In the small town of Beaver, Utah, the second Saturday of July can only mean one thing; it’s time for another invasion of those crazy bike racers for the Beaver County Travel Council Crusher in the Tushar, presented by DNA Cycling, which has been organized by former pro cyclist Burke Swindlehurst, who grew up in the town, and discovered his talent and love of climbing in the Tushar mountain range and Fishlake National Forest towering above the town to the east.
Unlike many towns, which see bike races as nothing but an inconvenience, the towns of Beaver, in Beaver County, and the towns of Junction and Circleville in neighboring Piute County turn out in full-force, not only in town but all along the course to cheer riders on, and making sure that they are well supported for what may not be the longest, but is certainly one of the most difficult mixed-surface (or “gravel”) races in the United States.
Each year after the first in 2011, the event has sold out, and every year, the amount of time it takes to sellout has gotten shorter and shorter, happening in about 4 hours in 2017. Once again, the race attracted a varied crowd of road, cyclocross, and mountain bike racers, including former and current UCI WorldTour professional riders David Zabriskie and Ben King.
Shortly after the roll-out from Beaver, before racing really started in earnest, Benjamin Blaugrund (Juwi Solar) went on one of his signature breaks, in the company of Menso De Jong (Clif), while Robbie Squire (Assos/Felt) got a front tire flat, leading to speculation that the Crusher still would not see a three-time winner, after Tyler Wren’s double in 2011 & 2012, Levi Leipheimer’s double in 2013 & 2014, and Squire’s own double in 2015 & 2016.
After the race, Squire joked about his first of many mishaps: “Yeah, that’s kind of my thing now, is I just don’t keep air in my tires, it’s too heavy, so I get rid of all of the air. Bad call, so I put in a tube to try and give it a go again.”
However, the Crusher is a long race and still had another 67 miles to go; as history has shown, anything can happen (and usually does).
After a hard 6-mile chase, Squire managed to reconnect to the main Pro/Open field shortly before the field turned off of UT-153 onto Kents Lake Road/FR-137 and hit dirt, causing the entire group to start to splinter as the race began in earnest.
Blaugrund and De Jong widened their gap on the rest of the field to about four minutes, with Blaugrund’s teammate Leroy Popowski riding in no man’s land about a minute ahead of the main chase group containing Squire, Todd Wells (Troy Lee Designs), Keegan Swenson (Cannondale-3Rox), Ben King (Dimension Data), Jamey Driscoll (DNA Cycling), and Josh Whitney (EVOL)
Shortly before the various groups reached Anderson Meadows, Ben King flatted at about mile 16, for what was apparently not the only time on the day, while Popowski and De Jong were caught and dropped by the chase group about a mile-and-a-half later.
As the lead group topped the first major climb and were about to hit the rollers leading towards the second feed zone at Betenson Flat, Squire dropped his chain and had to stop again to untangle it, before starting to chase again with Popowski through the feed zone and onto the rough, washboard descent down the dirt section of UT-153.
“Once I got my tires situated, I was trying to rider gingerly and not puncture again, but then I just kept losing my chain. At the top of the Col de Crush descent, it bucked off and wrapped itself in a little loop-de-loop. Normally, I can just reach down and put it back on, but I had to get off and do some math and calculate how to get it back on. It dropped a few more times, but I was able to get it back on without stopping those times,” said Squire.
Popowski’s less-confident descending prowess caused him to lose time on the descent, while Squire continued his chase down the Col de Crush before rejoining one of the chase groups as the road became paved once again nearing the bottom of the descent and heading south on US Highway 89 and heading into the small towns of Junction and Circleville, where it looked like the entire populace of both towns turned out to cheer the riders on and hand-up bottles to the riders.
As the race pulled out of Circleville and started heading back north towards Doc Springs Road (and the section dubbed the “Sarlacc Pit” by participants of the race’s first edition in 2011), the situation on the road was Todd Wells & Keegan Swenson, with Squire, Driscoll, Allen Krughoff, and one or two others about a minute-and-a-half back, with a second chase containing Blaugrund, De Jong, and one other rider a further two minutes behind.
If there is one truth about Doc Springs Road, it’s that you never really know what conditions are going to be like from year to year, from fairly sandy and deep the first year, muddy the second year, to relatively mild after recent rains keep the dust levels to a minimum, and that no matter what the conditions are, it’s going to be a tough section to work your way through before turning back up UT-153 to climb the Col de Crush. The “Pit” proved to be just as tough this year; while not as deep as the first year, the dirt was probably the loosest it had been since that first year, and with temperatures soaring and little vegetation to provide any respite from the sun and heat, it was bound to make an impact, with both Wells and Swenson switching from side-to-side of the road looking for a smooth line and something firm enough for their tires to grab some traction. It was in this section where the speculation started whether Wells’ “old man legs” or Swenson’s youth and climbing prowess would prove to be the other rider’s outdoing.
