A gravel event across northern Utah may be challenging during normal times, but during a pandemic? Robert Kennedy and John Hernandez are bucking the trend of gravel event cancelations by bringing small-scale grassroots gravel racing to Northern Utah and Nevada in October, and they think they can do it in a way that protects riders’ and the community’s health.
While massive gravel races like the MidSouth brought controversy, and established endurance mountain bike races like the Mohican 100 pushed forward without state and local health officials’ blessings, promoter Robert Kennedy believes he has the recipe for a memorable yet safe event in Utah.
After receiving his press release, we reached out to learn more about the Salty Lizard and Stupid Pny gravel events on October 2nd and 3rd, 2020.
Cyclocross Magazine: Reading your press release [below], it looks like a unique, scenic and challenging event. Of course the first thing many will wonder, can it be done safely during this time? What measures will you have in place to keep racers and the community safe?
Robert Kennedy: That’s the big question, right? Bike racing is never 100% safe and especially not now, but we’re setting everything up to try to keep people from bunching at the start, aid stations, and finish. I’ve been trying to look at how other events are doing it, reading up, and I’ve also been volunteering at some local races to get a feel for how other events are handling the [storm] that is COVID.
We’re still going to do group starts for both the Stupid Pony and the Salty Lizard 100, but everyone’s going to start with a small group and they’re going to line up on a grid with lanes marked out long enough for people to get up to speed.
It’s a 200+-mile ride, so it’s not like there isn’t plenty of space on course–it’s just those few places where people will actually stop that I have to worry about. Same with the Salty Lizard 100–it’s a Fondo and actual century, so there’s a lot of room out there with no one else but the lizards and antelope.
The hardest thing is that the Pony is it’s a point-to-point, not a loop, so we have to get solo riders back to their cars at Eagle Mountain, and that’s been what’s been eating me. Originally, we have a bus reserved [for this purpose]. In order to keep the ride affordable for everyone and prevent the ballooning costs of, say, The Ride Formerly Known as Dirty Kanza and LoToJa, which easily top $1k for the ride and other stuff, we offer transportation and lodging for the Pony. You can bring your loner self and be fine, is the idea.
But now with COVID-19, suddenly, sharing a bus with 50+ other riders doesn’t sound like much of a good time anymore. We’re trying to figure it out. Best thing is to try to arrange your own ride with someone in your household so that we can save the reduced number of seats on the bus for those who are truly lonely and broke.
But yeah, there’ll be a rider’s bible that tells people what we’re doing and what they’re going to have to do to be sure that we don’t pass all our germs to each other.
But as far as COVID-19 goes, my thought is that our responsibility is to make the most cautious potential riders comfy. We need to be able to answer their fears rather than the people who aren’t worried about it, especially since we would be doing a disservice to Wendover and Eagle Mountain by not taking it seriously. Some people won’t feel comfortable coming out and I sympathize. This year does quite suck, after all.
CXM: How did this event come about?
RK: Actually, a Facebook post. But back in 2015, I rode the Pony with two friends the other direction as a two-night bikepack and fell so hard in love with the West Desert and endurance riding that I got a tattoo. Then, last year, I decided I wanted to try and ride it again in one sitting, since it’s pretty flat, just on the edge of doable, and since I couldn’t in good conscience leave my loving wife with our rambunctious toddler alone for several days. So I asked people on Facebook if they wanted to try it and a whole bunch of people responded, so much so that it started to snowball with sponsors and volunteers and all that stuff.
I met John Hernandez when one of the techs at a local shop mentioned the ride to him and he decided he wanted to help out, which was the best thing that could happen to the ride, because he’s got deep roots in Wendover and an endless bounty of enthusiasm. We’ve been working together ever since.
But anyway, it was pretty damned cool. We rode it in November (which I prefer, because even then, it was 60 degrees out in the West Desert. About two-thirds of the people made it to the end, so 10 in all. Our fastest finisher came in at 13 hours and 40 min and our last came in at pert near 24 hours on the dot. No one died. No one even flatted. Many of us rode for multiple hours in full darkness in freezing temps. It was absolutely magical. I’ll never forget it. Best ride ever.
So yeah, John and I hooked up in January afterward and I found out that he was wanting to put on a gravel ride that he’d worked on with his friends. He’d been hosting rides out by Wendover for years and he had one in particular that had hooked him. He was working with Becky Benson on it, and we three joined forces to make Salty & Stupid Cycling, LLC. It’s working out pretty well, considering the end of the world and all.
CXM: Many people think Moab when it comes to Utah cycling. But what makes this event unique in terms of scenery and terrain?
