I skipped a blog update last week, as I needed a bit of a break after the previous heavier/more serious post, but I’m back now with an update from Crusher in the Tushar.
Crusher was the 3rd stop in the Life Time Grand Prix. It bills itself as the “hardest 69 miles on the planet”, and I’d say it probably has a legitimate claim on the title. 69.9 miles, 3100m of climbing, average altitude of the race 2500m a.s.l., extreme heat (35 degrees celsius), and the final 20 km and 500m of elevation gain all at or above 2950m a.s.l. There are some stages of mtb races I've done that contest that title, but I’ll say that Crusher is definitely a beast.
To prepare for the altitude and the heat, Lespy and I spent the previous three weeks at Big Bear Lake in California. As two sea level people, this was a pretty important move. We weren’t specifically targeting Crusher, but with four upcoming races at altitude (Crusher, Andorra WC, Snowshoe WC, and Leadville), it was a crucial mid-summer camp. The first week and a half of the altitude camp was so hard with absolutely garbage sensations, but I started to feel adapted by day 11. By the time Crusher rolled around, I felt pretty confident in my altitude prep. We were cutting the training camp tight to be recovered in time for Crusher, but given that we weren’t peaking or targeting Crusher specifically, the timeline made sense. A couple of days to deload and sharpen were all we could afford!
When we got to Utah, Spencer and Kevin at HyperThreads offered to take us out for some course recon in the side-by-side. Most fun I’ve had on a pre-race day in a long time! And some very good intel gained. I’m really glad I got to see the main gravel descent beforehand, and was also happy to know what type of terrain to expect in the final hour of the race. After the recon, I crafted my race strategy: I was planning to match pace up the first climb, and then see where I was at. That's it - that was the the whole strategy! I wasn’t confident enough to plan to attack, but was optimistic enough to plan to match. I didn’t think there was a scenario where I’d be riding off the front, but I was willing to roll with it if it should happen.
In a change from previous races, the women got our own start, heading out five minutes ahead of the men. It was SO nice to be able to race our own race, use real race craft, and to just roll strong as a big group of women. Seeing photos of our peloton makes me very proud!
Amber Neben led most of the pavement before we began the real climbing. Once we made the turn onto Kent Lake Road and the grade kicked up, Sarah Sturm, Sofia and I went to the front to dictate pace. It was pretty tame, but we did gradually kick it up. There were some other women in the mix there who were periodically touching the front, but for the most part, it was Sarah and Sofia bringing the heat. About 30 minutes into the climb, I looked around and realized we were down to six or seven women. It was about there that I realized I must be on a relatively good day.
Over the top of that first climb, I got a small gap. Sofia came up to me, and we did the main descent together. Definitely rough, but nothing too insane; lots of washboard, but as long as you didn’t have stone hands, it was all manageable. I don’t think we were REALLY pushing it, in the interest of preserving equipment and avoiding crashing. Across the pavement at the bottom, which kept descending for another 10km, Sofia and I caught some men. Shortly after, Ruth and Sarah bridged up to us. The four of us finished off the pavement together and entered the Sarlacc Pit as a group of four.
The Sarlacc Pit is a sector of loose, sandy double track that is a sneaky bit of climbing. It was also the hottest area of the course, with a very gentle tailwind and direct sun. I pushed a steady pace through the bottom of the Sarlacc Pit, and noticed that none of the other women were willing to follow. I briefly second guessed whether that meant I was doing something unsustainable, given that a climb of over an hour was just up the road, but then decided to go for it. You never know if you don’t go!
I was riding without watts visible today, so I paced myself purely by feel (as I always do in racing). I didn’t realize that I was growing a gap up the Col de Crush (the QOM segment, about 1000m of gain), and I just stayed focused on my own pacing. I was chasing men down one-by-one to keep myself engaged in the process of moving forward, and was using the new coloured elevation profile screen on my Wahoo to predict what the road ahead was like.
At the top of the QOM, we still had another ~600m of elevation gain to go, virtually all of it done over 3000m above sea level. My glutes were starting to cramp a bit, so I just focused on really steady seated riding. I had some intel from spectators that I was six minutes up on second place, but I chose not to believe it just in case. I wanted to stay on it and driving the pace. I rolled steady through the undulating hills at the top of the mountain, slammed a coke on-the-go at the final feed zone (thank you volunteers!) and chose not to think about the finish until it was in sight. At the final right hander onto the pavement leading to Eagle Point Resort and the finish line, I finally allowed myself to believe that I might win, but I still wanted to stay on the gas. That last mile of climbing at 12% was torturous, but it was worth it to meet my family and team at the line. Very happy with how I rode - mostly with the courage I had to believe in my legs, and the optimism I was able to carry. Feels very good to bring home a win for the team!
Equipment and Fuelling Strategy
From what I can tell, Crusher saw the most variety of equipment choices among racers. There were people out there on mountain bikes, but also people out there who were on virtual road bikes. Major variance in drivetrain, tire, and even shoe choices.
I was riding my Ibis Hakka. I made my final tire decision in the evening before the race, and I ended up going with Maxxis Receptors in 40c, 120 TPI, and EXO casing. I knew it was a riskier choice for traction on the descent (these are a much less aggressive tire than the Ramblers I rode at Unbound), but I felt confident in my ability to keep ‘er upright and was looking forward to the extra speed on the pavement. I was also running Tannus Armour inserts, and was running 24/25 psi at the start of the race (anticipating that the pressures would increase a fair bit with heat and altitude throughout the day).
I also ran Shimano GRX 2x, with 48/31 front chainrings and a 34-11 cassette. I used all the gears, so I think it was the right choice. Many people opted for road pedals and shoes, but I stuck with my XTR SPD pedals and Bont VayporGs. Drew freshened up our bikes with some Enduro wheel bearings and new chains as well.
In terms of nutrition, there was no outside support allowed. That meant that Drew wasn’t allowed to feed us during the race. I expected that most women would be riding with hydration packs to get through the day, but I didn’t want to have that extra insulation on my back with the heat. I decided to just run two 32 oz (1 litre) bottles with Flow 60/90 in them. I ran the mix a little light to preserve my gut in the heat, and supplemented with a gel every half hour or so. My general plan was: if the pace was just hard, or I expected it to imminently get hard, then I would have a gel. Fuelling plan worked, because apart from some mild glute cramping in the last hour (you know, after about 3000m of seated climbing), I felt great and had no gut discomfort. I did run dry by the end, but I was able to lean on a few water handups from volunteers at the aid stations.
We have a very packed schedule coming up; four consecutive weeks of XCO racing, and then Leadville. I’m feeling a lot of good momentum with training and now with yesterday’s confirmation of where my climbing legs are at, so I’m very optimistic about the racing ahead. That said, I’m bringing a new perspective to objective success that I didn’t have the last time I was winning bike races. Excited for the rest of the season - so much racing to come!
Massive thank you to the Factory sponsors for making this victory (and all the training and lifestyle) possible. Absolutely loving being part of this team!!