Brian Nicholson: Cyclists enjoy Italian flavor at Grand Fondo Moab bike race

Published: Saturday, May 4 2013 8:45 p.m. MDT

Cyclists gather at the starting line of a 60-bike race called The Gran Fondo Moab at the Aquatic Center in Moab Saturday, May 4, 2013. The race is a loop course that gains more than a mile in elevation and takes riders to the base of the La Sal Mountains.

Brian Nicholson

Four years ago, after Karen Guzman-Newton and her husband, Scott Newton, had spent around 12 years competing in cycling races in Italy, France and Spain, they decided to bring the Italian cycling tradition to Moab.

Saturday, more than 300 cyclists of all abilities thought it would be a good idea to climb more than a mile of elevation right in the middle portion of a 60-mile bike race.

“There are moments when you’re climbing out of Castle Valley, and getting some of those pitches you think aren’t going to end,” said Guzman-Newton.

The Grand Fondo Moab begins at the Aquatic Center in Moab and follows a relatively flat section of 18 miles toward the Castle Valley turnoff.

After the first stretch of confidence-building miles, it quickly rises in elevation into the valley and toward the La Sal Mountains, gaining in elevation with every mile.

The second section rises from about 4,000 feet on the shores of the Colorado River to about 8,200 feet past persistent snow drifts unwilling to give in to the desert climate.

At this level, the views are spectacular as tired participants are greeted with vistas of the tops of the plateaus they were just a short time earlier staring up at.

Guzman-Newton, who serves with her husband as race director, compares this race to some of the famous passes in northern Italy.

“Even the steepest climbs over in Europe, at this altitude with our pitches, it’s just as hard as doing Passo dello Stelvio (9,088 feet) or Passo Gardena, (7,008 feet) in Europe,” she said. “You feel like you’re not in the Alps or the Dolomites, but the scenery here is unique to anywhere in the world.”

According to Scott Newton, the term “gran fondo” also comes from Italy, directly translated as “big ride,” to include rides of up to 100 miles and more. The gran fondo races seem to fit neatly between professional cycling races and century tours. They offer a mass start, like a century, but are timed and offer awards to the fastest riders, like a professional race.

Also, he says, “with the mass start, you can see how long you can compete or stay with the professional riders, instead of starting the race divided into categories.”

Salt Lake rider Jessica Arbogast, the winner of the women’s race, not only was not intimidated by the steepness of the course, but reveled in it. “I love climbing and I love climbing in places like this, so I was smiling,” she said.

“I’m so happy to have won, but the best part was it was a beautiful day. It was a great ride. I’m down here with friends, and you can’t ask for more than that,” she added.

Historically, Moab has been a Mecca for mountain biking, but as races like the Gran Fondo Moab, and other events such as the Skinny Tire Festival and Moab Century Tour gain in popularity, that reputation could change to include the road cycling crowd.

Guzman-Newton said she hasn’t really received any complaints about the difficulty of the course. “In fact, people are pretty darned impressed when they are done that they completed it,” she said.

Aside from all the climbing, there are other redeeming qualities. First, with all that gain in elevation, as riders begin to heat up, the temperature drops, and once you reach the top, it sort of feels like it did in Moab. And don’t forget, what goes up must come down.

The last 22 miles are scary steep. And not just steep, they are brake-burning, white knuckle, oh mommy, where did I put my rip cord steep. The descent is so exhilarating you almost forget about the first two thirds. … Almost.

Brian Nicholson has completed marathons from Boston to Beijing and a host of Ragnar relays.

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