A Season of Cycling Perfection
This past winter my 24-year old son, Andrew, asked me if I thought we could ride the 2017 LoToJa together (pronounced low-tah-jah). For those who don’t know what that means, the LoToJa (i.e., Logan UT to Jackson WY) is the longest one-day USAC-sanctioned bicycle race in the United States (i.e., 1 day, 3 states, 200+ miles, 3 mountain passes, 10k vertical climb, and 4,500 ft starting altitude).
Having participated in the LoToJa several times, my first thought was “no freakin way!” I recalled how Andrew had struggled during a 30-mile bike ride in Scouts a number of years earlier and that was the longest distance he’d ever traveled on a bike. Let’s just say Andrew is not an athlete… he’s basically a gangly nerd that’s a little over 6’ tall, weighs 140 lbs, wears glasses, hearing aids, and has a big heart (the part that matters).
But here’s the thing… two years ago Andrew found out that he carries the gene that causes the disease that took his first mother from us when he was a little boy. It’s a neurological disorder called Huntington’s Disease or HD and causes the progressive breakdown (or degeneration) of nerve cells in the brain (i.e., certain nerve cells waste away). The fact that Andrew carries this gene means his life will be cut short. And, since the disease attacks the cognitive and motor skills area of the brain, who knows how long he’ll be able to ride a bike. Add to that the fact that he’s been in such a funk since finding out about the gene. Who can argue with him when he says, “What’s the point of school?” or “How can I ever marry or have children?”
So, I asked Andrew, “how serious are you about riding the LoToJa?” He replied that he had been thinking about it for some time and really wanted to do it before it was no longer possible. I didn’t share my misgivings but told him I’d look into it. Since I’m his Dad, it’s my job to provide the best life I can for my son (as well as for my wife and other children).
I knew that Andrew’s old Scout leader, John Lauck (CEO of the Children’s Miracle Network) had won the LoToJa several times in the tandem race category so I went to see him. I told him that Andrew wanted to ride the LoToJa with his Dad and I wondered if he thought we might be able to do that on a tandem. He said, “of course” and went into his garage and pulled his tandem racer off the wall and said, “here, take this… it’s yours.” I said, “I can’t take your bike!” I’ll never forget his response, “I have a soft spot in my heart for that boy and I will do anything I can to help him have as full a life as possible.”
The most I could do was “borrow” his tandem so I took it home. The first thing I noticed was that the gearing wasn’t well suited for hill climbs. Maybe John and his stoker (apparently that’s the person in the back) can push those gears but Andrew and I wouldn’t be able to so I took the tandem to “Quaid” a master technician. He recommended we tune-up the bike and replace the cassette (with something more forgiving in the hills), new chain, and tires. Now it was time to talk with Andrew about the ground rules for our little adventure.
I sat down with Andrew and explained that the only way I could see us finishing was to ride the LoToJa on a tandem bike. I told him that he would have to take better care of himself (i.e., eat right, get proper sleep, take vitamins, etc.) and dedicate every Saturday to training… and that the training would be hard. If he agreed, I would do the same and figure out the training regimen as well. He agreed.
The night before our first ride, Andrew and I rode up and down our street a few times to get a feel for being on a tandem together. I noticed three things. First, it felt completely unstable. Second, my feet would hit the tire in a sharp turn. And third, Andrew didn’t know how to unclip his shoes from the pedals and so when we stopped the first time he fell off the bike and I almost went down. Luckily, no was one hurt (but we looked around to see if anyone saw us!). The next morning we started our training…
Training Ride 1: Tailwind North — This was a 68-mile ride with 1.8K vertical climb with the Bonneville Cycling Club. We traveled at an average speed of 21 mph and a top speed near 50 mph — all the while keeping a reasonably high cadence (to see if Andrew could spin his legs). We learned how to start and stop without falling over (harder than it sounds) and to not fight each other while pedaling (hard to explain). We tried to stand up in a climb but that was a disaster. My favorite memory was the downhill section. As we picked up speed, all of a sudden Andrew blurted out “wah-hoooo!” It was so infectious that others in the group followed, “wah-hoooo!” I was so proud of Andrew. Never having gone more than 30 miles on a bike (complaining the whole time) and now going 68 miles with a smile. “Hey,” I thought, “maybe we CAN do this!”
