Triumph, tragedy at LOTOJA
Long-distance race sees new record, first fatality.
By Jaclyn Borowski, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
September 12, 2012
Conditions were ideal for racing Saturday as 1,500 cyclists pedaled 206 miles from Logan, Utah, to Teton Village in the 30th annual LOTOJA (Logan to Jackson) Classic.
With fans lining the route and chase crews traveling alongside riders, 12 cyclists broke the course record of 9 hours, 1 minute and 44 seconds set by Alfred Thresher, of Las Vegas, in 2010.
CAT 4 racer Leon Bergant broke the record with a time of 8:57:19.868, crossing the line in a sprint to beat Scott Buccambuso by six-tenths of a second.
Bergant also bettered the more experienced CAT 1 racers who had crossed the finish line first, due to an earlier start time. The top four CAT 1 racers came in within three-tenths of a second of one another at 8:59:14.
Doug Cook, the fastest rider from Team Jackson Hole, was aiming to break 9:45 in his CAT 4 race and ended with a 9:22:44.
“I finished faster than I wanted to, so I’ll feel it tomorrow,” he said.
Racers are assigned categories and start times based on experience, with the more seasoned riders (CAT 1) starting in front of their less-experienced (CAT 5) peers.
Race spokesman David Bern said the large number of people breaking the course record shows that anything is possible.
“But records are made to be broken,” he said, “and I’m sure someone will bust the new record eventually as well.”
Bern, who started the race with Sunrise Cyclery owner Jeff Keller in 1983, attributed the records to favorable conditions as well as a new crop of racers who train specifically for LOTOJA.
Only nine riders competed in the inaugural race, but the event grew in popularity as Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France victories increased American interest in cycling. The course had to be altered to accommodate the larger crowd as international riders joined the competition. Cyclists from Belgium, Singapore, Australia and the United Kingdom raced Saturday.
Since a cap on the number of entrants was set in 2004, race registrations have quickly reached the 1,500-rider limit, and organizers turn away more than 3,000 people a year.
“If we could get the permits for it, we could have 5,000 people at the starting line,” Bern said.
This year, three local riders — Eric Balog, Scott Horn and Dave Miller — pulled off a biking doubleheader, competing in the USA Cycling Masters Road National Championships on Wednesday and Thursday in Bend, Ore., before driving back to Utah for Saturday’s race.
“I was a little worried that I would crack,” said Miller, competing in his 14th LOTOJA Classic for Hoback Sports, “but I think it actually might have helped.”
After racing Wednesday and Thursday, Balog, who also competes with Hoback Sports, had a tough time getting started in the dark Saturday. But as the sun came up, everything got easier.
“The energy level seemed to pick up throughout the rest of the day and suck you toward the finish line,” he said. “That’s one thing I love is the energy of the riders and the volunteers and the people who come out to support the riders. ... The last 47 miles from Alpine are basically home turf for us, so we know all the turns and the hills and the features of that terrain. And we also know that we’re going to sleep in our own beds that night.”
Dan Tolson, racing for Team Jackson Hole, also enjoyed the home court advantage.
“There’s a definite emotional boost,” he said. “The encouragement from the locals makes a huge difference in those last 20 miles.”
Despite record times, the 206-mile-race also faced adversity.
Just outside Logan, more than 200 riders faced single and sometimes double flat tires as they encountered thorns and goatheads in the road. Sunrise Cyclery, the Logan shop that hosts the LOTOJA start each year, sold every tire it had in stock to help the racers get back on the road.
“We sold over 100 inner tubes,” Sunrise shop manager Ian Butler said. “That cleaned out our inventory.”
Later in the race, three crashes sent two riders to the hospital and caused the first fatality in the history of the event.
Robert Verhaaren, 42, of Mesa, Ariz., was riding behind two teammates over a bridge coming up from Hoback Junction when he hit a pothole and was thrown over the bridge railing, bike and all. His teammates heard something and looked back to discover he was gone.
“It’s so sad and tragic that, over a 206-mile-corridor, that happened right at that time for Rob,” Bern said. “Some have been calling it a freak accident. It’s more than that. How could this happen right at that moment? We’re coming across potholes the entire course.”
LOTOJA will start a fund to help Verhaaren’s widow, Bridget, and their three young children. Donations can be made via LOTOJAClassic.com.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation has offered to help explore ways to prevent a similar occurrence.
North of the fatal crash, racers encountered the Horsethief Canyon Fire. For some, it was an odd conclusion to the 206-mile-ride.
“I must say, it was one of the strangest days on a bicycle I’ve ever had,” said Horn, who was racing for the fifth time. “From the canyon coming up, it looked like the whole town was on fire. I was like, ‘Oh my god, what’s next.’”