RK: If you’ve ever been to the north of Utah, you know that it’s a lot different than the south. The West Desert is like the physical incarnation of the idea of space. It’s so damned big. Where everything in Moab is weird and vertical, the West Desert is all kinds of horizontal. They make you feel on your own and free in different ways. The West Desert is so big it invites you to feel big, too. You can see everything and get on everything: very little is hidden. Except that there’s so much out there. There are geode beds and lava flows and herds of pronghorn antelope a hundred strong and wild horses and packs of coyotes and golden eagles and bright goldenrod rabbitbrush and weird little flowers. And pinyon and sage and all sorts of stuff.
My favorite example is from last year, we were getting close to Simpson Springs and there was a little rise and over that rise, separated by the road, was an enormous herd of antelope. Couldn’t see it from either side of the rise. It was a complete surprise.
And it’s incredibly quiet out there. Sometimes, they’re testing weapons or flying F-35s and then there’s an ominous booming that reminds me of the giant’s feet in Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s such an incredible place. It’s weird and wonderful. Best place in the world.
CXM: What kind of equipment recommendations do you have for these events, especially gearing and tires?
RK: Easy gears and the biggest tires you can squeeze in there. The Pony’s pretty buff, comparatively, but after 150 miles, you’re going to square-edge pretty much every obstacle you encounter, and the climbing is a bit back-end-loaded, so at around mile 150 lurks an enormous climb over to Gold Hill from the Canyon Station on the Pony Express. I had a 2×10 36/26 x 11-36 last time out and I was in the easiest gear for a solid 40 miles. Dugway Pass, especially, is pretty awful because it’s 20 miles of false flat uphill until the last mile, where it kicks above a 20% grade.
Tire-wise, you just need to make sure that you run something that’s durable so you don’t spend what little energy you have fixing flats. As I said, it’s pretty buff, but there’s significant sand out by Callao and Wendover and a lot of loose rocks everywhere because it’s gravel. I’m planning on a 42mm minimum this year. I ran 29ers last year and was pretty comfy. My gearing this year is going to be 40 x 11-46 since I’m not dragging 50 lbs of touring 29er across the desert. I think a lot of people are going to go for something similar.
For the Salty Lizard 100, it’s pretty flat and fast in parts, but the techy parts are really techy. I’ve had people declare that they’d only ever ride their mountain bike out there. There’s one part I call Mt. Dune where it’s about a mile uphill over moto whoops that are entirely made of fine sand. I saw a guy who tried it on 35mm tires and got Judo-flipped over his bike and ended up nearly amputating his finger in his disc rotor.
The top three times for Mt. Dune are all on mountain bikes. But a lot of it, you don’t really need it. The best sign of a good gravel course is that you have no idea what bike to bring, and I think John’s course does that. It’s fast and funky.
I think that for both rides, we’ll see a lot of both mountain bikes and gravel bikes. Maybe the odd CX bike with a lot of clearance and extra water bolted on.
CXM: Tinker Juarez is coming! He’s a legend, and known for his mountain bike career and also for being ageless. What type of bike will he ride for this?
RK: My bet is his Cannondale Scalpel. Maybe a Topstone, if he’s feeling speedy. I actually have zero idea. The course is so long that comfort tends to equal speed for most people. But Tinker and the fast guys are so fast that speed just tends to equal speed.
I don’t think that any of the top people last year ran tires bigger than 36mm. One guy was running 60 PSI, which had to have felt just awful.
So yeah, it’ll be interesting. Guessing that he’ll run either Boyd Altamont or CCC wheels since they’re a touch lighter and are just burly, which is what you really need for these rides.
We’re really excited to have him out here. Especially as a LatinX riding icon–John Hernandez, who’s the dad of the Salty Lizard, is half-Mexican on his mom’s side, and I have some friends from South America, who are all incredibly stoked that he’ll be there. One of our big things is that we want to promote healthy outdoor recreation in Wendover, and the community is like one-third or more Hispanic, so seeing someone like Tinker just kill it is going to be great and he’ll hopefully inspire a lot of people to pedal a bike instead of drive an ATV. Or even just do both. That’d make me happy, too.
CXM: If the virus is worse at the time, can folks get a refund?
We’ve been giving out refunds for the last four months for anyone who asked. Now, since it’s actually happening and such, we’re asking people to email us at [email protected]. We understand. This year is the runniest of shits. There’s a guy who’s riding the Pony from Canada who I’ve already told can just say the word and get his money back, because it’s hard to ride when you can’t get into the country. We’d definitely prefer to give a deferral since if everyone asks for a refund, the ride would be canceled pretty much permanently. But I’m a famously soft touch, so yeah.
