By David Bern — After four consecutive decades, the LoToJa Classic’s fame as a hard, 203-mile road race remains indubitable: of the many cyclists who ride it, only the strongest win.
Cat. 1 pro road and gravel racer John Borstelmann (Team Voler Factory) and Cat. 2 Aileen Pannecoucke (Team Zone 5) convincingly won their Pro 123 categories in the 40th annual LoToJa on Sept. 10.
With 200 meters to go, Borstelmann, 31, of San Luis Obispo, California, sprinted away from last year’s winner Cat. 1 Nathan Spratt (Team Hangar 15) to the line at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort with a time of 8:41:43.
“It was a long, hard day on the bike,” Borstelmann said, who has won Gravel Worlds twice and excels at endurance cycling events. He was happy with the win, and pleased with his effort.
“It felt good to climb with Nathan,” he said while noting respect for Spratt’s climbing talent. “It was a confidence booster for sure.”
Pannecoucke, 25, of Pocatello, Idaho, defended her title from 2021 by outsprinting four other women at the finish. Her time was 9:58:00.
“I needed a re-do from last year’s finish,” she said. “I am very happy to come out first, to actually win it.”
It was 45 degrees and clear skies when Borstelmann and the 20-rider field of Men Pro 123s and 22-rider field of Men Master 35-plus rolled away from the 5:30 a.m. start at Sunrise Cyclery in Logan. He said three riders launched off into the dark soon after the peloton passed the neutral roll-out on 1000 West.
Although renowned for making long, solo efforts, Borstelmann chose to sit in and wait for the day’s first climb to Strawberry Canyon’s 7,424-foot-high summit (57mi/92km).
“I’m not the best climber,” he said. “But I knew if I could hang in there over the top, or be in a good chase group back to the leaders, I’d have a good chance in the sprint.”
His plan paid off. Borstelmann not only managed to “hang in there” over Strawberry, and 6,923-foot-high Geneva Summit (84mi/135km), he made it to the base of the day’s last major climb within an elite group.
That group consisted of 2018 LoToJa winner and current men’s course record holder (8:18:29) Cat. 1 Spencer Johnson (Team Johnson Elite Orthodontics), 44, of Riverton, Utah; Cat. 1 Matt Bailey (Team Intermountain Healthcare), 41, of South Jordan, Utah; Cat. 3 Danny Van Wagoner (Team Johnson Elite Orthodontics), 30, of Farmington, Utah; Cat. 1 Nathan Spratt (Team Hangar 15), 27, of Salt Lake City, Utah; his brother Cat. 2 Marc Spratt (Team Hangar 15), 27, of Millcreek, Utah; and Borstelmann.
And that last major climb was 7,630-foot-high Salt River Pass (106mi/171km), which features a nine-percent gradient during the last mile and King of the Mountain/Queen of the Mountain status at the top for the fastest male and female racers.
“Nathan attacked at the bottom and I followed him,” Borstelmann said. “I stayed on his wheel the entire climb. … We had a 15-second gap over the top.” The two climbed the four-mile-long pass in 12:28:21 with Borstelmann winning the KOM at the line.
The two flew down the other side of Salt River into Star Valley. They stayed away from the chase group to the finish, despite Spratt suffering a flat before Alpine Junction (156mi/251km), and shifting issues after the wheel change. Borstelmann said the gap was over eight minutes by Alpine Junction. It held through Hoback Junction (178mi/286km), and grew to over 12 minutes by Teton Village.
Borstelmann said he felt good and had recovered from the day’s climbs as he and Spratt traded pulls during the race’s last seven miles on Village Road.
“I’m a strong sprinter and Nathan was hurting,” Borstelmann said. With 200 meters to go, he sprinted away from Spratt to finish alone. Spratt crossed the line four seconds later with a time of 8:41:47.
The chase group arrived several minutes later with Johnson in third at 8:54:30, Van Wagoner in fourth at 8:54:31, Marc Spratt in fifth at 8:54:31:30, and Bailey in sixth at 9:11:51.
“I’d like to come back next year,” Borstelmann said. “… The whole experience and the beautiful country were amazing.”
Although Pannecoucke won the Women Pro 123s in 2021, she was not the first woman to finish. That honor went to her Cat. 5 teammate Melissa Aitken, who was with her and Cat. 2 Jenny Leiser (Team Coda Coaching) in a three-woman break.
After the trio crossed the biker’s bridge at Wilson with seven miles to go, there was a near mishap with a pedestrian cyclist, which created a gap between Aitken, Leiser and Pannecoucke. With teammate Aitken up the road, Pannecoucke knew it was Leiser’s job to close the gap.
