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Inside The Ultimate Challenge

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Out of all the rides I look forward to every year, none of them compare to The Ultimate Challenge.

Aug 8, 2016 – For those that don’t know what The Ultimate Challenge is, it gives the average rider an opportunity to ride the same route of Stage 6 of the Tour of Utah – 114-miles and over 12,000 feet of elevation gain. Nearly 500 riders registered for The Ultimate Challenge this year.

Written by James Sanford

Every year I’ve ridden with my father, which is one of the reasons I love this sport. Right from the start, we stayed with a group that maintained an average of 20 miles per hour. It seemed that we flew through the first 60 miles from Kamas and into Park City.

Then the climbing began.

I’m a climber, and when it comes to cycling, I enjoy any chance to climb the any mountains from Utah. One of my favorite climbs is going up from Park City to the top of Guardsman Pass because the climb’s scenery is breathtaking, and it’s a challenge all the way up to the top. I really had to dig deep to keep my bike moving forward up the climb. The crowds formed on the sides of the road could have easily walked alongside me and kept a conversation during some parts of the climb – it’s that hard.

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I always know that once I see the 10km sign on Guardsman that I can make it to the finish. There are sections where many cyclists walk their bikes because the gradients become so steep – at certain points I my speedometer reads only 3.5mph. Standing out of the saddle is often times the only way to push through the suffering.

Empire Pass proceeds Guardsman, which was the the final KOM on Stage 7 of the Tour of Utah. Once I made it to the top of Empire, the road dropped quickly before the last 5km up to Guardsman. Part of what makes the last 5km so difficult is the state of the road: rocky, torn up tar, with a mixture of dirt. While climbing, another rider and I agreed it was the U.S.’s version of cycling over some European cobblestones.

After conquering Guardsman, the descent into Salt Lake City is a challenge in itself. Normally, I can get up to 50mph while descending Big Cottonwood Canyon, but this year a large storm created a major headwind the entire way down. No matter how hard I tucked to fight the wind, I could barely reach a speed of 40mph.

Coming out of Big Cottonwood and towards the Snowbird ascent, the storm touched down and hit the riders hard. As I entered the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon the skies opened up. This did not create ideal conditions for those already struggling to complete this challenging ride.

I always look forward to Tanner’s flat, which is often packed with spectators – listening to all the cheering makes me feel like a professional rider even if only for a moment. Hundreds of spectators lined the road this year and cheered as we suffered up to Snowbird. Enthusiastic fans gave me pushes to keep my momentum moving forward. Even though my legs kept screaming at me to stop, the support of the crowd kept my brain’s inner motor revving.

After seven hours of riding, I made it to the 1km sign just in time to finish and watch the race come through. To give you perspective of how fast they tackled they course, we had started at 6:30AM and the pro cyclists started over four hours later.

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For anyone that says cycling isn’t a tough sport, I encourage them to grab a bike and ride The Ultimate Challenge. There’s a reason the event earned its name. It always grows my love for the sport and more appreciation for how strong the professionals truly are. More than anything, it gets me excited for the next years ride and another chance to prove myself in some of the toughest mountains in the world.

James is a student at Utah Valley University and has earned his Associate’s Degree. He is now working on a Bachelor’s Degree in communications.