Mountain biker Evelyn Dong (Pivot – Stan’s NoTubes) knows the state of Utah well, but gravel racing, that was a bit new for her when she took the line at the 2019 Crusher in the Tushar.
Although Dong received plenty of advice that included riding her full squish mountain bike, Dong opted to go with the modern trend and ride a bike made for gravel. The only problem? She did not really have one.
Fortunately, Dong is roommates with Sofia Gomez Villafane, and more importantly, rides the same size frame. “Sofia rides the same brand I do, and she’s gotten some ‘cross bikes from them. She let me borrow one of her Pivot Vaults,” Dong said.
Armed with a bike and some classic Maxxis Ramblers, Dong got off to a good start in the Crusher, sitting in second place behind Lauren Stephens (Team TIBCO / Silicon Valley Bank) after the first of two big climbs.
As she chased Stephens up the Col d’ Crush, Dong continued her chase. “I knew we had about 15 miles left at that point, mostly uphill. I decided to go a little bit harder and see if I could at least see her,” Dong said.
Stephens suffered cramps near the top of the climb, allowing Dong to eventually make the catch and pass the road racer who was the strongest to that point on the day. “After that I just kept pushing it to the finish because I figured she’d be back on her bike trying to chase me down,” Dong said.
Dong held her advantage to take home the win in her first try at the Crusher.
We chatted with Dong about her Crusher win. Read on for a transcript of our conversation.
Interview: Evelyn Dong, 2019 Crusher in the Tushar Women’s Winner
Cyclocross Magazine: Your background is primarily in mountain biking?
Evelyn Dong: Yep. That’s mostly what I do.
CXM: Was this year your first time at Crusher?
ED: Yeah, it was my first time.
CXM: Why did you decide you wanted to do the race this year?
ED: I live fairly close, it’s only a couple hours from where I live, so it’s always been on my list of races to do, but it never fit into my schedule. This year, there was a big open block from racing for me, and Burke [Swindlehurst] actually got me in pretty last minute. I borrowed a bike and hopped in the race.
CXM: You borrowed a bike for it, wow. What bike did you end up riding?
ED: Fortunately my roommate, Sofia [Gomez Villafane] rides the same brand I do, and she’s gotten some ‘cross bikes from them. She let me borrow one of her Pivot Vaults.
CXM: Oh wow, we know Sofia pretty well. You literally won the race on one of Sofia’s bikes?
ED: Yep. Just because it was so last minute. Pivot just released its new Vault, but since I didn’t give them any heads up I was doing this race, it was kind of hard to get something from them. Sofia stepped in and it worked out great.
CXM: I take it you really haven’t done very many gravel races before?
ED: Technically, I guess the Crusher was my first gravel race.
CXM: What are your thoughts on the experience?
ED: It was a lot more fun than I thought it would be. I think that was in part because it was a nice climby course. I’m not sure if I’d be into something that has a bunch of flat gravel roads. Since it was up and over mountains, it made it pretty interesting and a little more fun. The whole vibe was really laid-back and there was no pressure at all. I enjoyed that part as well.
CXM: I’m sure you’ve heard the hype about gravel. Did it live up to your expectations? Was there anything surprising about it?
ED: I guess I didn’t really have any idea of what to expect, so everything was kind of new. I thought the organization was great. I was a little nervous because in mountain biking we always have a support crew out there handing out bottles in the pit, but at this event, they didn’t allow any support crew. I liked that because it put everyone on the same playing field. They had kids out there handing out water bottles, and they did awesomely. Best hand-ups I’ve ever gotten.
CXM: Do you think your background in mountain biking was an advantage for the way the Crusher is set up?
ED: In mountain biking, you find yourself alone a lot of the time, so you learn to keep pushing even if you don’t see anyone ahead of you because you never know. That definitely helped out mentally. Lauren [Stephens] was definitely ahead of me for most of the race, so I just keep plugging along.
CXM: Speaking of the race, how did your race play out and where did you end up getting past Lauren Stephens?
