It's all downhill from here: Utah's cycling descents praised

Published: Wednesday, June 16 2010 5:27 p.m. MDT

The view down Little Cottonwood Canyon is one cyclists can enjoy on the descent. Bicycling Magazine named it one of the best descents in the U.S.

August Miller, Deseret News

For every grueling climb of a canyon road, there typically come two rewards for a cyclist.

First, there is the summit — the realization of reaching the top of the mountain pass.

Second, and perhaps more thrilling, is the descent — a speed-burning, white-knuckle adrenaline fest that usually takes less than a third of the time it took to reach the top.

Those descents, while not always long-lasting, are nonetheless often the favorite part of a long bike ride.

Bicycling Magazine, one of the leading voices in the sport, is publishing a list of the top descents in America. Not surprisingly, Utah — home to some of the country's most stunning and difficult climbs — also has one of the best descents.

Little Cottonwood Canyon, a short 8.5-mile drop of nearly 3,400 vertical feet, makes the list.

"Little Cottonwood, situated in the Wasatch Mountains southeast of Salt Lake City, is a steep-walled canyon just above the Alta ski resort, and the ride down through it is like snowboarding one of the area's best-designed intermediate trails: It's smooth, flowing and more fun than almost anything else you can legally do," Bicycling wrote.

Little Cottonwood is more often known as home to uphill bike races such as the Queen Stage of the Tour of Utah.

Turn your path around and you have the makings of an exciting 20 minutes in the saddle.

"The hill starts with a steady, steep grade, so you'll pile on speed quickly. But mostly, the road snakes down with gentle curves, and once you find your line you can settle in for the long descent," Bicycling continued. "There is no exposure here; instead, the soaring canyon walls seem to funnel you down the hill. This one ends much too soon."

The inclusion of Little Cottonwood Canyon on the list of America's top descents comes as no surprise to Utah's cycling community.

Burke Swindlehurst, a longtime professional cyclist who can go up Little Cottonwood as fast as anyone, puts it on his list of personal favorites as well.

"It is fun coming down Little Cottonwood because you can get a good rate of speed right from the start and the corners are not so bad that you can't be pretty aggressive."

The biggest drawback, aside from the relatively short distance, Swindlehurst said, is the vehicle traffic you usually find on the popular road leading to Snowbird and Alta.

"It is a very fun descent. If it was completely closed to traffic and you could have your way with it, you could really have a great ride," he said. "But I wouldn't recommend letting it all go on that road because it's not exactly the safest road when there are cars you have to deal with."

Still, bombing down Little Cottonwood has a well-deserved place among America's top descents.

More of Burke Swindlehurst's favorite descents in Utah:

Alpine Loop, American Fork and Provo Canyons — "For my money, those would be the best descents, whichever direction you go, on the Wasatch Front. I would put them above Little Cottonwood any day of the week."

Big Cottonwood Canyon, Cottonwood Heights — "It's an actual pedaling descent. You can take it at any speed you want. The area with the switchbacks near Storm Mountain, with the cliff, is really fun visually to look at if you take the time to do that."

Big Mountain, East Canyon — "It's pretty fun. It's not super long but it has some great switchbacks and you can dive into it pretty well. But it's not a white-knuckle ride. So that takes some of the thrill out of it while still making it a great ride.

Mine Road, Park City — Descending from Guardsman's Pass, Mine Road is fast and dangerous. "The sheer speed on this one is amazing, I've had speeds about 65 miles per hour on it. That's not one I would advocate people go and push themselves on because you get going so fast."

Elk Meadows to Beaver — "That one has a little bit of everything. Some high-speed stuff at the top and as you're traveling you get some switchbacks. For me, that's my favorite descent in Utah."

Kolob Reservoir to Virgin — "It's got switchbacks and high-speed turns. But the scenery coming down is good enough as you look down into Zion that you just want to stop and take it all in."

e-mail: jeborn@desnews.com

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