The Crusher in the Tushar’s course, combined with the weather conditions, exemplified extreme racing, making for the perfect testing grounds.
The Crusher in the Tushar is a race in Beaver, Utah that is as brutal as the name suggests. Three factors contribute to its difficulty: the 69 mile race includes more than 40 miles of dirt roads with 10,500 feet of climbing, and all of it at extreme altitude. The event is the brainchild of a former teammate of mine, Burke Swindlehurst, who grew up in the area and trained on the very same roads as the race. He was a mentor to me during my early years on the road, so it was a big deal for me to be competing in his race. It also created the perfect opportunity to act as a bike designer/product manager as once we’d secured an entry we set about to build the perfect bike for the event that would embrace some of the newest thinking in dual purpose road bike technology.
This was the second year running of the Crusher and knowing that the event was sold-out despite Burke more than doubling the 150 entries available over last year gave us an indication about the growing popularity of the gravel bike segment of the sport. An eleven-year veteran of professional racing, Burke’s goal was to simply, “Put on a race that I would have wanted to do as a racer. Too often racing these days racing just becomes the same thing. I wanted to challenge the riders with the course and create an event they would be talking about the rest of the year.”
After many months in the making, our Project Gravel bike came out about as perfect as we could have imagined; 17.8 pounds of all-terrain versatility, without losing the feel of a true road bike.
Burke may be right about us talking about the race for the rest of the year, but we started thinking about it six-months before it even happened when we embarked on a gravel bike project that would, in theory, build the ultimate weapon for the race. With time on our side, we were able to blueprint a special bike and debate what the ideal gravel bike’s merits would be. We knew we wanted a carbon frame, geometry that was closer to a road bike than a cross bike (a lower bottom bracket) for stability, and tire clearance that would allow up to a 35c knobby tire. Knowing that a disc braked future for skinny tires is soon to arrive, we felt this was the perfect opportunity to begin chasing a disc specific design as well.
For needs as diverse as these, we knew it would be hard to find a production bike that would be ready to roll so we went the custom route and could only think of one place to call: Calfee Design. What they delivered was their stock Dragonfly Adventure frame, which is based off the Dragonfly road model. While using the same tube sets, the Adventure differentiates itself in geometry and tire clearance, as well as add-ons such as disc brake mounts, which we gladly partook in. One and a half centimeter longer chains stays added to the Adventure’s stability, while also allowing adequate tire clearance for up to a 35c tire. Additional geometry changes include the head tube and seat tube angles relaxed by 3/4 of a degree, while maintaining the 7cm bottom bracket drop as the road geometry. The geometry gives the Adventure the handling and stability of an endurance bike, rather than the twitchy feel of a cyclocross model at high speeds.
Calfee’s Dragonfly Adventure frame uses 43cm length chain stays to allow adequate clearance for up to a 35c cyclocross tire, while helping lengthen the wheelbase to 101.7cm (size 56). Disc brake mounts are an option offered by Calfee, and one we couldn’t go without. The titanium dropout with disc mounts is truly a thing of beauty.
With our choice to go with disc brakes, we were able to choose a rim without a brake track, and ENVE‘s 29er tubular rim fit the bill. Fortunately, 700c and 29er tires are exactly the same diameter (622mm), allowing us to get one of the lightest carbon disc-specific rims made. Together with Chris King ISO hubs and Sapim spokes, the 28-hole wheelset weighed a mere 1,340 grams. We reduced the disc rotor weight by 40 grams when we ditched the stock ones in favor of a pair made by Scrub, a small, Utah-based company specializing in making ultra-trick rotors with options for aluminum or magnesium inner-carrier and your choice of eight anodized colors.
Tire choice was a biggie, and although clinchers are much more practical for all-around riding, wanted the extra insurance against pinch-flats that a tubular provides since tire pressure will need to be as low as 40-psi. Although there were many tubular tires that would have been up to the task (Clement, Hutchinson and Vittoria to name a few), we ultimately decided on the handmade 33c Schwalbe Sammy Slick cyclocross tires due to what we thought was the better tread profile for the race. Their smooth center tread with small outer knobs was the profile we were banking on being the right balance between minimal rolling resistance and traction.
If the gold Chris King headset isn’t eye-catching enough, the one-piece Calfee BarStem with integrated Garmin mount should do it. Our BarStem was the very first one with the Garmin mount, but they are now available through Calfee.
The straight-up coolest component of the bike was Calfee’s one-piece BarStem, which is definitely trick, but the integrated Garmin mount knocks it out of the park. Helping keep the fashion police at bay was the color coordinated Fizik Aliante Carbon K:Ium saddle which came to us directly from their factory in Italy.
Surprisingly, wet conditions greeted us for the 8AM race start, turning an already tough race into a brutal one. (Photo: Christopher See)
We awoke to a surprise storm that brought in rain and temperatures about 30-degrees cooler than originally forecasted. Even with the weather surprise, there wasn’t really anything to change in my equipment setup, other than another application of Lilly Lube on the chain and throwing on my Mavic Helium jacket, which had fortunately found its way into my bag when I was packing.
After a quick rundown of course details by the start line announcer, which did little to soothe my nerves, we were underway. The first ten miles were relatively flat and offered the only paved road we would be seeing for a while. As we swung off the main road to tackle the first climb, we hit a 21-mile dirt section. The climb that would take us deep into the Tushar Mountains left its mark on the forty strong pro field immediately, and within a few miles the group had been whittled down to five riders which included last year’s winner and Utah resident, Tyler Wren (Jamis/Sutter Home Pro Cycling), myself, and cyclocross star Ryan Trebon (Clement/Cannondale), who proceeded to turn the screws to everyone.
