Rider Diary: LoToJa Classic, By Rick Thomas

Maybe next year.

It’s funny how cyclists of all abilities so often utter that universal phrase. How many times during your life it creeps reluctantly into your mind, even if the words never quite make it across your lips. Inevitably however, the year passes and you find yourself right back where you were when those three powerful words pushed their way into your thoughts.

Saturday September 7th 2013, as I rolled through the streets of Logan Utah alongside 65 other riders in the Masters 35+ category on my way towards Jackson Hole Wyoming, I was at that place. Or more accurately, 200 miles away.

A year earlier I had failed to reach the finish line after nearly 170 miles and over nine hours in the saddle. In fact it had been 10 years since I’d finished the race, and following a 5 year absence from the sport from 2004-2009 my attempts to complete the event had all fallen short.

I was pretty sure by this point the Google search; ‘maybe next year’ may very well result in a link to my photo.

As you can probably tell my goals weren’t all that lofty. I simply wanted to finish, and finish strong. At 44 years of age and racing against super fit riders who had been doing this race religiously for the previous 10-15+ years, a strong finish would be a victory.

Let the challenge begin.

The first 40 miles were fairly pleasant, a steady pace rarely eclipsing 25mph. The weather was mild, in fact nothing more than an undershirt was required. Already it seemed things were going my way as I am not a fan of the cold. Yes, living in Las Vegas suits me just fine. As we approached Strawberry, the first of three major climbs on the day which ascends about 3,000 feet in 15 miles, I could feel the group holding it’s collective breath.

So up we went, the pace gradually increasing with each mile. Five miles in and the group had already begun to shrink.

Six, seven, eight miles up.

Now no more than twenty riders remained. The lungs are now burning as they try to keep up but the thinning air at 7,000 feet makes the job that much harder. Slowly, the gap begins to open in front of me. I’m much stronger than a year earlier, much more racing in my legs, but this pace is still just a bit too much. I glance over my shoulder for the first time and see a second group just 20-30 seconds back. Perhaps they will catch the leaders on the road to Montpelier now 20 miles ahead? This becomes my only hope as I remind myself of my goal, “you’re just trying to finish.. and finish strong!”

It was still a long way to Jackson Hole.

Now firmly in the second group, the pace still brisk but a bit more reasonable, we soon reach the summit but the leaders are no longer in sight. On the descent and the rollers that follow the group works well together, and as a result we soon catch and pass the Men’s 1/2 race which had started 6 minutes ahead of us earlier that morning. Perhaps we were making up ground.

At the feed in Montpelier we learned the leaders now had a 4 minute advantage with 125 miles to go. Not what our now dwindling chase group wanted to hear.

The roads of LoToJa can be very unforgiving, the winds unpredictable and often coming at you from all sides. On this slightly stormy day, they were already beginning to take their toll. The second and third climbs over Geneva Summit and Salt River Pass didn’t help much either.

Unsure now of just how far up the road the leaders were, our chase group continued to battle the cross winds toward the final feed zone in Alpine. Beyond Alpine the final 45 miles are all slightly uphill as the route travels alongside the Snake River in Wyoming.

Amazingly it’s hard not to get caught up in the beautiful surroundings, even when your body is now thoroughly objecting to your request to continue pedaling your bicycle at 23-25mph. But even with the positive scenic distractions it is now becoming clear that many of the riders remaining in the group have gone into survival mode.

For every rider we lose off the back, we seem to be gaining a rider from ahead. Our group is not getting smaller, in fact it’s getting bigger.

Having already fought through several bouts of self-doubt and exhaustion it was pretty clear that this year, I was going to make the finish. Already behind me was the point at which I’d abandoned the previous year and amazingly I seemed to be getting stronger as the finish drew nearer.

And then, with about 25 miles to go something happened. Two riders from the group attacked.

Without hesitation, I followed. Both attacking riders were from the same team and at first I was reluctant to work (mostly because I was afraid the extra effort just might do me in)! This didn’t go over too well and after some two-way verbal abuse we all got on with the job at hand. Before long we had opened a sizable gap and after just 5 miles or so the group we had left behind was no longer in sight.

With just over ten miles to go to the finish, we picked up another two riders who had been dropped from the front group. A few miles later I looked down at my computer to discover something that just about knocked me off my bike. I had been riding for just over nine hours, almost exactly how long I’d ridden 365 days earlier when I’d crawled off my bike almost 30 miles back.

A shot of pure adrenaline couldn’t have given me a bigger boost. No doubt now, I was going to finish.

The pace quickened and soon our group was back down to three, just me and the two Infinite Cycles riders, Michael Austin and Philip Boyack, who 20 miles earlier had initiated the chase.

Five miles to go.

As we all three realized we were going to finish with a very respectable time, again we ramped up the pace.

Four, three, two miles to go.

We rolled past the 1K sign just as I finished my turn at the front. The speed was now as high as the three of us could manage, and with about 100 meters remaining and the finishing banner in view I struggled to hold the wheel ahead.

50 meters to go, and I’m out of the saddle.. sprinting for the line. A bike throw for the crowd and just like that, it’s was over.

9 hours, 23 minutes and 49 seconds after rolling out of Logan, I had reached the finished line.

The following day I would learn two surprising things.

The first was, I had won the sprint (by .005 seconds). Apparently the bike throw works.

The second was, I had finished the race in 14th place, 26 minutes behind the winner Andrew Neilson, who had set a new course record.

I had to wonder. If only I had been able to hold on over that first climb! But it wasn’t to be. Predictably, I found myself right back where I had started. With those three beautiful words we all so willingly embrace dancing in my head.

Maybe next year.

Read Rick’s Diary from the 2012 LoToJa Classic

By Rick Thomas

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