By Amy Heaton
LoToJa 2020, my first LoToJa, was an experience I will never forget.
In fact, my instilled reverence for LoToJa started thirteen years ago – before I ever rode a bike or dreamed of racing one – when I was part of the support team for my graduate school colleagues in their valiant LoToJa ride. That’s when I learned: This was THE bike race.
Now it was my turn.
Denise Higgison, an advanced racer herself, graciously offered to support me for the race. Her excitement was absolutely engaging. She thought of everything, and we had each detail from food to clothing to bottles all sorted out – and how I would see her and where she’d be at each stop. Denise’s enthusiasm stepped up everything. She changed my mindset and my race.
Here’s how it went:
All women’s categories started together at 6:30am. We had about :30 of darkness before sunrise, and I was equipped with front and back lights and layered up with a stuffed newspaper, arm and knee warmers, a full jacket and buff, two pairs of gloves, and multiple hand warmers stuffed about. The temps were in the 40’s and would get into the 30’s before things started warming up. We rolled off the line, and I tried to stay in the front 10 or so. I made sure to take pulls, and the group stayed together as we made it through Preston then to the start of Strawberry. The sun came up, and Lindsey Stevenson (former multi-time winner of the race and total cycling celebrity) came back to me and told me she’d like to work together. She advised that she was going to push up the climb and try to whittle the group down to 5 or so at the top, and she told me to try to stay with them. I was glowing.
Then the move came, and I was able to see it, get out of the pack on the left-hand side, and follow the effort. The pack was chasing hard, and I thought we might fall back. Lindsey looked over, “don’t let up yet.” We kept the pace, and sure enough we broke out in a group of 6 midway through the climb.
She counted heads and asked that we all take :45 pulls to the summit. She took the first, but the next two ladies refused to participate or communicate. Things got contentious, Lindsey was talking to Eleise Hinton Lowe, and next thing I knew, the two of them were in a breakaway move off the front. As soon as I realized what was going on, I sprinted towards them from the back, but I just didn’t quite have it in me. I held back and got behind the two ladies. I rested for a minute, but I knew this was a pivotal moment. I had to catch Lindsey and Eleise at the summit before the descent. So I charged out of the saddle, all-out, and gave a full VO2 effort and barely made it. They accepted me graciously and we descended together. Then we pace-lined together to Montpelier and agreed to make it a :60 stop – tops. I couldn’t believe what was happening.
I rolled up, and true to plan, there was Denise waving me down! And…Chad! (My boyfriend who had started in the Men’s field 1:40:00 prior. I would later find out that he had a mechanical early in the race and had to bow out. Now he was all-in with Denise to support me)! I rolled up. “Everything off! Gloves! Jacket! Arm warmers! I need sugar! Gels! Jellybeans!” I had a pit crew catering to my every need. I was ready to roll!
Lindsey, Eleise and I jetted off toward the Geneva climb, back in pace line. My legs felt a little stiff at the base, but after a few rounds I was able to make a strong pull all the way to the top. “I gotta earn my keep,” I said. Then we descended and I grabbed onto their wheels and cruised – one of my favorite things to do on a bike. Next came the final climb, we kept the structure but then faintly heard, “I’m cramping.” And Eleise was off the back. “No! We need her!” I said. But it was just Lindsey and me now.
We started the QOM, and she was in front. I asked if she was going for it when I saw a yellow sign ahead. She answered, “Yes, but you should too.” So, I started making an effort, wondering why she wasn’t chasing – only to realize that the yellow sign was the “1 km to go.” Ah! I started to fade, and she opened up a gap. But I kept it steady and caught up to her. We pushed it at the top and her front wheel rolled over the line just ahead of mine. But since she started ahead of me, I ended up taking the QOM by a fraction of a second.
We rolled the descent and started alternating 3-minute turns on the front. We were going well, then at one point I looked back, and she was talking to the motor bike. “I have a flat.” I looked down at her bike, and sure enough. She said she had a spare with neutral support, they just had to bring it. I asked if I should wait. She said I could, but that I should do what I want. I swore out loud. Then I said I’d keep going and keep it steady, and I told her to come catch me.
So there we were. 80 miles to go. Both solo. I rode the pace I had been pulling and just kept pedaling. I didn’t see anyone, and then asked the motor bike if he had a gap time. 2:30. I was expecting Lindsey alone or in a group to catch me, but nothing. I asked again. 5:00. I didn’t know what was behind the gap. Lindsey solo? Lindsey and Eleise? A group? “Keep it steady, Amy,” I told myself. I asked for a gap time again. 7:00. I kept riding. Again. 8:30. I couldn’t believe it.
When I rolled into the last support stop in Alpine, I didn’t really want to stop. I guess it was meant to be, because Denise and Chad barely missed me! I still had water, I couldn’t stomach any more food. I just kept going. I could tell I was fading, but I kept charging ahead with everything I had left in me. At 180 miles I started, “99 bottles of beer on the wall … 98 … 97.” I think I got to 19. Then a new game: final mile countdowns. The headwind picked up, I couldn’t spin the pedals anymore, so I shifted into my biggest gear and grinded to make power. “5 miles to 3 miles left.” Then, “1 mile to 1 mile to go.” I saw the finish. I got out of the saddle and sprinted across the line. I took it by 5:30. 203 miles. 80 of them solo. Chad was there. He picked me up. “You just won LoToJa!” Denise was there. She kept me upright. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it.
As with the many important experiences that make up or lives, the calm aftermath brings reflection. And mostly appreciation. I am so grateful to the LoToJa race organizers, my amazing crew, the awesome Johnson Elite Orthodontics guys that let me ride as a part of their team, and of course my coach, Sarah Kaufmann. Sarah’s coaching transformed me as a cyclist. Her support, targeted training, interval work, supercompensation, and taper to race day was the mark of perfection. And utmost, I profoundly appreciate the cycling community and the strong, talented women I get to ride with. Racing with Lindsey was a dream come true. I write this in hopes to inspire new cyclists and prospective new racers to get out there. And crush it!