Sunday, September 13, 2009

A race of superlatives

Lotoja is a race of superlatives: longest one-day road race in the United States; largest race in any of the three states it passes through; biggest (and in many cases, only) event for most of the participants.* Drive around Salt Lake one day and count the number of window stickers you see. "Ragnar" and the little "my family**" stick figures are the only things that even come close to matching the ubiquity of Lotoja. Since it's a race of superlatives, interspersed throughout the race report are a variety of superlatives*** I observed through the weekend.

*Funny thing about "races" versus "rides:" While Lotoja is most definitely a race, especially in the licensed categories, for most of the participants, it's a "ride," and they're not thinking about placing. If you go to any other race, you'll hardly see anyone riding a Trek bicycle. I attribute this to the inverse Lance effect. "Serious" racers don't want to be on the bike the most famous racer in the world rides--despite the fact that Trek makes fantastic bicycles--so they buy anything but Trek. Trek, nevertheless, is the best-selling brand in the country. Wanna know where all those high-end Madones are? Come to Lotoja, and you'll find out. They're under a bunch of Citizen racers and have Bento Boxes strapped to the top tubes. The clip-on aero bars have been removed, per race rules.

**Speaking of these "my family" stickers, we saw one that takes the cake--even better than the Ass family: Hairy, Wize, Fat, and Smart--on the way to Logan on Friday. It was a mom, a dad, and what appeared to be several pets, including two hovering above the rest with little halos and wings. If they were in fact pets, it seems a little absurd. If they were actually human children, it seems a bit macabre, disturbing, weird, and just plain sad, all rolled into one.

***True superlatives would mean just one of each, but I reserve the right to have more than one under a given topic. Even if that means they're technically no longer superlatives. It's my blog, and it's the only place I can almost do whatever I feel like.

Wow, I can tell this post is going to be long, since I'm doing a race report and already wrote three lengthy tangential paragraphs before really introducing the meat of the post. Perhaps you should go get a diet coke or a beer or a cup of coffee and then come back.

Anyway, back to Lotoja. The short story for me is that the race exceeded my expectations but fell short of my hopes. I started not sure I'd even make it to Preston. Then I realized my support crew was in Montpelier and we were skipping the Preston feed zone, so I had to go at least 80 miles. I decided if I was still with the lead group at Montpelier, I'd keep going, but if I wasn't, I was bailing out there.

Speaking of lead group, our "group" was nearly 300 riders. Of the 85 or so Cat. 4s who started in our wave, not one of them wanted to work (huge surprise there), so it took about 20 minutes for the first wave of about 50 or so Cat. 5s to catch us. Ten minutes after that, the next wave caught us, and ten more minutes later, the third wave caught us. Throw in a few fun riders who had latched on, plus at least one bandit (rider not registered for the event), and we had a lot of people.

Most impressive climb: As you approach Strawberry Canyon, the longest climb of the race, there's a short climb of about 500 feet and a grade of maybe 6% or so. On the way up that climb, we saw a guy named Taylor riding a special Madsen Cargo Bike equipped with spare wheels and various tools and repair supplies. The bike weighed 70 pounds, and he was keeping pace with our group up this hill. We were not exactly dogging it, either. I haven't done the math on how much wattage he would need to put out to push that bike up that hill at that speed, but it had to have been a lot. The guys on that bike (they traded off) repaired 36 flat tires throughout the day.

On the Strawberry climb, I was doing OK. My back had loosened up enough that I wasn't thinking about it all the time, but my legs felt dead. Steve was leading our group up the climb at a pace that should not have been a problem for me, but I was suffering badly. I went to the front and asked him to back it down a bit, as I was barely hanging on. He told me after that he was trying to keep it slow enough that I could manage but not so slow that someone else would move to the front. That's the best I could hope for.

Nevertheless, I started drifting towards the back of the group. Adam C. from Spin offered some encouragement "keep going--we're almost to the false flat." Indeed we were and just in time. I had survived the first climb.

