It’s All About the Up! Utah’s Bicycle Hill Climbs

Cycling Utah columnist, nutrition expert, and cat 1 road racer Breanne Nalder on her way to winning the 2013 Snowbird Hill Climb.

By John Higgins

Skiers love to say “it’s all about the down”, and that any effort expended to get uphill either via lift or legs is simply a means to an exhilarating descent. While there is no doubt cyclists enjoy the reward of a long fast descent, the ability to ride uphill with relative ease, speed and personal accomplishment is an ongoing challenge for many riders.

From Logan to Moab, Utah offers plenty of accessible uphill riding to test oneself against, and the big tests are the organized hill climbs. Sure, you can go and Strava yourself up any canyon at any time gunning for a personal record, but the environment of an organized race fires up the competitive ambitions, boosts the adrenaline, and gives you fast wheels to chase and desperately try to hang on to.

We are fortunate to have several hill climb events catering to the cycling population in the Wasatch. The first of the season in early July is the Porcupine Hill Climb, ascending Big Cottonwood Canyon from the Porcupine Pub and Grille at the canyon base to Brighton. This is the longest climb with 3800 feet of gain over 14.7 miles, with a relatively flat “rest” between the steep kickers of Storm Mountain and Solitude to Brighton. Not that there is actually any rest when you are plying the pedals with all the effort you can muster in the chase for a personal record or podium position. With 12 years of history, this event attracts a large and strong field, with locally based pro riders vying for top spot. This year’s men’s winner was Cannondale sponsored mountain bike racer, Keegan Swenson of Park City. The fastest woman was Anne Perry, who recently won a USA Cycling national championship and UCI world championship. If you are up to the task, try beating Tyler Wren’s 2012 time of 1 hr 4 seconds!

The longest running event at 35 years is the Snowbird Hill Climb up Little Cottonwood Canyon. Starting on 9400 S and Highland Drive, this 10 mile ride climbs 3500 feet to Snowbird entrance two. Taking top honors this year in 45:09 minutes was another Cannondale sponsored pro mountain biker, Alex Grant of Salt Lake City. First female was Breanne Nalder in 52:10. You won’t find this on Strava, but the record is held by well known international pro, the now retired Levi Leipheimer with a time of 43:06, set in 1996! Historically this event has been held mid-August, but date conflicts with the Tour of Utah and other events pushed it back a month to mid September this year.

Mountain bike superstar Alex Grant topped the men’s field in the Snowbird Hill Climb, and then finished it off with a mountain bike climb to the top of Hidden Peak, taking the Ultra Widowmaker in the process.

For those who really love riding uphill, the ride to Snowbird is just the warmup for the main event: the Ultra! Transitioning to a pre-delivered mountain bike, the grade steepens for another 3000 feet of climbing over nearly 5 miles from the Plaza to the top of Hidden Peak. Alex Grant also won this handily this year, with a total time of 1hr 41 minutes. That’s right, less than an hour and three quarters from the Salt Lake Valley to the top of Hidden Peak by bike.

Now if Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons are not challenge enough, you may be a candidate for the Powder Mountain Hill Climb which serves as the Utah Cycling Association Hill Climb State Championship! Now running for 5 years, this steep test piece climbs 3300 feet in 6 miles for the outskirts of Eden up the Powder Mountain access road to the summit. As a licensed competitor-only event, it attracts a smaller field of self- professed climbers willing to throw themselves up grades reaching 19%. If you like the challenge of climbing, then this local ride should be on your bucket list. But be warned, as I was. Get yourself a 27T or 28T rear cassette, or getting to the top may not be a viable option. As one rider noted beforehand, “there is no strategy in this race, it is a ride of attrition”. You can try to hang onto someone’s wheel for all you are worth, but the relentless grade quickly interferes with pre-race intentions.

Scampering to the top in an impressive time of 39:26 Chris Mackay (Competitive Cyclist) was first over the line, setting a new course record. Breanne Nalder (DNA Cycling/Plan 7) added to her palmares by setting the woman’s course record of 47:01, besting her winning time from last year by over 2 minutes.

Rounding out the year is the low key and short but aptly named City Creek Bike Sprint in mid-October. Attracting a smaller field due to the distraction of cyclocross racing, this event is aimed more at the recreational enthusiast looking for a personal best up the narrow and popular City Creek road. Starting at the entrance gate and going to end of the questionably paved road at Rotary Park, this is a great event for novice hill climbers, ascending 1500 feet over 5.5 miles. Not that some top talent doesn’t show up. Pro team rider Chase Pinkham holds the course record of 20:41, so although you won’t get a KOM on this ride, you will get a short, sharp workout!

Set your sights high for 2014, keep an eye out for event adverts and listings here in Cycling Utah, and if you haven’t raced uphill before, choose your challenge, saddle up, sweat it out and ride it up. And then relax and enjoy the down.


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