Monuments of Gravel: Crusher in the Tushar

Unlike the other events on our Monuments of Gravel list, the Crusher in the Tushar does not line racers up for a mass start but has 13 divisions.

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This week we launched the Monuments of Gravel — the five most prestigious gravel races to win. Based on the feedback of elite riders, four races have been selected: Dirty Kanza 200, Belgian Waffle Ride, The Mid South, and SBT GRVL.

For the fifth Monument, rider votes were tied between Crusher in the Tushar and Rebecca’s Private Idaho. So we are asking you to vote! 

When Burke Swindlehurst retired from the domestic road peloton in 2010, he had a moment to reassess his relationship with bikes.

He hadn’t lost his passion for riding and racing but was burned out on the same road and mountain-bike races.

Swindlehurst realized that the time was nigh to put on a race that he would want to do.

“The route that the Crusher takes is basically an old training ride I’d use to prepare for Tour de Gila and Boulder to Breckenridge,” Swindlehurst told VeloNews, referencing the old Saturn Classic road race. “Tons of climbing, at altitude – I love being in the mountains, out there away from cars and distraction. It checked all the boxes in terms of what I’d like in an event.”

The inaugural Crusher in the Tushar, named for the mountain range outside of Beaver, Utah, was held in 2011 and featured over 10,000 feet of climbing in just 70 miles. From the outset, the race attracted a competitive crowd. Even though events like the Dirty Kanza and IronCross were well-established east of the Continental Divide, the Crusher was one of the first of its kind out west.

“That brought attention to the event and put it on the map,” Swindlehurst said. “What keeps it on the map, is that it’s different in terms of climbing, altitude, and it’s a little more competitive than other gravel races.”

It’s the race’s history and physical challenge that riders referenced in our interviews for the Monuments of Gravel project. Not all of the riders we spoke to had raced Crusher in the Tushar, however those riders who had, thought it belonged on the list.

Unlike the other events on our Monuments of Gravel list, the Crusher in the Tushar does not line racers up for a mass start but has 13 divisions. Swindlehurst said that he got push-back when he toyed with changing the format.

“People want to know who’s in their division and keep track of them,” he said.

Indeed, the professional category has long attracted riders from various disciplines, and each year it’s anyone’s guess if a mountain biker, roadie, or cyclocross racer will stand on the podium. Last year, Pivot Stan’s No Tubes mountain biker Evelyn Dong won the race a full eight minutes ahead of Team Tibco-SVB’s Lauren Stephens, the second woman finisher. Rather than race on a mountain bike, Dong opted for a gravel bike — she just had to borrow one from her roommate since she didn’t have her own.

“I definitely thought about riding a mountain bike because I don’t have a gravel bike, but talking with Alex [Grant] and other guys, it seemed like there are some fast sections,” Swindlehurst said. “Some of the older guys were telling me, ‘oh, mountain bike for sure,’ but talking with the race-oriented people, gravel bike was the way to go.”

Making the right bike choice is one of the challenges unique to the Crusher in the Tushar, and when Swindlehurst was creating the route, he intended for it to give people pause. Because he was training, most of Swindlehurst’s course recon was on a road bike, but when he’d switch it up for a cross bike he could “look at a map and connect the dots that I wanted to.” He told riders the choice was theirs.

“I said, you know, choose whatever bike you want to, you just have to start and finish on that bike,” Swindlehurst said. “A lot of people showed up on mountain bikes but a lot of people showed up on Franken bikes — 29-inch hardtails with drop bars.”

While the majority of participants now choose to ride gravel or cyclocross bikes, hardtail mountain bikes still make a strong showing. In fact, said Swindlehurst, for the first four years of the race, the women’s pro winners were on mountain bikes. So, why isn’t bike choice for the Crusher more straightforward?

The Crusher course can be divided into seven distinct sections, with only the paved ones giving a clear advantage to a gravel or cross bike (don’t even think about 25mm slicks). The notoriously rough, rutted, and loose 4,000 foot descent at mile 22 will make even the most seasoned gravel racer wish they had fatter tires and some front suspension. After the white-knuckle descent, 12 fast miles on pavement can restore some faith in skinnier tires, but wait, there’s more! The infamous “Col d’Crush” lurks on the back end; you’ve gotta go up what you just came down.

It’s debatable as to whether the larger gear range of a mountain bike outweighs the potential advantage of a lighter bike for this soul-squashing climb. Either way, prepare to suffer because it’s all uphill until the end.

The Crusher in the Tushar will turn 10 years old this year, and the 2020 edition belongs to the growing gravel portfolio of Life Time Fitness. Nevertheless, there’s nothing monumental about either of those things; the race’s punishing climbing profile, lack of consensus about bike selection, and competitive pack of racers are what make it a potential Monument of Gravel.


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