Several riders opened it up on the descent, and I thought I was the last guy to get on the back of this group. We flew down the hill, but as we reached the bottom, Sam told me to look back. We had to have 100 more people on the back. I couldn't believe it.

The climb up Geneva isn't long enough to be a problem, but I could tell as we approached Salt River Pass, the steepest climb of the day, that the guys on front were going to drill it. They did, and it shattered the group. I held on for a while, saw Sam fall off, and knew I was soon to follow. I let a gap open, and then thought about how much I would hate myself if I let this gap open and didn't kill myself trying to close it. So I killed myself trying to close it, just about got back on, but couldn't. My heart rate was at 188--I could go no harder.

I thought they were about a minute ahead (time splits show I lost about 90 seconds) but could see no sign of them as I started the descent. I never even thought about touching the brakes, but I still never caught sight of them. I chased hard with three other guys. After one really long pull, one of the other guys said to look back. We had about 30 guys behind us. I thought good, plenty of people to work with for the chase across Star Valley. Except they all took their sweet time in the feed zone and never regrouped. I asked Marco how far ahead Steve was, and she said "about a minute." I knew this meant anywhere from one to five minutes, because the reckoning of time is nigh unto impossible for crew in that high-stress environment.

Most bewildering race tactic: Why do people prepare musette bags only to stop in the feed zone, go through the musette bag, take what they want, and only then proceed? The whole point of musettes is not to stop. Grab it on the fly, go through it on the bike, put what you want in your pockets, drop the rest. There, I just saved you at least five minutes next year. You're welcome.

I was in no man's land, behind the leaders but still ahead of most of the group I had started up the climb with. Chances of catching the leaders were basically nil. Not only that, I didn't want to catch them if it meant bringing other guys with me who could affect Steve's shot at the win. Chances of bits and pieces of my shattered group re-forming and coming through were pretty good. Sam would be in that group, I decided to pedal easy and wait.

As I was soft-pedaling along, wondering whether I would just abandon the race in Alpine, I saw Rachel pass me. Then she pulled into a turnout at the side of the road. My bottle of Coke from the feed zone was gone, and it was the only thing that tasted good. I figured she'd have more, so I stopped. I said hi to the kids and gave them each a kiss. Rachel didn't have any regular coke, but she had a diet that was still reasonably cold. Good enough. I sat there long enough to drink most of it and was thinking hard about just throwing my bike in the back and calling it a day. I was at least going to sit there until I saw Sam and maybe until my dad came through a few hours later and would just roll in with him.

Then I saw a group come up the road, and the competitive instinct finally kicked in. I saw 700 series numbers (Cat. 4s) and couldn't stand the thought of losing another place in the finishing order, even though I was well out of the points by now. I jumped in with them.

Most tragic moment(s) of the race: (1) the group I was riding with was soon caught and joined by the lead group from the fourth and last Cat. 5 start wave. Nick R., one of the Omniture crew that often joins us for AF rides, was driving that group and looking strong. At the final neutral feed zone, Nick was one of the first four through when I heard a bike hit the pavement and saw all four guys tumble. I distinctly remember seeing Nick's bike fly about eight feet in the air. Nick was back on his feet by the time I got to him. I stopped to see if he was OK. I figured our whole group would stop and make sure people were OK, but then everyone just flew by. They were at a feed zone, with better care than I could offer, so I got back on and caught the group. Instead of finishing on the podium, Nick broke both wheels and would be unable to continue.

(2) It was a good thing I didn't wait for my dad when I stopped and had a diet coke with Rachel, because he was cramping and sick at the Montpelier feed zone. He stopped and rested for nearly an hour trying to get better but never improved. I remember seeing my dad cry about three times my whole life, and two of those were at his parents' funerals. My mom said when he knew he simply couldn't continue, he wept. Despite riding over 8,000 training miles in the last two years, in addition to countless spin classes over the winter, that was how his race ended. For a 63-year-old guy who started riding when he was 62, finishing, even in near-darkness, would have been a huge victory.

