When researching the West Elk Bicycle Classic I reached out to the race promoters, Jarral Ryter and Dave Wiens to find out more. They pointed me to two of their favorite recent participants: Sammy Rutherford (Feedback Sports) and John Hutchinson (a.k.a. "Hutch" of Primal Wear). Below is a round robin interview with them all. Read on to determine if you have what it takes to take this ride by the horns, so to speak.
[303 Cycling:] How many years has the West Elk Bicycle Classic been around? How many years have you ridden this ride? Any rad traditions that you've witnessed in the years you've participated?
Hutch: First off, I would like to say that I believe the is the best single-day event in Colorado. The course is spectacular, towns are welcoming, aid stations are fantastic, swag bags are stocked (poster, jersey, socks, pint glass, etc.) all included with registration, and a killer after party in downtown Crested Butte!! Also, did I mention this event supports Western State Mountain Sports Club?!! The West Elk Bicycle Classic has been around for 3 years. I kept a close eye on the event in year one and wanted to participate, but my schedule would not allow it. However, I was able to ride last year and will take the challenge again this coming Labor Day weekend. Since I have only participated in the event one year, I have not seen any traditions, but I am sure Jarral will speak to this.
Sammy: Hutch is spot on. I first heard about this event from Hutch last year who basically ‘made me do it’!! I like the elk skulls with the bright orange eyes for course markers…I think this would qualify for as a tradition.
Jarral: This will be our 3rd year. I actually have not been able to do the ride. I have been driving a SAG and making sure that any problems are taken care of. Driving the course still makes me smile as it is so pretty. Especially along the Black Canyon. And on Kebler because it is easy (in a car)! Traditions? I love that question. We love unique, funky things. A couple are developing I think. The fruit at the Paonia Aid station is always spectacular. The course markings. We made some cool elk skulls on the roads with varying accouterments and colors. This will get bigger and better. Kebler pass will stand as a great challenge for riders every year. How fast can you go up. Can you make it? Can you go faster than last year? So far our trophies have been made of elk antlers collected by Western students and made by a student. We will try to continue that.
Dave: This is year three. I drove sag the first year which was fun and comfortable. I rode last year, had a blast and then blew to the moon going up Kebler. It was one of the hardest most rewarding and, at the end, one of the hardest days I've had on a bicycle.
Photo: Kevin Krill Photography
[303 Cycling:] This ride has 105 miles of pavement, 9,300 ft of climbing and 29 miles of dirt/gravel. The website doesn't sugar coat the difficulty at all.
The West Elk Bicycle Classic takes place some of the prettiest and quietest roads around. It is also a very difficult, remote and technically demanding route. We recommend experienced, fit, and technically proficient cyclists participate only. Large sections of the course are without cell phone service or any other sources of communication so help can be a longish wait away. The twisty roads that make this such a great road ride also make travel by vehicle slow if we need to get to you.
[303 Cycling:] So be honest: when do people start to lose it?
Hutch: This course is demanding. There is no doubt about that. Riders will want to make sure that they have trained well throughout the season to truly enjoy their experience. There will be a race that starts immediately after the neutral roll-out to mile 30 and if you decide to go you had better be ready to push the pace with the likes of Dave Wiens. The second selection will be a very competitive group of riders that will work together to ensure that they have saved some energy for Kebler Pass. Then it appeared to me that there are those riders who are on course treating the event as a ride taking in the beauty and experience. All that being said, Kebler Pass is where you get to see what you are made of.
Sammy: Again spot on. Uh…when Kebler Pass starts, this is when $#!? starts to get real!!
Jarral: Driving SAG I see them lose it on Kebler. The sun can be at your back and get quite warm. Cramps were a problem for many last year. In year 1 not so much as we had a light cloud cover. We haven’t had any rain yet! It will be great to see the USA ProChallenge go over the week before and see how the pro riders do. And how fast they descend!
Dave: Kebler pass is the "barbarian at the gate" always on people's minds.
[303 Cycling:] It says many times (also on the website) that "this is NOT A RACE" but just between us and our readers, IS it a race? Like a "sneak-through-the-aide-stations-to-beat-your-friends/nemeses" type of race? Or is it simply survival?
Hutch: This event does have a race component to it, but most riders are not riding in the event to win. There are a select few and they will be at the front immediately after the neutral roll out. For the rest of us, we are enjoying the aid stations, meeting new riders to spend a couple miles with or perhaps the entire day. This is an event, a classic ride, and requires physical and mental toughness to survive. When you finish the event, you will want to come back for more!
