First licensed woman to finish is novice Cat. 5 Melissa Aitken; comes close to breaking the women’s course record
By David Bern — New cycling talent emerged from morning rain and afternoon wind to take the top podium step in the Men’s and Women’s Pro 123 races during the 39th annual LoToJa Classic on Sept. 11.
Cat. 2 cyclist Nathan Spratt (Team Ascent Cycling p/b RB Health), 26, of Millcreek, Utah, showed grit in the 203-mile/327 kilometer one-day road race from Logan, Utah, to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort by winning the Men Pro 123’s with a time of 8:31:18.
He soloed across the line at Teton Village after powering away from three breakaway companions in the final kilometers.
“I’m so, so excited to have won,” Spratt said. “I’ve done a lot of podiums, but not a lot of wins.”
Riding in her first LoToJa, Cat. 2 cyclist Aileen Pannecoucke (Team Zone 5), 24, of Pocatello, Idaho, won the Women Pro 123’s with a time of 9:45:36 after riding nearly the entire day in a breakaway with teammate Melissa Aitken (Team Zone 5), 32, of Salt Lake City, and Cat. 2 Jenny Leiser (Team Coda Coaching), 42, of Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I am very happy to have won!” Pannecoucke said. “… I was so nervous. I had never ridden over 103 miles before.”
Although she took top honors in the women’s toughest licensed category, Pannecoucke generously shared kudos with Cat. 5 newcomer and teammate Aitken, who was a revelation in the combined license category women’s race.
Due, in part, to a near mishap, and Pannecoucke’s tactical experience, Aitken opened a gap with less than five miles to go and soloed to the line with a time of 9:44:15. Not only was she the first and fastest woman finisher, but Aitken was also less than 10 minutes off from setting a new women’s course record.
Astonishingly, LoToJa was only her second — ever — bike race.
“I was so nervous and didn’t think I would place at all,” Aitken said. “But I’m determined and good at not quitting.”
The smell of rain was in the air when Spratt and 31 other Men Pro 123’s pedaled away in the dark from the start line at Sunrise Cyclery at 5:34 a.m. He and Cat. 3 Marc Spratt — his twin brother, teammate, and training partner — had watched the weather forecast closely the night before. It had rained hard with heavy wind gusts in Logan during registration packet pickup on Sept. 10.
“I looked at the [weather] radar at the start one last time,” Spratt said. “It looked like it was going to miss us. But we got pretty wet.”
For the first time since 2005, hard rain fell throughout the morning during LoToJa. But that didn’t deter two-time winner Clinton Mortley (2011, 2013) from taking a flyer shortly after the start. The peloton caught him during the 22-mile climb to Strawberry Canyon’s 7,424-foot-high summit (57mi/92km). Soon after, Spratt went to the front.
“I enjoy the climbs,” he said. “I’m not a pure climber, but I like to make it hurt.”
Spratt was followed to the summit by his brother, along with Cat. 2 teammate Thomas Moncur (Team Ascent), 25, Farmington, Utah; Cat. 1 and 2019 LoToJa winner Roger Arnell (Team Johnson Elite Orthodontics), 36, Farmington, Utah; Cat. 3 Anders Johnson (Team Rouleur Devo p/b DNA), 23, Huntsville, Utah; Cat. 2 Gilberto Melendez (Team Stone House), 33, Eloy, Arizona; and Cat. 3 Danny Van Wagoner (Team Johnson Elite Orthodontics), 29, Farmington, Utah.
The seven-man break descended into Bear Lake Valley and stayed together through the first feed-zone at Montpelier (76mi/122km) and over 6,923-foot-high Geneva Summit (84mi/135km).
But on the four-mile climb to 7,630-foot-high Salt River Pass (106mi/171km), which features a 9-percent pitch during the last mile, the break was reduced to Spratt, Melendez, Johnson, and Arnell. Johnson took the King of the Mountain prize.
Spratt said the four-man break worked well together through Star Valley to Alpine Junction (156mi/251km) and to and after Hoback Junction (178mi/286km). He said everyone agreed not to attack on the bike path to Wilson (196mi/315km) because of recreational cyclists also using the route. But Spratt brought an end to the accord after the foursome turned onto Village Road for the final seven miles (11km) to the finish.
“Just after we got on Village Road, I did a hard attack and Roger [Arnell] bridged up to me,” Spratt said.
Johnson and Melendez did too. Spratt said the four men then began to easy pedal until one would commit. Arnell made the first big move. But Spratt didn’t panic.
