Last weekend I had the incredible fortune to feel super good and strong in an event that was hard, beautiful, and well organized. The Crusher in the Tushar!!! For those who don't know about The Crusher, let me tell you a little about it. First off it starts in the small town of Beaver, Utah and heads up and over the Tushar Mountain range to the small towns of Junction and Circleville. Then the route heads back up to the finish at the Eagle Point ski area at 10,300 feet or so. It's about 70 miles, a bit over 10,000' of elevation gain, and the roads are a mix of dirt and pavement (the promoter says 50/50, but it seemed more like 60/40).
So let me take you through my day. At least as my oxygen deprived, pain addled brain remembers it!
We pulled into town after camping up in the mountains (highly recommended) to find we were one of the big shows in town along with Butch Cassidy Days and the horse races. Many of the town folk were sitting on their porches, standing on their lawns, and soaking in the site of a few hundred skinny, lycra clad athletes getting all psyched and serious about the endeavor ahead of them. Entertaining indeed!
We started in waves with the pro men going out first, then all the women, the single speeders, then us, the 50+ group. The riding went well from the beginning as our big pack of about sixty rolled out at a brisk, but not brutal pace. The down canyon headwind helped keep everything together as we made our way up alongside Beaver Creek. Pretty soon we caught the single speed pack and shortly thereafter the women's pack too. I had no problem sitting in and collecting my wits before the steep climbing started.
After ten miles of gentle climbing up the main road, State Road 153, we turned onto Forest Service Road 137 and started the climbing fun began. The road quickly turned from good pavement to good dirt. It was a little washboardy, but neither soft nor loose. The climb was anything but steady, with short punchy rises and short easier sections and as we rose the flora became denser and lusher. Aspen, fir, and pine were occasionally punctuated with open meadows resplendent with wildflowers. The air was cool and moist. My mind and body were loving it!
I had ridden the section from Kents Lake (where we camped) to LeBaron Lake the day before, so I knew that respites between steeper climbing sections were longer with even a few short descents. I felt good and was able to hang with the folks around me without any difficulty. I choked down a bar that cost me a little energy and time, but with the rolling I terrain I was able to pull it together quickly. At the following aid station (awesome aid stations with water, drink mix, and gel handups & ever cheerful volunteers) at the junction of SR 153 and FR 137 I grabbed a gel flask and that was that for trying to get down any solid fuel.
Near the top of the climb the race route winds through huge open meadows and aspen stands that are nothing but jaw dropping beautiful. And then you reach the top of the Col de Crush and you look down, down, and more down to the valley below. The little town of Junction looks as though it sits at your feet while the road plunges down in series of switchbacks. The damp coolness of the high Tushar mountains is instantly replaced with hot, dry desert air. The aspen and fir with juniper, mahogany, and sage.
The descent is straight up nutty. It's steep, a bit loose, with washboards galore, and some fairly serious exposure, especially at the top, but I found the cross bike wasn't the disadvantage I feared. Everyone had to take the hairpins pretty slow and in the sections between I was able to let it go pretty well. A couple of mountain bikers passed me, but not going a lot faster and I passed a couple of guy on cross bikes. I guess I ain't as wimpy as I thought! A lot of folks fear pinch flats in this section, but it didn't seem especially rocky and I was nowhere near bottoming out running Clement LAS 33s with 37/39psi.
Near the bottom of the dirt descent, woman pro Nicole Duke caught me, and a couple of other guys hooked up as we started the paved descent. Luck was on my side here as Nicole Duke's boyfriend, Ben Berden, was waiting below to pull her through the paved flats from Junction to Circleville. Ben was one of the top cyclocross racers in the world as a youngster. He got in some doping trouble, then moved here to the states where he seems to like the racing without all of the pressure and attention he endured in Belgium. We had five of us rotating in a good pace line, although after a bit it seemed Ben and Nicole were content to trade leads and the rest of us amateurs gladly stayed out of their way.
With Ben at the helm we reeled in a larger group as we entered Circleville and everyone backed off a bit to refuel and rehydrate before entering the next dirt section. Soon enough the pack splintered as we headed up a small dirt road reminiscent of many here in the Eastern Sierra. Basically it was a two track that was softer and looser than any other section of the race. The heat was a factor too. I lost a bit more time when I stopped and removed my undershirt liner, but I felt tons cooler without it. Several guys really started to suffer here, but I felt o.k.
This dirt climb eventually leveled off and rolled back to the paved section we descended earlier, and then, after about a mile or so, I arrived at the bottom of the Col de Crush. The hardest, most feared section of the entire race. It starts out steep and just seems to get steeper and steeper. There is no break. It is either very steep or extremely steep the entire way. Think 8% to 10% at the bottom with 12% to 15% or more near the top for nearly five miles. On dirt. With washboard and loose gravel. My speed dropped down from a respectable 8mph to 6mph to less than 5mph near the top. My cadence felt like it was around 10rpm, even with my 36 x 36! My back and legs ached. I wanted to stop, but knew that would mean a big time loss. It's all about pain management here. Suffer and smile.
Finally the top of the switchbacks appeared and although the climbing continues for a bit, it is much less steep. Plus, I was back in the cool high mountains where my energy and morale returned quickly. The high mountain meadows here are incredibly beautiful as are the views to the high peaks of the Tushar Range rising to well over 12,000'. I also realized my pace was going to bring me in well ahead of my goal of six hours. I was well fed & well hydrated and feeling good. I was the horse smelling the barn!
We transitioned to pavement then took the turn to the finish stretch of about one mile and I figured it was time to spend whatever I had left, riding hard to the finish.
And then it all stopped.
No more pain, no more labored breathing, no more intense concentration, just joy. Joy for finishing strong, riding hard, and enjoying the journey. My wife and pup were right there with me to share the moment too.
And what a moment! What a day! What a place!
What a race!