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“It’s tried and true.”
While Burke Swindlehurst understands why other race promoters may change their race courses every year or so, he believes that the Crusher in the Tushar route is one worth holding onto.
The 2022 edition of the race kicks off on Saturday with the tried and true 69-mile route that takes in 10,400 feet of climbing and includes one particularly rowdy descent. It’s the same course Swindlehurst has used since the race’s inception in 2011, replete with soul-crushing climbs, the possibility of wildly variable weather, and techy rough descending.
Sofia Gomez Villafañe and Pete Stetina won the 2021 event, with Gomez Villafañe doing so on a hardtail mountain bike. In fact, Swindlehurst said, the first five women winners of the race won on mountain bikes.
Crusher begins in historic downtown Beaver, Utah (5,900 feet elevation) and finishes at the Eagle Point ski resort (10,400ft). The course features a 40/60 split between tarmac and dirt/gravel sectors.
Riders are sent off in waves, with women leading the race. Five minutes after the women begin, pro men roll out, followed by amateur men in age groups. In a sea of mass start gravel races, this format sets Crusher apart.
The first 11 miles of the race are on the paved Beaver Canyon Road. The road parallels the Beaver River and offers a gentle gradient that serves as a warm-up before the real climbing begins. At mile 11, the course makes a right turn onto Forest Road 137 and takes on an aggressive increase in gradient. For the next 21 miles, riders are on dirt.
The first major climb tops out at 10,000 feet around mile 24. 4,000 feet of descending follow, about seven miles of which are on loose, rough dirt.
After the descent, riders roll on pavement into aid #3 at mile 38 in the town of Junction.
After Junction, a fast five miles on Utah Scenic Byway US-89 deliver riders to the town of Circleville, where the route heads back onto dirt at the notorious Doc Springs Road (also known as the “Sarlacc Pit“) with its deceptive grades, ruts, and loose and sandy conditions.
The fourth aid station comes at the end of this often-frustrating section and just before the infamous Col d’Crush climb.
Perhaps the most challenging characteristic of Col d’Crush is that it never seems to end. Between aid #4 at mile 51 and aid #5 at mile 59, the climb kicks up an impressive 2,700 feet. After the final aid station, riders gain another 650 feet for a short roll through “Big Flat” with its abundant wildflowers and iconic Tushar Mountain views.
The final four miles are on pavement but the climbing doesn’t quit until the party starts — at the Eagle Point ski resort at 10,400 feet.
Women to watch
Crusher is the third stop in the Life Time Grand Prix race series, so competition this year will be fiercer than ever. “Rider to watch” lists almost become a moot point in a selection-based professional race series; however, part of what makes the Grand Prix compelling is how certain races favor certain riders, and how much can change during the season.
Nevertheless, one woman in particular has risen to the very top of the talent pool this season.
Gomez Villafañe leads the women’s Grand Prix standings, and has established herself both within and outside of the series. From second at Sea Otter to her commanding win at Unbound to her recent domination at the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder, the 28-year-old is on a mission to be the best multi-discipline rider in North America.
For this year’s race, Gomez Villafañe is switching up her equipment: instead of the Epic hardtail, she’s bringing her Crux, a lighter-weight steed from the Specialized stable. She’s keeping things lean and leaving the suspension fork at home.
Gomez Villafañe, who has been outspoken about the lack of a true women’s race in gravel, told VeloNews that both the separated start format and the nature of the course makes Crusher unique among gravel races.
“It’s raced more like mountain bike race,” she said. “Not only with separate starts, but the group dynamic doesn’t play a role with all the climbing. You can’t hide on the climbs, you have to have that power.”
Saturday’s race will likely be a showdown between the other mountain bikers turned gravel pros (lines are blurring at this point).
2019 Crusher champ Evelyn Dong (who won the race on a bike she borrowed from Gomez Villafañe) is one to watch, as are marathon experts Alexis Skarda and Rose Grant.
Other riders to watch include last year’s second place finisher Maude Farrell, solid all ’rounder Kristen Legan, MTB pros Lea Davison and Haley Smith, and WorldTour pro Emily Newsom.
Flavia Oliveira and Lauren Cantwell are two non-Grand Prix racers who will also be battling for a spot on the podium.
Men to watch
No two riders have taken the exact same approach to the month between Unbound Gravel and Crusher in the Tushar, so it will be interesting to see what plan works best at the vertiginous race in Utah.
Defending men’s champ Pete Stetina has been on the race program, winning BWR Asheville one week post-Unbound and racing neck-in-neck with short track world champ Chris Blevins at the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder stage race in late June.
Grand Prix series leader Keegan Swenson has been on an intense altitude training program in Park City post-Unbound, and the 28-year-old is an obvious choice for the podium. To clear up any concern that 69 miles is too short the marathon-distance specialist, Swenson reassured us.
“I mean, I wish we did two laps of it, but it’s long enough,” he said.
Payson McElveen is another rider who would love to add a win at Crusher to his palmares. The 29-year-old had a bummer start to the season with a broken wrist and collarbone at the Mid South, forcing him to sit out Sea Otter. He’s got some ground to make up in the Grand Prix, where he currently sits in 17th position, but he finished an impressive ninth at a challenging Unbound, and Crusher suits his strengths.
Other riders coming off strong performances at Unbound include former pro roadies Alexey Vermeulen and Rob Britton. Current pro roadies Lachlan Morton and Alex Howes will be looking for good results to bump them from the top twenty to the top ten in the Grand Prix.
Non-Grand Prix riders to watch include Griffin Easter, Ryan Standish, and Eddie Anderson, who was third at the race last year.