Imagine riding a 30-year-old tandem all day with one of your best friends, through one of the most breathtaking places in the world — the rough road, scorching sun, howling wind, and friendship is on the line. Would you be nervous or excited? Maybe both?
The White Rim trail in Canyonlands National Park has gained notoriety here in the US, with FKT attempts becoming a popular informal race, especially during the COVID pandemic. An unsupported trip around the 100-mile loop is no small feat. Doing it on a tandem has been in the back of my mind for a while, but when Evelyn Dong brought it up in February I couldn’t resist.
We had ridden a tandem once before at the annual Tour des Suds fundraiser for the Mountain Trails Foundation in Park City, Utah. As professional mountain bikers we’ve done some big adventure rides in the past and figured that should be enough experience, right? Maybe.
Keegan Swenson’s parents were generous enough to lend their 1992 Yokota MTB tandem for the ride. We checked over the bike to make sure it could make it through the day, and added fresh tubes, tires, and sealant.
Going into the ride, we weren’t too stressed about an early start. We wanted to go fast, mostly because we didn’t want to be out there all day, with a “reasonable” goal of sub-8 hours. We woke up with the sun and ate a big breakfast before getting ready to roll. Our friend Logan had volunteered to come out and take photos which turned out to be lucky for us! About 30 minutes later at 10:15 am, we dropped in to Mineral Bottom Road. Evelyn rode stoker with a couple “oh f**k’s,” realizing that she had left me in control. Almost immediately we were laughing uncontrollably, with true naïveté of what we had gotten into.
The first 20 miles were mostly downhill and we enjoyed the ride along Green River at the bottom of the canyon. We had our first crash, plowing through a sandy section, but it was more of a tip over and laughter ensued. Evelyn again questioned her trust in my piloting skills. We got rolling and she said “uhhh we have a flat.” Damn, really? We tried pumping it up and spinning the wheel but no luck. Pulling off the tire we found the rim tape wasn’t covering the spoke holes, leaving multiple punctures in the tube at a spot sealant wouldn’t reach. We carefully realigned the rim tape and put in a new tube, gingerly riding to catch Logan.
Spirits still high, we decided to add a few layers of the tape just to be safe. Then it was back to pedaling, laughing, and now pushing because we hadn’t figured out the steep climbs.
Once we made it up onto the mesa the wind howled and whipped sand into my face, arms, and legs. I think Evelyn was wondering why we were going so slow since she was in my draft. Continuing our way around, we established a good rhythm and found our cadence. We made it up a lot of the steep stuff, but still had numerous “tip over” moments.
There was still more pushing with little rock ledges forcing us to get off and hike but we were still having a great time. We stopped at the top of one hill and had a quick chat with Logan, asking if he was enjoying himself. He loved the challenge of shooting from the hip while navigating the truck across the technical terrain.
It was uneventful for a while as we approached the halfway point and had been on the bike for about six hours. The views were stunning. At times the trail gets close to the edge of the cliffs where the sandstone is white, just like the trail name suggests. We took time to check out the cool arches down in the canyon and enjoyed some whiskey from Evelyn’s flask.
At this point we rounded the southernmost point of the journey and finally had the wind at our backs. The old freehub started to stick but we were excited to be making good time with high spirits. Or maybe that was the whiskey talking.
At about mile 70 we hit a ledge drop, and it felt like we got both wheels in the air at the same time. The freehub decided that was a bad idea and pulled the chain through the derailleur, snapping the cage. Oops.
The fix wasn’t too bad and we chose a nice easy gear that would still let us pedal up Shafer Trail, the final five-mile, 1,500ft climb out of the White Rim. The only issue with this gear was that our top speed was about 10mph. So if we went top speed for the rest of the ride, it would take us another three hours to finish the loop. By now it was 6pm and we were a little worried about the forecasted rainstorm.
Two miles later we snapped the small chainring. That was the nail in the coffin for our ride, and Logan had rallied ahead to find another good photo spot. We hiked/scootered/coasted for another 15 minutes before seeing him coming back toward us in the truck. He knew something had gone wrong because of how fast we had been moving with the tailwind.
We got some more whiskey out of the truck, accepting the fact that we weren’t going to make it around on this trip. Next, we loaded up the Yokota and completed the last 25 miles in the comfort of the truck. Evelyn and I were sore and defeated, but when it started to rain half an hour later we were more than happy to be in the comfort of the cab.
Camp wasn’t quiet that night though. We all had our own stories from the day. Whether it was Logan trying to get far enough ahead of us to set up for photos, or Evelyn having to put up with getting rattled around on the back of the tandem while looking at (and smelling) my butt all day, and me having to constantly remind her to stop trying to steer. The challenges of spending eight hours on a 30-year-old tandem and dealing with mechanical issues will always be outweighed by the awe of Canyonlands.
On Sunday we woke up slowly, enjoyed a nice cup of coffee, and said our goodbyes. I headed back to Tucson to finish my winter training, Evelyn back to Park City, and Logan off on a new adventure of his own. It was a special weekend and we all came out of it as better friends. I can’t wait until the next opportunity to do something equally intimidating. In the end this tandemonious trip was everything I hoped it would be, and I for one am ready to go back and finish what we started.
I have my fingers crossed that Evelyn and Logan feel the same.