A Guide to the Crusher in the Tushars
by Grizzly Adam
Now Updated for 2013! Additions since the 2012 race are noted below. Hopefully they will help you become even better prepared for race day 2013.
The 2012 (and 2013) Crusher in the Tushars
In 2011 I became entirely obsessed with the inaugural Crusher in the Tushars. The race consumed my cycling energies like little else ever has. After a lot of recon, gear testing, and map-gazing, race day arrived. I had a good day. A really good day. However, since then something has nagged at the back of my mind. That is, I’m not sure I learned anything on race day. Which is to say, I’m starting to plot and plan and scheme all over again. After all, the Crusher is right around the corner.
Bike racing can bring out the best in each of us. But I think too, that it can expose the mind-bending oddities in each of us as well. Or maybe only in me. After all, a sane person would do one of two things for the 2012 Crusher:
1) Exactly what he did when he had a “really good day.”
2) Set up his ‘cross bike with reliable tires, and race.
Neither option requires much thought or effort. And neither option calls for any navel-gazing or second-guessing. Pick the bike. Ride the bike. Easy.
But where’s the fun in that?
The primary reason that the 2011 race failed to answer the “best bike”, and more specifically the “best tire”, question is because so many people successfully rode so many different bikes and tires. I was certain that 35c cyclocross tires would be torn to pieces. They weren’t. I was certain anyone riding tubulars would end up walking roadside with a flat tire. They didn’t. And I was really certain that the two riders on road bikes were two imminent drop-outs. I was only half-right. But the rider who did finish the race on his road bike, finished in the top 20. People who rode mountain bikes stood on podiums. So did people on ‘cross bikes. And so did people on ‘tweener bikes. As long as it rolled, any bike was the right bike.
The separating factor was (obviously!) the legs.
And those will be exactly the same ones that I always use. Damn.
But, perhaps I did learn something in 2011: There is no “best” bike or tire for the Crusher. But that reality doesn’t make choosing a bike or tire any easier. Indeed, the wide variety of possibilites only adds to the indecision. However, I am a lot more confident about what my bike will look like on July 14th than I was a year ago. But if you are at all like me (kinda sucks, eh?), and you are planning to race the 2012 Crusher, then undoubtedly you are already thinking about tire choices, training rides, and course recon, even if you had a successful race last year. With that in mind, I give you my guide to the Crusher in the Tushars.
2013 Update: I’ve now ridden the Crusher on both a mountain bike and a cyclocross bike. Which is better? That depends. But I’ll be back on the ‘cross bike for 2013 with one major change: lower gearing.
Disclaimer: Everything written in this guide reflects my own opinions and experiences. Nothing is meant to be definitive. This guide assumes that the 2013 course conditions will be similar to 2011. Any weather events, USFS work, or other unforeseen circumstances could obviously change the course. I’ve tried to make sure everything is as accurate as possible. This is not an official Crusher in the Tushar guide, although I have consulted with race creator Burke Swindlehurst on a few points. Be sure to monitor www.tusharcrusher.com for official race-day updates and changes. I will try to keep this post updated with any such news.
Part 1: The Course - 69 miles. 10,000 vertical.
- 1: Mile 18
- 2: Mile 38
- Water Station: Mile 42
- 3: Mile 51
- 4: Mile 59
In 2011, Utah, and most of the Rocky Mountain West, had record breaking snowfall. The snow just kept falling. And falling. And… falling. It was fantastic, for skiers. But not so fantastic for mountain bikers. Many of the normal trails that are open in June did not melt and dry until late July. The record snowfall had an enormous impact on the Crusher. It was uncertain whether or not the snow on Big John Flat Road, which tops out at 11,500 (the highest road in Utah) would be passable. We all watched the Snowtel numbers anxiously while pestering the USFS for updates. And just when it looked like the snow would give way to summer and the road would be rideable on race day, it was discovered that a massive avalanche, or several avalanches, had destroyed the road. Completely. The Crusher’s original route was a no-go. No problem. Race creator Burke Swindlehurst had a Plan B, and executed it perfectly. That Plan B is the 2012 Plan A, since the USFS is still re-building the damaged road.
2013 Update: I might be in the minority, but I’d love to race the original, longer course some day.
Start to Feed 1: 18 miles.
