Gravel Dispatch: Busted, dusted, and encrusted at the Crusher in the Tushar

Editor’s note: Managing editor Chris Case raced the Crusher in the Tushar and lived to tell the tale. This coverage is sponsored by 3T, Mavic, Bell, and Roka. Case rode a 3T Exploro on Mavic's Allroad Pro UST Disc wheels and Yksion Allroad XL tires, and was equipped with a Bell Z20 MIPS helmet and Roka GP-1 sunglasses. 

“Pro racers to the start area!” the announcer bellowed. “Call-ups will begin in one minute!”

I casually chatted with a friend in the small town of Beaver, Utah, as I prepared to race the Crusher for the first time. I scanned the field of gathered pros to size up the competition, and to try and guess who might be called to the line first.

In the commotion I briefly tuned in to hear the tail end of the first announcement. “…holds a national hour record in his age group: Chris Case!”

Wow, that’s weird, there’s someone else here with the name Chris Case! I thought. That’s wild.

“Chris Case to the start line!”

Holy what!? They’re talking about me. This has got to be a mistake.

All by his lonesome, the author waits to be joined at the start line by the real pros in the field. Photo: Cathy Fegan-Kim

I rolled to the line, exposed for all to see. Shockingly, this was before defending champion Rob Squire, ahead of legend Ned Overend, before a horde of current and former pros who would most assuredly dust me. What in the world just happened? All I could figure is that Burke, the race director, was trying to spoil me so I’d write a better story about his race. (Thanks, Burke, but you shouldn’t have!)

Alas, though there is much climbing at the Crusher, it was all downhill for me after my start-line moment of fame. For, in the subsequent hours, I would slowly, dramatically, and pathetically crack like parched earth.

To crush or be crushed? That is the question

Race promoter Burke “T-Bird” Swindlehurst — a former professional and three-time winner of the Tour of the Gila — dreamed up the Crusher while training for the ahead-of-its-time Boulder to Breckenridge road race. Also called the Saturn Classic, the 140-mile race existed from 2000 to 2002 and included 15,000 feet of climbing and several sections of dirt road. While Burke considers it one of his all-time favorite races, he didn’t love the fact that riders were permitted to switch bikes to descend the dirt portions.

In 2011, the Crusher was born. At only 69 miles and about 10,000 feet of climbing, the Crusher doesn’t seem absurdly hard on paper. Roll up that piece of paper and throw it in the trash. Out there on the brutal final climb, under a blazing sun, there’s not a single place to hide. Prepare to die.

Deep in the forest of the Tushar Range. Photo: Cathy Fegan-Kim

Burke doesn’t shy away from emphasizing the difficulty of his race. In fact, he wholeheartedly embraces it. The race guide weaves a tale about Robbie Parker, a.k.a. Butch Cassidy, and his childhood exploits on what has become affectionately known as the Col d’Crush, the 2,000-foot barren climb that is the trademark feature of the race. With a thick Western drawl, the course and feed stations, climbs and descents, are described. It includes gems like: “The last climb of the race is the hardest. But that’s because it’s the last one. And it’s mighty steep. And it’s probably spawned from the loins of a demon.”

By the end of the tale, if you aren’t scared enough as it is, the ride guide leaves you with this zinger: “So, here’s you are, still sitting on the bed in the motel. The race begins in the morning. I hope you’s aint scared. But you should be. Tomorrow’ll be the best worst day you will ever have. Or it might be the worst best day you will ever have. If there’s a difference ’tween those things, you’ll know it when it’s all over. Best git some sleep. You ride at first light.”

Just before the climb to the finish line, the route rolls through open meadows high in the Tushar mountains. Photo: Cathy Fegan-Kim

One of the best things about gravel races, and about the Crusher in particular, is that they are, in many ways, a manifestation of the personality and character of their creator.

“When people ask me what I would be if I weren’t a bike racer, I’d be an artist of some sort. Expression is the most important thing to me,” Swindlehurst says. “For a long time, I felt like I could express myself on the bike when I was racing.”

For Burke, the way you race a bike, and the manner in which you approach a race, says a lot about who you were. Burke admits his biggest weakness as a racer, and which led him to throw away his chances of winning on many an occasion, was that he raced on feeling: “If I felt that explosion in my chest, ‘I gotta go now,’ I’d go. I couldn’t ever suppress that. It was artistic expression because I was just going with what was inside of me.”