ED: As I said, Lauren had a fair gap on me for most of the race, and I think my buddies at the SRAM neutral support tent gave me a time split of a minute, minute and a half on the way up, and then when I came back over it was still about the same. I knew we had about 15 miles left at that point, mostly uphill. I decided to go a little bit harder and see if I could at least see her.
I think she had some cramping issues, so it wasn’t all me going harder. I actually think she had to stop and stretch out some cramps. Then after that I just kept pushing it to the finish because I figured she’d be back on her bike trying to chase me down.
CXM: Other athletes I’ve talked to have said the Crusher is the hardest gravel race they have ever done. Do you think that’s a fair assessment after finishing it?
ED: It was definitely challenging. I think what’s more challenging for me is flat races where I have to stay focused. I like climbing. Any race is going to be pretty hard. I line up with women who are racing World Cup mountain bike races, and sure, anytime you line up with them, the race is going to be really hard.
But as far as you against the course, the Crusher is definitely one of the toughest I have done.
CXM: How did you feel coming into the race. You know, looking at a pretty impressive field that included a number of women who have done well on the gravel scene, did you have any expectations?
ED: I didn’t really have any expectations. I used to ski with my friend Sarah Max, we were both nordic skiers years and years ago, and I saw she hopped onto the gravel scene in a big way this year. She texted me from Bend saying she was going to be there, so I was excited to see her.
Other than her, I didn’t really know who was racing. I kind of purposely didn’t look at any start list or look up who was going to be there. I kind of wanted to go into it blind and see how it played out.
CXM: That sounds like a not bad strategy.
ED: Everyone is different. Some people really like to research their competition and make a strategy. I race the best when I have no idea what’s going to happen.
CXM: With the bike you borrowed from Sofia, did you get some advice on how to set it up for gravel?
ED: Oh yeah. She and her boyfriend Keegan gave me some good tips. Keegan helped me figure out the gearing. I had to put a mountain bike cassette on there with a road derailleur. It was a franken-creation for sure. I was doing some very last-minute chain ring and cassette swaps.
I work in a bike shop, so there were all kinds of people coming into the shop and giving me advice. There were people who were telling me I had to ride a dualie mountain bike. There are all kinds of people who do the race and have their 2 cents. It was great getting so much advice.
CXM: Did you end up running a single or a double up front?
ED: I had a single ring, 40-tooth. Then I had an 11-40t mountain bike cassette on the back.
CXM: That sounds pretty climby for when it gets steep.
ED: I would probably run that again. It seemed like a good ratio.
CXM: What tires did you end up going with?
ED: The Maxxis Ramblers. We are all sponsored by Maxxis, so it worked out well.
CXM: The Rambler is a pretty popular choice for gravel.
ED: Keegan was telling me Alex Grant ran some much smoother tires. I’m glad that paid off for him, but I was a little scared to run something that smooth.
CXM: Now that you’ve got one gravel race under your belt, and plans on doing more? Besides obviously defending your Crusher title next year.
ED: I didn’t know I signed up for that already!
CXM: Well you won, you should defend your title!
ED: No plans right now. I’ve heard there are some really fun ones out there. People have definitely been telling me Rebecca’s Private Idaho has really good feedback. I’ve looked at that one and was thinking of maybe trying to get in there.
CXM: So we probably shouldn’t put you down for one of those long Midwest grinds like Land Run or the Dirty Kanza?
ED: Those look way too hard. I’m not sure I’ve ever ridden 100 miles, so I’m not sure if I could do those.
CXM: Wow, you are a true mountain biker.
ED: I mean I might have ridden 100 miles at some point, but not that I can recall.
CXM: What’s next on your schedule? Mountain Bike Nats?
ED: I am going to do Nationals. That’s next week in Winter Park. Then Breck Epic, which is always a fun time. I kind of have a blank spot in the calendar after that. I’m not really sure what I’m going to do.
CXM: Good luck at Nationals. I know there are some U.S. women who are racing quite well on the cross-country scene. That will be a tough race.
ED: It’s pretty cool to line up with a World Champion and other legit women. If you can rub elbows with them for at least one lap, it’s pretty good.
CXM: Well cool, thanks for your time and taking the time to chat with me. It’s always fun to see different people doing gravel.
ED: I really enjoyed it. Thank you.