Jackson Hole Mountain Resort played finish line Saturday for the 39th annual LoToJa bike race, a premier amateur cycling competition stretching from Sunrise Cyclery in Logan, Utah, to Teton Village.
With 839 riders the LoToJa has long been an incredibly popular event for riders in the West, and is the longest one-day USA Cycling-sanctioned bicycle race in the country.
Spanning over 200 miles and surmounting three mountain passes with close to 10,000 vertical feet of climbing, the race is a daunting endeavor.
Battling through hours of rain early in the morning, cyclists pushed themselves to their limits, sometimes past, before conditions cleared up midway through the race.
In an event in which finishing itself is a mighty accomplishment, many bikers were unable to reach Jackson, and returned to the start.
For the ones who did finish, the effort required finding another level of energy within themselves to keep pushing through.
Nathan Spratt, of Millcreek, Utah, captured first place for the men, with a time of 8:31:18.8, while Aileen Pannecoucke of Pocatello, Idaho, finished first for the women with a time of 9:45:36.9.
Spratt, in his third LoToJa attempt, narrowly missed a first-place finish in last year’s race. The longtime biker was ahead of the pack for the majority of the race, before running out of steam toward the finish line.
This year, the biker finished on top.
“I was absolutely ecstatic,” Spratt said. “It probably won’t hit me till tomorrow … I’m just so happy.”
Riding with a group of five for the majority of the race, Spratt had tunnel vision during the home stretch, in which he broke away, winning by less than a minute over fellow Utah rider Roger Arnell.
“I looked back and I had about a 100-meter gap,” Spratt recalled from when he was nearing the finish line. “I was like, ‘[It’s] go time, right now … now or never … put the hammer down and stick it until the end.”
When he began tiring, Spratt remembered thinking of his loved ones cheering him on, which gave him an extra boost of energy.
“I think of my family … I’m doing it for them, too,” Spratt said. “They’re out here supporting me, so I don’t want to let him down.”
Nathan’s twin brother Marc, who finished just 10 minutes behind him, cycled LoToJa with a time of 8:41:35.3, good for a fifth-place finish.
“I wish he was with [our pack] this year, but I’m just so proud of him for stepping on the podium,” Spratt said. “He just makes me work during training … makes me work during races and we work well together.”
With such a long ride, there is always one universal concern among the bikers.
“Hopefully my bike works,” Gilberto Melendez, a second-time finisher, thought to himself in the early hours in the morning. “No game plan whatsoever … just go out and have fun.”
The Eloy, Arizona, native finished with a time of 8:32:07.1.
The weather may not have been perfect for a race of this caliber, but the ones who finished fought through the elements with their eye on the prize.
“[In] the first half to three quarters it was pretty wet,” Spratt said. “It got pretty cold off the first descent with all the rain and luckily I had enough clothes. Then, finally, we saw the sun as we hiked mile 100 [or so.] Then from there, it was perfect … perfect conditions.”
Like the majority of the top finishers, both Spratt and Melendez were part of a group that rode together. Slowly dropping members, the team that started as one much larger, whittled down to just four during the home stretch of the race.
Trevor Robinson, a Jackson native, was the highest-finishing local rider, coming in at seventh place overall, with a time of 8:55:44.3.
Competing in different classes, participants’ skill levels ranged from professionals to masters. The race has even had several riders in the past go on to professional careers, including Levi Leipheimer and Marty Jemison.
While some riders crossed the finish line many hours after the first pack, it remains an accomplishment just to finish one of the west’s most grueling bike races.