Pre-race, clean and smiling
After announcements, the start was at 8 a.m., with this start order: pro men; all women (and there were more women than I thought there would be); 45-49 men; 60+ men; 40-44 men; single speed/tandem riders; 50-59 men; 29 and under men; 30-34 men; and last, 35-39 men. H looked very focused as he rode past and I spied our motel neighbor Dan in there too. It was still cool as it neared the start but the day would get much, much hotter.
Pro Men lined up, Dave Zabriskie on the left
When the final group left, the PA system played the Benny Hill theme and the William Tell Overture to see them off (which I thought hilarious). I walked to El Bambi for breakfast, sitting at the counter and eavesdropping on locals who were talking about the bike race: "Why would anyone want to do that?!?" I stopped by the room for a little while and then, around 11:30 a.m., drove to the finish line.
H's group starts
The Crusher in the Tushar has been described as "apocalyptic" and "a suffer-fest." Two-time Crusher winner Levi Leipheimer ranks it up there with the Leadville 100 and the best (worst) climbing days in the Tour de France. Simply put, the 69+ mile pavement/gravel race is just brutal. Here's the course profile:
The first ten or so miles are not so bad, on pavement, climbing gently out of Beaver. Then first dirt starts, climbing aggressively and topping out at over 10,000 feet. (Elevation in town: 5,902 feet.) Next is a very steep, washboarded, switchback-filled, loose descent, losing nearly 4,000 feet of elevation. The pavement kicks back in at mile 31 and continues downhill to Junction, then mostly flat to Circleville.
Lonely road, final stretch (that's not H)
After that respite, the route gets dirty again at Doc Springs Road - which has been called the Sarlaac Pit due to its hellish steeps and loose sand and gravel. The grind continues up the Col d' Crush (most steep, more sand, more loose gravel), topping out at the KOM/QOM around 9,400 feet.
(photo credit: tusharcrusher.com)
There's a bit of flat as the road goes by Puffer Lake and then it's back on the pavement for the final four miles to the finish at Eagle Point. The TOP of Eagle Point, mind you, with a finishing elevation just under 10,500 feet above sea level. There's really no way to explain just how difficult this route is. The dirt sections, although not technical singletrack, were loose gravel and sand, rarely nicely hard-packed dirt, with switchbacks, swooping curves and ruts. The grades ranged from the gentle-but-constant 2%, on the initial stretch up the canyon from Beaver, to a brutal 14% on the Col d' Crush. The temperature swing was mind-boggling as well, from the hot, dry, exposed 100 F sections down in the valley, to the cold, rainy 40s up in the mountains. The Crusher is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one but boy, the physical bit is no joke.
When the weather rolled in at the top
H had some goals for this ride. The first one, the one he was most anxious about, was making the cutoff: if riders hadn't gotten to the second aid station (approx. mile 25.5) by 11:00 a.m., they would be yanked from the race and sent straight to the finish. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200. If he made it past the cutoff, he figured he could - at worst - do the ride in 9 hours with a 5:00 p.m. arrival. If he really pushed it, he thought his best possible time might be 7 hours 45 minutes. The plan was for him to text me at various intervals to let me know where he was along the route although I was skeptical that there would be enough cell signal to get through. He did send me a bunch of texts (15 miles to go at 12:54 p.m.; passing the KOM at 1:26 p.m., etc.) but I only got the first - and most important - one: he made it past the cutoff with thirty minutes to spare. For the record, I had always been sure that he would make the cutoff.
The Big Flat (cyclingtips.com)
Photo: Catherine Fegan-Kim.
