Calton claims inaugural Bighorn Gravel title
Middaugh takes third during inaugural event
Zach Calton made a decisive move along Abrams Creek with 12 miles remaining, pulling away on the Ram’s Horn Escape course’s final climb to win the men’s inaugural Bighorn Gravel men’s title on Sunday with a time of 4 hours, 59 minutes and 33 seconds. Boulder’s Scott Funston finished second (5:05:12) and hometown hero Josiah Middaugh was third (5:10.35).
“I was stoked on my performance,” stated Calton. “The race organizers put up some money for the podium spots, so that and an awesome course always tends to bring out some strong riders.”
A steep initial climb up Cottonwood Pass did little in dwindling down the talented field. A group of 15 crested the top together, but by the bottom of the paved, easy descent — one of the course’s only true opportunities for therapeutic gravity-aided recovery — around 20 riders had regrouped with a quarter of the 85-mile race complete.
“The competition was much deeper than I anticipated, so I was surprised with such a hard early tempo and to see 20 other riders that could keep the pace,” stated Middaugh in a post-race email.
“I guess I should stop being surprised when races are hard.”
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Going into the event, Middaugh, whose main focus this season is chasing a 16th national title at the XTERRA U.S. Championships at Beaver Creek on July 16, wanted to remain with the top group for as long as possible. Along the enjoyable, smooth Gypsum Creek climb, the peloton made that relatively easy.
“There was some people trying to make moves, but nothing serious. Nobody ever got off the leash,” said Funston, who won the U23 cyclocross national championship in December and the Wild Horse Gravel in May.
“I really enjoyed going up to 11,000 feet; I took in the scenery a couple times and it was cool.”
Current Pan American Champion and U.S. National cyclocross champion Eric Brunner made a hard move right before the first aid station as the course turned onto the steeper Forest Road 413. The 1.2 mile ascent broke the group into groups of twos and threes as Calton and Eli Kranefuss also pushed the pace.
“The pack thinned out and the race was on,” Middaugh recalled of the moment at mile 30.
Funston found himself riding alongside Middaugh and John Borstelmann. He said things “kind of came back together” on the chunky descent that followed the aid station at the top, but “immediately stretched out again.”
Calton noticed his bike handling strangely on the Powerline Road downhill, and stopped for 90-seconds to readjust his headset.
Riders turned up from Sylvan Lake, nestled at 8,500 feet, and locked into their climbing cadences for the next 10 miles. The course peaked at the Peter Estin Hut aid station, elevation 11,000 feet, at mile 47.
Brunner maintained his position off the front for the majority of the climb, though at one point, Funston bridged the gap from Eli Kranefuss to his teammate in the lead.
Meanwhile, Calton had some work to do, passing Middaugh and Kranefuss as he gathered in the two leaders.
Brunner took off again with roughly 20-minutes left of climbing, reaching the course’s pinnacle 90 seconds before anyone else.
“Barring incident, I thought he was gone,” Funston remarked about Brunner, a familiar name to those who attended the GoPro Mountain Games XC mountain bike and time trial events.
Middaugh, one of the best climbers in the XTERRA world, would move up from fifth to fourth during the long, breathtaking ascent.
“I was one of the few in the front group with a hydration pack and I felt really good about staying on top of my nutrition and hydration throughout the race, even if I had to carry a couple more pounds,” Middaugh commented.
The rougher switchbacks at the top would turn to smooth gravel and pavement below, but Brunner would find calamity before that point. Just 5 miles into his descent, his tire flattened. Calton went into the lead, but only briefly. Funston tracked down the North Ogden, Utah rider, who took a year off in 2020, and worked to pull 32 mph averages along the paved portion of East Brush Creek Road.
“He was pulling a little harder than I was,” Funston said of the U23 national mountain bike champion he was working with.
“I was starting to feel it. We were basically four hours deep and I was trying to get the nutrition in but I mean the legs were starting to fade. He was still riding strong. I could tell. I was like, this is going to take something special to pull it off.”
