By Mary Topping
This Saturday, July 14, 2012, a collection of riders from cycling’s different disciplines will test each other as they climb and descend craggy, volcanic mountains in southwestern Utah. In its second year, the Crusher in the Tushar’s terrain with altitude reaching nearly 11,000 feet delivers a daunting race only a few can hope to win. One of them is Tyler Wren, a Salt Lake City resident, professional cyclist, and last year’s winner.
While it’s a course Wren said suits him very well, he must overcome multiple challenges for a repeat victory, not the least of which is a threatening field that’s expected to include Ryan Trebon, Ben Berden, and Alex Grant. Trebon should race aggressively to compensate for missing the mountain bike national championship podium last weekend. Grant is a two-time second place finisher in La Ruta de los Conquistadores and Berden has claimed multiple cyclo-cross podiums.
Located 200 miles south of Salt Lake City, the course alternates road and dirt fire road over sixty-nine miles that include 10,400 feet of climbing. The mix of terrain, which includes a steep downhill fire road section that Wren called “treacherous” on a ‘cross bike, means no one type of bike handles it all perfectly.
Speaking about the course, Wren said, “I think it equalizes the riders. It gives an equal opportunity and advantage to a road rider like myself or a ‘cross rider like Trebon or a mountain biker like Alex Grant.”
Wren expects to race on a prototype Jamis carbon ‘cross frame with disc brakes, Di2 electronic shifting, and a compact road crankset. He’ll use sealant with the same tubeless, semi-slick ‘cross tires he won the race on last year. One change he’ll make is to swap a 27 tooth cog with a 28 to get a little bit more gear.
Alternating road and dirt fire road meddles with traditional race tactics. To win, Wren can’t count solely on road racing strategy or his climbing acumen. A sandy two to three mile length of fire road that challenges Wren generates an advantage for riders like Berden. “It saps your energy,” Wren said, “and it favors the ‘cross guys and the mountain bikers over me. I remember having a hard time just following them there [last year].”
Wren’s knowledge of the course will help him decide where to conserve and dose out his energy. He won the inaugural race after pulling away from a lead group on the climb to the Eagle Point finish. Runner-up Zack Vestal arrived almost three minutes after Wren’s time of four hours 27 minutes.
The fact that no bike can cover all of the terrain at maximum efficiency creates a race that’s harder than it seems on paper. Wren compared the effort to a six hour road race like the iconic TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship.
“You don’t want to pedal another pedal stroke when it’s done,” he said about last year’s Crusher. “It completely emptied you.”
One of Wren’s assets will include a teammate. Jamey Driscoll, a member of Wren’s Jamis/Sutter Home road racing team, joins him this year. Wren said he and Driscoll have a history of working well together in races. Last year Wren paired up with Nick Frey who set a demanding pace on the opening road section that mountain bike competitors struggled to follow.
The Crusher in the Tushar carries personal significance for Wren, who said he’s had the race “circled on my calendar for the whole year as a target.” He’s elated to race in his now home state of Utah. And he greatly respects the race’s founder, Burke Swindlehurst, who’s inspired him with his love for challenge and suffering. Last fall they summited two dozen Utah peaks together.
Wren believes his climbing work for the second half of his season is excellent preparation for his Crusher defense. “But I have been on my ‘cross bike and I have been riding on the dirt and on my mountain bike just to keep those skills sharp as well,” he said. Upcoming races for Wren include the Cascade Cycling Classic and the Tour of Rio in Brazil where in 2011 he placed top five in two stages.
Fueling the fire
This year Wren became the U.S. national road race King of the Mountains champion. In 2011 he was awarded first place and most aggressive rider in the queen stage of the very difficult Vuelta Chile. But four years ago he needed a boost to transition from a support rider into a winning leader. Encouragement from his team director Sebastian Alexandre and a Tour of the Gila stage win in 2008 marked a turning point that infused Wren with renewed confidence.
“Starting off my career at Princeton…I was trying to win, win, win for myself. And then I spent all this time working for others and you sort of lose that fire of really trying to grab the race for yourself,” he said. “Now I feel like I take more risks and I try to win the race rather than to try to help. I feel like that fire is back in that way.” While he aims to win, Wren clearly continues to value teamwork.
Now 31 years-old, he considers himself “closer to the end of my career than I am to the beginning,” and he recently married last February. His wife Jennifer has been instrumental in supporting his drive to succeed.
Referring to his racing career, Wren said, “I’ve found something that I’m passionate about, and I think Jennifer’s helped me see that it’s really hard to find [a passion] and that I really need to make the most of it while I’m still doing it. So I feel…this is my last opportunity to really do this to the best of my abilities.”
It’s a return to the feeling he experienced when he chose to pursue bike racing over a conventional career after graduating from Princeton in 2003 with an economics degree. It was the one time, he thought, that he’d be able to race bikes.
Memories of his racing days at Princeton could factor into a second Crusher in the Tushar win. When he’s racing, Wren still keeps in mind what Pat Zahn, once captain of the collegiate cycling team, taught him. No matter how hard a race gets, “there’s always more left in the tank,” and the motto, “Know how sublime a thing it is to suffer and be strong.” [Henry Wadsworth Longfellow]
But it’s more recent memories that might fuel Wren to suffer mightily to win his second Crusher.
This week he learned his Jamis/Sutter Home team did not get invited to the Tour of Utah in August. The news devastated Wren, who hoped to feature in the race and had been building his season around it. All of which makes a repeat win at the Crusher even more vital for this climber from Utah.
2011 Crusher in the Tushar Photo Gallery
All photos by Chris See.