Cyclocross

Interview: Alex Grant Gets Dream Win at 2019 Crusher in the Tushar – Cyclocross Magazine

Although he is from Utah, the Crusher in the Tushar gravel race had been anything but kind to Beehive Stater Alex Grant (Gear Rush).

The first time he did the race, he busted a spoke on his mountain bike—back when Crusher bike choices were a bit more like the Wild West—and punctured his tire. The next try, he suffered one of the worst bonks he had ever experienced. 2015? Another flat. 2017? Health issues.

“It was one of the hardest days on the bike I’ve ever had,” Grant said about that 2017 race. “That’s what I mean when I say it’s broken me down. I was on my knees after that one in 2017. I was like, ‘This race, I can’t figure this thing out.’”

There is something to be said for perseverance in the face of extreme adversity, and Grant’s resilience (or perhaps stubbornness) paid off in 2018 when he finally had a clean ride and finished third. With a little lesson learned, he was ready to really go for it in 2019.

“I knew what I did wrong last year. It was just a nutritional error,” Grant said. “I finished the race last year and just ran out of energy. I probably needed 200, 300 more calories out there. I just bonked with a half-hour to go. So this year I made sure I had plenty of food, and I didn’t bonk.”

Alex Grant was ready to go at the start of the 2019 Crusher in the Tushar. © Hyperthreads

However, getting all the way to the top step of the podium on top of the Tushar Mountains would not come easy. Now 39, Grant describes himself as a “washed-up professional mountain biker.” Joining him on the line were the current Road Race National Champion, pros across disciplines and former Crusher winners, including one who is nearly half his age.

Tough crowd? NBD for Grant. “I tried not to let that get in my head,” he explained. “That might have held me back if I was like, ‘Oh man, this is the current Road Race National Champion, I should just try to stay on his wheel.’ Not having the confidence to go because of thoughts like that, I tried not to let those in my head. I was like, I’m feeling good, I’m going to go. I think that was key.”

Feeling strong last Saturday afternoon, Grant and Alex Howes (EF Education First) worked together to force a split around the Sarlacc Pit and reduced the group to a handful of riders at the base of the climb up the Col d’ Crush. After the two Alexes went solo, Grant held nothing back and attacked midway up the massive climb.

“Halfway up, I could sense he was coming off a little bit, and I was like, ‘This is the time to go. That’s a gap.’ It might have been suicide that far from the finish, because we still had an hour to the finish, but I decided to go all-in and see what I could do.”

Alex Grant attackes Alex Howes halfway up the Col d’ Crush. 2019 Crusher in the Tushar Gravel Race. © Catherine Fegan-Kim / Cottonsox Photo

Grant held the gap and got the Crusher win he has been chasing for nearly a decade.

“On a long ride doing some hard efforts and I’m just dragging, I’ve thought about what it must be like to solo in and win the Crusher,” Grant said. “It was happening, and I didn’t quite believe it. I was getting some time splits, but you don’t actually know you’re going to win until you cross the line. That was an amazing feeling to unclip and give Burke a high five. It was a big goal of mine, and it felt awesome to make it happen.”

Alex Grant celebrates his first Crusher win in six tries. 2019 Crusher in the Tushar Gravel Race. © Angie Harker

I chatted with Grant about his much-deserved win at the 2019 Crusher in the Tushar. You can read a transcript of our conversation below. I also spoke with Women’s winner Evelyn Dong.

Cyclocross Magazine: First off, congrats on your win at the Crusher.

Alex Grant: Thanks. Really psyched about that one.

CXM: What’s your background, what’s your deal in cycling? How did you end up at the Crusher for several years now?

AG: I’m an old washed-up mountain bike pro. Father of two, working guy now. This was my sixth time doing the Crusher. It’s one of those events where the first time I did it, I was blown away by how cool it was. I think the first time I did it was back in 2011.

It was quite an experience. It was one of those races that just breaks you down, but you vow to come back stronger and conquer the thing one day. I guess it took me five more times to do it.

In my career, I’m mainly a cross-country mountain biker with an endurance focus as well. That’s been my main focus, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve retired from the intensive week-in, week-out travel on the cross country and endurance circuits. Now I pick and choose a few events here and there to really focus on because I don’t have the time to travel as much.

The Crusher was one of those I’ve really been eyeing because I live here in Utah and it’s only a 3-hour drive. I have always loved that race and wanted to put one together one year.

CXM: I’ve heard you’ve kind of had some bad luck with the race. Is that the case?

AG: Yeah man, that thing has broken me in many ways. The first year I did it, I didn’t quite know what I was getting into. That was the second year of the race. Everyone was saying, ‘Oh, you should ride a mountain bike, that’s the best bike,’ so I think I rode a mountain bike that year. I broke a spoke and the spoke punctured my rim tape. I had a bad flat tire. Honestly, the mountain bike was not the best bike for the race. That was a rough one.