(3) After the race, Rachel mentioned a nasty crash they had witnessed in the Alpine feed zone. One of the guys had grabbed his musette, and apparently his support double-clutched at handoff, knocking him off-balance, causing the musette to swing into his front spokes. He went over the bars and landed hard on the pavement. None of them had any idea who it was but obviously felt awful for the guy. As I was looking through the pictures, I saw a photo of a guy laying on the pavement in Alpine. I asked Rachel if it was the guy who crashed. She said it was. I recognized him as Adam C., the guy who had offered encouragement on the Strawberry climb, and a future teammate at Spin next season (oops, did I just give something away?). Adam was at the front and would have been in the mix to win the Cat. 4s, but instead it all ended just like that. I haven't heard anything from him but hope he's OK.

As we made our way through Jackson, and I imagined the sweet relief of knowing the suffering was nearly over, we caught up with two of the guys I had worked with descending into Afton. I had wondered whether, had I stayed with them, we would have caught the leaders. My question was answered.

Even though groups aren't supposed to mix and work together, they do. The fours in my group chatted and discussed letting the other guys go at 2K and then sorting it out on our own at the end, but that only works if everyone is willing to cooperate. They weren't.

So I moved towards the front and had in my head the three other jerseys to watch for as we started the sprint. After nearly ten hours in the saddle, for the first time I was finally having fun and happy to be on the bike. 500 meters to go, and I was positioned just right. About 300 meters to go, and I was thinking I may sprint it out for whatever meaningless place we were going for uncontested and was going to go with 200 left. Then I saw Ryan L. from Evo fly by. Crap. I accelerated, but he had a good jump. I was closing fast but needed another 50 meters to catch him. He finished 19th, I finished 20th. Yay us. Afterward, I congratulated him for his shrewd move and we had a good laugh together, a far cry from last year.

I quickly found Rachel and expected good news about Steve. I wasn't disappointed. He got second, behind Joel R. from Simply Mac.

Most impressive team: Simply Mac brought four guys to the Cat. 4 race, all of whom could have won the field. But they were a true team. They worked together to lead out their best sprinter. Steve got in there and tried to disrupt the train, but could only do so much. James C. is probably their strongest overall guy, but he stuck his nose in the wind early for the leadout and dropped to seventh. He wanted to see the team win more than he wanted personal glory. Kudos to them--they deserve the victory.

Most impressive individual(s): (1) Mark T. from Spin and (2) Spence R. from Logan Race Club. Steve said those guys were on the front all day, never afraid to take a pull. I've watched Mark T. a few times this year, and the guy's as strong as they come. He's in his 40's--older than most of the guys racing fours--but he's easily the leanest, fittest guy there. He has a super smooth pedal stroke, and though I've never followed myself to know for sure, unlike people like me who are all over the place, he's a joy to ride behind in a paceline because he's so steady and can take a 30 mph pull like it's no big deal. I'm excited to have him as a teammate next season (oops, did I give away more? Yep, the plan is to don the red and white Spin kit on the road next year. I'll still wear Revolution colors on dirt, though). I think the only reason Mark T. hasn't posted higher results is because he's not an explosive rider, so he's not mixing it up in the sprints. I'm guessing both he and Spence were driving the pace in hopes of opening a gap and winning on a break.

(3) And of course, no discussion of most impressive individual would be complete without mentioning my brother Steve. Since upgrading to Cat. 4, Steve has started four races. The first one was a stage race and really a "holy crap, these guys are fast" moment for both of us. Since then, Steve has three podiums, including one win. In the three hardest races of the season, no less: Tour of Park City; 1,000 Warriors; and Lotoja. He now has enough points to upgrade to Cat. 3. I think he's going to stick around through Harvest Moon to help his pathetic older brother, who can't seem to get results when it counts, try and grab a few upgrade points, but I need to get them fast. I'd rather be back-of-the-pack in the threes racing with him than front-of-the-pack-but-just-short-of-the-win in the fours without him.

