Every sport has its Meccas or temples, the Bucket List places to watch or play. For golf it is the Old Course at St Andrews, for baseball Wrigley Field, for tennis Wimbledon. Skiers carve turns in the footsteps of legends on World Cup and Olympic Downhill courses, and runners dream of someday qualifying for the Boston Marathon.
Cycling has its special places too, such as Moab for mountain biking and the most famous climbs of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia for roadies, such as the Alpe d’Huez and Passo Stelvio respectively.
But cycling’s biggest races change routes annually, sometimes in radical fashion, and these famous climbs are often left out. Olympic cycling is low profile, leaving just one major international event that has remained largely unchanged for four decades, creating a course that draws avid cycling like moths to the flame, and has never had a peer.
Everyone in the world of cycling (and running and swimming and sports fans in general) knows about the fabled Ironman World Championships in Hawaii’s Kona. The biggest event on the triathlon schedule – and arguably the biggest in endurance sports – was also the very first, as the sport itself was invented in Hawaii. It has since given us hundreds of triathlons around the globe, Full, Half, Olympic length, Sprint, Mini and so on, but until this year, Kona has always been the Holy Grail destination for such cycling pilgrimages.
Due to COVID and the many foreign competitors visiting, organizers have moved the 2021/2022 Ironman World Championship out of the island state for the first time since the race began in 1978. That means an entirely new cycling (and running and swimming) route in an all new, and as hard as it is to believe, even more appealing setting.
Right now, cycling is more popular than ever, and while just about every form of outdoor recreation boomed during the pandemic, cycling saw one of the biggest increases, a trend that was on the upswing even before COVID. Sales of bicycles and parts surged by more than a third from 2018 to 2019, and after remaining virtually unchanged for over a decade, 2020 saw a huge participation increase, with 4% of the adult U.S. population riding for the first time or first time in years, a stunning increase given that previously only 20% of the population rode at all. On the travel front, top cycling tour operators such as Butterfield & Robinson, Backroads, Gray & Co. and DuVine all report record bookings and literally cannot add trips fast enough to meet demand. Part of this is due to the results of a major 2021 survey by the Outdoor Industry Association, which concluded more than 60% of those who started hiking, bicycling and running during the pandemic say they intend to continue doing so afterwards.
But unlike popular bike tour destinations such as Tuscany and Burgundy, no tour companies are required for this trip, and it is one of the easiest great rides on earth to organize all by yourself. And if you love cycling, you are going to want to do just that.
The new home of the Ironman is St. George, Utah, in that part of the Southwest that boasts the most naturally stunning and distinctive landscape in the United States. The area surrounding and including St. George is known as the Greater Zion region, home to the third most visited National Park in the country, Zion NP, and much more. Here the Mojave Desert, Colorado Plateau, and the Great Basin converge to create over 2,400 square miles of epic outdoor pursuits, from Scuba diving to great golf to awesome hiking and much more (read my earlier article about all the outdoor adventure in this region here).
St. George is surrounded with drop dead red rock formations and canyons, the kind of landscape Utah’s parks such as Zion, Canyonland, Arches and Capitol Reef are famous for, and because of this embarrassment of natural riches, local opinion is that if Utah did not already have so many others, famously beautiful Snow Canyon State Park would be a National Park as well, and this is what the race course runs through. Just as Olympic organizers often test locations with other high-profile races or events in advance of the big one, St. George has had great recent success hosting both the North American Ironman Championship and the World 70.3 (half) Ironman Championship. In light of this, and the region’s many appeals, organizers moved the mother of all races here for 2022 (May 7).
What this means to recreational cyclists is the first new 112-mile World Championship Ironman bike route in 40 years, and a beauty at that. In addition, because the World 60.3 was just here for the first time in 2021, there is also a new 56-mile World Championship route for the less ambitious. Both rides wind through the stunning red rock landscape, and both are rated “hilly.”
In addition to the newness factor, for the traveling cyclist, St. George also holds some concrete advantages over Kona, as much as I love Hawaii. For most Americans it is far easier and cheaper to get too, making it accessible for a weekend trip whereas Hawaii is a bigger and much pricier commitment. The very user-friendly St. George airport is 15 minutes from downtown, served by the major carriers, and the city is less than two hours on easy interstate from Las Vegas, home of cheap non-stops from all over the world (and a potential fun add on or post-ride “recovery” destination). The ride itself features less of the often oppressive heat and wind, it’s a loop (actually two different loops), not an out and back route like Kona, and there is less traffic. And frankly, while the first five minutes of pedaling through heat-radiating black lava fields are cool, the landscape gets old fast. These gorgeous canyons do not. If you ride both road and mountain bikes, the mountain biking here is far superior, truly word class (more below), and rentals of both are widely available.
The new course for the May World Championships was just announced a few months ago, and you can see it in detail online here, with the option to download turn by turn directions (likewise for the 70.3 half Ironman route). There is still time for the unique opportunity to ride it before the pros do, and the weather right now is absolutely perfect. Bicycles Unlimited, IBBC Cyclery and Multisport, and Rapid Cycling Bike Shop all rent road bikes, pretty much every shop rents mountain bikes, gravel grinders and e-bikes are also available, with Red Rock Bicycle Company, a mountain bike specialists, also offering e-road bikes.
You can do this all solo easily, but if you want a helping hand, Paragon Adventures is a fantastic company that I have ridden with in Colorado that covers the area and can provide van assisted road rides to meet your needs, as well as a lot more active options including canyoneering and mountain biking (most other local guide services focus on e-bike tours and I could not locate any other guides for a single day epic road ride).
To make an Ironman-style trip you can ride the biggie, the 112-miler, the half, or both for a truly epic visit. But there’s more for road bikers – Greater Zion has 60-plus miles of paved, car free bike paths, with more on the way, and a great 23-mile ride called the Mayor’s Loop that is well marked (read more on area road biking here). It is also possible to ride the main road in Zion National Park out and back, otherwise the sole province of park shuttle buses, with no cars allowed, very unique, but on the short side.
It is also a huge mountain biking destination, home to the world’s highest profile extreme event, the Red Bull Rampage, and there are 300 miles of excellent trails around the town, including Red Cliffs Desert Preserve. The Snake Hollow Bike Park, with 80-acres of jumps, berms, ramps and bridges split amongst four courses for different skills levels, is the only year-round bike park in Utah.
Because of its awesome outdoor activities, the Greater Zion region is home to a few destination fitness resorts like Red Mountain. There are lots of basic motels and mid-range hotels, but the best place to stay in the region is the new Advenire, a Marriott Autograph Collection (Bonvoy) that upped the local lodging game right in the center of St. George, with a standout restaurant and within walking distance of others, just down the street from the city’s new centerpiece Ironman sculpture. The Advenire is always sold out during events such as the Ironman and Red Bull Rampage as it is the choice of sponsors, TV crews and organizers, but at other times it is a great adventure base for those who like things a little cushy. For more regional travel and tourism information, click here.