The race starts in downtown Beaver, Utah. We will roll out of town on gently rolling pavement and directly into Beaver Canyon (hey, this is a family blog!) where the climbing starts to get a little more apparent. In both 2011 and 2012 this moderate section of climbing was where a lot of riders decided to attack the various fields. Groups splintered quickly as the early pecking order was established. I suspect the same will happen again this year. There will be more riders in 2013 (A new 500 rider cap for ’13, up from the 350 in ’12!). So find a group of wheels, and hang on. The course stays paved for 11 miles. None of the climbing in these first 11 miles is very steep. But nonetheless, it’s still climbing. At mile 11 the route turns right, leaving the canyon highway and heading into the off-beat forest roads of the Tushar Mountains. Grades in the first 11 miles are within the 3-6% range.
After a brief stint on a little more pavement, and one of the steepest climbs so far, the asphalt ends and the dirt begins. You will be on dirt now almost all the way to Junction, Utah, mile 51. The end of the pavement does not mean the end of the climbing. No, the climbing continues consistently for the next 13 miles—and 3,000 vertical feet. However, much of the elevation gain from mile 11 to Feed Station 1, at mile 18, is graded mildly (7-9% in the first half, and 3-5% the second), and on a well-maintained road. If you are the kind of rider that likes to settle into a consistent climbing rhythm, then this will be a strong section for you. There is an abundance of scenery—mountain lakes, meadows, and treeless peaks—to distract the eye and to help the mind forget the task at hand. And this early in the race there ought to be groups of like-paced slipstreams to hang around in.
Feed station 1 arrives at Anderson Meadow Reservoir—mile 18—with a welcome reprise in the climbing. Refuel as needed, and take a deep breath. There’s more uphill ahead.
Feed 1 to Feed 2: 20 Miles.
Feed 2 is 20 miles from Feed 1. This section is relatively fast. The climbing is mild, shaded, and enjoyable, if climbing can ever be called “enjoyable.” This segment of the race scrapes the top of the entire course, and contours through a series of rolling meadows, pine forests, and aspen groves. It’s scenic, but—and this is a challenge throughout the race—don’t get too caught up in the beauty! You are, after all, racing. After passing the Y-intersection (stay rigtht) the course trends downward until it plunges abruptly off the plateau and into the town of Junction, where Feed 2 is located.
When you take the plunge, you’ll have spent 2 or 3 hours, and 23 miles, climbing. All the elevation you’ve gained is about to be lost. Almost instantly. The descent into Junction is the most hair-raising part of the entire race. The road is wide, washboarded, and at times has a thin layer of loose gravel sitting atop sun-hardened dirt. Toward the top, the switchbacks are steep and tight. But soon they give way to sweeping, high-speed turns. In 2011, even on the mountain bike, and with disc brakes, I felt uncomfortable on the Junction Plunge. I can’t see any reason to take any significant risks on this downhill. It’s not going to take anyone who stays upright very long to reach the bottom. On The Plunge, slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Oh, and when you’re hanging on for dear life speeding down the hill, try not to think about the fact that in about an hour, you’ll be climbing up this very same road.
2013 Update: In 2012 The Plunge was severely washboarded. The ride down the hill was rodeo-bronc bumpy. The road became a water bottle graveyard. However, we did luck out a little bit with the rain, which kept the dust down, and I think prevented the surface of the road from being both washboarded and loose-gravel slick. What will 2013 bring? I’m afraid to even ask.
Feed 2 to Feed 3: 14 miles.
Ready for some pavement? You’d better be. After leaving Junction, it’s time to ride along the historic scenic byway, Highway 89. Unfortunately, the 6 miles from Junction to Circleville aren’t exactly the most attractive miles of the road. The initial section of pavement features a small climb, a welcome descent, and then it’s flat and straight all the way into town. Circleville is visible, but doesn’t seem to get any closer. In 2011 (and again in 2012!) I rode this entire stretch of asphalt alone. And it was lonely. I tried to keep a good cadence while wolfing down food and drink. Above me to the right, I could see a massive cut in the hillside stretching up and up, and beyond the tops of the ridgeline—the road I had just descended, and would soon be climbing. A wheel or two to share the work with during this treadmill of pavement would have been most welcome. If you can grab a wheel or three, this section will roll by quickly. But even with 500 riders racing in 2013, don’t be surprised to spend a bit of time here alone. Between the harrowing downhill, and the feed station in Junction, groups may be hard to come by. A water station may be located in Circleville for 2012.
