By David Ward
A few evenings ago, my wife, Karma, and I were having cake and ice cream, a good (tasting, anyway) pre-LOTOJA carbo load, with LOTOJA founder, Dave Bern, and his wife, Denise. When Dave and I are together, talk inevitably turns to the LOTOJA, an event that links Dave and me through thousands of miles and many years. This evening was no exception.
With this year’s LOTOJA only a week away, Dave asked me which LOTOJA was my most memorable. Having ridden it solo 25 times, I responded that there were several. My first one in 1986 is, of course, indelibly imprinted in my memory if for no other reason than that it was my first. But there are also other reasons. First off, it rained a lot. It was wet and soggy all day long.
Also, I was new at this long distance thing. So, although I understood feed zones and musette bags, I didn’t know all the nuances of feeding along the way. I was with three others as we road through Soda Springs when a couple of them started talking about McDonald’s. I was confused, and decided they were just planning to stop and go to the bathroom. So I stopped with them, only to be further confused when they went to the counter to order food. At that point, I availed myself of the bathroom, left and got back on the road.
By the time I was getting close to Jackson, my butt hurt badly, and my legs were cramping. But I had made it that far, so there was no quitting. For the last ten miles, though, I would peddle for a few minutes, and then stand to take the pressure off my rear for as long as I could coast, repeating the process all the way to the finish at Teton Village.
Then, to add insult to the whole experience, I had to endure a driving rain the last couple of miles. When I finally crossed the finish line, the banner was there but everyone else was hiding from the storm. Thankfully, my wife was nearby with the car. (There was not a big crowd then, about 75 riders was all, so support people were right there at the finish to greet riders as they rode in.) I crawled into the passenger seat, but when I reached down to take my shoes off, both legs cramped badly. I couldn’t reach my feet without cramping, so my wife had to take my shoes off.
We made it to our hotel where Karma undressed me and put me in a tub of hot water to warm me up. I kept cramping, and even felt a little nauseous, before my body finally settled down. I specifically told my wife that now that I had done this massive ride, I never had to do it again. So imagine her disbelief the next morning at breakfast when, seated with other LOTOJA survivors, I began talking about what I would do differently next year.
And yes, I was at the start a year later. I was apparently a quick learner because this year was much more successful. First, no stops at any McDonald’s, or anywhere else for that matter. And the weather cooperated, blessing us with a blue sky and nice fall colors all the way to the finish.
This year was mostly memorable because I won my division and placed 7th overall. Five riders, including Marty Jemison who would go on to become a professional and ride the Tour de France in subsequent years, had broken away to take the first five spots. Dave Bern and I were in the next group of several riders, and Dave outsprinted me to take 6th place.
After that, the years blur together. I missed only two LOTOJAs over the next 23 years, once because I took a vacation instead, and once because of a humanitarian expedition to India. I probably would have missed more, but Dave and I had become good friends and riding companions, and whenever I would broach the idea of skipping that year’s LOTOJA, Dave was like the cycling angel on my right shoulder telling me that it would be wrong to not participate. So, as the years passed, riding the LOTOJA simply became something I would do.
As for many others, though, my most memorable LOTOJA was in 2005. That was the infamous year of the snow storm. I had been watching the weather forecast, and so arrived at the start line that morning with long pants, full-fingered gloves and a jacket. As I looked around me, though, I wondered if others had bothered checking out the forecast. Many had nothing but the usual jersey and shorts. Some added arm warmers and a vest. There appeared to be only a few of us who seemed concerned about what the day ahead might hold for us.
As we approached Preston, it started to rain, and continued to do so till a few miles from the top of Strawberry Summit. That is when it turned to snow, big, heavy, moisture-laden flakes. Thankfully, it melted on the road, though it was sticking to the ground everywhere else. Even before the snow, though, I began to see cyclists pulled off to the side of the road, wet and cold.