Training Ride 2: Tailwind South — This was a 103-mile club ride with 2K vertical climb. We weren’t as fast as the previous week but Andrew was an animal. We learned how to not get gapped every time we stopped at a light or stop sign. He would stay clipped in and I would put one foot down and hold up the bike. Then when we started, he would pause after the first stroke so I could get my other foot clipped in. A few times he would forget to pause and literally lift me off the seat because my one leg that was clipped in was also locked at the knee. I don’t know why he thought that was so funny.
Training Ride 3: Springville Nephi — This was a 100-mile club ride with 2.4K vertical climb. We were still not able to stand up in the climb. One positive note was that we were feeling much more comfortable riding in a group. Usually on these club rides there’s a small group of 6–10 riders that go off the front at the beginning. In our first few tandem training rides, I didn’t want anyone near us so we stayed at the back of these “elites.” On this ride, however, we held the elite group from start to finish and shaved 40 minutes off our previous best time for a century ride!
Before our next training ride, I called John Lauck and asked him, “how do you guys stand up in the climb?” John told me that the key to standing up is communication. I should say, “standing, 1, 2, 3, up!” and we should both pop up at the exact same time. He cautioned me that the stoker should not rock side-to-side but pull evenly with both hands. He said the captain (that would be me) could rock a little. I was excited to try this because I couldn’t see how we could possibly stay seated for the LoToJa’s 200+ miles and 3 mountain passes… I’d have to get a new undercarriage.
Training Ride 4: Little Red Riding Hood Pre-Ride — This was a test ride for a 98-mile race with 2.6K vertical climb for women only put on by Bonneville Cycling Club. What we learned was that riding an unmarked course using cue cards is painful. More than once the riders would regroup at an intersection and wonder which way to go. Still, Andrew did great and using John’s suggestion we were able to stand at least a dozen times during uphill sections of the ride.
As part of our training, I decided that the Huntsman 140 ride for cancer research would be a great fit. The ride was early in the season for 140 miles with 4.6K vertical climb but it would afford us an opportunity to do something for others. One thing I really like about the Huntsman 140 is that they do not mandate a minimum donation. They ask each rider to do his/her best to raise $500 but, unlike other charity fundraising events, the rider does not have to make up the difference (we raised about $1,000).
Training Ride 5: Huntsman 140 Group Ride — This was a 110-mile training ride with 2K vertical climb and was all about pain. Pain in my feet (shoe issue), pain in Andrew’s knee (cleat issue), pain in our stomachs (never saw the SAG wagon with lunch), pain in the butt (110 miles can do that), pain getting the chain back on that connects the two riders (a piece of heavy wire knocked it off). Still, we were second to the finish (behind a group of 4 riders). It was obvious that we were getting stronger but I was concerned that we hadn’t done any mountain pass climbs.
Training Ride 6: Big Mountain — The next week we had a choice of training rides. We could do a 100-mile club ride (but it was flat) or we could ride the “World Naked Bike Ride” event (but Utah didn’t have one of those… surprise!) or we could do hill climbs. We opted for the latter and went from the house to the top of Big Mountain and back. It’s 56 miles with two category 2 climbs and one each of category 3, 4, and 5 climbs. The last part back up to our house is 1.1 miles at 14% (it was so hard to keep the legs moving). What we learned was that we could do mountain passes and stand out of the saddle for longer periods of time. LoToJa here we come!
Training Ride 7: Huntsman 140 — We had trained… we were ready… or so we thought. The ride was 140 miles of pure wind and not the good kind (headwinds and crosswinds at 10 mph constant gusting to 20 mph). We didn’t talk much during the ride other than to yell out some disparaging remarks about the wind from time-to-time. It was a poignant moment for me before the start (we visited my Mom’s grave who died of cancer). Thank goodness for sunglasses. Our finishing time was terrible (i.e., 8:33:33 which is approx 16.5 mph average) but we learned that we can tough it out in the wind.