2013 Update: There was a small feed in Circleville, and so I suspect there will also be one again in 2013.
As soon as we arrive in Circleville, we leave Circleville. We turn right off of 89, and spend just a few hundred feet on pavement. After that, it’s dirt for 8 miles. This is probably the roughest section of dirt on course. After zipping over sunbaked farm roads and through fields of alfalfa, the course climbs stoutly into the scrubby stumps and cedars of the Tushar foothills. After the rocky, steady ascent, the terrain rolls along double-track jeep trail for a few miles. This segment was fast on the mountain bike, but may require a little more attention on a ‘cross bike with narrow tires. This was also where the heat of the day started to manifest itself. In 2011 the weather was mild, but riding along here during midday the heat felt stifling. An actual hot day will feel really, really terrible in this exposed, rolling terrain. The segment ends back at the foot of the Col de Crush and Feed 3. Time to climb. And climb.
2013 Update: This segment, also knows as the Sarlac Pit was really nice in 2012. The rain tightened up the dust, and made the double track fast and firm. A truly hot, dry day, preceded by a long string of hot, dry days, could make this segment really miserable.
Feed 3 to Feed 4: 8 Miles.
I’ve done a few bike races in my life. Some of them were difficult. And some involved a lot of climbing. But I’ve never done anything quite like the Col de Crush. The climb is big. It is steep. There is no shade. And for much of it, the road above is visible, mocking, taunting. If there are bikes in hell, then this is the road we’ll be riding into eternal damnation. Eventually—40-80 minutes—the climbing ends. But before then, you will experience multiple come-to-Jesus moments as you churn the pedals up this relentless, merciless beast. At the top of the the climb the road rolls and contours through pleasant meadows and trees. I was too knackered in 2011 to enjoy the scenery. I was blown, and had a stark-raving-mad craving for Coke and Pringles. The 3 or 4 miles from the summit to the feed station felt much, much longer. When I finally did stagger into the feed zone I was greeted with smiling faces and the Coke and Pringles I so desperately wanted. After the hell of the climb, the salty chips and the cold, sugary soda were heaven on Earth.
2013 Update: The Cold de Crush tore me apart in 2012. I had to dismount and walk for a short time, which was not much slower than pedaling, but certainly more humiliating. I was geared too tall for the grade. If you ride a ‘cross bike in 2013, go ahead and put a mountain bike cassette on it. My low gear of 34/28 was nowhere near low enough.
What makes the Col de Crush so difficult? It isn’t any one thing. But the 50 miles already in the legs, the exposure, intimidating scope, and the relentless, steep, and perfectly cut grade conspire to create a most challenging endeavor. Narrow tires will struggle for traction on the dusty and steep road. Fatter tires will be sluggish and heavy—just like your legs. Your cassette will be too small, your compact crank, not compact enough. The Col de Crush is a climb worthy of any Grand Tour, although, it may be better suited for the fringe, ragged edges of bike racing. It is a hill far too outlandish, brash, and comically difficult for a professional peloton. In other words, it’s the perfect climax for the Crusher in the Tushars.
Feed 4 to the Finish: 11 miles.
The final stretch of the Crusher is a series of rollers. The dirt road weaves through the high plateau beneath the 12,000 foot peaks of the Tushars. With 5 miles left to ride, the road turns downward for about 2 miles, and consists of dirt switchbacks, blind corners, and fast straight-aways. The dirt ends for the last time at the bottom of the hill. But when the asphalt returns, it’s time to climb once again. The final 3 miles, all paved, include some of the steepest climbs of the day. A brutal ascent takes riders over the summit of the highway, at 10,000 feet above sea-level, which is followed by the final chance to rest before the days ultimate climb—the ultimate mile.
2013 Update: The 4 miles after the final feed station can be especially challenging. Don’t get discouraged, keep pedaling! There are a couple of long-feeling climbs through here, but nothing is terribly steep. It all feels much harder than it should because of the 60 miles already in the legs. But be optimistic, you are almost there!
The final mile of the Crusher is a 400 foot vertical surge. Straight up. No switchbacks, no reprise in the grade, and nowhere to hide. But it’s too late to despair now. By this point the music and buzz of the finish line will be audible. The smell of food will have wafted down the hill. The finish line itself will remain maddeningly invisible until you’ve earned the right to cross it. But when you do see it, it will only be a few pedal strokes away.