As the race entered Hardscrabble Mountain Road, Calton found another 20-30 watts Funston didn’t have, pulling away slightly. Again, Funston regained his composure on the downhills, actually pulling into aid 3 at 69 miles in the lead. It appeared a dual for first was emerging.
Right before the 2-mile singletrack portion of the course, however, Calton snuck by.
“Typically at the end of a five-hour race, the power drops off pretty dramatically but the return back to oxygen after being up at 11k really gave me a fresh set of legs and new motivation,” Calton stated, adding that the uphill singletrack is where he tried to create separation.
When he hit the against-the-wind climb along Abrams Creek with 12 miles to go, it was over.
“That was brutal. He had maybe 30 seconds by the end of the singletrack, but yeah, that’s when he took off and won the race,” Funston admitted.
“Second is definitely a pleasant surprise,” he stated of his own result.
“I thought podium was a potential with a really good day and I think my legs were really good today. On the second climb to the top, I was feeling good and climbing well. Yeah, it’s definitely a confidence boost.”
His reward sweetened the deal, too.
“Making the money is always important. I kind of came in knowing well, fourth is nothing,” he added. “So, if I blow up going for third and end up sixth — eh, it is what it is. But, it ended up working out, so yeah, it was awesome.”
“This course suited my strengths really well and I didn’t have to burn too many matches early in the race, which played dividends at the pointy end for sure,” said Calton, who plans on returning next year after his first visit to Gypsum ever.
“It’s really cool when these events show you an awesome part of the country you might have never seen otherwise,” he stated.
|1||Zach Calton||North Ogden||UT||25||4:59:33|
|5||Nick Gould||Colorado Springs||CO||44||5:17:51|
|10||Eli Kranefuss||Mill Valley||CA||25||5:30:11|
|14||LeRoy Popowski||Colorado Springs||CO||48||5:36:09|
|15||Nathaniel Vacura||Castle Rock||CO||35||5:39:30|
While the top two spots were all but secured, third was still up for grabs. Brunner continued his pursuit of Middaugh, who said he was focused on “tapping out an honest tempo effort” while soloing the second half of the race.
“With 10 miles to go, I was in a fight to hold onto third, seeing stars and about to hit the steepest climb on the course,” Middaugh recalled.
With three climbs to go, the humble but wily race veteran knew he couldn’t cash his $1,000 prize just yet.
“I caught a glimpse of the fourth-place rider at that point and my empty light was flashing,” he stated. “The last descent I was pretty white knuckled trying to take calculated risks without flatting.”
Middaugh would make it back to Gypsum clean, finishing 4-and-a-half minutes in front of Brunner. Sam Brown (17th) and Erik Dorf (18th) rounded out the local contingent’s top-20 representation.
“It seemed to be a very successful first year event and I think Jake and Mike did an amazing job,” Middaugh stated of his overall experience.
“It ticked all the boxes for me.”
- Michael Potter, Colorado Springs, 31, 6:21:03
- Eddie Rogers, Steamboat Springs, 38, 7:45:40
- Shawn Bard, Evergreen, 37, 7:59:41
- Erinn Hoban, Eagle, 43, 8:01:56
“I am just completely blown away with the level of support we’ve received from our community,” added co-race organizer Jake Wells.
“The Town of Gypsum has been fantastic to work with and we can’t thank them enough for embracing this event and welcoming us back.”
Wells’ creative juices are already flowing for next year, but he was pleased with what he heard greeting athletes at the finish line.
“The consistent messaging I was getting from riders was it was a really hard day; the course was stunningly beautiful and I’m definitely coming back next year,” he stated. “So for me, that right there makes it a success.”
|3||Patrick Nagle||Steamboat Springs||CO||27||3:47:03|
|10||Esteban Du Plantier||Leadville||CO||38||4:16:33|
|1||Miss Lorna Campbell||Hesperus||CO||44||4:34:15|
|6||Paola Larson||Castle Rock||CO||41||5:14:39|
|10||Mara Rhodes||Steamboat Springs||CO||44||5:29:47|