BYU students and alumni conquer LoToJa

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BYU students and alumni represented well at the 32nd annual LoToJa Bicycle Classic Saturday.

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BYU student Nathan Balkman crosses the LoToJa finish line near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Balkman pedaled 206 miles to complete the 27th annual LoToJa classic. (Courtesy of Nathan Balkman)

LoToJa, starting in Logan, Utah, and ending in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, comprises 206 grueling miles, including approximately 7,500 feet of climbing. The name of the race is taken from the first two letters of the start and end points and takes cyclists nine to 14 hours to complete. Racers can ride as individuals or in relay teams of two to five individuals. Tandem teams are also accepted.

“I loved LoToJa,” said Ammon Spencer, a 2012 BYU graduate now pursuing his MBA at the Marriott School of Business.

According to the LoToJa 2014 handbook, 40 U.S. states and four foreign countries were represented this year. BYU jerseys were easy to spot among the colorful crowd.

Although he wasn’t sporting a BYU kit, BYU student Nate Balkman, a junior studying exercise science and Spanish, completed his goal of finishing LoToJa last Saturday.

“Your training is everything,” Balkman said. “I rode about 150 miles a week the last six months. It had to become a priority in my life. Group date tonight? Sorry, I am riding. Waterski in the morning? Sorry, I am riding. Dinner with the in-laws, concerts, camping trips? Sorry, I am riding. Many other things in my life had to take a backseat to the time I dedicated to my rides.”

Although cycling is considered an individual sport, many riders choose to ride in teams or groups. After moving to a house on 500 North he lovingly calls “the house with a lot of bikes,” Balkman started riding with fellow BYU student Spencer. Spencer started his training after recently completing an IronMan triathlon.

“It is tough to find people at BYU to ride with,” Spencer said. “I think that it is an underrated sport. … It is an expensive sport that takes a lot of time. That is a tough combo for college students.”

LoToJa riders enter Montpelier, Idaho. LoToJa 206 mile course covers three states. (Photo by Ali Noorda)
LoToJa riders enter Montpelier, Idaho. LoToJa’s 206-mile course covers three states. (Ali Noorda)

While finding riding companions at BYU may be a challenge, Spencer said that overall he enjoys other cyclists he has met at LoToJa and other races he has participated in. Teams are often separated during races, but other riders and groups called pelotons help each other break the headwind and can increase one’s average mph.

“I lived and died by the peloton,” Spencer said. “I think that I averaged 17 mph on the IronMan, a very windy day, and riding in the peloton in LoToJa made all the difference. I averaged 20 mph an hour with way more climbing.” Spencer finished with an impressive time of 10 hours, 44 minutes.

Some riders are not as lucky as Balkman and Spencer. BYU graduate Joe Gadd applied to LoToJa with eight of his sibling and in-laws, but he was the only one selected from the competitive lottery. According to the LoToJa registration guidebook, only 33 percent of all first-time applicants receive an invitation to ride.

Traveling all the way from Nolensville, Tennessee, Gadd, a 2005 graduate in business management, finished his 206-mile ride in 12:58.  He attributed much of his success to his enthusiastic support team.

“I did not do it by myself. I wouldn’t have done it without these guys,” Gadd said, motioning to his family.

LoToJa riders are allowed, even encouraged, to have a “support crew.” Support crews provide riders food, water, weather-appropriate gear and replacement bike components when needed. Support crews meet their riders at three or four different “feed zones” throughout the race to provide both physical and emotional support. Four other “neutral feed zones” are also available to riders, with LoToJa volunteers providing basic food, first aid and bike repair services.

Although cycling is a challenging sport, riders such as Balkman, Spencer and Gadd expressed their intentions to pursue another LoToJa finish.

“My bike this summer became my physical trainer, my therapist, my bishop and my closest friend. The repetitive motion is therapeutic. I love the community and the good vibes of all the people you meet on the road,” Balkman said.

“I appreciate the travel. I have now covered a lot of Utah on a bike, and I have never appreciated it as much as I do now. It is incredible to cover distances and experience it without a windshield or traveling too fast that you miss it,” Spencer said. “It is great to be a part of something that is so positive, healthy and has a unique culture.”

More information is available at www.lotojaclassic.com

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