“I played the waiting game,” he said. “I waited for Anders [Johnson] to bridge and I followed his wheel.”
Cameron Hoffman, after winning LoToJa for a fifth time last year, said that Nathan Spratt was his biggest rival and concern on the road during the 2020 race. “He is really, really strong,” Hoffman said.
That strength Hoffman highly regards went on display after Spratt and Johnson made contact with Arnell.
“I went as hard as I could for 15 seconds,” Spratt said. “I left it all out on the table — a 10-minute effort. A mile to go I saw that I had a decent gap, but I kept the power on to the barriers.”
He joyfully crossed the line alone, followed 26 seconds later by Arnell at 8:31:44, Johnson in 3rd at 8:31:59 and Melendez in 4th at 8:32:07. Marc Spratt took 5th at 8:41:35, Van Wagoner 6th at 8:50:06, Moncur 7th at 8:50:07, J. Trevor Robinson 8th at 8:54:44, Matthew Bailey 9th at 9:04:28, and Sean Burke 10th at 90:04:32.
“I was ecstatic,” Spratt said about his victory. “My parents were there as crew. I was stoked for them and for my brother.”
Spratt, a native of Indiana who moved to Utah in 2017 after graduating from the University of Purdue, said that he comes from an endurance sports background. He switched from triathlons to road cycling full-time during his junior year in college.
He said he plans to defend his LoToJa title next year, along with entering several gravel races, including Unbound Gravel and Crusher in the Tushar.
Pannecoucke also comes from an endurance sports background — one most serious cyclists would admire. Born and raised in Belgium, she immigrated to the U.S. in 2015 after earning a swimming scholarship to the University of Idaho. Although a competitive swimmer, bicycle racing is deeply etched in her DNA.
“My dad is a cyclist, my grandmother was a cyclist, my great aunt was good on the track. … and some other family members were pros,” Pannecoucke said. “Although I was a swimmer, I started bicycle racing in Belgium when I was 16. …My first race was very tough, very intense. There was a big crash and lots of riders with concussions. I didn’t get hurt, but it broke my Ridley Noah that I got from Lotto-Soudal. I cried.”
Yet despite having raced in Belgium against elite women cyclists, on narrow roads at high speeds, Pannecoucke said LoToJa’s distance and nearly 10,000 vertical feet of climbing made her “nervous.” What also unnerved her was her team’s race-day strategy: to attack from the start and break the current women’s record of 9:35:00 that was set in 2013.
The attack went as planned when the combined field of 44 licensed women left Sunrise Cyclery at 6:46 a.m. Cat. 2 Ingrid Smallman (Team Zone 5), 36, of Alpine, Utah, shot off the front. Pannecoucke followed, and the two flyers soon put a gap on the bunch. About 20 minutes later, Aitken and Leiser bridged up and the four women hammered in the rain through Cache Valley.
The break stayed together up and over Strawberry Summit. But Smallman dropped off the back and called it a day during the push to Montpelier. Pannecoucke, Aitken and Leiser rode over Geneva Summit and stayed together to the base of Salt River Pass.
There, Pannecoucke and Leiser watched the lighter and smaller Aitken ride away to the summit, where she won QOM honors.
“I have a lot to learn about racing,” Aitken said. “… But I’m super competitive and good at climbing. … On Salt River I knew I would do it well.”
Which she did. The former runner and triathlete — who recently turned to cycling, trained for LoToJa on a stationary bike indoors during the pandemic with outdoor rides only on weekends, and did her first bike race last June — set the fifth-ever fastest Salt River QOM at 16:14. After reaching the top, Aitken made a quick bathroom stop at the neutral feed zone. Pannecoucke and Leiser reached the summit after Aitken stepped out of a port-a-loo.
“I had told Melissa [Aitken] before the climb to keep going if she wanted to keep going,” Pannecoucke said. “But she waited for us.”
Pannecoucke indicated that Aitken was smart to wait at the summit instead of going alone in Star Valley and wasting energy long before the finish. Pannecoucke said it was likely that she and Leiser would have eventually caught Aitken in Star Valley.
Together, the three women descended Salt River Pass, rolled through Star Valley and Alpine Junction, and rode alongside the scenic Snake River during the last 46-mile leg to Teton Village. They worked together, but with about 10 miles go to, Pannecoucke noticed that she and Aitken were doing longer pulls. Leiser looked tired.
