Gravel Grinding Through the Desert

John Hernandez creates cycling races to help his hometown

By Dianna Troyer

Roads stretch to the horizon in the vast West Desert of northern Utah and Nevada. Photos courtesy of John Hernandez

Not one to keep a secret, John Hernandez is promoting the backroads surrounding his hometown of Wendover as a destination for cyclists seeking gravel.

“The vast network of roads around here is perfect for riding year-round and for racing,” says John, 68, a retired teacher and endurance cyclist. “There are plenty of accommodations with the hospitality industry here, so that also makes it an ideal destination for bikers.”

Growing up, John pedaled down countless gravel roads crisscrossing the border of Wendover, Utah, and West Wendover, Nevada.

Wanting to share his enthusiasm for them, he and his business partners organized the Salty Lizard 100 and Stupid Pony gravel races for the second weekend of October.

“Gravel races are exploding in popularity,” John says. “Last year, we hoped for 100 riders and were thrilled to have 208. This year, we’re limiting registration to 450 riders.”

Riding on dirt and gravel roads is a fast-growing trend among cyclists who dislike motorized traffic on paved roads. Gravel grinder races are increasingly popular, too, because of a culture that welcomes riders of all skill levels with the attitude of “the pros mix with the Joes.”

The Stupid Pony—a 210-mile ride along parts of the Pony Express National Historic Trail—is scheduled October 8 from Eagle Mountain, Utah, to the Historic Wendover Airfield.

The Salty Lizard—with distances of 45, 65, and 100 miles on roads around Wendover—is scheduled October 9.

Last year’s Salty Lizard attracted 180 riders, while the Stupid Pony had 28 registrants.

John launched the Salty Lizard ride in 2020. He named it for the countless lizards dashing around the nearby Bonneville Salt Flats. He joined forces with another endurance cyclist, Bobby Kennedy, who organized the Stupid Pony race.

JD Smith, left, and Clint Campbell grind away coming up a grade near Leppy Pond on the 65 mile course.

“I met Bobby when I did his race in 2019,” John says. “We decided it would be fun to combine our events.”

John and Bobby partnered with Hyrum, Utah, resident Becky Spillman Benson, the daughter of John’s childhood friend, Richard Spillman. The trio formed Salty & Stupid Racing LLC.

“Becky is great with planning and organizing events,” John says, “and Bobby is amazing with social media.”

Bobby was impressed when John showed him Wendover’s gravel roads.

“Wendover’s this jewel of gravel riding with fantastic roads, zero traffic, and absurdly pretty views,” says Bobby, manager of Bingham Cyclery in Ogden, Utah. “There’s nowhere else within two hours of the Wasatch Front where you can ride year-round on dirt.”

John says they are excited to host professional racers this fall. A Salty Lizard 100 entrant, John Croom, was the 2017 and 2018 USA Cycling Elite Track National Champion, placing first in time trial and second in team pursuit. Kae Takeshita, a professional endurance gravel racer from Japan, entered the Stupid Pony.

For John, the gravel events are about much more than racing.

“They’re a way for me to give back to my hometown,” he says.

On the race registration page, riders have the option of donating to two local foundations. The JAS Foundation provides food and clothing for those in need. The Historic Wendover Airfield Foundation restores buildings on the World War II airbase.

“We’ve already raised a substantial amount for both,” John says. “We also donate $300 to each high school and give away bikes.”

Cheering cyclists at the finish line, John Hernandez organizes gravel races to raise money for Wendover philanthropic organizations and to promote the area as a destination for gravel grinding cyclists.

Last year, they gave 21 bikes to students at Anna Smith and West Wendover elementary schools.

Bobby, who had volunteered with Free Bikes 4 Kidz Utah and refurbished bikes, suggested the giveaway. A new bike also was purchased with a $300 donation from Shawnee Keith, a former Wendover Elementary School teacher.

“When the Salt Lake City Free Bikes 4 Kidz manager helped load the bikes in my truck, he told me, ‘That is a truckload of happiness,’” John says. “Those words rang true. The students were beyond excited when they picked out their bikes on race day.”

Tinker Juarez, a world-renowned cyclist from California, helped distribute the bikes.

“It was an honor to have Tinker ride the Salty Lizard,” John says. “He’s legendary in both BMX and mountain biking, and is a hall of famer in both sports. He competed in the Olympics twice in mountain biking and has won international gold medals in cycling events, too.”

Tinker, 60, routinely beats cyclists half his age.

Sponsored by Cannondale and Boyd Cycling, he travels the world racing and setting records in endurance events. As a mountain biker, he is a four-time 24-Hour National Solo Champion.

