Taming Leadville

Surviving 100 miles of dirt and altitude hell

The 2008 Leadville 100 was dominated by six-time winner Dave Wiens and sometimes dirt racer Lance Armstrong, making his Leadville debut, and who's best known for his winning seven Tours de France and running marathons to promote his Livestrong Foundation. BikeRadar asked longtime friend Steve Smith to write about his first Leadville 100 experience.

The Leadville 100 mountain bike race requires a significant commitment, certainly more than just a trip to the corner pub for a pint. Top finishers cross the line in about seven hours, with the more typical "everyman" finishing between 10-12 hours. Mind bending altitude provides the hallmark of this century, which covers five significant peaks topping out at 12,600 ft about sea level and 14,000 total feet of climbing.

Beer-soaked bravado following the 2007 Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival led six of us "flatlanders" from the Midwest to stuff a lottery envelope, hoping to earn one of the coveted starting spots. By early March, we all learned our fate – we were in!

All of us possessed some cycling pedigree which we assumed would best equip us for the effort. Brad, the 41-year-old ringleader, has competed in a 24-hour race and claims to be able to ride through pain of all types. Todd, 41, possesses a Jan Ullrich-like ability to pound out the miles to infinity. John, the 51-year-old elder statesman, has won more races in his lifetime than most can dream of. Joe, the youngster in the group at 32, hoped to keep up with his uncle Brad. And Marcia, 42, was using the event to raise medical funds for a friend injured in a ski accident last year. Each of us approached training to meet various goals, from finishing to finishing well.

For me, the biggest challenge was figuring out how to ride for up to 11 hours at elevations non-existent in my training area in the Greater Milwaukee Area of southeastern Wisconsin. I figured the thin air would have to resolve itself. The distance/time could be replicated at some level here in the Midwest.

Equipment and training

To start, I chose a Gary Fisher SuperCaliber full suspension bike. I figured a long day in the saddle would demand the comforts of full suspension, smooth acting RockShox Reba fork and tubeless 26x2.0 tires.

Starting in May I was ridding one "mega ride" per month minimum. It started with a 160-mile road jaunt between Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin; mostly flat but a crackling pace of more than 20 mph for the day. In June, I completed several six- and seven-hour rides on my mountain bike to distant trail systems, completed a lap and rode home. Finally, in July, I did an eight-hour slog including "hill repeats" on a "massive" 300 foot hill in Lapham Peak State Park.

With these rides and half-dozen short criterium races in the bank, we loaded up the family van a week in advance of the race and headed west. My wife (Tracy) and three kids (Riley, Ellen and Anna), approached the event with an odd curiosity mixed with equal parts of anxiety ("sure hope dad doesn't croak") and star gazing ("sure hope we can see Lance Armstrong"). A 16-hour drive gave us each plenty of time to deal with the anxieties and unknowns…of course, that could also be a condition of driving through Iowa and Nebraska, two states with limited topographical features!

Once in Colorado, the spirits began to lift. The high mountains and cool air induced giddiness in all of us mountain bikers. We did some reconnaissance of the course and hit some other sublime single track throughout the week – then just like that it was race day.

Our blogger on his way to a respectable 9:36.46 finish, not a bad Leadville 100 debut

The morning broke cold (45 degrees F) and foreboding with dark clouds sneaking over the distant mountains. All that was forgotten once the race got underway at 6:30 a.m. The excitement made the first climb almost forgettable, before even realizing it we were zooming down a six-mile descent. Heading into the second major climb, I met some Midwesterners and took comfort in the fact that other vertically challenged riders were here suffering along side me.

The major obstacle for the day, Columbine Mountain, quickly came (okay, so it was 2:35 in). I'd expected this to take upwards of 1:45. Grinding along on the early slopes, head bobbing, legs starting to fill with lactic acid, I stole a look at my watch – ONLY 30 MINUTES IN! As the climb wore on, and the air thinned, I kept reaching for gears that weren't there. Still more grinding…one guy passed proclaiming we were doing 5 mph! Peak at the watch…only one hour passed… up to one hour to go! Reaching the tree line offered a slight bit of optimism. From here, I could see the turnaround two miles up the mountain. A combination of riding, running and hiking delivered me to the peak in 1:50 – whew! Then it was time to fasten the seat belt for the roller coaster down.

Before I knew it (35 minutes later), I was back at the base camp aid station savoring the delicious oxygenated air and a couple Hammer Gels. Then it was back on the bike for the remaining 40 miles.

The "Powerline" climb (70 miles in) nearly did me in. This slope (which Lance rode up) forced me to walk most of its length. The false flats and never-ending switchbacks gave me enough head-fakes to nearly break my spirits. But over the top (almost an hour later), I knew there was only one more obstacle left (not counting the impending showers). Indeed, freezing rain, hail and dropping temperatures marked the start of the final climb to 11,000 ft.

The Leadville Flatlanders:  John, Joe, Todd, Brad and Steve, our guest blogger

By the top, my hands and feet were chilled to a point that made shifting difficult. But the bottom of the mountain brought warmer air (55 degrees!) and a slight tailwind. I wound it up and went all in with whatever energy remained to make it to the finish in 9:36.46, almost a full half-hour earlier than I'd planned or expected.

Brad and Todd both rode Gary Fisher Procaliber 29er carbon hard tails. Both reported that the hardtail left them with a little hitch in their giddyups after finishing in 9:51. John piloted a Niner (29er) hard tail with a CaneCreek Shock post and declared that only the elevation and cold rain slowed him down. Both Joe and Marcia rode full suspension 26ers and each suffered few, if any, non-leg issues.

Surviving Leadville, meeting Lance

Lance Armstrong and a gaggle of Flatlander kids (Anna is on the right holding her priceless rock)

Ultimately, I DID survive the ordeal, the kids DID get to see Lance and get some memorable keepsakes (Ellen having Lance sign the "first ever" Autograph Rock: "Never signed a ROCK before!" claimed the 7-time TdF winner). And now, a week hence, the six of us are already dreaming of some day going back and beating that nine-hour mark, good enough for the super large gold and silver belt buckle. That's certainly enough motivation to generate sweet dreams for a good year to come!

Steve Smith, 42, is a Milwaukee, Wisconsin based cyclist long on experience and typically short on saddle time, thanks to his devotion to his young family.

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