I was not going to preview the Leadville 100 course this year. I mean, I previewed it last July and raced it in August so I thought I had a pretty good grasp of what to expect. But when Marcos finally got his “Yippee!” card, it became a must-do event. Since we were already scheduled to ride the Triple Bypass in July, it made sense to head to Leadville and extend that trip a couple of days.
Getting an idea of what to expect on race day will be a huge advantage for Marcos and I went along if just to share my experiences and maybe have the most epic bike trip ever with my Dirt Bros. I accomplished all that and still got something very valuable.
The Leadville Trail 100 MTB race is really hard.
The human mind has a funny way of forgetting the suffering and focusing on the glory. Over the past year, the Leadville course (in my mind) has gotten easier and easier, almost to the point of becoming “just a tough day in the saddle.” Our trip to Leadville two weeks ago was a much needed wake-up call.
Leadville is hard, not just because of the distance (103.4 miles) and not just because of the climbing (10,938’ by my Garmin). It’s hard because of the distance and the climbing and most importantly, because of the elevation. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to ride hard above 10,000’, especially for a flatlander like me – I can smell the ocean from my house!
I did not arrive in Leadville with the freshest legs, having ridden the Triple Bypass as hard as I could the day before. We started out early the next morning to ride the first and last 25 miles of the course, from 6th and Harrison to the bottom of the Powerline and back. The idea was to get as much of the 50 miles and 5,500’ of climbing in before the inevitable afternoon thunderstorm attacked. It can get pretty crazy at 11,000’ in the Rockies during a thunderstorm, even in July.
My legs felt pretty good as we rolled down 6th Avenue, from the race’s Start/Finish line. We took it easy on the early dirt roads and I pointed out where the cows were in the opening scenes of “Race Across the Sky”. We settled into a steady rhythm up St. Kevins where a pattern emerged that would often repeat itself on the two-day course preview. Mickey goes off the front with Marcos hanging on for as long as he can while I sit up and let them go. We’d arrive at the top, not far from each other, but almost always in that 1-2-3 order.
The course on Kevins was in really good condition. I remembered it being a lot more cut up last July. It should be super smooth by race day next month after hundreds more riders preview the course. We rounded the big left on St. Kevins and waited a few minutes for Cecil who was struggling with the impact of cycling at high altitude. We were already well above 10,000’.
We descended Turquoise Lake Road and the climb to Sugarloaf Pass went easily in the same 1-2-3 pattern. I was content with being third and had joked earlier that we would be awarding reverse-KOM points for the trip. You get more points for being last than first. It was my goal to get that reverse polka-dot jersey.
I was riding a bike rented from the guys at Cycles of Life which I have to say might be the coolest bike shop ever. Brian was super helpful outfitting us and I was excited to try the hardtail 29’er I rented. Many people claim that a hardtail 29’er is the best riding platform for the Leadville 100 and I’ve been wondering if I could go faster on one. I quickly learned that the answer was a definite, “No.” Sure the hardtail was stiffer on climbs, which might translate to a small amount of additional power transfer, but it also required a LOT more control, even on relatively smooth sections. Getting bumped out of the saddle is not good on a long climb. And the descents are terrible compared to my full-travel bike. Maybe I just don’t have the proper bike-handling skills, but descending on a hardtail takes a lot more energy and focus. My legs got sore from holding myself off the saddle – on my Trek I can recover, sitting on the saddle as I descend. It was good to discover all this before buying a hardtail and regretting it later…
We started down the Powerline and I remembered cold rain, buzzing transformers and acrid smell of brake pads from the race last year. We were lucky to be descending in warm sunshine. Even though I was careful on the descent, I still got “rutted out”, having to stop and walk my bike laterally to a new line. It was a good reminder to take my time and parse the trail for the best line. I certainly won’t win Leadville on this descent, but I sure could lose it by endo’ing into one of these caverns.
We stopped at the bottom to discuss race-day bridge strategies for the creek. Last year, a lot of fans shouted at racers to try and ride the creek, I just don’t think it’s a good idea to rinse your drivetrain and risk falling in the water at mile 25 of a 100 mile race. I showed Marcos the “alternate” bridge in case there is a backup on the planked crossing then we turned around to go back up the Powerline.
On race day last year, I had been exuberant at the bottom of the Powerline and charged up the lower sections only to blow up when it got steep and then freak out cause I was going so slow in the hike-a-bike section. Once the grade settled, I pushed too hard and blew up again on the upper parts because I hadn’t eaten properly. This year, I settled into a steady pace and walked the hike-a-bike at a normal clip. Again I let Mickey and Marcos go up the trail ahead of me. As a result, I climbed faster than race day and felt much, much better at the top. Last year, I was blown at the top of the Powerline and didn’t fully recover until the final Aid Station on St. Kevins. This year, I felt great and set a much faster pace back up Turquoise Lake Road, gaining time. I’d learned a valuable lesson – pacing and proper nutrition make the day.
Soon we were back on St. Kevins again and I remembered hammering these final miles of the race last year. I was really wishing I had my Trek with me instead of the lumpy hardtail as I picked my way down. I caught up with Marcos and Mickey on the fire roads and I guided them to the Boulevard climb – that final kick in the ass at mile 100 when you’re still over three miles from the finish. It seemed a lot easier this year, but still fairly loose and rocky. Last year, I rode past many who were walking their bike and I vowed ride it this year again.
The final gravel roads back into Leadville are much longer than you’d expect and I had trouble holding Mickey back. That kid is on terrific form. Finally, we made the last right turn onto the pavement of 6th Avenue and rolled together to the finish line. I could see in my mind the hundreds of fans and the cheers from the crowds from last year’s race – I really can’t wait to be on that last half mile again this year.
After an evening of focused recovery that included a delicious High Mountain Pie, some vino and a few beers, I found myself staring at the Fruit Loops in the breakfast room of the Super 8 – ah, what the heck. After kitting up, we drove out to Twin Lakes at the base of the Columbine climb and discussed feed zone strategy before saddling up and heading towards the high country again.
Based on what I had learned on the Powerline, I refined my strategy for the penultimate climb on the Leadville course. I will not attack Columbine, I will sneak by. It won’t even know I was there. I paced myself evenly, letting Mickey and Marcos go up the road, focusing on eating at regular intervals and not over-exerting on the steeper sections. I walked the steep, loose sections without worrying about losing time or falling back. The higher I climbed, the better I felt instead of bonking and needing to rest like last year. I ignored the voice in my head that said I was going too slow and instead slowly ate a GU and kept my hydration on track. In the end I climbed Columbine 5 minutes faster this year AND felt much better. All this after two really hard days in the mountains.
Miraculously, I arrived at the high point of 12,600’ on the Leadville course first. I came to a stop and turned back to see where Mickey and Marcos were. Small, colored dots in the distance told me they had taken the bonus spur on the GPS course I had loaned them to a spectacular overlook of Twin Lakes over 3,500 feet below. I waited a few minutes while their dots grew back into life-sized mountain bikers and then we rolled down to the turnaround point of the Leadville 100 MTB course together.
After rolling into the Columbine Mine turnaround point, Marcos, Mickey and I all stopped and got off our bikes. Marcos’ comment summed it up, “That was really hard.” Yeah, got it.