Training Ride 8: MS 150 — This event was 100 miles with 2K vertical climb. We got off late because we couldn’t find the club tent to pick up our Ride Marshal jerseys so we booked it (28 mph average) for the first hour so we could catch the leading group. We stopped to offer assistance whenever there was someone at the side of the road but each time the rider(s) declined. Funny thing is that we didn’t burn out our legs and we ended up shaving another 30+ minutes off our best time coming in at 4:52:13 (and that included 10–15 minutes of stopping time). I couldn’t believe how fast we rode that day!
Training Ride 9: Headwind North — This was a 90-mile club ride with 1.3K vertical climb. The good… we got to take the Front Runner train back. The bad… we didn’t beat our average speed from the week before. And the ugly… there was a headwind for the majority of the ride. Still, a 20-mph average speed with a headwind is very respectable. We also came in first and led the elite group for two-thirds of the route. Quite an accomplishment when normally we’re happy just to hold their wheel.
We were now halfway through our training for the LoToJa. We were spinning well, climbing reasonable, and really having fun. I could see that Andrew was starting to shake off the funk that had held him for two years. He would joke with riders when asked, “how do you like riding in the back?” by saying, “It’s great!… I just put my feet up and play games on my phone.” Andrew was stronger and had more endurance. He was also getting muscle definition in those beanpole legs of his. At this point, let me just say how amazing my wife, Anne-Marie, is. Her husband is gone every Saturday, returns feeling like over-cooked pasta, and she takes up all the slack at home without a single complaint.
Training Ride 10: Iron Lung — This was a 120-mile event with 9.7K vertical climb. I had planned a monster ride but just as we were leaving the parking lot a whole slew of cyclists came by (well over 150) so we latched on and went over five category 2 and one category 5 climbs. At the feed stops we explained that we were not part of their event but would like some water. (What person would begrudge a cyclist water on a hot day in July?) We had plenty of food. The ride was killer fun but way tough. In fact, we had to stop three times on the return side of Big Mountain (about 15 miles from the finish). After we crossed the finish line we thanked the organizers for the water and told them that through happenstance we had completed their entire course. They gave us finisher’s medals anyway… how cool is that?
Training Ride 11: Chalk Creek — This was a 98-mile club ride with 5.3K vertical climb. We rode from Park City to Coalville and then climbed up Chalk Creek to the inside corner of the State of Utah and back. The only thing was that the “official” club ride was Sunday so we did this one by ourselves. While riding, we saw the ride leader marking the route for the next day.
Training Ride 12: The Ultimate Challenge (labeled “America’s Toughest One-Day Cycling Adventure”). This is stage 6 of the Tour of Utah and is open to amateurs (who go off the line before the pros). The deal is that if the pros catch you, you stop. If you blow up, you stop. Hundreds of serious amateurs attempt this ride each year but historically less than half finish. This year the course boasted one Hors category (HC or beyond categorization), one category 1, one category 3, and one category 5 climbs. Like stages of the grand tours, this ride has an epic mountain-top finish (almost exactly the same profile, distance, and grade as the famed Alp D’Huez in the Tour De France). Since tandems climb much slower than solo cyclists, I was under no illusion that we would finish this ride but I thought it would be a strong indicator as to the level of our training… how far would we get?
Before registering, however, I noticed that the Ultimate Challenge specifically stated that tandem bikes ”are not allowed for safety reasons.” So, I wrote an email to the organizers and asked that they make an exception. To my surprise, a few days later I received an email back saying that we were in and that Andrew would not be charged an entry fee (yea… two for one!).
We went off the line at 9:30am. The first significant climb had me wanting for air but Andrew was chatting away asking all sorts of questions. (I believe that day’s topic was, “Dad, have you ever thought about writing a book?”) I told him that if he could carry on a conversation, he wasn’t working hard enough. As we climbed the HC climb (with 8–12% gradients for the final 6 miles), Andrew was very quiet but did say that he understood what I meant earlier.
With 2 miles to go there was a steady stream of fans along both sides of the road waiting for the pros. They yelled words of encouragement but their facial expressions said something different… it was more like, “hey, look at those idiots on the tandem!” From the very beginning, just about every rider that we passed (or that passed us) said something like, “you guys are killing it” or “you guys are my heroes.” I told Andrew that what they were really saying was, “you guys should be submitted for drug testing!” Each time someone made a comment it brought a smile to our face (even in the grueling parts).
When we crossed the finish line I couldn’t believe that we had made it. Not only did we finish (we have the medals to prove it), but we ate dinner and then decided to descend to the bottom of the canyon because the pros were still far enough away. When we got to the bottom, we were hours ahead of the time I had told my friend to come get us so we decided to ride home (extending the 61 miles with 7.7K vertical climb to 95 miles with 9.5K vertical climb). Looking back, we did what couldn’t be done and then some.
Training Ride 13: Mount Baldy — This was a 95-mile club ride with 7.3K vertical climb (one category 1, one category 2, and two category 5 climbs). Right out of the gate we climbed for literally 30 miles to the summit of Mount Baldy (almost 11K ft above sea level). The return trip was way fun as we maintained speeds of between 40 and 55 mph for a good part of the time. When we reached the start, we rode an additional 35 mile loop. We were 5th to the summit and 1st to the finish.
As we prepared to leave, a club member told us that he had completed the LoToJa 5 times on a tandem (twice with his wife, twice with his son, and once with his brother) and that we were climbing very strong. He added, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see you two on the podium at the LoToJa.” He asked if we had signed up for the race or the ride category. I told him that our goal was just to finish. He said if we finished with a top three time and we were not in the race category, we wouldn’t get on the podium. I thought he was just being kind but Monday morning I called the LoToJa organizers and switched us from ride to race. “What could it hurt?” I thought.
Training Ride 14: The Big Ride — This was a 150-mile club ride with 11.2K vertical climb. It has three category 2, one category 3, two category 4, and one category 5 climbs and like the Iron Lung, it climbs up the backside of Big Mountain 15 miles before the finish (where we had stopped three times before). I reminded Andrew that the climb had beaten us the last time. As we approached each place where we had stopped, we said to each other, “We’re not stopping!” As we neared the summit, we were both having issues. I told Andrew, “The cramps will go away once we start spinning down the other side.” What we learned was that we can push through leg cramps. It’s not our favorite thing to do but we can do it.
Training Ride 15: Salt Lake Ogden — This was a 95-mile club ride with 1.3K vertical climb. Our goal here was not to ride at race pace but to spin, spin, spin! Still, we averaged 21 mph into the wind without expending huge effort. Having the wind shift directions right in the middle of an out and back ride was weird but we didn’t care. We stopped for a bite to eat and Andrew tortured the sandwich maker with his famous, “fix me your favorite sandwich” when asked what he wanted. Even though he would say this, the person would also ask, “what kind of bread do you want?, what kind of cheese?, what toppings?” He would respond each time, “do it the way you like it.” I would just smile.
Training Ride 16: Hooper Horizontal — This was a 56-mile club ride with 0.5K vertical climb. Once again, our goal was to spin, spin, spin! We were both very excited for the LoToJa. “One week from today!” I told Andrew. We talked about being careful during the week (i.e., not to do anything stupid where we could get hurt), to eat right, rest, to go to bed and wake up earlier, take our vitamins (especially Naproxen for the 5 days leading up to the race), and to spin easy (since we each commute to work on our bikes). Come the day of the race, we’d see if our training was sufficient to survive till the finish line.
The LoToJa — The night before the race, we ate a big dinner, retired to our hotel room, went over the course and then tried to go to sleep early (not so easy to do when you’re wired for a big event). The morning came all too soon. Tandem teams are first and go off the line at 6am. At the starting gate there was this gal saying a few things on the speaker system, “…you’ll hear me say this over and over today with each group.” Andrew blurted out, “wanna bet?!” Everyone laughed. It felt good to see my son again and not that kid in a funk about his life circumstance.
As we assembled in the starting area, I looked around to see the other tandem teams. Judging by the bikes, the obvious fitness of the riders, the matching kits, the stoic faces, there were some serious teams in this race. But, we had trained hard. If you take into consideration our daily commute to work and our Saturday training rides, we had put in over 3,500 miles and 200 hours. Andrew was still 140 lbs but I had slimmed to 192 (a significant difference from my winter poundage). I was confident that we could finish but hoped the weather would not be a factor like it was for the Huntsman 140.
At the stroke of 6am, we were off. John cautioned me not to go barrelling out right at the start. He said to sit back for the first 30 miles from Logan UT to Preston ID (relatively flat) and let others pace the group. Andrew kept asking, “why are we going so slow?” I told him that John said to conserve energy at the start. That seemed to appease him but I could tell he was antsy to get going. As the race course turned before Preston, I could see the road kick up a bit (not much but the perfect spot to test our legs) so I told Andrew, “let’s go!” We went to the front of the group and pretty soon, we couldn’t see anyone behind us. I wondered if I had made a mistake.
We rode alone for a while and then were joined by another tandem team (two very experienced men). They complimented us and we them and we started working together. As we rode the rollers before the start of the Strawberry climb, I could tell that we were pretty evenly matched in the flat, that they were stronger in the low-grade climb but we were stronger in the steeper climb. However, the course at that point favored them and they pulled away before we reached the significant part of the climb. We went our pace but I wondered how long until we’d be caught by other tandem teams.
When we reached the neutral feed zone near the top of the Strawberry climb, I thought it was cool how they had people standing near the road holding out stuff for us to grab as we rode by (water, water with mix, fruit, gels, bars, etc.). We hadn’t planned to do this at the regular feed zones (we were just going to stop, drop, reload, and roll).
The descent off Strawberry was a newly slagged road (chip seal or basically tar with a gravel top) so we didn’t hit a new top speed but Andrew did get in a few “wah-hooos!” Just past the finish of the downhill section we saw a rider that had crashed on the new road and medical people were holding the rider who was screaming in pain. We found out later that it was a female racer who had crashed.
I immediately remembered my crash in the 2004 LoToJa on a newly slagged section of road. I didn’t crash because of the road… I was taken out by a deer that darted into the road. I never saw it until I t-boned it at about 28 mph. The deer got up and bounded off but I did not. The road shredded my jersey, my bib-shorts, my gloves, my arm, my leg, my shoulder, and my back. Thankfully, nothing was broken but I had significant road-rash. When it was clear I would be OK, the guy who saw me crash told me, “not to be insensitive, but dude… THAT WAS AWESOME!”
We were reasonably fast coming into Montpelier ID, the first feed zone provided by our support crew (i.e., my wife, Anne-Marie and our 9-year old son, Landon). Andrew said he needed a nature break so he jumped off the bike to handle his business while we handled everything else. I saw some riders on the course doing nature breaks while riding. If I tried to do that, Andrew wouldn’t be very happy (being behind me) and we’d probably crash! It’s pretty busy getting in and out of these feed zones (like Nascar with designated stops). Every rider wants to get back on the road quickly (except possibly Andrew). One guy missed his stop and was riding back the wrong direction as others were riding out. I thought that was pretty dangerous (and other riders told him so with various words and gestures).
Back on the road, a neutral support vehicle passed and the man yelled out, “you’re 10 minutes behind the first tandem and 20 minutes in front of the next!” Then I noticed it was the Huntsman medical team that we met at the starting line. Since we were clad in our Huntsman 140 jerseys, I thought, “cool, we have our own team car providing intel.” I didn’t want Andrew to ease up so I told him, “let’s see if we can catch those guys!”
The increase in speed was short lived as we turned and started up the Salt River Pass climb (KOM). We were climbing well (focusing on our breathing and shifting between sitting and standing). As we neared the summit, I told Andrew, “just a bit more and then no more big climbs!” He gave more effort and we summited quickly. I wondered if we had narrowed the gap to the leaders (or if others had narrowed the gap to us). I was sure we’d hit 60 mph on the downhill section but we didn’t quite make it (only 58.2 mph). Still, you gotta love the downhill on a tandem. The front forks don’t bounce like on a solo bike and it feels like you’re glued to the road. Single riders cannot hold the slipstream of a tandem in a significant downhill (try as they might)!
From the base of the descent to Afton and then to Alpine was rumble-strip city (deep grooves on the side of the road). I’m pretty sure this is where we tweaked our back wheel as I ran over these grooves several times (tandems just don’t maneuver like a solo bike). If you don’t see something way ahead of time, chances are you’re going to hit it on a tandem. And, Andrew warned me that if I turned too aggressively I could send him flying and I didn’t want to do that (except when we kept having to stop for nature breaks).
As we pulled into the Afton feed zone, we were told that the leaders were now 20 minutes ahead of us. I was surprised that they had extended their lead. We were passed by a lot of riders from Afton to Alpine but no tandems so that was the good news. We kept asking each other, “why are we going so slow?” (we were traveling at least 2–3 mph slower than normal). It wasn’t on purpose that’s all I knew. About 10 miles outside of Alpine, the clouds rolled in, the sun disappeared, and tiny drops of rain started to fall (it was refreshing for me but Andrew gets cold very easily).
I was so glad when we hit the Alpine feed zone because my favorite part of the LoToJa was next… the Snake River Canyon. This section is a dream on a tandem. You climb a bit and then descend a bit over and over. Tandems get such good speed in the downhill that we can travel pretty far up the next hill using just our inertia. It was in this section that a rider first told us that our back wheel was wobbling. I asked Andrew, “is the wheel hitting the brake?” He responded, “I don’t think so” so we just kept going.
We reached Hobart Junction and then further into Teton Valley. With each turn, I would ask Andrew to look back and see if he could see any tandems. The answer was always “no.” As we made the final turn to the finishing chute, I said “let’s sprint to the finish line.” At the time, I had no idea that my legs would not allow me to stand up so we immediately abandoned that plan and crossed the line seated. When we dismounted, we were handed our finisher’s medals. I said, “thanks, we worked really hard for these!”
Before we crossed the line, I had heard my wife, Anne-Marie, yelling and soon both she and our son, Landon, were at our sides giving us big hugs (which is a lot considering 200+ miles of sweaty bodies). As I started to move the bike, I heard, “eee, eee, eee…” Could that be us? I lifted the back and spun the wheel. Before it made a single revolution, it stopped dead. NO WAY! We had been riding for who knows how long (I estimate at least 60 miles) with the back wheel hitting the brake. No wonder we were riding slower that whole time!
I asked Anne-Marie how many tandems had finished and she said just one that she knew. I thought, “if that’s true, we came in 2nd place!… is that possible!?” We left the finish area and headed to our hotel. I called John Lauck and told him that I wasn’t sure but that maybe we came in second. He said, “I’ve been watching the race progress online and you did… congratulations!” I found it hard to believe that we were 2nd at the finish and wanted to wait until the next morning so I could see the final race results stare me in the face.
Podium Finish — The next morning we headed over a little early and I looked at the final results. There we were, the 3rd fastest tandem on the KOM and the 2nd fastest overall. I was still having trouble believing that we finished 2nd. It was like the Ultimate Challenge… it couldn’t be done and yet we did it! I know that Andrew will always remember the moment the tandem winners were announced. He was grinning ear-to-ear.
What Matters Most — I love my son, Andrew, and want the best that life can offer him. He wasn’t dealt a fair hand by any stretch of the imagination yet his heart knows no bounds. I’m so grateful that he approached me about doing the LoToJa together and I feel blessed to have had this time with him. I’m also grateful for all those who played a part in helping realize this life adventure for Andrew (especially the support from his Mom, John Lauck, members of the Bonneville Cycling Club, and organizers of the events we rode). Even when this boy will no longer be able to walk or speak, he’ll have these treasured memories of riding on a tandem with his Dad… all I can say is WAH-HOOOO!
Post Event Thoughts — 10 minutes delay with nature breaks, 10 minutes delay with feed zones, and who knows how many minutes delay with the back wheel hitting the brake… “we might have won the whole darn thing!”
“A real loser is someone who’s so afraid of not winning he doesn’t even try.” — Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Robert is 57 years-old, married, father of 8 children (4 girls, 4 boys), and lives in North Salt Lake, UT. His son Andrew is 24 years-old, lives in Provo, UT and is not only Dungeon Master for a local Dungeons & Dragons group, he is an elite endurance cyclist! #andrewtheanimal
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