By David Bern
Bergant blisters course and sets new sub nine-hour record
In faint, pre-dawn light, with cold, grey mist hovering low over Cache Valley’s farms and roadside marshes, Chris Carr soon discovered that it was a mistake to have left his vest and arm warmers in the car.
It’s hard enough to race and win any category in the 206-mile LoToJa Classic. Harder still with legs and arms covered with goose bumps, the size of Hershey Kisses, tearing at the wind.
“I rode away from the start line wearing only a lightweight jersey, bibs, and short-fingered summer gloves…” said Carr, 29, a Cat. I rider from Golden, CO. “I was okay for half an hour, then I started to shiver. …We moved pretty slow for the first couple of hours, so I bet I burned twice as many calories shivering than I did pedaling. Not a strategy I’d recommend!”
Carr (GS Boulder/Trek Store) eventually shook off the early-morning frost to win the Men’s I, II, III category with a time of 8:59:14 in a spectacular three-man sprint against Justin Wilson (Revolution/Café Rio) and three-time LoToJa winner Cameron Hoffman (Simply Mac Racing/Bountiful Bicycle). Carr’s sub nine-hour ride broke the 9:01:44 record by over two minutes — but the day’s new course record of 8:57:19 was ridden by Leon Bergant (Simply Mac Racing/Bountiful Bicycle), a former pro who rode as a Cat. IV.
Although Jenn Halladay (Bob’s Bicycles) missed breaking the women’s course record of 9:44:57, which she set in 2010 during an epic 115-mile solo to the finish, she set another milestone that may be even harder to break. The Cat. I rider from Kuna, ID won her fifth LoToJa with a time of 9:47:38 — in a thrilling four-woman sprint at the finish — despite being 41 years old, a mother of five, and recovering from a serious crash in 2011 that put her in a back brace for months.
“It’s remarkable I’m back on the bike,” she said about the June 2011 training ride crash that broke her jaw and cracked seven vertebrae. “The recovery was hard, but I got through it. … All the while, I knew I was going to get back on the bike. I didn’t want it to end this way. I told my husband that I wasn’t finished. I still had a lot to give.”
Wanting to finish this year’s LoToJa, with everything to give, was on the hearts and minds of the 1,500-plus cyclists who rode away from Logan’s Sunrise Cyclery on Sept. 8, and headed north for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Although the day began with early-fall chill, the cold soon disappeared as a bright sun, cloudless sky, and warm, favorable winds created ideal conditions for a memorable day — and to celebrate LoToJa’s 30th Anniversary.
Tragically, however, the day’s memories include the first fatality in the race’s 30-year history. Robert Verhaaren of Mesa, AZ died during an unexplainable and horrific crash near Hoback Junction. Three weeks after the race, Douglas Cottle of Ogden, also died. He too had crashed on race day while descending Strawberry Canyon and suffered head trauma. He was expected to recover. But while in an Ogden-area hospital, he fell and suffered a brain-stem injury and died on Sept. 29. The exact cause of Cottle’s race-day crash is also unclear (See sidebar).
For Carr, the 30th Anniversary LoToJa, gave him a chance to show that he could win a major bike race. He raced the event for the first time in 2011 with designs of taking the podium’s top block. But a “well-represented break went up Salt River Pass, and nobody was willing to chase,” he says. He had four teammates with him, too. Eventually, he did give chase and got within one minute of the break at the finish.
“If we had known we were that close to catching them, we would have gone even harder,” he said.
That experience from last year’s LoToJa was in the back of Carr’s mind while he and 42 other Cat. I, II, IIIs rolled through the first feed zone at Preston (34 miles) and started the 20-mile climb to 7,424-foot high Strawberry Summit. With a small break up the road, which had gotten away in Cache Valley, the peloton hastened the pace as Strawberry Canyon’s rollers were left behind and the real climb to the summit began. Riders started to pop off the back.
“It was fast, but it was a tempo I was comfortable with,” he said.Eventually, Carr and seven others crested Strawberry, descended to Ovid and rolled through the feed zone at Montpelier (80 miles). The eight riders stayed together while climbing 6,923-foot high Geneva Summit, and 14 miles later, to the 7,630-foot high summit of Salt River Pass. With the King of the Mountain prize lost to the break still ahead, Carr and the seven others just held a steady tempo on Salt River’s 8% pitch.
