to turn on the headlights until after the Gold Hill aid station. And oh, what an aid station it was. After a few final grinds up particularly loose, steep pitches, riders rounded the corner to be greeted by a full-on Christmas display. The aid station occupied a hunter’s cabin at the far end of town, where volunteers served gels, bananas, grilled cheese, chili, ramen, and whiskey. Most folks reported not wanting to leave.
Having been told that all the climbing was done after Gold Hill, the riders were pretty surprised to find that, no, the climbing wasn’t done. It had barely started. See, Strava isn’t perfect, and your narrator’s memory is definitely not perfect, either. Both had forgotten about the 10-mile, 4% climb on Dead Cedar Rd. to Alt Hwy 93 across the border into Nevada. After a short but fun gravel climb out of Gold Hill, a terrifying chase by sheep dogs for about half the riders, an and an even-more-fun bombing run down the gravel road with junipers blurring on either side in the moonlight, riders suddenly had to face a very, very long paved climb. Every rider mentioned being able to see the blinking red light of the stop sign at that last intersection at the top of the road and nearly all of them said that seeing it, but never seeing it get closer, hurt a lot. Also, from the climb, Wendover, now just lights in the distance no matter who you were, peeked between the hills. You could see the top of the hill that never seemed to get closer and the city to which you were riding that also never seemed to get closer.
But cresting that final climb, suddenly, it was all downhill, and Hwy 93 delivered everyone to Wendover’s waiting neon arms at high speed. They hooked off the main road just before the casinos and rambled into the Airfield Museum, the former Officer’s Club of the Wendover training airfield. The airfield had served, during WW II, as a gunnery range, where, at the end of the war, the crew of the Enola Gay secretly trained to deliver The Bomb. The leaders, Nathan among them, rolling in at 8:40 PM (good God) managed to beat the free pizza. As everyone else straggled in, volunteers from Wendover checked them in until they were told to go get some sleep finally at 3:00 AM (they resisted). Chammies were shed in well-tiled period bathrooms. Pizzas were eaten, and the riders passed out on sleeping pads next to a life-size model of Little Boy.
Congrats to everyone who participated at this year’s event! In the end, Nathan Manwaring finished first at 8:40 PM, followed by Jamie Sabuda 40 minutes later. Jeff Sumsion took the third spot 10 minutes after that. Stay tuned for details on next year’s event, as Bobby has plans to introduce prizes and an updated route. You can support the event here.
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