Most impressive relay: Mr. and Mrs. S. I met Jon over the winter skiing with the Samurai. He's followed this blog a bit since, and we got together for tacos after Leadville, when he casually mentioned doing Lotoja as a relay with his wife. Jon's a Cat. 3 and a fast guy. He failed to mention that his wife is way speedy, too. They ended up in third place with a time of 9:21 or something ridiculously fast like that. Unbelievable. Strong work--you should be in good shape for the "A" season when the snow flies in a couple months.

Biggest sandbagger: Nate P. has won the overall at Lotoja at least once. Every time he's done it, though, he's raced in one of the Citizen one-day license classes. This year he threw down a 9:10, good for 4th overall and yet another category win. Nate does, however, have an annual license--he's a Cat. 4. He's also won almost everything he's entered, including State Time Trial championships and Porcupine Hill Climb. He's got a huge motor and can climb and TT with the best of them. So why not do some real road races, get some upgrade points, and mix it up with the best of them rather than start at the back, drill it up Strawberry, and then leapfrog from group to group of people not in his category to turn in a fast time? I'm not saying the guy isn't fast. I'm not saying he doesn't deserve the times he gets at Lotoja, because in a race that long, whatever time you get, you've earned. I'm just saying if you're that fast, why not race against other guys who are that fast rather than beating up on the Citizen class guys? [Edit: I'm not changing this, because I don't think that would be right. But check the comments--Nate P. deserves a most-impressive rider nod rather than a sandbagger nod. If he soloed to a 9:10, then watch out Cameron Hoffman. Nate, get out to some other races so you can get into the Cat. 1's where you belong. Strong work. BTW--I love how people I call out in the blog have a way of finding it and filling in the rest of the story. This is another example. Perhaps my initial assessments are unfair, but if I kept my mouth shut, great stories like this would never be told. Again, Nate, congratulations on a very impressive time.]

Sunday morning, for the first time ever, we went to the awards ceremony. It was typical of an awards ceremony, with too much talking (though nowhere near as much as at Leadville) before getting on with the presentations that are the only reason anyone is there to begin with. Steve stood on the podium for the first time (the other races he's won or placed at, they haven't had a podium--lame, I know). He also collected a check for $90, just over half of his entry fee for the race. He's now made $175 from racing, $130 more than his brother (though in fairness, mine was gift certificates to bike shops rather than real money--I'm yet to collect any of that). His return on racing investment is about negative 7 million percent, while mine is about negative 30 million percent. We obviously aren't going to get rich at this--just the opposite.

Once over, with sore legs and backs and taints, we got in our cars to drive six hours home.

Rudest moment of entire weekend: I threw away my daughter's dirty diaper inside the Taco Bell in Evanston. Ordinarily I'm pretty good about throwing those things in outside trash cans so as not to foul the interior of a building. But most fast food joints have garbage cans outside the doors, and all the Taco Bell had was ashtrays with really skinny tops that would only fit cigarettes or maybe a gerbil. The diaper wouldn't fit, so I took it inside to dispose of it. The guy behind the counter watched me do it and about chewed through his lip but didn't say anything. I didn't watch to see if anyone was dispatched to take out the trash. We sat at the other side of the dining room.

Best road trip snack food: Chester's Puffcorn. I asked my kids if they wanted a bag of this when we stopped at the Maverik in Star Valley. They said they wanted Swedish Fish instead. I bought it anyway, because I wanted it and only asked the kids because I would have felt slightly better about purchasing it if my kids had "asked for it." They'll be all excited next time because the bag was gone in an hour. And I didn't even eat half of it. Or even probably a third of it. Which is not to say I wouldn't have. I just didn't get the chance. They taste great, and the whole ginormous bag is only like a thousand calories. Split five ways, that isn't bad. Especially because they're so tasty.