Shortly after the feed zone at Afton (125 miles) in Star Valley, the group caught the break, which consisted of three riders. This new tip of the spear featured Carr, Wilson, Hoffman, Darren Goff (Simply Mac Racing/Bountiful Bicycles), Jake Stocking (Revolution/Café Rio), Will Hanson (Revolution/Café Rio), 2010 winner Garrett Burbidge (Revolution/Café Rio), Ricky Bangerter (Simply Mac Racing/Bountiful Bicycles), Tyler Matson (Simply Mac Racing/Bountiful Bicycles) and last year’s winner Clinton Mortley (Simply Mac Racing/Bountiful Bicycles).
“After Alpine, it was basically two teams against me. I was alone,” said Carr. Unlike 2011, he didn’t have any teammates this year to counter five Simply Mac and four Revolution riders. Nevertheless, he felt closely watched by the others. As a result, he chose not to “be the aggressor.”
He added there were no attacks from Alpine (159 miles) to Hoback Junction (180 miles). The group even stayed composed while climbing the gradual, yet tiring one-mile incline before turning left onto South Park Loop Road with 18 miles to go. But with South Park Loop now under their wheels, the truce began to erode. An unidentified flyer went and was caught, and then another jumped where the road veers right and enters a phalanx of tall poplar trees that frame the Grand Teton ahead.
“We left him out there and caught him after the bridge at Wilson,” said Carr. “It was one of the riders who had been in the break since Cache Valley, so I knew he was already tired.”
While on Village Road and the final seven miles to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Carr noticed the group had a chance of breaking the record. He could tell that everyone was tired, but each pulled through at the front. Some, however, eventually dropped off the back, leaving Wilson, Hoffman, Goff, Stocking, Hanson and Carr to gun for the finish.
At 5K to go, Carr and another rider rolled off the front, but they were reeled in. Again, it was Carr alone against Simply Mac and Revolution riders. The cards were stacked against him. Or were they? If Wilson, Hoffman, Goff, Stocking and Hanson marked each other and refused to commit until the final 200 meters, could Carr use it to his advantage?
“I had to be careful. They were against me,” he said. “We looked at each other and at 1K to go, I went to the front. …At 500 meters, I wanted to see what would happen.” He accelerated and got a good gap. He thought he saw the finish line, put his head down, and began to sprint. To his dismay, he suddenly realized the line was further down course.
“I thought I had lost the race. I was already embarrassed with myself. My legs stopped working, and I could see shadows coming up behind me. I was throwing my hips forward to keep on sprinting. Fifty, 40, 30 meters, and the shadows didn’t get any closer. I realized I had a chance, and kept on going.”
As he neared the finish, Carr threw his bike forward at the line — and beat Wilson by half a wheel, who finished at 8:59:14.642. Hoffman took third at 8:59:14.757; Goff fourth at 8:59:14.827; Stocking fifth at 8:59:16; and Hanson sixth at 8:59:21.
Carr, who started racing in 2006 and became a Cat. I three years ago, said he’s had several top five finishes in bigger races, but LoToJa is his “biggest actual win” to date.
“LoToJa is also my happiest win because it’s a race that I’ve been looking forward to for a year,” he said. “Most bike races I’ve been to are out in the middle of no where, and there’s often not much to look at. But with LoToJa’s finish just below the Tetons, combined with the extreme distance, makes it truly a special race, more so than any other that I’ve done.”
Without hesitation, Carr said he plans to return in 2013. “Winning one year guarantees nothing — if anything it makes it harder to repeat. But barring illness or injury, I’ll be ready to go next September. ‘LoToJa Champion’ sounds nice, but ‘Two-Time LoToJa Champion’ sounds even better!”
Jenn Halladay knows well what that sounds like — times five. But after not racing once during 2011 due to injury, and placing second at the 2012 Nationals in the Women’s 40-44 division in Bend, OR — just two days before LoToJa — she wanted to make a statement.
“Going into LoToJa 2012 I definitely felt the pressure to win, definitely self-imposed, but I had to,” said Halladay. “In my mind it was the only way to truly close the book on 2011 and overcome what happened to me.”
Halladay felt this as she, and 11 other Cat. I, II, III, and 31 Cat. IV women riders, pointed their handlebars north out of Logan. The bunch stayed together through Cache Valley, Preston, Riverdale, and the initial 10 miles of rollers into Strawberry Canyon. But just like the Cat. I, II, III men’s race, the pace jumped when the road started to get vertical. What caused everyone’s heart rate to spike was Halladay.