John also has completed epic 24-hour cycling events. A resident of Smithfield, Utah, he joined the nearby Logan Race Club OnWatch and credits its members for sparking his lifelong love of distance cycling.

He has completed the 206-mile LoToJa race from Logan, Utah, to Jackson, Wyoming, 16 times.

“The more I learned how to train and what to eat, the faster my times got even as I aged,” John says.

Legendary cyclist Tinker Juarez rides behind gleeful tandem racers.

He pedaled his personal best at age 60—just over 10 hours, on the LoToJa’s new course.

“Whatever event I’m in, I remind myself to just keep pedaling,” says John, who continues to train and race long distances. “It’s amazing what you’re capable of mentally and physically.”

Before moving to Smithfield, John taught and coached for nine years at Wendover schools.

“I moved away because I had a job opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” he says.

He retired 4 years ago.

“It was gratifying to have taught 37 years, with 17 of those years spent coaching different sports,” John says. “Wendover will always be home to me. I go back to see family and friends as much as possible. I see a lot of former students, too, when I visit.”

John says he hopes the races inspire people to get out and bike.

“Riding any kind of bike is a fun, inexpensive exercise you can do year-round,” he says.

When John invites friends to bike the gravel roads he grew up on, he says they tell him “I didn’t even know this was out here.”

“They say they’ll definitely be back,” John says.

For more information about the races, visit the Salty and Stupid Cycling website. To volunteer, fill out a form at the bottom of the registration page. For armchair cyclists who want to experience the races without the “moon dust,” John made videos. They can be found by Googling Salty Lizard Races YouTube.

Grinding Ascents and Sweet Descents Lure Cyclists

By Dianna Troyer

Jodi Schulz rides the 65 mile Salty Lizard course. A local art teacher, she rides the roads outside West Wendover to relax.

Jodi Schulz had good reasons to quit the 65-mile Salty Lizard bike race along northern Nevada’s dusty gravel roads last year. Her bike’s cassette—the cluster of sprockets on the rear hub controlling the gears—broke 40 miles from the finish line.

“It was grueling,” Jodi says.

A longtime cyclist, the 56-year-old West Wendover resident was familiar with the course. For several years, she has biked the backroads near town during her downtime from teaching art at West Wendover Junior/Senior High School.

“The cogs were loose and holding just enough to work,” Jodi says.

“I had to ride in one gear and mash the pedals because shifting wasn’t working. The gears were slipping, making any connection a challenge.”

Along with the mechanical mishap, Jodi was coated in dreaded and infamous “moon dust” that stirs up from the alkali roads.

“I still had a good time,” Jodi says. “Somehow I finished. I don’t even remember my time. It wasn’t impressive. I still had fun because the gravel community is just such a great bunch of people to hang out with.”

Her work colleague, English teacher Kim Reamer, rode the 45-mile course.

“It was a fun, tough race,” Kim says. “The one thing I really loved about the race is that it connected trails I’ve been running on for 25 years, so it was sort of a bike ride down and up memory lane. I’ll be on the starting line again this October.”

Jodi, Kim, and hundreds of other cyclists—professionals as well as recreational riders—will compete in the two-day Salty & Stupid Gravel Fest in early October.

Based in Wendover, the Salty Lizard routes are 45, 65, and 100 miles. The Stupid Pony route is 210 miles along a Pony Express trail.

“I’ll have my bike in better shape and have a better race this year,” Jodi says.

She encourages others to register for the Salty Lizard.

“You’ll experience fast and flat sections, short, technical challenges, tooth-rattling washboard, fish-tailing sugar, grinding ascents, and sweet descents,” she says. “You can expect a mixture of sand, gravel, rocks, and dreaded moon dust.”

How long does it take to pedal the arduous routes?

Last year’s 100-mile Salty Lizard winner, pro-racer Tanner Visnick of Colorado, set a blistering pace of 5 hours, 39 minutes.

Reno resident Mya Dixon, 16, who races for the Reno Devo team, won the women’s 100-miler in 6 hours, 52 minutes.

Last year’s Stupid Pony winner, Tim Tait, crossed the finish line with a time of 13 hours, 46 minutes. Women’s winner Jackie Baker clocked 20 hours, 29 minutes. Of the 23 who started, 11 dropped out.

Jodi says the arid roads around Wendover “are without a doubt primo for gravel-riding enthusiasts.”

She says the Salty Lizard routes will not disappoint and are doable for all skill levels, from families with children to pros.

“There’s so much to see and experience,” Jodi says. “The landscape seems barren and bleak, but it’s not. You can expect to run across herds of wild mustangs, antelopes and mountain goats, some free-range cattle, and other random critters. The land is beautiful and alive, making any cycling experience worth every minute.”