The one superlative I'm not decided on is "last." Will this be my last race of the season? Depends on whether the Harvest Moon crit actually happens or not. Will this be my last Lotoja? Maybe. Any other race, I would have just skipped given the circumstances this year. I don't like having one event feel so important. But I'm guessing my dad may want to go back. Elden may want to give it a go. And I actually quite like the cancer fundraising part--it makes it feel worthwhile. It was cool seeing them present the check to Huntsman Cancer Foundation at the awards ceremony and knowing I was part of making that happen.

The one thing I'm glad for, though, is that despite not accomplishing what I would have liked to from a results standpoint, I don't feel as if there's unfinished business. It just wasn't my day. And I'm OK with that.

Up tomorrow: pictures. I was going to post them today, but it's late. For a sneak peak, look here and here.


  1. Great report. Your race sounds kind of like mine, lost the leaders on the KOM climb and worked with some mixed groups to the finish. Funny stuff about Nate P. In Masters 35+ we had two Red Burro guys sneak off the front in the dark/confusion of the start to never be seen again. They finished at 9:11, if they did that without help, that is way impressive.

    Saturday, I was convinced I wouldn't be back next year. Driving home Sunday, I start thinking about how I could improve next year, and so the sickness continues.

  2. Excellent post, Mark.
    I always appreciate seeing others' perspectives re. Lotoja and all the drama that surrounds it.

    2 quick comments:
    First, although I wasn't in your pack to witness the "Most Impressive Individual(s)"--Mark T and Spence R--I can certainly vouch for Mark T's tenacity and will to work hard. He's an amazing athlete and friend of mine and I'll pass along the deserved props with a link to your blog. Thanks.

    Second, you are right... I (Nate Pack) am an admitted "Biggest Sandbagger" in Lotoja; though I'm on the path of change.
    I have chosen to ride in the citizen category in the last few years only to pursue my goal of a freakish time trial and solo suffering--not because I'm unwilling to race tougher/better racers than me.
    In fact, I only got a license and became a Cat5 in mid June this year and later a Cat4 after one road race. By then I was already registered in a citizen pack for Lotoja with another friend (who later wasn't able to race). Next year I'll be properly licensed in the right pack.

    One clarification: During my Lotoja effort last Saturday, I didn't leapfrog from pack to pack. I bullishly and very consciously REFUSED to draft off anybody after I soloed away from my pack after Preston. I don't speak defensively nor belligerently, for I have nothing to defend. I'm only telling the truth. I suffered miserably in my solitary pain cave for hours on end, and I did not take advantage of any outside support from other riders via drafting or otherwise (aside from the psychological benefit of always having a "rabbit" ahead in the distance).
    I'm proud of my effort and was happy to set my own PR in the windy conditions I could never hide from.

    Thanks again for your writing, and nice job with your own great finish
    to Lotoja 2009.

    Nate Pack

  3. you know, when i met you last fall, you didn't give any indication that you and your superhero brother were this kind of riders.

    i'm feeling a little taken in. who ARE those guys?

  4. Great report and great job. Though it wasn’t the result you were looking for, it was a very respectable time on a day you felt lousy and considered bailing multiple times. And your report hits on so many of the aspects that makes LOTOJA unique: the pack/category-mixing craziness, the character-glimpses of so many racers, the NateP/sandbagging phenomenon (which I’ve come to regard fondly as part of the likeable weirdness of LOTOJA) and the sheer, crazy scale of the event. It’s why I love it and hate it, taking a break this year, but maybe back next year. Or maybe not.

    My favorite part was the part about your Dad. He sounds like a great guy.

    I also like the extensive use of tangents and multi-colored fonts- now that’s some fine blogging!

  5. JZ, I'm already dieting. I can't say whether it's for next year or not, but I'm thinking five more pounds will do it.

    Nate, thanks for the clarification. You're unreal. I added a note to the sandbag callout. My hat's off to you.

    Dug, my brother is a superhero. I'm his sidekick that's just there to make him look that much better.

    Watcher, keep a lid on it or I'll be ready to sign up again next year come April. My dad also loves pinenuts--yet another reason to like the guy.