Then the next time I did it was 2013. That’s the first time Levi Leipheimer won for the first time. I remember Jamey Driscoll, Rob Squire and I kind of went away early to see if we could make a break away from Levi, and it didn’t work out. He caught us, and I cracked. It’s still probably one of the worst bonks I’ve ever had.

I think the next time I came back was 2015. I was feeling good and flatted again. Then 2017, I had had a health problem before and was on antibiotics when the race rolled around. It was one of the hardest days on the bike I’ve ever had. That’s what I mean when I say it’s broken me down. I was on my knees after that one in 2017. I was like, ‘This race, I can’t figure this thing out.’

Then I came back last year and finished third. I knew what I did wrong last year. It was just a nutritional error. I finished the race last year and just ran out of energy. I probably needed 200, 300 more calories out there. I just bonked with a half-hour to go. So this year I made sure I had plenty of food, and I didn’t bonk. It made a big difference. I nailed the nutrition, I nailed the bike set up, I had a really good June of training, a lot of things went right.

Alex Grant finished 3rd in 2018. 2018 Crusher in the Tushar. © Cathy Fegan-Kim

CXM: Last year we saw two first-timers [Zach Calton and Lauren De Crescenzo] win the Crusher, but yours is kind of a story of perseverance, huh?

AG: Yeah, last year Zach Calton came out and won it in his first try. I was like, that must be nice because I’m definitely not having that experience here. Hats off to Zach last year. That was an amazing ride. I think he was like 21 years old and put in an impressive effort for a long time and held it to the line. We were all blown away by how strong he was. That was awesome to see. That was inspiring for me this year. I made a move in a similar spot that he did last year and then soloed in.

CXM: Given you have a history at this race, what was that feeling of winning like?

AG: It felt amazing. I’ve dreamt of winning this one. It’s one of those things where when you’re on a ride and you need something to motivate you, so you kind of dream about some scenario where you’re winning something. This is one where, yeah, on a long ride doing some hard efforts and I’m just dragging, I’ve thought about what it must be like to solo in and win the Crusher.

It was happening, and I didn’t quite believe it. I was getting some time splits, but you don’t actually know you’re going to win until you cross the line. That was an amazing feeling to unclip and give Burke a high five. It was a big goal of mine, and it felt awesome to make it happen.

CXM: Can you give us the quick version of how it went down and how you got your win?

AG: The Crusher, to me, is the closet thing to a road race I’ve ever done. I’m a mountain biker and a cyclocross racer. Normally when they say ‘Go,’ it’s full gas. You just pin it until you’re blown. Yeah, some of the endurance mountain bike races start a little slower, but they still start harder than the Crusher. This thing starts out pretty slowly, and a group of three went away. It was a pretty leisurely pace. That’s one thing I’ve had to work on; that road race patience to wait until it really counts to make an effort.

I kind of sat in the group. The first climb starts, and it’s a long climb. Normally the bottom half is pretty hard to get a selection. There’s always someone who is going to make a move there. This year it was Eddie Anderson. He started setting a pretty hard tempo as soon as we turned off the pavement. He broke the group down, and I just tried to stay second or third wheel for the whole first climb. I did take a few turns at the front just to keep the group rolling. We got a group of maybe 10 or so going over the top.

Coming into the feed zone before the main descent, more guys caught on, and we had a pretty big group. Going down the Col d’ Crush is pretty infamous with switchbacks and washboards and all that. It was kind of chaos going down that, and it caused things to break up a bit. Then it’s a long, flat pavement stretch at the bottom, so it came back together again. We had a big group after 2 and a half hours going into the last main climb and run to the finish. We had about 15 guys.

There’s this section, it’s called the Sarlacc Pit. It’s this gnarly, sandy, loose section down in the hot valley that just saps people’s energy. I know that’s when it starts to get hard, so I kind of went to the front and started setting a little tempo there to see if I could get anyone to come out and start riding to break the group up a bit. And sure enough, Alex Howes came right to the front after me. He put in a really good effort that ended up breaking the group down to about five of us. TJ Eisenhart was there, Eddie Anderson and one of Gage Hecht or Lance Haidet, one of those guys made it.

We rolled through some rolling terrain over to the main climb of the Col d’ Crush. It is just a gnarly climb. It starts paved, but then it gets to this steep, washboarded dirt road. I was feeling really good. Alex Howes set a great tempo going into it, and then I took over at the dirt. Then before we knew it, it was just us two.

Alex and I were trading some turns up the climb, and then halfway up, I could sense he was coming off a little bit, and I was like, ‘This is the time to go. That’s a gap.’ It might have been suicide that far from the finish, because we still had an hour to the finish, but I decided to go all-in and see what I could do.