Sammy: Though it’s not a sanctioned event it is an all-out race to the end…although it does become a matter of survival once Kebler Pass starts…
Jarral: We may make it a race in the future. It is really like the Leadville 100 now. The guys at the front aren’t slowing down. Like John said there are smaller races. People having a great time and trying to just finish. Some riding with (new) friends in groups and maybe friendly competitions to the top. It isn’t a race where there are team cars or feedbag handouts. Even though you could hand your friend food and water if you want.
Dave: Since its a Fondo style mass start, groups form and each one will have different dynamics. The lead group last year was cooperative about stopping at aid stations, pee breaks, etc., but once we hit the dirt of Kebler is sure felt like a race!
Photo: Kevin Krill Photography
[303 Cycling:] Tell us more about Kebler Pass.
Hutch: Kebler Pass is LONG! A 28-mile hill climb on gravel road. Some may think this sounds horrible, but I loved it! When you hit the bottom of the climb you need to be prepared for a long journey up and up and up. The final few miles to the finish really kick and test even the strongest of riders. While a rider may be suffer, they can’t help but look around at the beauty and feel lucky. Did I mention this climb is long? I saw a few people hiking. They were either exhausted or cramping. There were plenty of opportunities for sag support if needed.This climb begins 100 miles in. I reflect on my experience as being two events. The first a century ride and the second a hill climb. If you use too much energy over the first 100 miles, you are going to crack on Kebler Pass.
Sammy: 28 miles & 5k of ascent after burning a sub 5hr century…all on dirt…this is where I was glad I hadn’t dug too deep chasing Hutch’s group as there was a separation many miles earlier.
Dave: Kebler is so many things because it's so long. It's not a classic pass like Monarch or Loveland where you climb consistently, finally top out and then descend. Kebler really begins with the dirt but it rolls along for a few miles, not really climbing much. Then, suddenly it ticks up and is pretty steep but soon enough, this section gives way to some undulations and flats. Breathtaking scenery, though, as the view of the massive Mount Gunnison and the rugged Marcellina Mountain dominate the landscape. There's a good bit of mileage in here that isn't solely climbing but does keep gaining vertically. Finally, there is the final grade to the summit from Horse Ranch Park and it is tough! There is even some pavement toward the top as welcome as it is, you're still simply crushed. But, you can smell the barn and that's always good for some extra power that you didn't know you had.
[303 Cycling:] There are several rules listed on the website (15 to be exact). On of my favorites is Rule 6 "you can't draft vehicles." Has this been a problem in the past or is it just sheer temptation, American Flyers-like? (My other favorite rule is Rule #14, but you'll have to look that one up for yourself.)
Hutch: All the riders that I saw throughout the day obeyed traffic laws and were very respectful. No drafting witnessed. I noticed nothing but good people riding in this event in 2013. I expect no less for 2014.
Sammy: [Editor's note: Sammy had no comment on this...hmmmmmmm. Suspect.]
Jarral: There aren't any cars on course to draft off of. We saw that on another ride’s rules and thought it would be good to include just in case. We haven’t had a tandem or recumbent try yet!
Dave: This, to my knowledge, has never been an issue.
Photo: Kevin Krill Photography
[303 Cycling:] This time of year, the weather could get sketchy. Any cautionary tales from the last few years?
Hutch: 2013 was fantastic weather! The early start helps to ensure most riders have completed the course by early afternoon. Fingers crossed for great weather this year.
Jarral: Usually at this time of year the rain will pass quickly. We have many Western vans and SAG on Kebler in case something big comes over.
Dave: We've had perfect weather for both WEBC's so we expect nothing but the same this year. We just want people to be prepared just in case. This time of year, statistically is about as nice as it gets.
[303 Cycling:] Best part of the ride in your opinion:
Hutch: The smell of citrus in Paonia! Seriously, there are so many amazing sections of this course. Climbing the Black Canyon, descending into Crawford, Needle Rock, reaching the finish line at the top of Kebler Pass, the after party and feeling of completing 134 miles of awesome!