  6. Nate, you are the man! Extremely impressive time trial.

    For what it is worth, this year had the most officiating I have seen at this race trying to keep lead packs apart, which is good. They even made the Masters 35+ go neutral after Preston to allow some separation with the Masters 45+ pack, which really helped the two solo breakaway guys who most of us didn't even know about at the time. It would be impossible to keep the splinter groups apart.

  7. Wow, that was a big day. I'm glad most of us got through it. Adam hit the deck right in front of me and I had my hands full trying to avoid him. It happened so fast my brain didn't register anything so thank you for the glimpse into the cause.

    Thanks too for mentioning the hard work Spence and I (as well as a couple of others whose names I don't know) did on the front. I think it is one's duty to work up front. Though I'm relatively new to racing, I do understand the tactics. But I don't think I'm entitled to benefit from someone else's hard work if I'm not willing to do the work myself. And when others don't have the will I do. At one point James C told me "you're a tough rider." Maybe, maybe not. I can't stomach giving anything less than everything. All I want at the end of a day like that is to know - without reservation - that I worked as hard as I could, and emptied the tank, utterly. Any less and nothing may be learned.

    To me racing the bike is part of The Way. I've used other means but in the end the means don't matter, only that one is honest, 100% present, and aware enough to learn the lessons of the experience. In this sense I got everything I needed on Saturday.

    I too have enormous respect for Nate. I think few (including me) can truly comprehend a 170-mile time trial. Awesome - using the reverential definition of the word.

  8. I enjoyed reading your report. Lots of good insights and details. Way to gut it out and finish.

  9. Great Report Bro. Thanks for your kind words. I have been impressed for years with Nate's results even assuming as you did that he started in the back and leapfrogged his way up, but for him to be riding solo, all I can say is wow. His comments only add to my admiration.

    I'm glad Mark T. was directed to your blog because you said everything that I wish I had a chance to tell him at the end of the race. Very impressive indeed. A mutual friend has been talking him up to me for months and I have to say she accurately described the kind of guy he is. Nice job Mark T.

    I have said before that I have never done a bike race that I didn't like, but the ones we do together are always the best. Great job on Saturday.

  10. I haven't finished reading all you post yet, but Adam C. is one of my good friends for the past couple years. In fact he influenced me race LOTOJA the three times I did it. He is a good man to ride with and get to know. Too bad about his crash. Interesting to read about it in your post as he had already recounted to me the events of the crash

  11. Nice report. Thanks for the blog award. I'm up for tacos anytime. Let me know when you venture down this way.

  12. Great report. Thanks for the team props! We definitely worked hard. However, I am glad you gave credit to Mark T. and Spence. I talked to Mark right after the race, but I wanted to give him some public praise. He is a machine! Your Bro is super strong too! I was nervous after he demolished us at TdeP. I was also impressed at his finishing speed. I am excited to race with you guys again next season. It should be fun and competitive. Their are and were a lot of great guys at the front! P.S. I am not longer Anonymous 1. I actually got an account after your appropriate call out on my last post!

  13. Joel, MUCH respect for the sprint.
    You went someplace I've seen few willing to go.
    To have that horsepower left at the end is the result of some hard training, and smart energy management. Well done.

    And somewhere along the road I recognized how welded together your team is, and saw the work you each did for the others. I wish our team had that. In the canyon I told my one remaining teammate that, "Simply Mac is going to eat our lunch if we don't do something." But we weren't machine enough, and couldn't, so you did. Again, well done.

    See you out there next season.

  14. MFT, you've got my commitment to make Spin more like Simply Mac next season.

  15. Nice report. My son forwarded the link from fatty's today. He was on the podium with Nate in 2006 and was in awe at his ability to destroy anyone who tried to stay on his wheel. Since then I've watched Nate (his short shorts are easy to spot) pass me every year (this was my 7th Lotoja). This year did exactly as he said, he caught our Master's 45 (and others) group on Salt River, didn't sit on for even a second, and then powered by us like we were going backwards. I yelled his name and at least got him to sit up and smile as he went by. A true 206 mile time trial. Very Impressive.