As I finally approached the summit, I decided that once over the top, I would get into a tuck to get down to a somewhat warmer temperature as quickly as possible. I passed over the top, dropped into my tuck, and then, to my surprise, as I rounded that first sweeping turn to the right, came upon the sight of at least 50 cyclists walking their bikes down the road. At first, I thought it must be slick, but no, the roads were only wet. Then I realized. They were too cold to descend at speed.
All the way down the other side, I saw cyclists pulled off the road, bicycles leaning against cars and homes, and even some leaning against a police car, undoubtedly inside trying to keep warm. Hypothermia had become a serious issue. For myself, I was freezing, but I at least had the clothing to make it bearable. But even once I was down from the summit, it was still a cold, wet ride into Montpelier.
Karma was at the feed zone with my musette bag, but to her surprise, I just pulled off. I told her I needed to change into dry clothes. Because I was concerned about the weather, I had brought an extra set. We ran to where she was parked where I stripped off everything I had on and, shivering uncontrollably, quickly donned the dry clothing. I was immediately back on the bike and, thanks to the dry kit, was warm within a quarter mile.
The rest of the ride, while wet and rainy, was nevertheless okay. The weather and I had both warmed up, and my recollection is that I actually enjoyed the freshness of the remainder of the race. Later, I learned that two-thirds of the riders had abandoned somewhere between Preston and Montpelier. Karma even told me they had posted a board in Montpelier and announced to the support crews that if their rider’s number was on the board, they had to head back on the course and find their rider.
My last solo LOTOJA was two years ago. I had my hip replaced the first of June, but my doctor told me there was no reason I could not ride the LOTOJA, at least not because of the hip. We both acknowledged that fitness could be an issue. Still, hopeful, I signed up for the LOTOJA, and rode quite a lot prior to my surgery. I suppose that sounds a little insane, but frankly, riding was one of the few things I could do that didn’t hurt too much.
Nevertheless, I was off the bike for a month, and when I finally was able to ride outside again, doing a flat 25 miles nearly finished me off. So, for two months, I crammed. But the morning of the LOTOJA, I knew I was in for a hard day.
And it was hard. When I left Afton, I was giving serious consideration to calling it quits at Alpine Junction. But I must have gotten a second wind, or whatever I ate along the way worked well, because I felt rejuvenated at Alpine Junction so I soldiered on. My goal was to finish prior to the official cutoff. And I would have, except that halfway up Snake River Canyon my tire blew a hole and I had to wait for a support vehicle to come along. Fortunately, they had a tire, so they were able to get me back on my way, but that blown tire cost me about a half hour. And that put me past the official cut-off.
Still, I was not about to quit. When I finally pulled onto the road heading from Jackson to Teton Village, it was dark. However, Karma and my two daughters, my support crew for that year, were waiting for me, pulled in behind me, and lit my path all the way to the finish. I made it, though not officially, but who cares? The point is I did it. But it was a long, tiresome and painful day.
As a result of that tough day, I experienced last year my most recent, and most recently memorable, LOTOJA. For the first time, I rode it as a relay. Karma had been trying for years to talk me into this. But following last year’s painful experience, and my brother’s desire to also do a relay, I agreed. It did not involve nearly the training nor nearly the pain, but also not nearly the sense of accomplishment or pride. But still we had a lot of fun.
I don’t know if I will do it solo again. I am getting older, 64 now, and the LOTOJA is demanding. These last two summers have been more relaxing, and frankly riding has been more fun since I have not had the pressure of training all summer for the LOTOJA. Still, there is the urge to prove to myself that I still have what it takes, and the great sense of accomplishment it brings. And there is a certain element of pride associated with doing it at my age. So, stay tuned.
Well, you can see that when Dave Bern and I get together, there is plenty of reason for the LOTOJA to be the topic of discussion. It is a great event, and I am certain Dave didn’t realize it would become such a popular tradition. But now, after all these years, it gives us a lot to talk about.