The Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race had always seemed too big, too hard, and loaded with too much talent to lure me to Colorado for the event. I had been racing mountain bikes full-time for more than 11 years when they first developed the sister event to the 100 mile running race, a day for just mountain bikes. For the remaining 6 years of my racing career, I was always intrigued but never made it out to race this iconic event. I was thrilled to be in attendance several weeks ago watching the mountain bike race from start-to-finish. All I can say is, wow! I had no idea what I had been missing all those years!
As it happened, I was in Leadville because my wife Nora was competing in her first Leadville Trail 100 running race: one of the biggest, hardest ultramarathons in the world. How hard you ask? This year’s event had the highest finisher rate of runners at a whopping 52% dating all way back to its beginning in 1983! We were there to enjoy the mountains, train at altitude, and get familiar with the run course. She was planning to finish in under 30 hours so she could get the coveted Leadville 100 trophy belt buckle. The running race was one week after the mountain bike race and not only was it a surprise that we could see the bike race but it was also a much-needed break and distraction from a heavy week of training on hills in such thin air.
About 2,000 racers entered the mountain bike race and in order to earn their own belt buckle trophy, the riders had to finish in less than 12 hours. This race is a true testament of each rider’s own abilities; facing challenging competitors, battling one of the toughest mountain bike courses, and of course it’s ultimately a race against time.
The designation of “high altitude” begins just below 5,000 ft. (the elevation of Denver is 5,280 ft.) and at 7,000 ft. our human bodies struggle because of increased heart rate and labored breathing in the thin air. Many athletes will arrive at altitude weeks before their event to properly adapt their bodies to the local elevation. On the contrary, some simply roll into town the day of or day before their big event and are ready to rock. Although we had been in Leadville (10,200 ft. elevation and the highest incorporated city in the USA) for 10 days, the effects were still there and the athletic high-altitude math actually says we need to be at 10,000 ft. for almost 36 days to properly acclimate. It’s a real challenge to train and compete at altitude, especially for us flat-landers (my wife Nora and I live in Madison, WI at an altitude of 892 ft.), talk about a challenge.
The bike course low elevation point is at 9,200 ft. and the high point is at 12,424 ft. The course is an out-and-back of a little more than 50 miles to the Columbine Mine and then more than 50 miles back to where you started. The actual total mileage is 104 miles and includes more than 14,000 of elevation gain. Many road racers show up here, hoping to have the advantage of more endurance than the mountain bikers and the fact that the course is so fast. I think there’s enough technical sections to avoid calling it a roadie course, but then again the crazy-fast finish times make me bite my lip.
Some of the best talent in the country showed up to race 104 miles of hilly, fast terrain for nothing more than a shiny belt buckle and bragging rights until the next race. Previous winners include mountain biker John Stamstad (8x winner of the Iditasport mountain bike race in Alaska), Lance Armstrong, pro roadie Levi Leipheimer, mountain bike powerhouse Dave Wiens (6x winner), mountain biker and 3x winner Alban Lakata from Austria (holds course record of 5:58:35), and 3x winner mountain biker Todd Wells from Colorado.
After spending 17 years racing mountain bikes, I usually know a couple people out on the course and this time I was lucky enough to watch my fellow Maryland native Jeremiah Bishop do battle at Leadville. Jeremiah took off right from the start hoping to break the course record and go under 6 hours. Only three riders managed to get away from the field and worked together for more than 70 miles, right on each other’s wheel: former winner Todd Wells, Jeremiah (now living in Harrisonburg, Virginia), and hotshot roadie Joe Dombrowski (also from Virginia). Jeremiah told me that at times they were going 27 or 28 MPH on the gravel roads while positioned on their specially-modified aero mountain bike handlebars. On one of the last big climbs of the course, Todd was able to distance himself from the other two and finish first with a time of 6:19:43, averaging almost 16.5 MPH! Joe finished 3 minutes later and 6 minutes in front of Jeremiah. Fourth place was more than 15 minutes behind Jeremiah at the finish line
Sally Bingham from England won her third Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike race with a time of 7:05:47. Sally was the 14th overall finisher with all the guys and was an hour ahead of the second place woman at the finish line! WOW! Annika Langvad holds the women’s course record of 6:59:24 which was set last year in 2015.
Although I lived in Vail, Colorado for 2 years back in the 80’s I never get tired of the mountains and scenery of this beautiful state. I was there to be a ski bum in the winter and race mountain bikes in the summer. I enjoyed being a spectator during the bike race this year and was able to absorb the wonderment of the Leadville area. I think I just decided to try and get an entry to the bike race through the lottery for next year because I’m sure my wife already has the run race on her calendar for 2017.
Besides watching my wife finish the running race in under 29 hours and get her first Leadville 100 belt buckle, the highlight of the whole trip was running in to my former mountain bike teammate Floyd Landis and spending lots of time with him in Leadville.
Floyd has reemerged after winning the 2006 Tour de France then un-winning it to have his own line of apparel, based out of Leadville. We are proud to be the exclusive seller of the Floyd's of Leadville t-shirts, socks, hats, and cycling clothing kits (by Castelli) here at The Racery. Even more exciting than news is that Floyd and his former pro road racing teammate Dave Zabriskie are coming to our bike shop, The Racery on September 29th to introduce the apparel here live in St. Louis Park, MN and you’re invited! The party is from 5-8pm and food will be available. There will be great door prizes, killer sales on apparel & bikes, and we will do a live streaming broadcast Q&A with Floyd. Check our site and Facebook event page for details and we hope to see you there! You can also Grab Your FREE Tickets and sign up on our Eventbright page as.