Likewise, he’s taken all of his creativity and thrown it into a supremely hard bike race: the course, the language he uses to describe it, and the atmosphere he hopes to convey at the event. Welcome to the little world of pain that Burke built.

The verdict

If there were an instruction manual for the Crusher, it would have three rules: 1.) Don’t go out too hard; 2.) Don’t go out too hard; 3.) Don’t go out too hard.

I struck out on three consecutive pitches. It’s easy to get sucked into the pace, especially when you’re on terrain you love, and you’ve just put behind you a race that doesn’t suit you well, known as Dirty Kanza. Here you are, riding alongside Deadly Nedly — you just want to rip up some climbs. There’s no holding back.

Indeed, I went from being a performance artist in my own right, dancing up the first climb of the day, to a broken carcass, vapid and depleted. How’d it happen? Why’d it happen? I don’t know. There was more to it than going out a little too hard.

Col d’ Crush is specifically designed to suck the life out of you, one atom at a time. Photo: Cathy Fegan-Kim

Somewhere near the hamlet of Circleville in the so-called Sarlacc Pit — for those who don’t know, that’s a Star Wars reference — I was attacked by a carnivorous beast. True to legend, it injected immobilizing neurotoxins into my flaccid corpse. It agitated a sense of constant pain, and, while still semi-conscious, I was slowly digested for the next 5,000 feet of climbing, and what felt like a millennium.

What did I do to deserve such an atrocious fate? Did I piss off the ghost of Butch Cassidy? Had I fallen off the back side of my Dirty Kanza peak? It didn’t matter. All I know is that I kept the pedals turning for hours. I couldn’t stop. I had to finish. So I just kept churning away while I felt my soul slowly evaporate, leaving behind a briny pool.

By the finish line, the author was too weak to punch or hug race promoter Burke Swindlehurst. Photo: Cathy Fegan-Kim

At the inaugural Crusher in the Tushar in 2011, Swindlehurst greeted riders at the finish. When one crossed the line looking a bit worse for wear, Burke asked how the race went.

“I want to punch you in the face!” the man responded. He seemed dead serious; Burke took a step back. Then the man continued: “But I’m going to give you a hug instead!”

Such is the Crusher: Inevitably it will hurt you, but you will love it anyway. Undoubtedly you will ask yourself, when traversing the barren wasteland of the Sarlacc Pit or crying up the Col d’Crush, why you paid hard-earned money to suffer so bad. Then, upon crawling across the line, that feeling of accomplishment will wash over you as you begin think about doing it all again next year — and doing it better. You know the routine.

If Burke had greeted me at the finish line this year, I’m certain I would not have had the strength to either punch him or hug him. But I believe I could have mustered the willpower to mumble something about how I hadn’t cracked so hard in a really long time. He’d have heard my story a hundred times before, and several times already that day.

Photo: Cathy Fegan-Kim

What I rode

I rode a 3T Exploro on Mavic’s Allroad Pro UST Disc wheels and Yksion Allroad XL tires and was equipped with a Bell Z20 MIPS helmet and Roka GP-1 sunglasses. The 3T Exploro is the same proven bike I rode at Dirty Kanza 200 in June.

Equipped with Mavic’s Allroad Pro UST Disc wheels and Yksion Allroad XL tires, the bike conquered the terrain at Crusher (unlike me), from ripping descents to sustained paved climbs, to greasy, rocky double-track, the wheels and tires were more than capable. Diving into water-saturated, muddy hairpins, the bike’s front end never wandered. The same could be said of high-speed tarmac sweepers. While spray wasn’t eliminated completely, the water was channeled over and down the front tire’s crown, eliminating spray and muck. The tire felt confident, robust, and capable across the entire range of terrains and conditions that was thrown at it. Likewise, the wheels proved durable and capable — engagement was immediate and acceleration, even with the wide tires, was surprisingly good. In total, it proved to be a stellar combination for the type of highly variable riding I encountered at the Crusher.

I wore a Bell Z20 helmet. The innovative combination of the MIPS layer and retention system creates a helmet that is easy to fit and among the most comfortable I’ve worn. That fit is further enhanced by the Float Fit Race retention system, featuring height and width adjustable cradles and an easy-to-use tension dial. Compact, safe, attractive: pick three.

Finally, I wore Roka’s GP-1 sunglasses. Incredibly light, supremely stable, these glasses might be made for the rigors of the WorldTour, but they proved perfect for the demands of the Crusher. The large shield and lower frame combine to offer a lens with an unobstructed view, and one which stays locked-in over any terrain.