However, by the midway point, I too became a victim of the blistering pace. I had to settle into my own tempo and let the small group go. Ultimately, my pacing strategy paid off; mountain bike pro Jay Henry and I closed what had stretched out to a one minute gap to the leaders before cresting the 1 hour and 15 minute climb, and just in time to tackle one of the most hair raising descents I have ever done. Not even in my days of pro mountain bike racing would I have wanted to face a descent like this. The plunge into the valley below was filled with stretches where we hit 40mph, barreling down the gravel-strewn road, dreading the one rock that would be your tire’s undoing. Oh, and did I mention the washboard that made you feel like either bike or body could break in half at any moment?
Where the Project Gravel bike equipment choices really began to shine was the option to go with disc brakes. With nine switchbacks on the descent, the brakes’ superior stopping power allowed me to wait until the last second to scrub 30 mph of speed before going into each of the corners; the wet weather was never even a factor in braking performance, whereas the rim brake users wouldn’t have the same thing to say. By the time I reached the valley floor I had counted numerous rock hits that would have pinch flatted any clincher tire; this was the sole reason I opted for tubular since they are much less prone to pinch flatting.
After 10-miles of much welcomed flat paved roads we looped back around to the final eight mile climb (the very same white knuckle descent we had finished ten miles earlier), I knew that this would most likely be the deciding factor in the final podium placings. The steep washboard gradient kept us riding at around a dismal six miles per hour, which still ended up being too much for everyone except Tyler and me.
A camouflaged-clad fan had a big wad of one dollar bills that he was liberally handing out to the racers, including $100 in singles to me after winning the King of the Mountain. (Photo: Christopher See)
While the climb itself was hard enough, Burke’s idea of having the King of the Mountain to sprint for at the very top seemed downright cruel, nothing like sprinting at over 10,000 feet of elevation! I managed to pip Tyler for the KOM, which came with an unexpected bonus of $100 in single bills thrust into my hand by an exuberant race fan-you’ve got to love passionate spectators! The last twelve miles of the course continued upward toward our ultimate destination at Eagle Point Ski Resort. But fortunately, there were a few short descents where I could catch my breath; I was really feeling the efforts of the day. With about five miles to go the elastic between Tyler and me snapped; and with nothing I could do about it, I watched the win ride away. With third place still minutes behind us, I was able to comfortably ride in without having to worry about getting caught. When I crossed the finish line, it was safe to say, the Crusher had crushed me. I finished as a broken man, but yet completely satisfied with my race performance and more importantly, the performance of our Project Gravel bike.
DID I LEARN ANYTHING?
As gorgeous as the the Project Gravel bike was pre-race, there’s something about a mud-covered, sweat incrusted bike that warms the heart. Even in the wet condition, every aspect of the bike performed flawlessly.
I thought for sure that I would finish and have a list of things I would change in future equipment setup choices. But, the Project Gravel bike was pretty much perfectly dialed for the course, and any type of gravel riding for that matter. The Adventure geometry that Calfee picked was ideally suited to riding in nearly any type of terrain; it gave me an advantage nearly everywhere on the course compared to the cyclocross bikes and mountain bikes used by the other riders in the top-5 overall. Even on the extreme descent, the only rider that dropped me was on a mountain bike, but he paid the greater price for a less efficient bike on both the pavement and the climbs.
The day’s winner, Tyler Wren (left), race-organizer and former pro Burke Swindlehurst (center), and a very tired Road Bike Action editor (right).
Will I be back next year? Well, Burke put on an event that took me back to the early years of mountain biking, an incredibly challenging course that was flawlessly organized and had a festival atmosphere-something that’s missing from most road and mountain bike races these days. With that said, my legs are still sore, my hands ache, and I’m still finding dirt in places on my body where it should definitely not be, so yes, definitely sign me up.
For the ultimate road/dirt experience on two-wheels, put the Crushar in the Tushar on your calendar next July. Be ready to sign up early though since this year it filled up four months out. Be sure to pick-up the October issue (available mid-August) of Road Bike Action Magazine for an eight-page feature on building the Project Gravel bike, my race preparation, and of course, the Crusher in the Tushar.
The top-3 riders received custom trophies handmade by former-pro roadie turned metal fabricator, Todd Littlehales, in addition to a healthy prize check. The top-5 Crusher’s were: 1st- Tyler Wren (Jamis/Sutter Home), 2nd- Neil Shirley (Road Bike Action), 3rd- Jay Henry (Tokyo Joe’s), 4th- Alex Grant (Cannondale), 5th- Reed Wycoff (Contender).
THE BIKES OF THE CRUSHER
The bikes ridden by the top-3 overall were all quite different, with Tyler Wren riding a prototype Jamis cyclocross bike featuring internal Di2 wiring and battery, fully hydraulic disc brakes using a TRP junction box, and Stan’s NoTubes rims with tubeless tires. 3rd place Jay Henry’s Trek hardtail mountain bike also featured disc brakes and Stan’s NoTubes rims, along with 1.9 tubeless tires. And of course, you already know the details on my bike.
We may have gone to the extreme in building a custom bike for the Crusher, but we were hardly the only ones that showed up with a course-specific design. This Niner mountain bike had a rigid carbon fork in place of suspension in order to lighten the load for the hefty amount of climbing.
Portland-based Tonic Fabrication featured one of the trickest bikes of the Crusher. The steel tubed frame had a tapered headtube, disc brakes, and a unique pivot-less suspension.
A titanium ring ties together the mono-stay with the seat stays, and proved to be a unique spring to help dampen the rider from the rough terrain. The chain stays did not have a pivot, so movement came only from vertical flex.
WATCH THE TOP PRO’S TAKE ON THE CRUSHER