As the race passed the three-hour mark on the Col, Swenson’s relative inexperience with longer endurance events, and lack of firsthand knowledge of the course became apparent, as he started to get gapped by Wells around the 54-mile mark, while further behind, it looked like Squire was beginning to claw back more time on the two leaders.
With about 800 meters before the Pro-Form KOM, Squire caught and passed Swenson, before rejoining Wells in the lead about 300 meters later. With two bends in the road left before the KOM, Squire put in a little dig and opened up about a 10-meter gap back to Wells, which he held through the KOM, picking up the $250 prize for first rider across the line. Unlike most KOMs, which are usually awarded at the very top of the climb, the Pro-Form KOM is about 400 vertical feet below where the climb truly tops out before hitting the relatively flat rollers heading back towards Betenson Flat, and even more climbing to come after the turn-off to Gunsight Flat and Big Flat.
Wells was glad to have other riders for company on the climbs, first with Swenson, and then Squire, “It’s a lot nicer having someone to ride into the finish with. There were some pretty good headwinds on some of those sections up the climb, and while in the follow car you may not notice that there is a wind, when you’re on the bike you feel every little bit. It’s also nice to have some motivation of company out there. You know when you’re out there by yourself your mind kind of wanders, it’s hard to maintain focus, but when somebody else is there it’s easier to push.”
Once past the end of Big Flat, the riders reached the short, steep, and twisty descent from Timid Springs to Puffer Lake, and back to the pavement on UT-153. It was at this point that Wells launched his attack, hoping to dislodge Squire on the downhill to hold him off on the final climb to the finish by the Eagle Point Ski Resort Skyline Lodge, but all he could manage was about a 7-second gap, which Squire easily closed back down once the dirt was behind him.
It looked like it was going to come down to a two-man sprint to the finish up the final climb, which gains about 600 vertical feet in one mile. Coming around the final turn into the last 400 meters, Squire gave one last dig quickly opening a 15-second gap, which he held to the finish, and in so doing becoming the first 3-time winner of what has become one of the must-do mixed-surface events in the western United States.
Wells commented about the race, “It was good, it seemed like it was a little more mellow this year than last. By the time we got up to the top, even though it seemed like a more reasonable tempo we were a smaller group, Keegan (Swenson), Squire and I, and then Squire’s chain came off. So then it was just Keegan and I rode together until about halfway up the Col de Crush, and it all kind of happened there.
“Keegan came off a little bit, and Squire caught on right there, so we went from Keegan & I riding together not knowing where Squire was because we couldn’t see him, to the three of us together for just a few seconds, and then Squire goes off the front. I was able to keep him close and we hooked back up again and rode together to the finish. I put in a death-defying descent on the last dirt road thing (from Timid Springs) because I knew that was my only chance, but he came back to me. It was going to take a really good day for me to beat him in the sprint.”
Keegan Swenson was happy with his third-place finish, stating “A lot of my training is shorter; I haven’t been doing too many epic rides which are longer, because it still isn’t quite my wheelhouse right now. I do like the longer climbs, but it’s a long race. I think part of it was the heat as well, following Todd across the sandy false flat bits before the climb (on Doc Springs Road), I think that’s what put me in the box. I was hurting a bit before the climb; and he’s a big strong dude, he can go fast, so I was suffering even before the climb. Then when Robbie caught back on I knew it was going to go even faster and if I tried to go with them, I might explode, so I’m going to ride my own pace and maybe I can get them back if they start to play games later on. I just tried to finish in one piece.”
“I didn’t pre-ride the course, so that may have played a little into it as well, but I’m looking forward to coming back next year and seeing what I can do, now that I know what to expect.”
Starting just a few minutes after the Elite men, the women rolled out fairly easily, and were soon caught by one of the masters men fields starting behind them, so a group of the women jumped in with the men as the pace started to lift heading onto the dirt on FR-137.
As the group neared the top of the first climb, near Anderson Meadow, the group had separated with Janel Holcomb (Mavic) and Larissa Connors (Team Twenty20/Felt) in the lead, followed by Mindy McCutcheon (DNA Cycling), and then another group containing Breanne Nalder (PLAN7 DS) & Jennifer Luebke (DNA Cycling) and one other girl.