She went to the front and drilled it. Only Anne Perry (Revolution/Café Rio), Brooke Parent (unattached) and Shirley Leydsman (HSB/Team Redrock) could go with her. The four dropped the peloton — and never saw it again.
They crested Strawberry Summit, descended to Ovid, and while entering Montpelier, agreed to make the day’s race a unique and remarkable experience.
“I told them I don’t attack at feed zones. That’s no way to beat others,” said Halladay. “I told them let’s stay together and let things sort themselves out at the end.” The foursome agreed and did wait for each other at every feed zone — even for bio breaks.
Together they rode a four-woman pace line up and over Geneva Summit, and through the flats leading toward Salt River Pass. They also worked as a unit up Salt River. What Perry, Parent and Leydsman didn’t know was that Halladay was suffering.
“I went to the front to control the pace,” she said. “I was afraid Brooke (Parent) would drop me.” Although she was hurting, Halladay crossed the summit first atop Salt River. The fast descent into Star Valley was made even quicker by a generous south wind. Then it was “steady and fast” to Afton and on to Alpine Junction.
“Everyone worked hard. I thought we were going to break my record,” said Halladay. She added there was strong camaraderie between all of them. This collective effort continued through Snake River Canyon, on South Park Loop Road, and even on Village Road to the finish line.
“I don’t think any of us were strong enough at that point to attack,” noted Halladay. “In fact, everyone started to slow down to get ready for the sprint. …The last 5K are always my favorite. I love that part of the course the most. It’s so beautiful with the Grand Teton in full view.”
With 1K to go, Parent took the lead. “With 100 meters or less, I sprinted around Brooke and won by a bike length,” said Halladay.
Because the licensed women’s event was combined, the winner break down went as follows: Cat. I, II, III – First place, Halladay, 9:47:38.422; Second place, Anne Perry 9:47:38.936; and third place, Keri Gibson (Chick-Fil-A/Excelerator Sports), 9:52:50. Cat. IV winners – First place (and second overall woman), Brooke Parent, 9:47:38.565; Second place, Shirley Leydsman, 9:47:39.379; and third place, Camile Brinton (Infinite Cycles), 10:23:04.
After crossing the finish line, the feelings of joy and satisfaction for Halladay were immense.
“The sense of accomplishment when crossing the finish line at LoToJa is a WOW moment, with feelings of relief, exhilaration, gratitude, humility, pride, and the greatest sense of well-being you will ever experience all in one minute or less!” she said.
“I looked at myself, and the three other racers I had just spent the entire day with, and I felt gratitude for the privilege to be there and to have ridden with them,” she said. “They are all classy and truly good racers.”
She added, “I had so much to overcome to even get to the start line this year, both physical and psychological. My accident in 2011 was a bad one, and I am so blessed to be alive and walking. … I could have been paralyzed. I’m grateful and in awe. Life is so precious … Anything can happen every moment you are here. You just don’t know.”
The five-time LoToJa women’s winner said she plans on coming back to defend her crown. She wants to climb the course’s three mountain passes stronger than before, and maybe break “that record.”
For Leon Bergant (Simply Mac Racing/Bountiful Bicycle), breaking the LoToJa men’s course record of 9:01:44, which was set by Al Thresher in 2010, was certainly not part of his race plan for the day. The 35-year-old Cat. IV rider, whose day job is a pilot for Skywest, was riding LoToJa for the first time. But that didn’t stop the Layton resident from averaging 23 mph and crossing the finish at 8:57:19.
“I had no goals, no expectations,” he said. “I just wanted to learn from this first year because the distance was so far. I didn’t know how my body would react to the distance.”
Well, Bergant had somewhat of an idea. Born and raised in Slovenia, he started racing in Europe at age 11. By the time he turned 14, he was being paid by his cycling club to ride. When he turned 20, he inked his first pro contract with his cycling club. The road races he did were usually around 120 miles long.
But shortly thereafter, Bergant left his homeland to do a two-year mission for the LDS Church. When he returned home, he realized that he lost too much fitness and decided not to return to pro racing. After 1997, he moved to the U.S. and got married. He didn’t jump on a bike again until 2002 — and that was just for “fitness and fun.”