I think I crested the climb with about a minute and 40 seconds on Alex. I didn’t know the time gaps after that, I just knew it was about 45 minutes of rolling terrain all at high altitude. I was dying. It was agony, but I kept pushing and thought, ‘Well, if I can keep rolling at this pace, they’re going to have to go faster to catch me.’ I tried not to look back too much and just kept my head down. I was eating and drinking a lot. I was stuffing my face because I knew the one thing that could get me would be a bonk. That would have erased my gap right away.

I held on to the line, and it felt great.

Alex Grant pushes up the Col d’ Crush after taking a solo lead. 2019 Crusher in the Tushar Gravel Race. © Catherine Fegan-Kim / Cottonsox Photo

CXM: Being where you’re at in your career and looking at some of the guys in that field who are in their primes, what was going through your head seeing the talent you were racing against?

AG: I tried not to let that get in my head. That might have held me back if I was like, ‘Oh man, this is the current Road Race National Champion, I should just try to stay on his wheel.’ Not having the confidence to go because of thoughts like that, I tried not to let those in my head. I was like, I’m feeling good, I’m going to go. I think that was key.

And also knowing those guys had never done the Crusher was an ace up my sleeve. I’ve done the race. I know how hard that Col d’ Crush climb is, I knew how hard that finish is. I knew what we were getting into. I was like, ‘These guys don’t know what’s coming.’ The first time I did the race, I was like, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding, we’re still climbing?!’ Being mentally prepared for all that and knowing exactly what I was getting into was an advantage.

Part of the beauty of bike racing is you are what you are on any given day. There are no ‘shoulds.’ No one should be winning, no one should be up there. You have to earn it every time. It’s whatever you can do on that day.

“Part of the beauty of bike racing is you are what you are on any given day. There are no ‘shoulds.’ No one should be winning, no one should be up there. You have to earn it every time.”

CXM: This year we saw two mountain bikers who took the men and women’s wins. Do you think the race favors mountain bikers with the climbing and the descending and all that?

AG: To me, it’s so far from mountain biking. It feels like a road race in the way it rolls. Yeah, there’s a lot of climbing, but there are also a lot of flat sections with tactical group riding.

I think what maybe what it comes down to is that Col d’ Crush climb is just so steep. As mountain bikers, we climb steep stuff. We do that all the time, so that might be a little bit steeper and bumpier than your average road climb. That might play to the mountain bikers’ favor.

But then after the Col, it’s all rolling road race stuff. It’s at high altitude though, and that’s another thing mountain bikers are comfortable with. We’re up in the mountains and no stranger to that. I think that also plays into the favor of mountain bikers.

Alex Grant was exhausted but happy at the end of the 2019 Crusher. 2019 Crusher in the Tushar. © Hyperthreads

CXM: When I was doing the preview, it seemed like there were a lot of Utahans who were expected to compete for the podium. Do you do a lot of training in that area at altitude?

AG: Honestly, the only time I’ve ridden in that area is for the race, but I ride at similar elevations. From my house, I can climb up to 9,000 feet and back to the house in 3 hours. I can get up there and ride at those elevations with no problem. I would love to ride those roads in the Tushars more often, but it’s just a little too far to drive.

CXM: I saw you were riding the new Topstone Carbon this year?

AG: Yeah.

CXM: How did that go?

AG: That thing is awesome. Cannondale just launched that bike about a month ago, and it was perfect timing for the Crusher. I got a hold of my friend who’s a Cannondale rep and was like, ‘I’m going to customize this and make it a Crusher bike.’ That thing was amazing. I wasn’t sure at first with the suspension because you can’t feel it too much in the parking lot, but when you get rolling on some high-speed, small bumps, it just feels amazing pedaling through them. It’s really smooth and it really shined in that stuff. That’s what the Crusher is all about; pedaling through the bumps and saving energy.

Alex Grant rode a Topstone Carbon to the win. 2019 Crusher in the Tushar Gravel Race. © Catherine Fegan-Kim / Cottonsox Photo

CXM: What were the customizations you made to make it Crusher Send-It-Certified?

AG: I changed it to a 1x with a mountain bike derailleur with a 10-42t cassette. I ran an 11-speed XX1 cassette. Then I put on a 42t front chain ring. I ran a 1x with a chain guide. In order to run that mountain bike derailleur, I had to run a Wolf Tooth Tanpan adapter to change the cable pull. I ran an XDR clutch derailleur, which was nice because it kept my chain from slapping around.

CXM: I can imagine that was nice on the Col d’ Crush descent.

AG: Totally. And to have that insurance with the chain guide and everything was nice. For the gearing, I knew I’d be fine with that 1x setup. I was also running ENVE Composites G23 gravel wheels. I had 40mm Maxxis slicks. I ran the Velocita AR tires with the EXO protection. I’ve found for gravel a big-volume slick works well. It all about volume and pressure and not as much tread for me. It was a bit of a roll of the dice with the tires, for sure, but it paid off.

