On Saturday, September 8th, 2012 nearly 1,000 riders rode in the LoToJa Classic, the longest 1-day USA Cycling sanctioned bicycle race in the US. This year for the 30th edition of the event, I was one of those riders. As I lined up for the start in the Masters 35+ category, I was well aware of the challenge that lay in front of me along the roads of Utah, Idaho and Wyoming on our 206 mile journey to Jackson Hole. This wasn’t my first rodeo, in fact it was my 6th.
A little background is probably necessary, for as every experienced bike racer knows a rider without an excuse isn’t worth his weight in carbon fiber. A few years earlier in 2003 upon returning from my 4th LoToJa I hung my bike in the garage to begin my yearly 2 week break from training. The two weeks past, but the bike didn’t come down. The weeks turned to months, then months to years. Nearly seven circuits of the sun later in 2010, I pulled the bike down to resume training. The kids were getting older and the time seemed right. “OK,” I thought, “I need a goal.” LoToJa. But there were only a few short months until the event. “What the hell, let’s give it a go.” I knew from experience that the course wasn’t too difficult aside from the distance. There was a fair amount of ascending but most of it was on false flats and short climbs. I was hopeful that I could get myself in good enough shape to at least hang on.
So in September of 2010, off I went towards Logan Utah to accept the challenge that race founders David Bern and Jeff Keller had brought to life 28 years earlier. It was tremendously cold that morning, so cold that for the first 30 miles my feet and hands were completely numb. The frigid temperatures seemed to help keep the pace reasonable and as we approached the first short hard climb at mile 40 the group was still intact. Knowing from past years that this would be the first big challenge of the day I braced myself for a hard effort as we neared the base of the climb. Then, just before we began the ascent I’d done four times before, the group turned right. After rolling along for a mile or so in a state of confusion, I finally asked the rider next to me if he knew why we had veered off course. “Oh they changed the course several years ago,” he said smiling. “You’re going to love it, three big mountain passes have been added to the route!’ Stunned, I looked up the road. Sure enough, there it was, the unrelenting grade of Strawberry Canyon. By the time I reached the top, the climb had taken nearly everything out of me. The second ascent over Geneva claimed the rest. By the time I’d reached the summit of the KOM at Salt River Pass, I was crawling. My day ended 15 miles later with 81 miles remaining at the feed in Afton, WY.
Fast forward to September 8th, 2012. On this day, I’m hopeful for a much better outcome. Once again, training had started late, not until May. The previous year I hadn’t participated, and this was to be my only race of the 2012 season. Still, I’m hopeful. Not to win, not even to be competitive, but to finish. That is the first step. This time I know what’s ahead, and I feel as though I’ve prepared. I can do this.
The morning was a blur of flatted riders lining the side of the road. It seemed like hundreds (a half dozen large groups of citizen riders had started nearly an hour before the USCF races began). Apparently road side weeds along the first 10-20 miles of the course had been recently mowed throwing hundreds of thorns onto the shoulder and edges of the road. It was carnage. Somehow, our group (mostly) dodged the tiny goat headed bullets.
Onto the first climb. 45 miles in, the fun begins. The road is now tilting upwards and the legs are starting to burn. We haven’t quite reached the main climb yet, but this section is long enough to finally give the small chainring it’s first whirl of the day. I make the shift, but the chain slips. I’m near the front and center of the group but can no longer go forward, in fact I’m going backwards with my hand in the air. Moments later I’m off the back, off my bike and cursing at my thrown chain. I know not to panic, but this isn’t good. Back on the road I’m fighting to chase back onto the group. The climb is a few miles of rollers ahead and I know if I don’t get on now, I’m in for another long day. Settling in, I start to catch a few riders who have been spit out the back. We begin to work together but before long the climb has begun. A split has already formed in the group and the race is moving away from us.
Over the top of the first climb. The group ahead is now about 10 riders. Our group is strong, but the climb has taken it’s toll. We head towards the second feed in Montpelier ID (mile 80). A strong tailwind helps to keep us moving, but makes catching the leaders ahead nearly impossible.
Over the second climb, the group has grown. Riders have come back from behind, but we are no closer to catching the leaders. Word is they are now over 10 minutes ahead. Regardless, I remind myself that I’m halfway home and still with most of my group. I remain hopeful. I can do this. And then, it happens. The group accelerates and within seconds we go from 5 thick to single file. No problem. I shift and turn the pedals and try to ignore the whisper.
A gap begins to form just ahead of the front of my wheel. Why won’t you go faster? The whisper is now gone, replaced by a clear stern voice.
I bridge the gap, but the fix is temporary. Within moments the group accelerates again this time leaving me behind.
This time I know I won’t be chasing back on. Systems are shutting down, the bonk has arrived and I’m not even over the final climb. Still I’m hopeful. I slow to a reasonable pace continuing towards the finish.
Over the KOM at Salt River Pass. I was hoping not to remember this feeling. I’ve got nothing. Luckily it’s downhill for the next 5 miles. Riders are going past me now from other groups who started behind me. I try to grab a wheel for a free ride but can’t hold on. Still I’m hopeful. Just finish.
I arrive at the feed at Afton, WY, my virtual finish line two years earlier.
81 miles to go. I stop and eat half a sandwich, joke with my support crew, “This is the finish right?” Ahead the course offers a cross wind for the next 35 miles, and I’m in no hurry knowing I still can’t seem to find the strength to grab a wheel. But before long I’m off. After a long 30 miles I feel the rear wheel going flat. I pull over to the side of the road and wait. Ten minutes pass before a neutral support arrives with one tube. Amazing they had any after the mayhem earlier. Was that today? Five miles to Alpine.
I collect my final feed in Alpine and turn right into Snake River Canyon. Ahead lies 47 miles of false flats and short climbs. I can do this. JUST FINISH.
Feeling better still, I begin to ask for more. I can almost feel the pull of the finish line now, and I’m starting to find a rhythm. Nine hours have passed since I left Logan, and almost 170 miles are now behind me. I’m not going to break ten hours as I’d hoped, but it’s looking like I will make the finish. Then, it happens. Again. Suddenly, everything stops. Riders that have been hanging onto my wheel are now disappearing up the road. The legs are no longer responding and the heart rate has dropped, was I running on fumes? ONE MILE MORE I insist, but I can no longer ignore the reality, my day is over.
Earlier in the day just after cresting the final climb over Salt River Pass I had texted my wife Carrie; “I don’t think I give this race it’s due respect.” As I write this summary, I can see I that even more clearly.
To those who finished the race, well done to you all. To those who did not, and to those who are considering taking up the challenge of the LoToJa Classic, together we can say, “Maybe next year.” Hope to see you all at the finish line.
By Rick Thomas