“I’ve been sick, injured and a bit burned out for the past 6 months [after the conclusion of cyclocross season], so I haven’t been racing or training as much. I knew what to expect and not to panic and not to bury myself too early; if I just took it easy up the first climb, I knew I’d get separated from Janel and Larissa, but I also knew there was a so much road ahead, so much racing left,” said McCutcheon after the race.
As the lead women’s group rolled through Anderson Meadow, from all the bouncing around on the washboard roads, Holcomb’s saddlebag came open and nearly fell off her saddle.
“We were just climbing and climbing and climbing, all of a sudden, my saddle bag exploded, everything everywhere, and it was dangling into my wheel, so I had to stop and get off and try to grab things and stick stuff in to my pocket,” she said. “I thought ‘Uh oh, this is not good! This is not good,’ so I just had get back on and got back into my rhythm with tubes hanging out of my jersey and all this stuff.”
Over the top of the climb coming into Betenson Flat, Holcomb managed to rejoin a small group with Larissa Connors, and attacked the descent.
Says Holcomb, “As we started the descent, I dropped Larissa again, and so I did the descent and loved it. Loved it! I know it was wash-boarded out, but I was just amazed at how beautiful the surroundings were. It was just gorgeous!”
When they hit the pavement on the bottom of the Col de Crush, heading in to Junction & Circleville, Holcomb was rejoined by Connors and 4 of the men they had been riding with; the group worked well together, grabbing more bottles at the aid stations.
As the group turned on to Doc Springs Road, another large group containing Mindy McCutcheon tagged on to the back of Holcomb’s group, and the riders once again settled into a rhythm.
According to Holcomb: ““It was hot, it was definitely very hot, but the conditions were pretty good; it was loose but you just had to relax and go with it and be patient. I really liked it and there were all sorts of people out there cheering which was really nice.”
Said McCutcheon, “Janel & Larissa both got away from me again through the Sarlacc Pit and the first part of the Col de Crush, and I knew I didn’t really have it in me to chase down Janel, which was fine.
As they turned back on to the pavement before starting the climb back up the infamous UT-153 Col de Crush, Holcomb had the realization, “’oh we’re going up that?’ I hadn’t really put it all together, you know. I was like ‘Are you kidding me?’ I knew it was going to be tough, it was so hot.”
McCutcheon followed, “I met Larissa again about halfway up the Col de Crush, and I could see her heart break when she saw mile after mile of climbing ahead of us, and I knew I just had to be slow and steady and I could probably hold her off.”
Coming through the QOM, Holcomb was also suffering. “I went through some rough patches there. Once in a while you get over a bit over the top of a little bit of a rise and you get a little more speed, and it was ‘okay, that feels good, that’s okay.’ It was a constant exercise of finding whatever power I could, taking in whatever food and drink I could, and then occasionally sitting up and looking around and taking it all in. No matter what happens it’s been a good day and an amazing event.”
Holcomb continued, “There was descent there [from Timid Springs down to Puffer Lake] that was just awesome, and all of a sudden, I felt like I got my mojo back. I was just killing it! When you hit the pavement, there are a few rollers, but then when you make the last turn with a mile to go, I got a few drops of rain, and I was still so hot that I was like ‘yes, bring it on!’ and then it started hailing! Going through that last mile I just kept looking up at the horizon and eventually saw the banner, and it was like ‘Yes! It was awesome.” Crossing the line was such a release, there was so much joy.”
About 8 minutes later, in the pouring rain, McCutcheon also rolled across the line, saying after the finish, ““I came in not expecting much out of myself; I knew I wasn’t coming in as strong as last year and am thrilled and shocked that I pulled off second. Last year I felt like Superwoman, and this year I questioned myself a thousand times if I should even come down, and then to be out there and it’s blazing hot. I thought about quitting with just about every other pedal stroke I made. It was a much a mental challenge as a physical challenge to even finish this year, let alone take second, so I’m pretty happy about that.”
Breanne Nalder (PLAN7 DS) caught and passed Connors on the climb up the Col de Crush, and was able to increase the gap and come in third, another 3 minutes behind McCutcheon.
“Coming up the Col de Crush, I kept using men as carrots and acted like a rabbit. I knew I was in forth because I hadn’t seen Jen (Luebke) or any of the other girls again. I came up on Larissa, and she said to me, “Why are you going this hard now?” and I said, “I’ve been going this hard the whole time!” and she kind of laughed. It motivated me to just go for it, and I was able to roll away from her.”