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Groad Trip: Crusher in the Tushar

"A frustrating but contented day," now I'm on infant watch until the birth of my children.

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The phone rang Wednesday at noon, 68 hours before the Crusher in the Tushar start gun would fire.

It was my wife, Dyanna.

“The doctor said things are holding steady and it’s unlikely the kids will come this weekend. But she said that after this weekend it’s really time to stay close to home.”

With that I subsequently called Big Tall Wayne letting him know that I’d pick him up early the next morning and also notified Canyon that a potential bike photoshoot the day before would indeed be possible.

I’d tried to stay focused on Crusher, heading up to my cabin at Lake Tahoe for some panicked altitude acclimation. Dyanna is coming into crunch time, and given a few attention items during ultrasounds, she has to get checked twice weekly. Thus our lifestyle has fallen into three-day blocks.

If the answer is “all looks steady” then I continue to work, gravel, Privateer, or whatever you call it. If the answer is “these vitals we’re checking are showing signs of strain” or “labor is imminent” then I would bail on whatever I was focused on and head home to her side. We’ve had to sit on high alert status for months though, so while some have questioned and even chided me for not just staying home from the onset, in reality I can’t not work for 2-3 months before my children are even born.

Thus, under those life circumstances, Wayne and I hatched a 72-hour escape plan to Utah.

Crusher in the Tushar is deceptively one of the hardest races in gravel. What it lacks in distance it more than makes up for in extreme elevation, vertical ascent, heat, and chain-dropping washboard roads. The final 20 percent kick at over 10,000 feet elevation guarantees that every rider, no matter the caliber, struggles over the line at a gasping crawl.

I was the defending champ and was hopeful to defend my title, but knew it was a tall ask given this was stop #3 of the Life Time Grand Prix. The field quality is deeper than it’s ever been, and due to the prize purse, many riders are solely dedicating their peak fitness to these races alone.

The race

After a calm rollout on paved roads the race opened up once the dirt began and road pitched up. I opened the follies, keen to see who was on and to set a tone of attrition on the lower flanks before the thin air higher up would take its toll.

Attacks and sparring continued until Keegan Swenson put in a big dig and only Howard Grotts could follow. Cole Paton dangled just behind. Not being fully acclimated, I was very aware I couldn’t follow them and had to settle for the chase group, composed of Alexey Vermeulen, Payson McElveen, Griffin Easter, and a yo-yo’ing Andrew L’Esperance.

crusher in the tushar
Stetina, Easter, Grotts, Paton, McElveen, and L’Esperance (Photo: Wil Matthews)

We worked well together over the top and attacked the dangerous chain-dropping descent into the valley below. Seemingly everyone spaced out and had some issues on that descent. Payson and I caught Cole at the bottom and we quickly stopped at an aid station for water when an ambitious 10-man group blazed by just behind us. They didn’t stop: bold move.

We quickly hopped on and soon after caught Howard who also succumbed to chain issues on the descent. Keegan was plowing ahead alone but the race was gruppo compacto and reset for the podium battle.

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Right before the decisive Saarlac Pit and Col d’Crush climb began however there was a surprise aid station, not on the race map. All the riders’ bold move paid off and they got fresh drinks, oh well. It would just come down to legs.

And right at that moment, thinking about legs, I cramped. It was pure surprise; I wasn’t even tired yet! We were only two hours into the race, and I hadn’t done anything different to my fueling strategy. Even today I still don’t know why, maybe a hormonal/electrolyte imbalance or a bodily reaction to heat and elevation which I hadn’t had in awhile. I started guzzling water but I knew that with most of the climbing still to come, I was in trouble.

As predicted, the race exploded on the Col d’Crush. With enough pure water in me I would feel good and begin to drop the others, but the cramps would quickly return and force me to back off until another water station. There, I would fill quickly and, feeling rejuvenated, get back to Griffin, Cole, and Howard fighting for second. I’d have to repeat the stop-fill-chase process a few more times over the next hour.

Stetina, McElveen, Easter, and L’Esperance work together on the dirt (Photo: Wil Matthews)

Howard did lose contact at the top, but with 12 miles to go Cole, Griffin, and I were still locked in a battle. It’s always a pleasure racing with those two guys; I respect them and their style immensely. We weren’t going particularly fast but at those high elevations, it’s like one has a governor on their engine and none of us were truly strong enough to break the others.

Back to the race: our podium battle came down to a three-man slow motion sprint up that 20 percent finish grade. Cole took the sprint, quickly followed by Griffin and myself. Payson, being hampered by a flat but buoyed by good legs, rode through multiple riders and almost back to us to finish fifth.

Keegan had impressively soloed in for the win and a new course record. He’s having quite the season and is simply better than everyone right now. I know how hard he works and dedicated he is — I can tell you it’s all well deserved. I see him sliding into this winner’s confidence, as I had a season like that last year.

Winning begets winning, meaning the more you do it the easier it becomes. Confidence in oneself and one’s race craft seem to compound on itself. It’s a magical moment in an athlete’s career. I’ve tasted it a few times, and I also know how special it is due to its impermanence. It’s one of the few times where all the suffering in training is validated.

crusher in the tushar
The group – minus Grotts – that would eventually become the sprint for second place. (Photo: Wil Matthews)

For myself it was a frustrating but contented day. Given my issues, to manage fourth in the race and third in the all-important Grand Prix points is a success. A salvage if you will. But I feel I’m not riding to the capabilities I possess. This feeling was confirmed when compared to last year’s win: I was much slower up the climbs and had less power.

This season has been continual hiccups: family uncertainties, broken bones, having Covid in between clutch races, and, simply attending too many races. Something still isn’t clicking physically, and I’m tired of bashing my head against an invisible wall. It’s time to step back, reassess and reset.

Still, I want to be clear, a less than ideal race result is just that, a number for societal validation. It can matter but it doesn’t have to. And a lot of my colleagues had much worse luck yesterday. I enjoyed the race against others and the tactical game of managing my setbacks.

Big Tall Wayne and some burros at sunset (Photo: Pete Stetina)

The weekend ended on a high however. Wayne and I caught wind of some secret hot springs halfway home in the middle of the Nevadan desert. So we snagged some beers, burritos, and hightailed it back west. A sunset soak and a pack of wild burros was the perfect curtain call to our Tushar adventure.

I’m now going on infant watch and won’t race again until after the birth. Currently my plan is to attend the LeadBoat Challenge, with grandma coming in to pinch hit for me over the weekend. I’ll come straight from sea level without preparation, however. Hopefully this fall I’ll be back to the athlete I know I can be.