Without any way of knowing where he was after that point, I didn't really know what to do with myself up at the finish line. The organizers had a great set up with tents and beer and food and volunteers and bathrooms; the ski lodge was open too. I had brought a book with me, thinking I could find a spot to sit overlooking the finish and keep one eye on the road while I read. Spectator parking was at the resort's lower lodge, with shuttle buses running back and forth on the 1+ mile between. I opted to walk and when I got up there, it was gorgeous, sunny and very pleasant. Then the clouds started building and the wind started picking up. It got dark and cold and started to sprinkle. (I had not bothered to bring a raincoat because it hasn't rained in about two months.) We spectators managed to ignore this until the organizers announced that there was lightning within one mile of our location. They shooed us all into the ski lodge while keeping a skeleton crew of volunteers outside to help the riders as they came in. There was lots of thunder and wind and it just poured rain for quite some time, the temperature plummeting. Unfortunately, I had left my additional layers in the truck since my backpack was full of dry clothes for H after he finished - they weren't doing me much good down there.
Descent to Junction (cyclingtips.com)
Photo: Catherine Fegan-Kim.
The storm finally/mostly blew through and we spectators moved back out to watch the riders struggling and/or charging up the final pitch. Where it had been around 100 F in the valley, it was now in the low 40s - more pleasant for the hard-working riders, less so for the chilled watchers. It was still sprinkling off and on so I found a place below the finish line, on the side of the road under some trees where I could see the riders from a distance as they approached. This turned out to be a great spot until a DNR truck drove up and parked right at the bend in the road. Now my view of the coming cyclists was blocked until they were right upon us.
A little bit before 3:00 p.m., just when I was thinking of leaving my spot to go find a snack, I peeked around the truck. OMIGOSH! THERE'S H! HE'S ALREADY HERE! Pedaling steadily, face in a breathing and/or grimacing rictus, two hours early. I grabbed the camera and ran (sort of) up to the finish, pack bouncing, to get a photo of him as he came in. He looked so strong. As soon as he crossed the finish line - with a time of 6:56.03!!!! - volunteers came up, wrapping him in a space blanket against the chill and putting his bike in a rack for him. He sat in the riders' tent for a while, drinking a Coke and trying to wrap his head around the fact that he didn't have to pedal anymore. Some of the riders were animated, commiserating with each other about the hellacious ride they'd just finished; others just sat there in a daze.
Finished! Here comes the space blanket
Before H could get chilled, we went to the beer tent (free Epic cans for riders!) and went into the warm lodge. With some sugar, caffeine and beer in his system, H bounced back quickly, telling me highlights of the ride while he changed into dry clothes. He was pretty hungry - he can have a difficult time with nutrition on long rides because his stomach can get upset - so we went to the food truck (free veggies and rice and protein for riders!) and he wolfed his portion down. The organizers were getting the finishers' list up quickly so we kept scanning it for our new friend Dan. His name wasn't on there though, and by the time the very last rider came in, just a couple minutes under nine hours, we knew that Dan must have bailed out. We caught the shuttle bus down to the lower lodge and stopped in at the bar/grill for a beer. The Renegade Lounge bartender and her husband were working, so we were able to say hello to them both. As we sat at the bar, we talked with another rider and his wife for a bit before heading back down the canyon.
Post-race, not at all clean but still smiling
I was (and am) so proud of H's accomplishment. He beat his projected time by a substantial amount, even on a heavy MTB, carrying a pack. He never had to stop or put his foot down, other than at aid stations. [Note: a word about the aid stations. All the riders had nothing but effusive praise for the nutrition and hydration available, as well as the outstanding volunteers. People would fill their water bottles, hold their bikes if they need to use the portopotties, spritz them with cold water, crack open a PBR for them. Kudos and big thanks to all the Crusher volunteers!] He managed the heat, the steeps, the ruts and loose rocks and just didn't stop pedaling until he was done. The Crusher in the Tushar is a diabolical race and many people say never again once they're done. H didn't go so far as to say that and, what may be even more telling, was back on his bike half an hour after we got home midday on Sunday, saying, "No sense in stopping now."
More Crusher coverage, if you're interested:
- cxmagazine.com and also here
- gravelcyclist.com - this is a great write-up, very thorough and entertaining
And here's a short video that gives a pretty good idea of what the Crushers went through: