VN Archives: Tough guy Vaughters conquers Colorado terrain to win Saturn Classic
In advance of SBT GRVL, a new 140-mile gravel race in Steamboat, we revisit the 2001 Saturn Classic, which also featured Colorado's climbs, gravel roads, and big prize money.
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The last half century has produced countless amazing moments in pro cycling, and VeloNews has been there for almost all of them. This year we celebrate our 49th birthday, and with nearly a half century worth of archives, we want to present some of the more memorable VeloNews covers, feature stories, and interviews from our past. Our hope is these curated snippets will help motivate you to pursue your passion for the sport you love. Today we feature a race report from the 2001 Saturn Classic.
There’s something deranged about this course. That was what Jonathan Vaughters thought two days before the Saturn Cycling Classic, as he rode the 12 miles of steep rough pavement and ratty dirt road up Guanella Pass. The harrowing descent that followed and the miserable weather just added to the feeling.
“It was pouring rain, I was trying to descend on a dirt road, there was mud, and I was thinking, ‘This is ridiculous.'”
This from a guy who has struggled up nasty, chuck-holed pavement in the Pyrenees and had returned to the United States for a “break” after his third try at the Tour de France ended abruptly following an allergic reaction to a wasp sting.
Vaughters, who normally sports the green-and-white colors of his French Credit Agricole squad, was back in Colorado in a HandleBar & Grill jersey to try his hand at the second edition of what has to be the toughest one-day race in the United States… and, quite arguably, anywhere else.
That 140-rnile jaunt from Boulder (at 5,390 feet above sea level) to Breckenridge (9,600 feet), covering seven major ascents and 14,000 feet of climbing, is the work of promoter Len Pettyjohn, the one-time Coors Light team director and former college professor who had, before bike racing, probably derived most of his sadistic satisfaction from finals week.
“You could call it sadistic,” Pettyjohn conceded, “but I tell you this is really the product of a guy who spent too many years as a team manager and got sick and tired of following his riders around in circles. This race does not have circles.”
No circles, just long climbs and lots of miles through, up, and over the Colorado Rockies. “A great course,” according to Pettyjohn. And with the weather greatly improved by race day, even Vaughters was coming around to the professor’s way of thinking.
“It was actually pretty interesting,” Vaughters said. “Actually, by the time I made it down Guanella [this time on dry roads] I thought it was kinda cool.”
Of course, Vaughters had even more reason to think that way once he hit Breckenridge, outsprinted Mercury’s Chris Horner, and found himself the happy new owner of a yet-to-be-released Saturn sport-utility vehicle.
Signs of last year?
For a day that was comfortably in the 70s by early morning, and predicted to reach the mid- to high-80s by noon, there seemed an unusually large number of riders sporting leg warmers, arm warmers, and jackets. Saturn’s Tim Johnson—the U.S. national cyclocross champion and winner of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington hill climb—changed in and out of his warm undershirt, trying to decide whether it would help or hinder on the way into the mountains.
“I heard about last year,” he explained.
Oh yeah, last year. Last year, the thermometer in Boulder was already pushing 90 when the peloton rolled out of town. Seven and a half hours later, it was pouring rain and barely above 40 when a hypothermic Scott Moninger shivered his way into Breckenridge for the win. A few weren’t taking chances. Jackets were stuffed into back pockets, and limb warmers were at the ready as the 117 riders began a mellow four-mile cruise through the neutral zone along the main streets of Boulder. And though the day’s first climb—a 15-mile-long grind up the back side of the old Morgul-Bismark course—barely registered a blip on the course profile, a group of seven scooted off the front. They were quickly caught, but already more than a few riders were slipping off pace, struggling to keep hold of the peloton. It was going to be a long day, especially for the pack fodder.
Over the top and then a bit of time to enjoy a precious few flat miles before the first big effort—the Cat. 2 climb up to Wondervu. Although there were still 105 miles to go, a few hopeful souls were jockeying for position, planning their escape. Attack, chase, and attack again. None pretended to have a chance at reaching Breckenridge first, but up ahead, at the 40-mile mark, lay the gambling town of Black Hawk and what would amount to a $5000 sprint. Actually, the first man to reach Black Hawk would earn only points, but 50 of them, 10 times what one could earn at any of the day’s other three hot spots. You just had to finish to cash in those points.
Finally, as the field approached the climb to Wondervu, a group of eight managed to make its effort pay off. Kirk O’Bee (Navigators), Harm Jansen (Saturn), Doug Ziewacz (7UP-Colorado Cyclist), Phil Zajicek (Mercury), Nathan Busch (Rio Grande-Monsoon), Juan Gabriel Sanchez (Tecos Tmbo), and Darek Wojciechowski, another Euro’ pro (MROZ) riding with Vaughters on the HandleBar & Grill squad.
Within five miles, the group had already built a lead of 3:10 on the main field. Altitude, however, can make its effects felt quickly, and Wojciechowski slipped back. The seven leaders continued, cresting Wondervu with a seven-minute advantage. They were being let go. One had a shot at the Black Hawk payday… the climbers in the main field had bigger things to worry about.
The leaders crested the Cat. 3 summit at Golden Gate Road (9,360 feet), then dropped nearly 1,000 feet over the next three miles into Black Hawk. O’Bee nailed the sprint and maybe a $5,000 paycheck. Now all he had to do was ride another 100 miles to cash it.
Oh My God…
After Black Hawk, the course almost makes up that last 1,000-foot chop by charging up an even steeper climb to the crest of something appropriately called “Oh My God Road.” It isn’t the steep, 10-percent-plus climb through and beyond Central City that earns the road that colorful moniker—it’s the descent, a hair-pinned dirt road that drops so fast you wonder if the name might just have been offered up by Pettyjohn’s liability lawyer when he saw the course profile and realized there wasn’t a single guardrail anywhere near the 200-foot drop-offs.
The seven men in the lead hit the dirt descent with a healthy eight-minute advantage. The main field was just entering Black Hawk’s casino row as O’Bee, Jansen, and company began to wind their way down to Idaho Springs.
Then, the vanguard of the 100 or so remaining riders crested, followed by the caravan of support vehicles, each driven by either an overconfident team manager honking the horn, intent upon driving up to his riders, or a hesitant, overly cautious character intent on treating everyone behind him to the sweet aroma of smoking brake pads. Then more riders, more cars, and working his way down through that traffic, Rishi Grewal, a “retired” mountain-bike racer who hadn’t raced a road bike since ’99.
Grewal was riding in support of Vaughters, but had been dropped on the road to Wondervu. He was just a couple of minutes back, a gap he could “easily make up on that descent.” It would prove to be helpful.
The men in front still had a respectable five-minute gap on the main field. The peloton dropped down Oh My God Road and finally reached the pavement on the outskirts of Idaho Springs. Horner was working his way through the field when he heard 7UP-Colorado Cyclist’s Clark Sheehan encouraging a teammate to join him in an attack.
“Those guys figured the only chance they stood was to try to get away before Guanella,” Horner recalled. “Clark pretty much said it was now or never; and I leaned over and said, ‘I’m going with you, let’s go.'”
Sheehan and Horner attacked from the rear and were soon joined by Saturn’s Trent Klasna, a man who has been enjoying an exceptional season. Two more Saturns—Johnson and Soren Peterson—joined in, as did Mercury’s Floyd Landis, Navigators’ Burke Swindlehurst, and Tecos Turbo’s Florencio Ramos.
The eight quickly built an advantage, trimming the lead of the first group. With Mercury, Navigators, and Saturn now well represented in the break, responsibility for the chase fell to Vaughters, who was saving himself for Guanella.
“You know, I had Moninger and [Chris] Wherry there, Michael Barry from Saturn, and they weren’t going to do anything.”
Almost on cue, Grewal pulled into the group. Vaughters now had help.
The original group began to break apart as they neared Georgetown. Ziewacz fell back, and Hartman, a 40-year-old engineer and musician, tried his luck with an early charge up the slopes of Guanella. He hit the base of the climb with a one-minute advantage on his former companions, two on Horner and company, and another five on the group that included Grewal, Vaughters, Moninger, and Wherry.
Hartman was alone but under no illusion that he was going to stay that way. Horner hit the climb and started working his way through the remnants of the original break. He soon moved up on the lone leader.
“I kinda found myself alone, which I wasn’t all that happy about,” Hartman said. ”There was a bit of a head wind and all. And we started up Guanella and my quad kinda seized up and that was it. At that point, I just wanted to finish. When Chris came up on me, I tried to stick with him for a second and then just said, ‘Hey, I’m cramping up, see ya at the finish line.'”
It was still another 70 tough miles away.
Now Horner was on his own, working his way up the steep grade over rough pavement that eventually turned to even rougher dirt. Behind him, Swindlehurst, Vaughters, Wherry, and Moninger were picking off riders one, two, and three at a time. The gaps were coming down, and the top teams were readying for the now-famous Guanella bike switch, a strategy employed successfully last year by Moninger, who took the bone-rattling descent on his mountain bike before switching back to his road rig for the final 50 miles to Breckenridge.
As the 11,671-foot summit approached, Mercury director Thurlow Rogers moved ahead of his rider, pulled the team car over, and he and team mechanic Scott Moro began lining up fat-tired rigs for their riders. ”Two minutes,” Rogers said. “Any of our guys that cross within two minutes of Chris gets a bike switch. The other guys are on their own.”
A few feet up the road, Grewal—having pulled out at the base of Guanella—and Dean Crandall from the HandleBar squad, set up Vaughters’s bike. Horner hit the top of the climb first. Moro stood ready to make the switch. The transition was quick. Vaughters crested 1:40 later. The man from Denver had earned back a load of time on the 12-mile ascent, setting a brutal pace that put several riders, including defending champion Moninger, in deep trouble.
“I was feeling really good until about a mile before the top of Guanella,” Moninger said. “At that point it was just Vaughters, myself, and Wherry, and I think I may have just overextended a little bit and kind of got into the red zone and figured I needed to back off and save a little for the bike switch and the way down. But it just kinda went from bad to worse.”
Tough as it was for the others, Vaughters knew his form would carry him up and over in a good position.
“I was pretty unsure of my form at the start,” he recalled. “I wasn’t all that sure that I had adapted to the altitude, I was a little sick, I had a broken rib from a crash a little earlier in the Tour de France …. There was a lot of doubt in my head at the start, but about halfway up Guanella Pass, I looked around and said, ‘Gee, there are only a couple people left here and I haven’t really opened up the throttle all the way.'” Ouch.
At the summit, Crandall and Grewal put Vaughters on his mountain bike. He was off down the descent. Ten seconds later, Swindlehurst made the switch. Then Wherry at 2:10, Barry at 2:20, and Moninger at 3:05.
Landis arrived at the top just as Rogers was packing up and charging down the sketchy descent to catch his other riders in time to make the switch back to skinny tires at the base. He would have to do the descent on his road bike. Soon after the Mercury car moved up to Horner, race radio reported that Wherry had flatted and was waiting for neutral support. With riders, support cars, and motorcycles strung out all the way down the rock-strewn descent, Wherry had to wait nearly two minutes.
“Yeah, even mountain bikes aren’t indestructible,” Wherry said. “It was a huge bummer, because I went from a … 20- or 30-second deficit on Vaughters at the top, to more than two-and-a-half-minutes when we hit the pavement.”
Horner reached the bottom of the pass, switched bikes again, and headed off toward another climb, the Category 2 Kenosha Pass, which crests at a manageable 10,001 feet. Vaughters, Swindlehuist, and Barry made the turn onto Highway 285 about two minutes later. Horner held back, knowing he wasn’t going to make the remaining 50 miles on his own. The three soon joined up.
“I was kind of hoping that Chris [Wherry] and Scott would make it up,” Horner said. ”That would have given us a big advantage.”
But Wherry was another two minutes back, with Landis and Moninger. “Normally, you could probably make that up, but, Scott was still cramping really bad and Floyd was beginning to feel pretty spent, too,” said Wherry.
At that point, Vaughters faced a tough call. He could try to stay protected and save himself for the next three climbs, or move to the front of the four-man group and hope for help.
“Burke and Michael were rolling through,” Vaughters said. “But Chris had teammates back there and had no reason to drive it. So, I ended up doing a good share of the work.”
Moninger quickly realized he was going to be more hindrance than help and encouraged his two teammates to continue on their own. “They really started driving it,” Moninger said, “and I realized I needed more time to recover.”
The two Mercury’s began to trim the gap. Over Kenosha, the Vaughters bunch had a lead of about 2:34 and seven minutes on a group that included a trio of mountain-bike racers from Tokyo Joe’s, a team that had made a stellar impression in last year’s event. Walker Ferguson, Carl Swenson, and Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski were there with Saturn’s Peterson, Danny Pate (Prime Alliance), and Jesus Zarate (Tecos Turbo).
But it was quickly becoming apparent that the day’s winner would emerge from that front group of four—or maybe from that pair of Mercury chasers. By the time the group neared the lower slopes of the Category 4 Red Hill Pass at mile 105, Landis and Wherry had cut the leaders’ advantage to 1:20, but Landis realized he couldn’t do much more.
“Well, Floyd took me as far as he could, and said, ‘Wherry, you’re so strong today, I’m done,’ and I had to close that last minute by myself,” Wherry said. “I was hoping to get up there in time to sit in and recover before we hit Hoosier. I remembered that from last year, and I was suffering so bad …. ”
Wherry moved up on his own and finally joined the leaders on the climb. Vaughters was now outnumbered.
As the five reached the town of Fairplay, Vaughters decided to risk an attack. “When you get in a small group like that with multiple teams, the dynamic is bizarre,” Vaughters said. “I just went.”
Only Horner stayed with him. The other three fought among themselves, eventually dropping Swindlehurst, but gaining no time on the two men in front. Indeed, the two leaders worked together over the 10 miles to the base of Hoosier and reached the summit with a three-minute gap.
“I knew that if I worked with Vaughters up front and we had Wherry in the back, I was guaranteed a podium spot,” Horner said. ‘”This is the hardest one-day race. It’s just a bunch of suffering. I never felt good all day, but that’s how altitude affects you—you never feel good. I just figured I needed to keep going.”
Vaughters was fresh enough to attack on the final climb up Hoosier, but he held back. Horner knew it, too.
“I was begging him to go easy on the climb,” Horner said. “In some ways I didn’t have to work as hard as I did on the way to the climb, so he was just being nice to me.”
Vaughters said he was happy to let Horner take the final KOM points and then stood little chance of dropping on the final descent into Breckenridge.
As the two cruised down Hoosier toward the finish in Breckenridge, Vaughters noticed a remarkable sight. The state patrol had stopped traffic, forcing at least 60 cars to wait for the top 10 or so riders to make the descent.
”They were waiting there and they were actually cheering,” Vaughters said. ”They weren’t pissed. They weren’t throwing beer cans. They were cheering. It was cool.”
Vaughters and Horner rode into Breckenridge to an even bigger crowd … a few thousand fans lining a 1km loop that had just been used for a women’s criterium. Nearly seven hours of racing would boil down to one trip around a criterium course. Normally, it was a situation that would have favored Horner … but he was, in his own words, “wasted.”
“It really comes down to who is fresher after 140 miles,” Vaughters said. “Normally Chris Horner could beat me 19 times out of 20 in a sprint finish. I just got lucky that he didn’t quite have the punch at the end.”
Vaughters attacked on a small rise, scooted ahead, and stayed there for the final few hundred meters. Awaiting him, a brand new Saturn SUV … a good paycheck, even for such a long day in the saddle. Horner earned a fairly respectable $10,000 consolation prize, and Wherry, outsprinting Barry for third, took home six grand for his efforts.
Even Moninger, who at one point considered dropping out, came home to earn $800 for 16th.
“I got off, stretched my hamstrings, and was basically waiting for a car to come up and pick me up,” he said. “But then a group came by, I joined them and I saw that there was a feed zone and figured I would grab the team car there … but the team car had already gone. We just kinda kept riding. I got a little bit of food and water in me …. I think I still finished top-20 or so.”
His teammate Landis, who finished sixth, just shook his head.
“This is a stupid race,” Landis joked. “I mean, Scott could stop for tea and crumpets and still finish in the money.”
SATURN CYCLING CLASSIC, Boulder, CO. August 11, 2001.
1. Jonathan Vaughters, Handle Bar & Grill, 140 miles in 6:50:58; 2. Chris Horner, Mercury, at 0:03; 3. Chris Wherry, Mercury, at 2:36; 4. Michael Barry, Saturn, at 2:36; 5. Burke Swindlehurst, Navigator’s, at 3:57; 6. Floyd Landis, Mercury, at 9:02; 7. Danny Pate, Prime Alliance, at 11 :40; 8. Soren Petersen (Dk), Saturn, at 12:42; 9. Jeremy Horgan-Kobeski, Tokyo Joe’s, s.t; 10. Carl Swenson, Tokyo Joe’s, at 12:46; 11. Walker Ferguson, Tokyo Joe’s, at 14:55; 12. Jesus Zarate (Mex), Tecos Turbo, at 15:47; 13. Trent Klasna, Saturn, at 17:37; 14. Kirk O’Bee, Navigator’s, at 17:37; 15. Brendon Vesty (NZ), at 17:37; 16. Scott Moninger, Mercury, at 17:37,; 17. Travis Brown, Trek-VW, at 19:02; 18. Lam Arquimides (Mex), Tecos Turbo, at 19:02; 19. Skyler Reeves, Vitamin Cottage,
at 20:39; 20. Florencio Ramos (Mex), Tecos Turbo, at 20:41. (117 starters, 20 finishers).