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This is a ‘beginner’ trail? Testing acumen and bravery in the mountain biking destination of Moab, Utah

When Thelma and Louise drove their T-Bird off a cliff in the final seconds of the same-titled movie, audiences thought it was into the Grand Canyon. But as epic as that giant chasm looked, the characters were driving off a cliff in Dead Horse Point State Park, about 30 miles southwest of here.

I was in the park a year ago, accompanied by my husband, Chris, as part of a small guided group about to sample what this mountain biking destination had to offer.

For the uninitiated, Moab, along with places such as Bend, Ore., and Crested Butte, Colo., is one of the country’s preeminent mountain biking locales owing to its dry climate, awe-inspiring terrain and vistas, and several excellent bike tour and rental outfits. According to the MTB Project (www.mtbproject.com), there are 114 “best trails” encompassing every skill level from family-friendly to downright suicidal.

Hardcore mountain bikers will think of Slickrock Trail or the White Rim Trail (the road used by the movie outlaws above), a 100-mile four-wheel-drive route adopted as a multi-day trek by thrill-seeking cyclists immune to 100-degree temps during the region’s brief but undeniable summer.

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But on that early spring morning, we were fighting to stay warm, not worrying about heat exhaustion. And though our little 9-mile loop paled in comparison, the mostly mellow circuit offered at least a few opportunities to pedal beyond our comfort zones.

“The trail we’re doing today is called Big Chief Loop, part of the park’s Intrepid Trail System, and is considered beginner to intermediate,” said our guide, Gena Cain.

“Considered” is the operative word. Unlike many trails with descriptions that tend to overestimate their difficulty, mountain biking trails in the Moab area can be tougher than advertised.

The 10½-mile loop (rated Class 4, the most difficult) gives the fearless (and the occasional befuddled tourist) vast rolling expanses of Navajo sandstone — actually petrified sand dunes — to test their mountain-biking acumen.

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Big Chief, which follows the rim of a plateau 6,000 feet above sea level, offers monumental vistas of nearby Canyonlands National Park with its sculptural pinnacles and red-hued buttes. If that’s not enough sensory overload, you need only tilt your head downward to glimpse the Colorado River twisting and turning 2,000 feet below.

After the usual warnings about using the rear brakes first, we were on our way, comfortable for the moment. Chris and I were riding full-suspension Santa Cruz “Superlights,” certainly the best rental bike I’ve ever used.

Gena Cain riding in Moab, Utah.
Gena Cain riding in Moab, Utah.
(Christopher Chamness )

Good thing, because after an easy cruise through stunted vegetation (things grow slowly in the parched environment) I magically ascended three-foot-high step-ups — something I wouldn’t ordinarily do.

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Next was Chris, who, just two months before a total hip replacement, plowed over the terrain as well. Heidi, an adventure racer living in Vail, Colo., and Dale, an electrician from Britain, made up the rest of the group.

“Keep going, power through. The bike will do it,” Cain repeated as we cruised over rocks and small ledges to our first rest and photo stop close to the edge of Pyramid Canyon.

“OK, at the count of three, I want everyone to jump as high as you possibly can and strike a pose,” our high-energy guide screamed, camera in hand.

Back on Earth, Chris asked what we all had wondered: “I have to know where the Dead Horse thing comes from.”

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Cain explained: “Dead Horse Point is a peninsula — where cowboys used to corral the wild mustangs that roamed the mesa. So they built a fence across the road using branches and brush.” The puzzling part is that after choosing the horses they wanted, they simply left the others to die of thirst.

“It’s a sad story,” Cain said. “When you get to the point, you can look down … and see what looks like the silhouette of a horse’s face in the ground.”

Where else? Arches National Park.
Where else? Arches National Park.
(Arnie Cooper )

Cain also directed us to a black coating on the desert floor known as cryptobiotic soil. “It’s our desert’s ecosystem and very important to us,” she said. “We don’t want to step on it, so ‘don’t bust the crust,’ as they say.” A complex of lichens, algae, moss and fungus, the crust binds the soil, inhibiting erosion and absorbing moisture. A single footstep can undo decades of growth. Hence the warning sign at the trailhead.

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Enough serious stuff, we were here to have fun — though challenging ourselves physically and mentally was a better description. After another mile or so, Cain waved us to stop.

