LOGAN — To those outside the cycling community, riding a 200-plus mile bike race, like LoToJa, would seem a little outside the norm.
“Thanks exactly what people said when we started LoToJa over 40 years ago,” said race co-founder David Bern. “Back then there were not a lot of ultradistance rides and certainly not many races like this. People thought we were a little bit crazy for even attempting it.”
“I have fond memories of that first LoToJa. We had a bunch of guys that just wanted to go out and do something that had never been done before and we were young enough and crazy enough to try. In the end, it’s not the distance but the process of training and racing I enjoyed.” — Bob VanSlyke on the allure of LoToJa
LoToJa (pronounced Low-ta-juh) is well known across the country as the longest continually running cycling race covering over 200 miles from Logan to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Since 1983, LoToJa has had some 21,000 cyclists navigate over 7 million miles as part of the event. Riders and race support will be arriving in Logan this weekend for the 41st iteration of the race, which begins early Saturday morning in front of Sunrise Cyclery in Logan.
Often forgotten by the mainstream sporting world, ultradistance cycling races continue to see growth in popularity and media coverage.
In an interesting parallel, the longest-standing ultraendurance race in the world, the famed Ride Across America, was founded just one year before LoToJa, in 1982. The RAAM was started by John Marino, who convinced three other cyclists to ride the 2,968 miles from the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles to the Empire State Building in New York. Lon Haldeman of Harvard, Illinois, was the first winner of the cross-country race. RAAM is considered by many ultracyclists as the pinnacle race in the sport of ultracycling.
The 2023 winner of RAAM was Isa Pulver, a cyclist from Switzerland in the 50-59 age category. She crossed the line with a time of 9 days, 12 hours, 16 minutes. According to RAAM race records, she is the first woman to finish the race in less than 10 days since the mid-1990s.
Those not ready for a ride across America can test their skills in shorter distances, like the 508-mile Silver State 508, which takes riders across Nevada and back.
The California Triple Crown race series challenges hundreds of riders who sign up to complete a minimum of three 200-mile-plus rides in one race year to qualify for the coveted triple crown cycling jersey.
Mountain Bike Racing has its own legendary race series, including the famed Leadville 100. At a peak elevation of 12,600 feet, the town of Leadville, Colorado, has long embraced runners and cyclists to this extreme test of endurance.
But as the popularity grows with many of the road cycling and mountain biking races, the gravel racing circuit is the hottest and by some estimates the fastest-growing segment of the cycling world.
Dozens of gravel races have emerged during the past decade across the country, attracting riders to a looped course where racers, fans and families come to a single location to enjoy multiple races in a festival-type atmosphere over a weekend.
Some racers, including professional riders, seek the new challenge of crossing over from road racing to gravel or mountain biking to road racing. Famed Tour de France legend Peter Sagan from Slovakia actually started his cycling career racing mountain bikes. Sagan used his gravel and mountain bike experience to dominate the professional road cycling world with his 18 Grand Tour wins, seven Tour de France green jersey wins, and three World Road Racing championships.
Sagan, who announced his retirement from professional road racing this year, is setting his next goal to return to the upcoming mountain and gravel racing season and then a shot at a gold medal in Paris at the 2024 mountain biking competition.
LoToJa has also seen its share of crossover cyclists on the winners podium, including last year’s winner on the men’s side, John Borstelmann. Borstelmann, from Lincoln, Nebraska, is a three-time Gravel Worlds champion, winning in 2019, 2021 and 2023.
Aileen Pannecoucke, last year’s LoToJa winner on the women’s side, is an outstanding multisport athlete from Deinze, Belgium, via Idaho State. She was the American Collegiate Crit champion and awarded fifth in the time trial. She also won the Idaho and Utah Crit Championships.
Bob VanSlyke, the first-ever winner of LoToJa, summed up why ultradistance cycling is so appealing.
“I have fond memories of that first LoToJa,” VanSlyke said. “We had a bunch of guys that just wanted to go out and do something that had never been done before and we were young enough and crazy enough to try. In the end, it’s not the distance but the process of training and racing I enjoyed. Who would have thought it would have turned into something as amazing as it has for everyone to enjoy.”
Glenn Seninger lives in Salt Lake City and is a 14-time LoToJa finisher.