Tour de Farmtown: A City Slicker’s Guide to Cycling Cache Valley
Touring Cache Valley by bike was acute misery the first time out, but those country roads wrapped themselves around my heart and haven’t gone away since.
“You’re riding into the jaws of hell!”
Of all of the things I’d want to hear on an empty country road in the middle of my first 100-mile bike ride, I can’t say that was one. But there I was and there he was, a bearded man who looked like a swampy Santa Claus bawling out a warning as he zipped past, a chain of about ten ragged cyclists pedaling rapidly behind him and, more importantly, away from the town my ride partner and I were pedaling directly toward.
We had just ridden through a downpour and managed to slip past a gnarly column of thunderclouds breaking over the Wellsville mountains, so this new information landed with an unnerving thud. Before I had time to conjure up what kind of hell would make a seasoned cyclist tremble in their clips like that, it hit me, right in the head and legs and arms.
Hailstones the size of quarters pinged off of my bike frame, knocked “Shave and a Haircut” into my helmet, weaseled their way through the slots to thump me in the head and bit into my exposed and very sunburned thighs. Pedaling at 15 miles per hour with nothing for cover, it felt like getting pelted with rocks.
Pulling into the Mendon rest stop after the hailstorm had passed was like pulling into a field hospital. Bikes were tipped in drunken angles against the curb while cyclists sat in huddled masses beneath a park pavilion, looking at us with pained empathy. I think there were some lying prostrate on the grass, blinking blankly up at the sky and likely rethinking their life choices like I was. My whole body was a bruise with eyeballs, my Lycra shorts had suctioned to my skin, and my legs quaked so hard that I nearly fell over in a port-a-potty and watched all my dignity slide down the drain.
It was a cruel initiation for a newbie to the sport. I was tired, hangry and broken, but in spite of Mother Nature making me the fool, those long country roads somehow still got under my bruised skin.
From the hillsides of Mendon, Cache Valley was a checkerboard of upturned soil in even rows, tall summer corn and swaying wheat that popped against the dark blue hues of the storm. Cows swaggered lazily through thick grass. The Bear River flowed through the valley in scribbled loops, and Logan’s lights glittered through the trees to the east. In spite of myself, I was impressed.
Since that first century ride, I’ve pedaled hundreds of Cache Valley miles, racing down Logan Canyon with the wind whipping in my face, joyriding through the country and commuting through the city. It’s become one of my favorite spots to ride in Utah.
There aren’t many bike lanes to speak of there — you’re saddling up for a wild west graced with the tart smell of manure, big-hipped trucks and loose dogs occasionally yapping at your heels — but there’s a tight sense of community here. Fellow cyclists give you smiles and two-fingered salutes of solidarity as they ride past. With a whole lot of postcard countryside at your toes to boot, cycling Cache Valley, even in unforgiving conditions, can be an absolute joy.
"With a whole lot of postcard countryside at your toes to boot, cycling Cache Valley, even in unforgiving conditions, can be an absolute joy."
Tour de Farmland
Many of Cache Valley’s west-end roads are long, quiet, and flat as a pancake, making the countryside easy to tour and easy to access. Embossed with the tread of tractor tires and sprinkled with scattered straw, there’s a lot of personality on these roads. The best time to ride is usually on a summer morning when you can smell the dew on the corn and alfalfa fields and hear the dairy farms groaning to life. It’s incredibly rejuvenating.
Cache Valley’s small enough that you can cross its width and strike out six to seven farm towns in a single afternoon. At each point on the compass, there’s a new community to explore, all with rich pioneer histories. Perched in the north are the cow-dotted hills of Clarkston and Richmond. Ride to the center of the valley, and you’ll find yourself looping around the Bear River with a stellar view of the Wellsvilles and an occasional pelican or sand crane flapping overhead.
City slickers with wandering hearts and emotionally distant fiancés beware — the south end of the valley is a veritable Hallmark movie. You can see the valley almost from end to end when you’re making the trek through Mendon to Wellsville. A quick crossover through Hyrum and Avon at the right time of the year will put you in the center of what looks like that iconic Windows XP wallpaper with the rolling green hills and miles of sky.
To quote the wise sage Pacha, these hills sing when the sun hits them right. Seeing them by bicycle makes the experience visceral. (Read: "Adaptive Cycling in Colorful Cache Valley")
Join a Ride
Cache Valley is fun to tour on your own time, but you can also join several organized long-distance rides that attract thousands of participants to Cache Valley each year. Each ride offers multiple routes so that everyone is included, and they wind riders through Northern Utah and into parts of Southern Idaho.
The Cache Valley Century (the same one that took me through that epic hailstorm) is one of my favorites. It’s a noncompetitive bike tour that raises money for Common Ground Outdoor Adventures, an organization that makes outdoors experiences more accessible to individuals with disabilities. The Cache Gran Fondo, one of the oldest Gran Fondos in North America, is both a race and a recreational ride, featuring a hill challenge in every event and a fun festival atmosphere that attracts cyclists of every skill level. My first Cache Gran Fondo took me up Sardine Canyon, a blisteringly hard climb with an epic, fast descent through the towering peaks and dipping belly of the Wellsville mountain range.
Cache Valley is also a great place for women wanting to get into the sport. Little Red is one of the biggest women-only bike rides in the state with a fun community of 3,500 women cyclists. I say ride, but Little Red is an event, involving live music, food, themed Friday night parties and a costume contest. You’ll often see women cycling like bosses in their costumes on race day.
"The start of summer is Logan’s golden hour, and riding through town during this time of the year feels like taking a heady dose of childhood nostalgia."
Cruise the Town
The smell of sunshine wagons (manure spreaders) in the morning isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, nor is long-distance cycling. Cache Valley compensates with its small eastern cities.
Some of my favorite evenings have been spent joyriding through Logan’s historic downtown while looking at old houses, cycling around the Utah State University campus for beautiful views of the valley below, and zipping up and down Mack Park and Smithfield Canyon further north. The start of summer is Logan’s golden hour, and riding through town during this time of the year feels like taking a heady dose of childhood nostalgia. Cache Valley’s cities go to sleep pretty early, so it’s especially fun to nightride on mainstreet after dark. (Read: “A Local’s Guide to Logan: Northern Utah’s Outdoor Adventure College Town”)
I’d been in a saddle for nine hours by the time I crossed the finish line of that first ride years ago. After pedaling through the jaws of actual hail, we’d been hit by another downpour in Amalga. Wind sent the rain spraying in our faces, and on the last stretch from Trenton to Richmond, I felt my ghost step out of my body and hang up a “Closed” sign as my legs almost completely gave out. It was the most physically grueling thing I’d ever done, and my bones could feel it. Lying in the grass afterward, almost entirely unable to move, I told myself I wouldn’t step foot on another bicycle for at least a year. I’d firmly abstain.
About a week later, I found myself shifting gears on a rolling country road once again, frogs and crickets singing in the ditch, the wind whipping my hair, and my lips stretching in a wide crescent across my face.