It’s perfectly appropriate to feel utterly and completely wonderful when you cross this finish line. Behind you is 70 miles of challenging, shadeless, merciless dirt and pavement. Behind you are the countless training hours, tire debates, skipped desserts, and schematic planning. Behind you is the Crusher in the Tushars. Congratulations.
Go get a burger, sit down in the shade, and bask in the high-altitude glory of being a Crusher Crusher.
Part 2: The Bike
Which bike to ride? It doesn’t matter. Really, it doesn’t. Are there certain tactical advantages to a ‘cross bike? Probably. But those will be offset by the advantages of a mountain bike. A cyclocross bike will probably be lighter, which will be nice for all the climbing. A mountain bike will be more stable and predictable, which will work well for the descending. But riders on bikes of all shapes and sizes had good days in 2011 and 2012. Pick a bike, ride the bike.
Recommending tires to another rider is a little bit like recommending a girlfriend. That is, what I am attracted to may not interest you very much. However, in tires, as in dating, finding the right shoes can really complete the outfit. Or. Whatever. Pick out a set of tires that is lightweight, fast rolling, and that doesn’t have sidewalls made from wet paper. That said, picking the ideal tire for the Crusher is impossible. There isn’t one. But there are tires that are better than others. The trick is figuring out which is which.
On a mountain bike? Last year I ran the Bontrager Team XR1, 29 x 1.9. The tires worked well. But there are other similar options: the Kenda Smallblock, Maxxis Crossmark, and NoTubes Crow or Raven (MTB), among many others. The best method for picking out a tire for the Crusher is to pick out a tire weeks before race day… and ride it. Ride it on pavement and dirt roads. If it works, then you’re golden. If not, try something else. Of course, if it “works” or not is subjective, and reliant on your own expectations.
On a cyclocross bike? I’ve had good luck with the Maxxis Raze (on Easton EA70 rims), and a couple of offerings from Continental, but by far the best tire I’ve set up tubeless is the NoTubes Raven (CX). I raced an entire ‘cross season on the Raven with no burps and no flats. And while the tire isn’t ideally suited for mud, it is a near perfect tire for the Crusher—indeed I spent a signifiant portion of the 2011 race staring at a Raven as I tried to hold Darrell Davis’ wheel. It’s light, rolls fast, and wants to be used without tubes. It is most likely the tire I will be using for the 2012 race. 2013 Update: I used the Raven in 2012, and true to form, it worked well. If the course in 2013 looks to be especially dry, I might try something different, but the rAven will be a leading candidate.
The Raven? It’s too narrow!
Tire volume for the Crusher is an ongoing dilemma, but I don’t think it should be. Again, in 2011, plenty of riders were successful on standard cyclocross tires—tires that were 32-36c in width. A wider tire, 40-45c, will add traction for the steep roads, but will come with a weight penalty. Tire width, like tread pattern, is a matter of preference. Do you want a fast, narrow, tire? Or a comfortable fatter tire? A little bit of both? If you are going to set your bike up with tubeless cyclocross tires, volume is not as important as bead seal. A tire that seals, and stays sealed, is more valuable than a fatty that burps. Generally speaking, tires with higher thread counts—120tpi—are less likely to burp air because of the softer, more flexible sidewall. A stiffer—60tpi—tire will not “give” as much, and thus, is more likely to release air than its flexy cousin. Like mountain bike tires, pick out a ‘cross tire early and test, test, test.
The Crusher roads are well worn, and in many cases the dirt is nearly as smooth as the pavement. There are exceptions, of course, but our route is almost entirely passable in a 2-wheel drive car. Find a similar road in your area (Skyline Drive, Snake Creek Canyon, Guardsman Pass, Corner Canyon, for you Salt Lake locals) and find out which tires and bikes work best for you. After the 2011 race I said that the “the best bike for the Crusher is the bike that each rider was most confident and comfortable riding.” I still believe that. Nonetheless, gear testing and research is enjoyable —for some people. If you are not one of those people, then the tires that are on your bike right now will probably work just fine on race day.
The bike and the tires—so long as they work—will fade into the background of what should be one of the highlights of your bike racing experience. The Crusher, like the Tushar mountains themselves, is unique, inspiring and superlative. The oddball nature of the race creates an atmosphere of intrigue, challenge, and, when the day is done, triumphant accomplishment. You’ll never ride another race like the Crusher—there isn’t one.