Also, because Pannecoucke wasn’t sure of Leiser’s sprint, she didn’t want to close the gap and possibly let Leiser beat her and Aitken at the line. Aitken soloed to the finish for the Women’s Cat. 5 victory.
Regardless of category and age, all licensed women cyclists in LoToJa start together because of lower field numbers. They are also allowed to ride together, but respective category wins are maintained despite mixed-category finishes.
Which is why Pannecoucke, who hails from Belgium and began racing at 16, was eager for a “re-do” from last year and to beat every Pro 123, Cat. 4/5, Cat 5 and Master woman to the line. So eager, she even ignored some pre-race advice from her parents, who flew in from Belgium to watch her race.
“My dad told me, ‘The one thing you don’t want to do is go off the front,’” Pannecoucke said.
But that’s exactly what she did. Shortly after the neutral roll-out in Logan, Pannecoucke attacked alone, yet was quickly caught by the 44-women field. As soon as she was caught, she attacked again and got away.
“I attacked to get a good time and to make the race hard,” she said. “I’m an OK climber and knew they would catch me on the climb [Strawberry]. I rode alone for the next two hours and they caught me about two miles from the summit.”
Pannecoucke was joined by her Zone 5 teammate Cat. 3 Ashley Kline, 33, of South Jordan, Utah, and eight other women cyclists from different categories. The break rode over the summit, down into Bear Lake Valley and Montpelier, and over Geneva Summit.
Pannecoucke said the break was down to a handful of riders as it approached the bottom of Salt River Pass, with Cat. 5 Autumn Vegh (Unattached), 28, of Denver, Colorado, off the front.
After the pass, the break consisted of Cat. 5 Master 35-plus Hallie Megan French (Team Type II Fun), 37, Salt Lake City, Utah; Cat. 5 Master 45-plus Nicole Lunsford (unattached), 47, Troutdale, Oregon; Cat. 4/5 Brittany Paige Mercier (Team Creepe), 33, Lethbridge, AB, Canada; and Pannecoucke. French won the QOM with a time of 17:35.
The break caught Vegh in Star Valley and the five women worked together through Alpine, Hoback Junction and toward the finish.
“Autumn [Vegh] went to the front with 1K to go,” Pannecoucke said. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is perfect! I’ve never had a lead-out like this before.’ I think she was trying to drop us. She cursed when I came around her. She was surprised.”
Pannecoucke crossed the line alone, followed by French in second at 9:58:02, Lunsford in third at 9:58:05, Vegh in fourth at 9:58:06, and Mercier in fifth at 9:59:42.
Although French took second, she won the Women’s Masters 35-plus, Lunsford won the Women’s Master 45-plus, Vegh won the Women’s Cat 5, and Mercier won the Women’s Cat 4/5.
Kline took second place in the Women Pro 123s with a time of 10:35:15. There was no third-place finisher in the Women Pro 123s.
Pannecoucke was delighted and relieved with her win. So were her parents.
“My dad said, ‘Lucky you were first!’ because of my early attacks,” Pannecoucke said. “If I had lost, I had no one to blame but myself.”
She said she plans to defend her title next year, and she hopes that more women will be on the start line.
The Men’s and Women’s Pro 123s aren’t the only categories with strong cyclists who ride and win LoToJa. There were approximately 1,500 USA Cycling licensed and unlicensed riders at this year’s start line. There were 31 start groups, which included licensed race categories, race relay teams, cyclosportive ride categories, and ride relay teams. LoToJa start groups left Sunrise Cyclery in 4-minute intervals as part of LoToJa’s Covid-19 Adaptations.
LoToJa is billed as the longest one-day USA Cycling-sanctioned bicycle race in the U.S., with three mountain passes, and nearly 10,000 vertical feet of climbing. The 203-mile/327-kilometer parcours passes through northern Utah, southeastern Idaho and western Wyoming.
The race was first held in 1983 with only seven cyclists. Now, up to 2,000 participate annually by riding the full-distance or a portion of the route as a relay teammate.
“Our 40th annual LoToJa Classic was a milestone achieved and a tremendous event with great riders and fantastic weather,” said race director Brent Chambers. “I look forward to many more LoToJa’s to come and how the race challenges everyone and brings out their best.”
The 41st annual LoToJa will be held on Sept. 9. The race’s 2023 website will be launched next March with online registration opening in early April.
Chambers expressed gratitude to everyone who helps make LoToJa successful year after year. He especially thanked the event’s team of 650-plus volunteers, sponsors, vendors, and the communities the race passes through.
“Without that support, LoToJa wouldn’t be possible,” he said. “LoToJa also wouldn’t be possible without the support of every cyclist who rides it. I am forever grateful and inspired by everyone who makes the race a reality.”
For complete finish line results of 2022’s race, go to lotoja.com and click on the “results/records” tab in the navigation bar.