By Chris Magerl
Jeff Bender and Sam Sweetser were just trying to stay within sight of Jamey Driscoll. Driscoll had broken the lead group very early in this year’s edition of The Wild Horse, a dirt fondo in the Cedar Mountain Wilderness, west of Salt Lake City. This year’s event was on April 27.
Less than 12 miles into the 76-mile loop, Driscoll was off the front and powering toward the top of the first King of the Mountain climb, Hastings Pass. Sweetser described the standings on the road. “Once there, Jamey put the hammer down and quickly dropped everyone. At the bottom of the first descent I caught up with Jeff and from that point on we rode together for the rest of the race. Most of the time we could see Jamey up the road but it never seemed like we were closing much of the gap.”
The course was in good shape, except for a stretch on the west side that had been hammered by rain the previous weekend and then chopped up by the cattle still on the range. Other than that, not much to worry about. “Fresh air, good temps, and awesome views the whole time,” was Bender’s description of the day. Bender was having a good day. “I was solo up and over the top and down the first decent where, luckily enough, Sam Sweetser had caught me. We were able to ride/work together the rest of the race which made for damn good company.”
Sweetser had ridden The Wild Horse in 2018, so he knew the course. He also knew how hard it was to ride solo, as he flatted four times last year. “After coming off the second descent we could see Jamey way off in the distance and figured that was the last time we would see him. But having someone to trade pulls with was a huge advantage and we ended up catching him right before the second feed zone. Jamey stopped while Jeff and I kept riding.”
At this point, Bender and Sweetser were about 25 miles from the finish. A lot of false flats, rollers and fast descents. And one gut punch. Sweetser knew what was coming. “All the while hoping I had enough water to survive until the end as I remembered the last climb up the wash as a soul crushing experience last year. Luckily I had Jeff to ride with all the way to finish and enjoyed dodging cows in the wash.”
Bender and Sweetser came into the final mile together. “It wasn’t until the last straight-away where I thought I could make a move on Sam,” Bender said. “I’ve raced against him before and he is crazy strong. I made the final move and it stuck! I then was able to pull away to the finish line.”
Bender crossed the line in 4:13:40, with Sweetser coasting in eight seconds later. Both were almost five minutes faster than the previous course record. For breaking the record, Bender walked away with a $100 bill and TrueNorth Wealth donated an additional $250 to the Utah League High School MTB Scholarship Fund, the beneficiary of The Wild Horse.
Driscoll was the third finisher, but his efforts on the two King of the Mountain climbs, Hastings Pass and Rydalch Pass, earned him the TRP KOM victory.
For Breanne Nalder, riding her third Wild Horse, the day was fast, a bit more comfortable, and oh, so close to the course record.
“Wild Horse 2019 was another fantastic adventure,” Nalder said. “I decided to ride my Trek Top Fuel MTB rather than my gravel bike. I was happy with my choice, as I had a cushy ride all day. Although it made the climbs a bit more challenging (slower QOM times than previous years) it made all the rest of the miles faster as I felt confident on my equipment.”
Last year, Nalder was 56 seconds away from being only the second woman in the then four-year history of The Wild Horse to go under five hours. A wrong turn a few miles from the finish likely was the difference in not going under five. There would be no wrong turns this year, and the record was in play all day.
“The second half of the race is usually the hardest but this year it was a blast powering through the rollers and enjoying the beauty,” Nalder said. “I was with my teammate Art O’Connor and we did some math, realizing that if we could average 15 mph I would be on track for the female course record. I didn’t think that would be attainable going into the day on the MTB and with the softer roads.”
The women’s course record was set in 2016 by Meghan Sheridan, at 4:57:53.
“We pushed it together through the wind,” said Nalder. “I missed Meghan’s record by about 20 seconds. It was still a fantastic day and I will undoubtedly be back next year.” Nalder became only the second woman to go under five hours in 4:58:11, and also won the TRP Queen of the Mountain.
Little Wild Horse
In the 31-mile Little Wild Horse, the adventure of the day was provided by wild horses. Dave Gontrum was in a small group off the front when things got weird.
“About 10 miles into the ride, the foursome I was riding with split apart,” said Gontrum. “A few minutes later I looked back and was startled to see a large peloton bearing down on me fast, dust flying in their wake.” He quickly discovered this was no ordinary bike ride. “A second look and I realized that about a dozen frightening large horses were bearing down on me, galloping in phalanx about 50 yards behind me.”
“After a few more glances behind, and some clumsy attempts to video backwards with my phone in the bright sun while ostensibly racing a mountain bike, I realized that they had settled into a comfortable pace at a midpoint between me and the four riders who had coalesced behind them. For the next several exhilarating miles, it was as if the horses just decided to join our event as we proceeded down the now mostly flat final miles to the aid station. At one point, some riders who had bowed out of the longer Wild Horse and were returning the opposite direction, had to stop as our strange posse wove around them. As we neared the aid station, the horses parted from the road and headed off into the open range, leaving us to finish the race with that thrilling experience fueling the climb and return.”
Gontrum went on to finish in the top 10, a few minutes behind three-time Wild Horse veteran Barry Makarewicz, who was riding the Little Wild Horse for the first time.
“I would describe it as a humane ride that a reasonably fit person could do and enjoy ‘off the couch’ “, said Makarewicz.
Bike Choice at the Wild Horse
Just like any long day on dirt roads, at some point you are riding the wrong bike. For Bender, his gravel bike was the right ride. “Weapon of choice was my Norco Threshold built with the new Sram AXS 1×12. 40t up front and a 10-33 rear cassette. I chose the trusty 38c Panaracer GravelKing but ran a pretty high pressure due to the uncertainty in course conditions.”
For Nalder, who has won The Wild Horse on a gravel bike, the MTB was the right call this year. For Makarewicz in the Little Wild Horse, MTB was the way to go. “I chose to ride a full suspension mountain bike knowing it would be a bit of a disadvantage over about 75 percent of the course,” said Makarewicz, “but it was very helpful on the big decent off of Hastings Pass where I was able to make up about a minute and a half on the lead rider, who was on a cross bike.”
Over the five years of The Wild Horse, gravel bikes and gravel-specific tires have really evolved, and riders’ times reflect this. This year there were 25 men who went sub-five hours in The Wild Horse. This is about the same number as went sub-five in the previous four years combined. Having a gravel bike with just a bit more relaxed geometry and that can accommodate a rear tire of at least 40, as opposed to the more aggressive frame of a CX race bike that can perhaps only handle a 35 in the rear, makes a huge difference.
Good weather, great volunteers and a varied, vast course were the highlights of The Wild Horse. “This is an amazing place to ride bikes and everyone should put this event on their to-do list,” Said Sweetser. “The Wild Horse is a well-run event with the riders’ interests and needs prioritized,” said Makarewicz. “I plan to be at the starting line again next year.”
Wild Horse 2019 Results
- Breanne Nalder 4:58:11
- Ingrid Smallman 5:36:13
- Niki Milleson 5:43:15
- Jeff Bender 4:13:40 — New course record!
- Sam Sweetzer 4:13:48
- Jamey Driscoll 4:18:25
Little Wild Horse Results
- Trista Winder 2:10:43
- Laura Howat 2:15:01
- Erin Sweetzer 2:17:19
- Barry Makarewicz 1:56:47
- Ryan Mauser 1:56:49
- Dru Whitlock 2:01:23
(For full results, see our Late Spring 2019 issue online)