I’ll quote Geoff Kabush, he said, “Sometimes you’ve got to risk it for the biscuit.” I did that with the tires, and it paid off. It easily could have gone bad. I definitely had a couple of two-wheel drifts out there.

I had that new bike, and that thing was awesome. I had a fresh kit from Hyperthreads. There was a lot of white on it, so it kept me cool out there. Those guys were awesome setting us up with fresh kits out there.

CXM: Was that the first year you’ve run slicks at the Crusher?

AG: You know, in 2015, I ran a Cannondale Slate with slicks on it. 1.5-inch slicks. The other years I’ve run like a file tread. The WTB Riddler is what I ran last year.

“I’ll quote Geoff Kabush, he said, ‘Sometimes you’ve got to risk it for the biscuit.’”

CXM: In our preview, I was joking you were the Utah State Cyclocross Champion last year. How long have you been racing ’cross? Has that always been a part of your offseason training?

AG: Cyclocross is something for me to keep it rolling in the fall. We have a really awesome local series here called UTCX. A good friend of mine used to run the series, and I’ve been doing those since maybe 2011 or 2012. I just started to get my feet wet in them back then, but now I do them all the time. It’s a great way to keep some intensity in the fall for any fall races I do.

Another thing is ’cross racing so much fun. It’s a blast. It’s head-to-head racing. It’s a lot more tactical and head-to-head battles than mountain bike racing has sometimes. The courses aren’t quite as hilly and selective. You get some great battles out there. My girls come out. My oldest daughter did kiddie cross last year. It’s really about the whole experience, and it helps me keep things going in the fall. I don’t like to just hang the bike up, especially since our fall weather is great.

Some of the late fall events I’ve done in the past include La Ruta de loci Conquistadors, so keeping going and racing ‘cross is a great way to keep training and stay sharp for an event like that.

I was really happy to win ’Cross States this year. It was a good battle with some of the local legends here. I had a good time.

CXM: Do you ever get to race against Jamey [Driscoll]?

AG: I do get to race against Jamey. Those days when he shows up, it’s like, ‘Okay, this one is going to be a little bit harder.’ Jamey doesn’t come out to as many of the local ones as I do because he’s traveling for a full schedule. I don’t really travel; I just do the local stuff. He crushes me when he does come out.

CXM: You beat him in the Crusher though!

AG: That’s different!

CXM: Any chance we’ll see you at Masters Cyclocross Nats this year?

AG: I’ve actually been thinking about that one. I don’t know. I think I’ll do Masters Nationals one of these years, but I might need to wait until I stop racing all summer on the mountain bike. Once I really retire, maybe when I’m over 40. I’m 39 right now, and I think I’m going to wait until I crack 40 to jump in the Masters races. For me, that’s when Masters racing start.

But I do have that in the back of my head. As I phase out of professional racing, I think the Masters ’cross scene could be exciting for me.

CXM: What’s coming up for you between now and the cyclocross season?

AG: Mountain Bike Nationals are coming up in Winter Park, Colorado. I can drive over and do Cross Country Nationals. Then I have the Leadville 100 in August. Then the Park City Point-to-Point is a big mountain bike race here in Park City that I’ve actually won seven times. It’s a big goal to see if I can make that happen again. I know my luck is going to run out one of these years, but I’m going to do what I can to keep the streak going. That one is on Labor Day weekend.

Then it’s kind of a reset to see what I want to do this fall. Whether it’s just local cyclocross or if I want to make any bike mountain bike trips this fall.

CXM: I saw you finished as high as second at Leadville?

AG: Third at Leadville. I’ve finished second at La Ruta.

CXM: Now that you have that Crusher monkey off your back, maybe this is the year to win Leadville?

AG: Man, I would love to, but it’s a different game over there. There are a lot of hitters who come out for that one. There’s something about Leadville where once it gets up to 12,000 feet, something changes for me and the lights start to go out. Ten-thousand is one thing, 12,000 feet is another thing. I’m definitely gunning for it though.

CXM: Awesome. Congrats again on your accomplishment. I think it’s really cool that you got it after everything you’ve been through.

AG: Thanks. I didn’t mention it, but I’ve had two major injuries as well. In 2016, I was on the Long Team for the Rio Olympics, and I crashed at the Cairns World Cup in Australia and broke the calcaneus in my foot and had to have surgery that took me out for the rest of that year. That was really hard to come back from, and then I separated my shoulder in 2017 and had another surgery. I feel like I’ve finally come back from these injuries by getting a big win like that after all those setbacks.

CXM: Totally man. I know how much injuries like that suck. Thanks again for your time.

AG: You bet. Thank you.