“We’re coming up on this section of trail where we’ll be entering our first technical climb section,” she said. “There are two. This first one’s more difficult. So you’re gonna see it, and as you do, make sure you find your appropriate gear.”

“Like knowing which gear is which,” Chris said, joking, but I think he was serious.

Cain continued. “And look ahead. If you’re going to get up that step, you’ve gotta want to. And you really gotta try hard. You can spin out, but you can also make it. It’s fate.”

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I couldn’t help but think that that was something I was tempting. But I knew the sport was as much a mental game as a physical one. In a few minutes, the climb came into view and I shifted to the lowest gear. Wrong move, because my wheels slipped, forcing me to stop.

Dale also struggled to maneuver through the spot. I wouldn’t let Chris try because of his hip. As for Heidi, “I can push a bike like nobody’s business,” she said.

It was hazy, but the view was still awesome.
It was hazy, but the view was still awesome.
(Arnie Cooper )

But I was determined to do it. And Cain was more than eager to advise.

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“Put it in a higher gear, so you’re not spinning out so much. You lost all your momentum right there,” she said.

Cain pointed to the first part of the ledge, with a small boulder off to the right. “Try it on that other rock and then look past it, and don’t even think about it.”

Her comment reminded me of the book “Trying Not to Try,” about “the power of spontaneity.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite able to not try hard enough, and after two more attempts, I gave up.

But a little bit of that book’s wisdom managed to sink in, at least for the second technical spot.

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Again, Cain warned us in advance.

“We’re gonna come around a right-hand turn and there’s gonna be a drop. It’s totally rollable [achievable], but sometimes it freaks people out. If you look at it and it feels good and you want to attempt it, go for it.”

And here Cain offered a critical piece of advice: “The most important thing is to look where you want to go.” In other words, if you focused on that rock you should avoid, you are going to hit it. My mind started obsessing about what this drop was going to do to me, especially after Cain’s next comment. “It’s better to keep safe than get injured and ruin your ride. If you have to think about it, I recommend not doing it.”

But what happens if you get to this drop without realizing it?

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Indeed, when the mini-cliff appeared sooner than I had expected, I didn’t question what I was up against. Jeremy Adams, a psychologist and longtime mountain biker from Australia, said my brain didn’t have time to activate a fear response, allowing me to avoid the dreaded limbic system takeover.

That (and the wonders of full suspension) allowed me to fly through the air with my brain and legs on autopilot.

travel@latimes.com

Moab
Moab
(Utah )
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If you go
THE BEST WAY TO MOAB, UTAH

From LAX, From LAX, Delta, American, Southwest, Alaska and United offer nonstop and connecting service (change of planes) to Salt Lake City. Restricted round-trip fares from $170. Moab is about 235 miles southeast of Salt Lake.

WHERE TO EAT
Peace Tree Juice Cafe, 516 N. Main St.; [435] 259-0101, www.peacetreecafe.com. Open daily 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Healthful lunch option with salads, wraps and veggie juices and smoothies. Also open for dinner.
Sabaku Sushi, 90 E. Center St.; [435] 259-4455, www.sabakusushi.com. Closed Mondays QUESTION: operating hours?.
Specialty rolls such as the area’s namesake “Delicate Arch” with tuna, salmon, crab and avocado wrapped in cucumber and topped with ponzu sauce.
Miguel’s Baja Grill, 51 N. Main St.; [435] 259-6546, www.miguelsbajagrill.com. Open 1 to 9 p.m. QUESTION: daily?
Colorful ambience with some not-so-typical selections such as lamb enchiladas with mole.

WHERE TO STAY

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Red Cliffs Lodge, Milepost 14, Highway 128, Moab; [866] 812-2002, www.redcliffslodge.com.
Doubles from $340 per night, per person. Fourteen miles from downtown. and Pricey, but with awesome views. It’s also a good starting point for exploring the region.

The Mayor’s House Bed & Breakfast, 505 Rose Tree Lane, Moab; [435] 272-1932, www.mayorshouse.com. From $130 per night. Gay-friendly B&B on a quiet street just minutes from the main strip. Spa and pool.

BIKE RENTAL
Moab Cyclery, 391 S. Main St.; [435] 259-7423, www.moabcyclery.com. Open daily 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily during the season. QUESTION: Suggest being more specific as to what “during the season” means. ALSO: pricing?


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