The big thing is that we’re a new ride and we’re already working for free. I’m a grad student and I shelled out $500 of my own cash for the first Stupid Pony and I’m not eager to repeat that. That said, we have awesome sponsors from the cycling industry and from the community who’ve told us they’re on board with us until we become the Greatest Gravel Cycling Event in All of The West Desert North of Delta, UT and South of Wherever Rebecca’s Private Idaho Is.
Seriously, buy Boyd Cycling, Hammer Nutrition, Skratch Lab, or TRP Cycling stuff, because they jumped in when a grad student emailed them with a cracked-out dream of riding the West Desert in a sitting.
CXM: What’s behind the name?
As far as names go, John had said that he liked “Salty Lizard 100” because it kind of connotes the Bonneville Salt Flats and Speed Week and all this cool stuff that Wendover has going. Also, there are many lizards. And they are quite fast. John’s vision for his ride is as a celebration of Wendover, where he grew up. We’ve tried to make it kind of a county fair that celebrates the area, especially the night before. We’re still trying to figure out what the live music looks like post-COVID and, God as my witness, we will have a clown. Not sure how. It will happen.
For the Stupid Pony, I thought it was perfect because it’s just a terrible idea. There’s not a lot of support, the ride is really long, and you have to have kind of a cracked sense of fun to want to do it. Plus, I thought that the name gave me a lot of leeway to do things that would be funny to me but are utterly pointless, like giving the winners my old t-shirts. This year, the t-shirts are even getting gravel-optimized, since everything can be gravel-specific, now. We’ve set one up tubeless, stuffed a tire in it. So yeah, it’s a way to embrace my inner child and then inflict it on other people. Plus, let’s face it, the Pony Express was pretty stupid. It operated for a year, was a catastrophe for Native Americans, possibly an even bigger catastrophe for the horses, and it’s gotten lodged in our national imaginary like that playdough that’s become a permanent part of my 3 y.o.’s little craft table. But riding it is still fun. Stupid things are fun.
See the full press release below.
More info: saltyandstupidcycling.com
The Stupid Pony, Salty Lizard 100 and Boyd Cycling Join Forces in Their Quest for World Domination
Boyd Cycling is joining Salty & Stupid Cycling to put on our ambitious and unfathomably cool gravel races this October 2-3, the Salty Lizard 100, the Stupid Pony (#stupidpony), and the Stupid Lizard 100 (#saltylizard100) and they’re bringing mountain biking great Tinker Juarez to join our party in Utah’s West Desert.
The Stupid Pony and the Salty Lizard 100 are the rides that you’ve always wanted to do—featuring between them over 330 miles of nearly 100% dirt traversing the width of Utah on the Pony Express and Silver Island Mountain Scenic Byway. You’ll see the most alien and beautiful and remote landscapes in the continental U.S., riding buff gravel roads and technical OHV trails. You’ll watch dawn over the Wasatch Mountains and dusk over the Deep Creek Mountains and see scads of pronghorn antelope and wild horses in the valleys in between.
Even though our rides are fabulously chill, the presence of Tinker Juarez will give the fast guys who can’t resist 200 miles of drag racing a run for their money. Utah has an amazing endurance scene and we’re excited to up the competitive ante for last year’s podium finishers, Nathan Manwaring (1st place 2019 Stupid Pony Men’s), Jackie Baker (1st place 2019 Stupid Pony Women’s). Boyd is also putting up two (II) wheelsets for the winners of the men’s and women’s categories, which is a step up from the used t-shirts that they are still getting and are still contractually required to wear.
Boyd’s lineup of premium off-road gravel and mountain wheels, especially the Altamont and CCC, combine the light weight that brevet riders need to keep moving with the durability and ability to run wide tires that will actually get you across the desert.
Boyd supports our community-driven and inclusive approach to putting on rides – they’re cheap, dirt cheap – and our efforts to reach out to communities who have been underserved by the biking industry. We’re putting on a bike drive for kids in Wendover, UT, and West Wendover, NV, and reaching out to Latino communities in Utah and Nevada to spread the joy of gravel by bike. We’ve had incredible support from both West Wendover and Wendover, and the good luck to have wonderful volunteers like Karen and Randy Shepherd, Conner VanSkiver, Misti and Nate Cobb and Cason Carrol.
We’re here to help people enjoy the incredible beauty of the West Desert, and so incredibly chuffed that Boyd is joining us in our cracked quest to get people to bike across it!
To register or learn more: Salty & Stupid Cycling