“I had raced so much across Europe, I wasn’t interested in racing again,” he said. “But I wanted to try LoToJa.” So eventually he joined a local team, and started hard training rides with teammates. This year, he trained about 5,000 miles, none of which included any local races.
Despite all the miles, Bergant was worried. “A week before LoToJa, I was not ready,” he said. “I told my wife if I could not finish the race, I was ready to go home. But it was a good day. The legs were good.”
Bergant attributed his racing experience, and riding with seven strong men on race day, as also key to his winning time. He did his best to contribute to the group’s speed and efficiency, without wasting energy unnecessarily.
“Everyone worked well,” he noted, but most of the other riders spent too much time at the front for the size of the group. Instead of spending 30 to 45 seconds doing a pull, which is what he did, the others would go two minutes or more. That allowed him to feel fresher as the miles added up.
Bergant said he plans to ride LoToJa again in 2013. But this time, not as a Cat. IV. In fact, not even as a Masters 35 plus. He’ll be riding with the Cat. I, II, IIIs — and he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“It’s such a beautiful race,” said Bergant. “You do have some time to look around.”
LoToJa Race Director Brent Chambers said the event’s 30th anniversary was filled with tremendous joy and heartbreak. Although he’s directed the race for 15 years, which is a Herculean task, hearing cyclists say how LoToJa has changed their lives for the better, brings him back year after year.
“LoToJa is a unique challenge that gives participants an opportunity to push or test themselves in ways they’ll rarely experience elsewhere in life,” he said. “To ride and complete the 206 miles, whether you’re trying to win or just finish, you can’t fake it. You have to train, you have to commit, you have to stay healthy not just on race day, but throughout the year. That is the biggest reward.” Chambers stressed that LoToJa would not be possible without the event’s loyal corps of volunteers and sponsors, nor without the working partnerships and support from all of the communities the race passes through every year.
“Without all of them, this enormously popular race wouldn’t be possible,” he said.
2012 LoToJa Factoids
– At 206 miles, LoToJa is the longest one-day USAC – sanctioned bicycle race in the United States.
– The first LoToJa Classic was held on Sept. 17, 1983 when seven cyclists left Sunrise Cyclery at dawn and raced to Jackson. The winning time was just over nine hours by Logan cyclist, Bob VanSlyke.
– Since 1983, over 3.5 million miles have been pedaled by approximately 18,000 cyclists racing LoToJa.
– 2012 Finish rate percentages:
– Licensed Class = 91%
– Citizen Class = 87%
– Fun Ride Class = 92%
The oldest rider to finish LoToJa was 74 years old
The youngest riders to finish LoToJa were 13 years old
LoToJa’s average participant age is 41
This year LoToJa cyclists came from 33 U.S. States and five foreign countries: Belgium, Australia, Singapore, Canada, and United Kingdom
It’s estimated up to 15,000 calories are burned on event day by each LoToJa racing cyclist
This year LoToJa had over 450 course and neutral support volunteers. One-third were HAM radio operators providing radio communications and neutral support.
LoToJa features almost 9,800 feet of climbing, most of which is in the first 110 miles of the race.
LoToJa Course Records:
New Men’s Course Record: Leon Bergant, Layton, UT at 08:57:19
– Previous record was set in 2010 by Alfred Thresher, Las Vegas, NV at 9:01:44
– This year 14 male cyclists beat the previous men’s course record set in 2010
Women’s Course Record: Jenn Halladay, Kuna, ID at 9:44:57 (2010)
– Jenn Halladay’s finish result for 2012 was 09:47:38, which is LoToJa’s second best women’s time
– This year 5 female cyclists beat the second best women’s time, recorded in 2006 by Tiffany Mainor (9:55:06)
– King/Queen of Mountain Records (4 mile climb at 8 to 9 percent grade):
Men’s: David Francis, Las Vegas, NV – 13:35.70 (2008)
Women’s: Tayler Wiles, Bluffdale, UT – 16:52.93 (2009)
– This year the Huntsman Cancer Foundation (HCF) received over $170,000 from LoToJa’s fund-raising efforts for a total of $825,000 since the partnership began in 2002.
– In addition to helping HCF, LoToJa raised several thousand dollars for ASD Connections, Teamgive, National Ability Center, Common Ground Outdoor Adventures, as well as several community organizations and youth groups.