Over the past 18 years the Leadville Trail 100 has gone through numerous changes. It has only grown in its appeal and stature among the World’s tops racers and the masses who hope to line up with their mountain bike heroes to tackle the high mountains of Colorado and earn their coveted finishing belt buckle. The buckle carries with it the respect of fellow racers as a sign of a rider’s ability to suffer over a soul crushing race that lasts anywhere from 6.5 hours to 11 hours 59 min and 59 seconds.
The challenge is why we all line up, and the buckle is our trophy at the end. There are actually two buckles to win at Leadville. The rider who gets in less than 9 hours can expect to get what is known as the big buckle or the gold buckle. Those finishing between nine and 12 hours receive the silver buckle.
After a disappointing 2011 Leadville, I decided to go back for a redemption ride. Arriving in Leadville with my teammate, Tommy Robles, almost two weeks before the race, we gave ourselves ample time to learn the courses nuances, and more importantly acclimate to the air at 10,200 feet.
It is a mass start out of town at 6:30am, and positioning for the first climb is crucial for anyone trying to crack that nine hour mark. The first four miles are on pavement and downhill before hitting the first major climb of the day, St. Kevins. Not the longest climb or the highest (10,800ft), but it’s enough to let a rider know if it will be a good day or a bad day. Steep at the start, it causes lots of problems for the riders farther back.
Once off of St. Kevins you are back on pavement around Turquoise Lake before starting the Sugar Loafin’ climb. This is a loose, rockier climb that hits 11,200ft before dropping into the Powerline descent. Early in the morning, in-and-out of shadows, this descent can easily ruin your day if you get on the wrong line.
After that you have the long shot across the Pipeline section, which is flatter, and a good place to group up and improve your speed. Soon you are at Twin Lakes, which is at the foot of the 3,000 vertical foot climb up to the Columbine Mine. It starts in the trees on a mellow grade, but once it goes above the tree line it gets much steeper (up to 18%), and looser. For most riders the top portion is a place where you will have to get off and hike. It’s just too steep, and the air is just too thin for most. Surprisingly the top of Columbine was in great shape this year, and most of the top 75 riders rode it. Once at the top you have a long descent back to Twin Lakes, and to make things a little more difficult the riders at the front have 1,700 riders still coming up to look out for on the out-and-back race course.
Once back you have the Pipeline section to deal with before getting back to the dreaded Powerline. Thanks to some rain on Friday night the trail was in great shape. The first section is very steep and comes 80 miles into the race. Normally this first section is walked, as it is just too steep for most to handle. Due to great conditions I was able to ride all of Powerline this year, which was a huge accomplishment in and of itself. Once over the first section the climb backs off significantly, but you still have 20 minutes of climbing to go, and there are multiple false summits to play with your mind.
Once over the top and down Sugar Loafin you are almost 90 miles in and only have the road climb around Turquoise Lake and then onto the dirt before hitting that 100 mile point. At 100 miles you are now only four miles from the finish and have only the Boulevard to deal with. The Boulevard is a wide smooth dirt road, and takes you up to an intersection with 6th St. From here you are home free and once you crest the short road climb on 6th you can see the finish line, the red carpet, and the cheering fans. Riding up that red carpet to the screams of the fans is something every rider deserves, and an experience none forget. Whether you are coming in under seven hours, or giving everything your body has to make that 12 hour cut-off, you deserve those cheers.
This year was a great experience. There were so many Southern Californians this year. It was great to see the Black Star Team, the Herbalife 24 team; Matt Ford, Lauren Mulwitz, Katie Donovan, and all the other SoCal racers screaming for me on the way back down Columbine. Like Tommy Robles, I too hope to do Leadville 10 times and eventually take home the coveted 1,000 miler buckle (it’s the size of a dinner plate). I encourage anyone interested in an amazing challenge to research the Leadville 100 mountain bike race. Sign up for the lottery this November, and if you don’t get in, hit one of the qualifiers, and start training now to earn your big buckle.