On South Park Loop Road and the bike path bridge at Wilson, it appeared the trio would ride together to the line and settle matters with a sprint. But that possible outcome suddenly changed after they had crossed the bridge.
According to Pannecoucke, Aitken was slightly ahead when the three neared the right turn transition from the bike path onto Village Road. A recreational cyclist, going in the same direction as them on the bike path, appeared to veer to the left just as Aitken was about to turn right onto Village Road.
“I thought they were going to crash and I hit my brakes,” Pannecoucke said. The mishap didn’t occur, but by the time she got going again, Aitken had a gap.
Although Pannecoucke still felt good and was eager to sprint for the win, she chose to hold back. The reason: A teammate was up the road and the finish line was only a few miles away.
And another: Regardless of category and age, all licensed women cyclists at 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.
“The gap was big enough it was up to Jen [Leiser] to pull [and close the gap],” Pannecoucke said. “I didn’t want to reel in Melissa [Aitken] and then have Jen [Leiser] sprint for the win over us. Jen was tired, but I had no idea how good of a sprinter she is. I didn’t want Melissa and me to get beat at the end. It was the right decision.”
As a result, the gap grew to over a minute. Unaware of the team tactics being deployed behind her, Aitken seized the moment. She went as hard as she could.
“I’m a runner. I want to beat everyone,” Aitken said, jokingly. “But I wanted to be the first woman in.”
She said that she felt miserable at Alpine Junction and her back was cramping. But with a few miles to go, she felt energized. When she crossed the line, she felt both “shock and pride.”
“I had never gone over 100 miles before,” Aitken said. “LoToJa was on my bucket list … I just wanted to ride with my team [in the race] until I couldn’t anymore.”
Aitken said the win has made her realize that “if I keep working at this, I could be really good. The door unlocked and look what I can do!”
Pannecoucke said it was intense with how it all played out on Village Road to the finish.
“Jen and I got to sprint at the end, and that was fun,” she said. “… I’m happy with how I rode the race. Everyone worked together all day. … We all three deserved it. It was an adventure for the three of us.”
Leiser took second with a time of 9:45:37, and Cat. 3 Lauren Riedle (Team Alp Cycles), 29, of Denver, Colorado, took third at 10:01:39. Except for Smallman, there were no other Women Pro 123’s that left the start line in Logan. Pannecoucke said she plans to defend her LoToJa title next year.
To underscore the feat of Aitken’s finishing time of 9:44:15, the next fastest women in her category (Cat. 5) had finish times over 11 hours.
The Men’s and Women’s Pro 123 races at LoToJa always get the biggest headlines, but in all there were 1,500 USA Cycling licensed and unlicensed riders at this year’s start line. There were 31 start groups, which included licensed race categories (724 participants), race relay teams (111 teams; 351 participants), cyclosportive ride categories (512 participants), and ride relay teams (154 teams; 506 participants). LoToJa start groups left Sunrise Cyclery in 4-minute intervals to better disperse riders as part of LoToJa’s Covid-19 Adaptations.
Also as part of those adaptations, non-competitive cyclosportive “ride” relay teams and full-distance cyclists finished at Jackson Hole High School instead of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. For them, the day’s total distance was 197.4 miles (full distance) and 199.7 (relay teams). Race relay teams pedaled 208.8 miles to finish at the finish line in Teton Village.
Except for hard rain in the morning, the weather turned favorable by afternoon with mild fall temperatures and clear skies. However, cyclists were buffeted by crosswinds and headwinds at times.
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, 2,000 take part by riding the full-distance or a portion of the route as a relay teammate.
Despite additional planning and costs caused by the ongoing pandemic, LoToJa race director Brent Chambers said he was delighted with the success of this year’s race. Next year’s LoToJa will be held on September 10, and it will be the race’s 40th anniversary. LoToJa’s 2022 website will be launched next March with online registration opening in early April.
“Being the 40th annual, next year’s race will be a celebration,” Chambers said. “I am extremely grateful to everyone that contributes to the success of LoToJa year after year. The event would not be possible without the incredible support of our sponsors, vendors, and the communities we pass through.
“LoToJa could not be pulled off without its dedicated team of 650-plus volunteers,” he added. “LoToJa would not exist without the hundreds of cyclists that choose to sign-up, train for, and ride or race their bikes from Logan to Jackson every September. I am inspired, grateful, and humbled by this ongoing support.
For complete finish line results for 2021’s race, go to lotoja.com and click on the “results/records” tab in the navigation bar.