Headaches, politics, and compromise: How Utah got into Zion

The race has skirted around Utah's five national parks in previous editions, however it had never passed directly into one until this year.

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CEDAR CITY, Utah (VN) — As the Tour of Utah rolled past the Zion National Park gates early Monday morning, race organizers hugged and gave each other high fives. The race has skirted around Utah’s five national parks in previous editions, however it had never passed directly into one until this year.

In fact, Monday’s stage marked a first for American bicycle racing. Races have passed through areas controlled by the National Park Service — the Coors Classic famously passed through the Colorado National Monument in the 1980s. But before Monday, no major stage race had ridden through a national park’s front gate.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime type thing,” said Jim Birrell, managing partner for Medalist Sports, which operates the race.

Gaining access to Zion was not easy. It involved a painstaking three-year process wrought with political wrangling, financial compromises, and last-minute problems. In the end, the race was allowed to pass through a 12.1-mile section of road, which included the historic Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel.

The peloton was forbidden from attacking along the route, and instead proceeded in a neutral procession, per the request of the National Park Service (NPS). The race made other concessions along the way.

Despite the concessions, management is adamant that the plan was worth the headaches.

“We’re pleasantly surprised we were able to make it happen,” said Jenn Andrs, executive director for the race. “We took the process slowly and carefully.”

Riders had to start promptly at 7:55 a.m. to make it out of the park before it opened. Photo: Casey B. Gibson |
Riders had to start promptly at 7:55 a.m. to make it out of the park before it opened. Photo: Casey B. Gibson |

A plan to get to Zion

Both Andrs and race owner Steve Miller said that Zion had been on their wish list for multiple years. The process was officially launched after the race’s 2013 edition, which passed through a short segment of Bryce Canyon National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument.

Todd Hageman, the race’s technical director, reached out to his contacts at Zion National Park, hoping that the race’s experience with Bryce National Park would open the door.

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“We threw the idea out there like maybe in a couple of years we could make it happen, knowing that it would be difficult,” Hageman said. “Zion never explicitly said ‘No,’ and kept the door open.”

Gaining access to a U.S. National Park is infamously challenging for large-scale commercial events like the Tour of Utah. The U.S. National Park Service occasionally grants special-use permits for events. Each year, the parks host 10 or so marathons and smaller running races. Other races have not been as lucky. In 2011 the USA Pro Challenge was denied access to the Colorado National Monument.

After a year of dialogue with Zion, the Tour of Utah’s Zion plan gained a political ally when Utah Rep. Chris Stewart backed the plan.

According to Stewart’s district director, Gary Webster, Stewart reached directly out to NPS Director Jon Jarvis to promote the plan. Both men serve on an appropriations committee in Washington D.C., Webster said. Stewart promoted the Tour of Utah plan as a way for the NPS to celebrate its 100-year anniversary.

In 2015 Stewart then persuaded all five Utah congressmen to write Jarvis urging him to grant the race a permit.

“We took it all the way to the top,” Webster said. “We knew that was the only way by which this could happen was if the director of the National Parks agreed to it.”

Riders had to maintain 15mph through the park. Photo: Casey B. Gibson |
Riders had to maintain 15mph through the park. Photo: Casey B. Gibson |

Local pushback in Springdale

As the race made headway with the NPS, it faced a surprise hurdle from the small town of Springdale, which sits at the mouth of the park.

According to Hageman, Springdale officials had approached the race in 2013 about one day hosting a start. When the Zion plan began to materialize, race officials reached out to the town about 2016.

By 2015, Springdale residents no longer supported the plan. In October 2015, the town council voted 3-2 to reject the race. Springdale mayor Stan Smith said the recent surge in tourism at Zion has created an isolationist attitude among some residents. This year, the park expects to see 4 million visitors, up from 3.5 million last year.

“There’s a group of townspeople who felt we didn’t need any additional publicity and advertising,” Smith said. “We have a lot of retirees. They came here hoping to enjoy Zion and a small-town feeling and with the increase in [park] visitations, that has gone away.”

The vote posed a major hurdle to the race, which requires a sizable venue to stage its start. Without Springdale on board, the entire plan was in jeopardy.

Sitting on the eastern edge of Springdale is the Zion Canyon Village, a privately-owned marketplace and tourism mall that also houses a movie theater. When Springdale voted against the race, Smith reached out to Zion Canyon Village to see if the private business would host the race.

Nathan Wells, general manager of Zion Canyon Village, told Smith that he supported the plan.

“I knew there was still some support in town for the race,” Wells said. “The race needed parking and [an area for] staging. We knew we could do it.”

In order to fit into the private area, however, the race had to shrink its footprint. So on race day, the entire operation — from race directors to volunteers to media — carpooled to the venue. Spectators were urged to ride bikes or take busses. VIPs gathered in a small collection of tents for half an hour, before the race took off promptly at 7:55 a.m.

“We’re trying to be as sensitive as possible,” Andrs said.

Race management mounted LED lights to motorcycles in order to light the tunnel through Zion. Photo: Casey B. Gibson |
Race management mounted LED lights to motorcycles in order to light the tunnel through Zion. Photo: Casey B. Gibson |

Concessions to the plan

In order to receive its permit for Zion, the race had to agree to a long list of concessions. August is traditionally a busy month for the park, so the race had to agree to a 7:55 a.m. start in order to prevent traffic jams. Usually, the Tour of Utah stages start around 11 a.m.

The start time required an earlier-than-normal wakeup call. Most riders were up before 5 a.m.

The race’s television helicopter was forbidden from entering the park. Instead, only fixed cameras were allowed for the broadcast.

The route, which included a 1,500-foot climb, was deemed neutral, so riders were prevented from attacking. The group was given a top speed of 15mph.

Race officials asked the riders not to throw water bottles or to litter, and stopping to pee was also forbidden.

Race photographers were asked not to stand on rocks or touch vegetation. They were forbidden from stopping to take photos through the two twisting switchbacks along Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway.

Perhaps the biggest concession, however, involved the tunnel. The 1.2-mile long tunnel, which was built in 1930, cuts a hole directly through the sandstone walls. It does not have electricity or lights, and is completely dark.

The race was forbidden from mounting lights in the tunnel to brighten the road for the peloton. Instead, management mounted high-beam LED lights onto motorcycles, which rode alongside the peloton to light the way.

“We got creative,” Hageman said.

Due to the concessions and the complexity of the permit, race management does not predict the Tour of Utah to make the Zion stage an annual event. Andrs called it a “one-time thing,” and said fans should not anticipate seeing Zion on the schedule anytime soon.

After the stage, management was quick to call the Zion project a success. The images snapped by photographers showed the peloton riding beneath the park’s soaring sandstone cliffs, and in front of its numerous stratified outcrops. The photographers will likely become the lasting image of the 2016 race.

In Springdale, Mayor Smith said the race’s use of Zion Canyon Village also worked out.

“I was at the post office after [the race started], and a few locals came up and asked me when the bike race was coming through town,” Smith said. “That was my goal.”