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Logan to Jackson — Cyclists eager to tackle grueling LOTOJA Classic

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The decals aren't hard to notice. The cyclist above the word LOTOJA may be cryptic to some, but to those in the know, the rear window with the decal is usually the sign of a serious bike rider.

It represents having finished what is the longest single-day, United States Cycling Federation-sanctioned bicycle race in the country.

"It's kind of a pride thing," Brent Chambers, whose Epic Events company organizes the race, said. "Finishing that race and putting that sticker on your car, it means something to a lot of people."

This year it means something extra.

The LOTOJA Classic, short for Logan to Jackson, is celebrating its 25th running on Saturday and will have 1,000 cyclists hitting the road trying to complete the 206-mile journey to the base of the Teton Mountains outside Jackson, Wyo.

For many, it is the perfect cap to a long summer of training — if they can finish.

LOTOJA began as the brainchild of David Bern and Jeff Keller. The two Logan cyclists were big fans of the bicycle races in Europe and wanted to bring a little of that to the Rocky Mountains. In 1983, the pair hosted the first LOTOJA Classic with only nine cyclists covering the grueling route. Bob VanSlyke won that first race with a time of just more than nine hours.

Slowly, the race grew in reputation and size. As the event approached its 25th running, registrations were capped at 1,000 for logistical reasons.

In less than 48 hours all spots in the race had been snapped up, and several hundred cyclists had to settle for a place on the waiting list hoping someone would drop out.

A year ago, Smithfield's Kirk Eck won the Category 1 race in a time of 9:16:56. Holladay's Nate Pack, racing as an unlicensed rider and starting later in the morning, crossed the finish line with the day's fastest time — 9:15:20.

The race, undoubtedly one of the strongest tests of individual fitness, is also one of the most popular. To avoid the possibility of race slots being sold at inflated prices and to reduce insurance liabilities, registrations are nontransferable.

Though the course has changed over the years, this year's course is its traditional route. With three significant climbs, cyclists will push themselves to the limits as they hope to cross the finish line before dark — the time race officials close the course for safety reasons.

Weather is not a concern. Rain, snow or gale-force winds do not prevent the race from running.

In 2005, a pleasant ride turned into a life-threatening adventure as a winter storm surprised many cyclists and sent dozens to area hospitals suffering from hypothermia.

Kaysha Gurrell, then a first-time LOTOJA cyclist, required more than 18 hours to complete the race with a friend.

"Eighteen hours later (at) 1:30 a.m. I pulled into Teton Village. Cold and wet, but still with a big smile across our faces, we had finished LOTOJA," Gurrell wrote in a recap of the race. "Our crew was there with sparkling soda to congratulate us on something that was not so physically demanding but sheer mental diligence. What can I say? (We) were determined to put a LOTOJA sticker on our cars."

Category 1 racers leave Logan at about 6:30 a.m. and will finish the race roughly 10 hours later. Less experienced racers leave in waves after that and hope to cross the line at various times depending on personal goals, fitness levels and the amount of time spent refueling at any of the feed zones.

Aside from the training, which takes weeks and covers several hundred miles, the first real test comes almost 40 miles into the journey. Shortly after leaving Preston, Idaho, cyclists begin a 21-mile climb that will take participants from 4,700 feet to 7,424 feet at the summit of Idaho's Emigration Canyon.

Twenty miles later, and after loading up with fresh water bottles and as many calories as they can consume at the feed zone, cyclists begin climb No. 2. Though not as long or steep, the 1,000-foot climb to Geneva Summit (6,923 feet) in Montpelier Canyon tells everyone they are almost halfway into their 206-mile march.

A fast descent to the Wyoming state line is only a prelude to the toughest portion of the race.

At 7,630 feet, the Salt River Pass south of Afton is the highest point on the course and the place where the LOTOJA King of the Mountain will be crowned. It is also the 110-mile marker.

From that point, LOTOJA gets "easy."

A third fast descent into Star Valley gives athletes a chance to stretch, rest and lower the heart rate in preparation for the final stretch through the Snake River Canyon.

The final 90 miles is relatively flat with rolling hills but ends with a long, slow incline lulling cyclists into a potentially false sense of security as they approach the finish line.

"No matter how many times you have seen the Teton Mountains before," John Hernandez, a decadelong LOTOJA finisher, says on the race's Web site, "they will never look as majestic as they do when you finally see them coming down the home stretch riding into Teton Village to finish LOTOJA."

And with the race entering its second 25 years, that view will undoubtedly be a reward for thousands of cyclists in years to come.

E-mail: jeborn@desnews.com