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Reaching for the Queen’s Crown: Making the March up Little Cottonwood Canyon

It’s hard to imagine the shattered peloton’s few remaining survivors were enjoying their surroundings when they hit the lower slopes of Little that afternoon. The fact that Utah’s earliest pioneers chose this stunning spot to harvest the granite for their downtown temple most likely didn’t cross any of the riders’ minds, either. By this point in the day’s horrendously difficult “Queen Stage,” the Tour of Utah’s participants had raced down from the northern part of the state, up and over multiple canyon passes, to this location some 100 miles and roughly 7,500 feet of climbing later. Anything will do as a distractor, yeah?

Late that afternoon, the day’s strongmen were turning the screws a notch tighter, while everyone else was fighting just to keep their bleary eyes uncrossed for a few dreadful miles longer. We all watched the chess match unfold over the final meters before the line at Snowbird, nervously anticipating what sort of tactics would play out between the Horner/Danielson duo out front. With Horner patiently waiting, just sitting on Danielson’s wheel, seemingly hanging there almost too long, he finally jumped him at the line with masterful precision.

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Little Cottonwood Canyon was the bloody icing on the Queen’s cake that day, serving to truly destroy what was left of the elite riders. As a Salt Lake City native, I’ve often heard the circulating rumor comparing Little’s profile to that of the storied Alpe d’Huez. Word has it that our “little” canyon on the southeast end of the valley possesses fairly similar characteristics to that of L’Alpe — in terms of both distance and average gradient, but without the signature switchbacks.

While I haven’t yet had the opportunity to pedal my bike up France’s famous climb, from time to time, I do enjoy a good grind up this monster in my backyard. From the mouth to the TOU’s finish line at Snowbird, the climb is roughly 6.5 miles, with a 9.2% average grade. Sure, there are more difficult climbs around, but Little’s accessibility from the valley makes it a local favorite that’s pretty hard to beat.

It was during the last ice age — some 10,000 to 30,000 years ago — when this trough-shaped, glacier-cut canyon was formed. The result of this geological marvel is a wide mouth that makes the first few pedal revolutions relatively manageable. This steady gradient is short-lived, however, as the canyon narrows and the roadway begins sharply twisting up and away from the valley below. With each approaching blind curve, the route feels to get only steeper, before banking into a section known as the “Seven Sisters.”

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It’s at about this midway point where those running standard cranksets begin hitting their distress signals, silently wishing for the extra cog that’s nowhere to be found. This section of the canyon is characterized by its seven repetitive curves that relentlessly tilt skyward before reaching Tanners Flat. But unlike the Seven Sisters title, this name is a gross misinterpretation of the segment’s character, as there’s nothing horizontal about this sharp left-hand ramp carved into the hillside. Once beyond the “flat,” however, the brutally steep road eases somewhat, allowing you to collect yourself before triumphantly rolling into Snowbird’s lower entrance. Bravo, faithful soldier. After you’ve caught your breath up there at 7,760 feet, it’s recommended to let the sites steal it again on your swift, well-deserved descent back into the valley below.

Above
Photo Credit: Ian Matteson
Location: Cottonwood Canyons, Utah