Sammy: The roll out was very cool…the calm before the storm. I remember chatting with Pete Dahl the previous year’s winner before the ride started (funny we were riding the same bike). I didn’t know who he was until I found out where he was from and then asked if he happened to be the guy who had won it the 1st year. He sheepishly admitted that he was indeed and was very humble about the entire experience. I asked him if had plans to defend his title, to which he replied he ‘Not a chance!’ Once the roll out got started I rode with Pete and Hutch for quite some time and Hutch and I both noticed that Pete had this amazingly fast paced cadence that was obvious that he was spinning it up for the real efforts to come…we took note! Once the route made the 1st turn up the Black Canyon, the lead group hit the gas and they were gone! This is where we settled into a rough chase group that I later got separated from out of an aid station. I remember seeing Needle Rock for many, many miles which is a wonderful memory I will never forget. Kebler Pass for me is the ‘crown jewel’ of this epic adventure!! If you think you can climb, this is where you will prove it!! Once at the finish, and going for my first beer, I once again saw Pete with a huge smile as we congratulated each other on a job well done and I asked him how his ride was, to which he responded “I won!!” He admitted that really hadn’t even considered it again until he & I chatted at the beginning and along the roll out and that got him to thinking…”Hmmm, maybe I can win this thing one more time!!”
Jarral: It really is a classic route. I like the Black Canyon if I had just one part to ride.
Dave: The whole route. It just keeps changing and since you are circumnavigating the West Elk Mountain range you really feel like you are on an epic journey--which you are. Rolling through the off the beaten path communities of Crawford, Paonia and Somerset is pretty cool and there's nothing like dropping into Crested Butte through the back door. The Black Canyon Highway is special, too.
[303 Cycling:] Participants get a flat-out wicked Primal jersey, socks, and pint glass. Who did the design featured on all?
Hutch: Primal took the West Elk Bicycle Classic logo and designed the jersey for the event. We worked together with Jarral to arrive at the final design. Primal has been the apparel partner since 2013 and it has been a wonderful relationship.
Sammy: [Editor's note: Again, no comment, which suggests Sammy has already stolen Hutch's socks].
Jarral: Primal did the jerseys. Our logo was updated by Off Center Designs here in Gunnison and altered for the pint glasses by them. SOS socks helped design the socks but it was mainly us. Idea-Loop.com made our poster.
[303 Cycling:] Any words of advice for readers on the fence about signing up for this ride?
Hutch: This is a beautiful ride that will test your fitness and mental toughness. Be sure to pace yourself and save a little something for the climb up Kebler Pass. It’s also a good idea to find a group of riders an work together, especially during the first 100 miles. Once you hit Kebler Pass, you are on your own.
Sammy: Be prepared!! I agree that this was my most beautiful cycling experience and at the same time the toughest cycling event I've ever completed…a real achievement for any 2 wheeled gladiator!!
Jarral: “Remember, never take no cut-offs and hurry along as fast as you can."- Virginia Reed, Donner Party survivor
Dave: If you think you have what it takes to be prepared for it, I'd suggest that you sign up. It's a one of a kind event that you'll never forget and the training that you'll need to be prepared will be a blast. That's why we sign up for these things, isn't it? So we have an excuse to ride our bikes a lot? Finishing the WEBC is very rewarding and no small chore. You've done the rest, now you can tackle the West (Elk Bicycle Classic!)
[303 Cycling:] Lastly, who will finish this non-race ride first this year between all of you (state your strengths and weaknesses).
Hutch: Sammy is a much smarter rider on the road. He brings a lot of experience and insight. I looked to him for advice especially when it came to group riding. On the other hand, I like the long day, going up hill, and suffering. Being a mountain biker, Kebler Pass does not bother me. I got in before Sammy in 2013 and I am looking for a repeat in 2014. ;) In reality, the event for me is about riding with your friends, experiencing the journey, and finishing together. I hope Sammy and I cross the top of Kebler Pass together this year and roll into Crested Butte with smiles on our face looking for an ice cold beer!
Sammy: Hutch is of course being very kind and modest! He bested me last year and I have no doubt he will have a repeat performance, since he is fresh off the Hundo and other big miles! On the other hand, Hutch is hairier than I am so I am looking to take full advantage of my aerodynamic faculties on this course!! I would love nothing more than to start Kebler Pass handle bar to handle bar with Hutch as I am confident we would top out together and roll into ‘CB’ with another ‘ride of a lifetime’ under our belt and we once again salute one another with a victory beer!!
Jarral: Hmm.. I’m thinking John as he won last year. But many remember their friends besting them and will train harder. Some have said they think about it when they put on our socks. We don’t do any doping control so hopefully Sammy doesn’t resort to that!
Dave: Me. Jarral cannot ride as he is the race director! He must drive!
*A huge 'thank-you' to each of our interview team. Best of luck guys. This is clearly a ride with grit, character and one very long climb to weed out the best of the best. I just may drive SAG this year. That's as close as I can get.