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Don’t Let Your Guard Down: Dissecting the top of Utah State Route 190

It was hard not to hate the guy that day. He did everything right, and that signature little grin never left his face, regardless of how brutally steep the roads became. I mean, at one point he just sat there in the chase group while descending Big Cottonwood, causally sipping a Coke before launching his stage-winning assault a short while later. And let me just say, as someone intimately familiar with the roads in that canyon—growing up just a few steps from the mouth—it ain’t exactly a breezy joyride up there.

In actuality, I really like Chris Horner. He’s been one of my favorite cyclists for a long time. But really? The dude who some say should be knocking on retirement’s door devoured the state’s hardest climbs during the weeklong Tour of Utah, causing locals to reel in disbelief at how easy he, and a few select others, made it all seem. Everyone who calls themselves a cyclist was undoubtedly brewing with a touch of envy watching him and Danielson make short work of the race route, as the American veterans’ exploits on their bikes were nothing short of stunning.


So for those who aren’t well versed in Utah’s Wasatch Range, let me briefly profile the key climbs those boys gobbled up during the TOU’s weekend edition this past August. While the race featured many noteworthy ascents, the two-headed beast known as Guardsman Pass was arguably one of the finest, as the dichotomy between its sheer beauty and lung-charring severity warrants some discussion.

The pass serves to connect Park City to Big Cottonwood Canyon, as well as a section joining Heber Valley back to Park City. In that order—the first route taking place Saturday and the second on Sunday’s final stage—the riders muscled their way up and over the Goliath. For a bit of perspective, the pass remains closed to motorized vehicles about eight months of the year due to snowpack, and up until a couple of years ago, the roads up there at 9,700 feet above sea level weren’t paved the whole way through.

On Saturday, the riders were treated to the punishing five-mile climb from Park City to Big Cottonwood. The climb itself is difficult (nearing a 15% gradient at sections toward the top), but the race organizers ruthlessly positioned it near the end of the stage—after some 80 miles of fast, windy racing—and still shy of the Alpe d’Huez-esque Little Cottonwood finishing climb. We’ll address that canyon in a later installment, but for now go ahead and let those 113 miles and 10,611-feet-of-elevation-gain numbers sink in a bit.

It was Sunday’s route, however, complete with another jagged saw-tooth course profile, that might have been even worse. Guardsman joined the party again, but this time around she showed her most menacing side—serving up the capstone climb from Heber Valley, over Empire Pass, back down to Park City.

This ascent arguably lays claim to inducing more “paper-boying” submissions than any other climb in the state, with the consistent double-digit gradients serving to turn any brave soul inside out. “Any mere mortal” could be substituted here, as those who witnessed the TOU might say Danielson and company didn’t seem quite as knackered as race organizers had most likely anticipated. But you shouldn’t let the cool, collected mannerisms expressed by those pros on that final upward slog fool you—the climb’s entirety is without a meter of reprieve. Just as the signs that warn backcountry skiers to take along their beacons and probes when leaving the avalanche-controlled resort boundaries, it would do many a cyclist a favor if a placard stating “compact cranks encouraged” were placed at the base of the Guardsman climb.


The real clawing begins just past Wasatch Mountain State Park, with the Pine Canyon roadway quickly bottlenecking between dense blankets of scrub oak. From this point on, up the seven miles to the saddle leading back over into Park City, the route mercilessly curls its way nearly 3,000 feet up the 8.3% average gradient wall. And just shy of the four-mile mark, 20% grades introduce the aptly titled “Midway Death March” to the summit. Oh, and in case anyone forgot, this all comes into play after nearly 40,000 feet of climbing during the previous five days of racing.

That Sunday afternoon on the backside of Guardsman, spectators witnessed just what conquering the beast truly looks like. The Tour of Utah’s strongest riders did it in spectacular fashion, marching along to beat of their own handlebar-mounted machines as they propelled themselves skyward. And while most of us won’t ever truly know the extent of those fighters’ suffering, we’d like to think, for our own self-esteems’ sake, they shared a slice of the pain we’ve all endured while pushing our mortal selves up those very same hills.

Photo Credit: Ian Matteson
Location: Guardsman’s Pass, Utah