The Big Goal
17 months ago two idiots drove to Austin, TX from Denver. Why? Why drive such an absurd distance? Valid question. One of these idiots, Erik, needed to qualify for the 2018 Leadville 100 and the Austin Rattler seemed a great opportunity to do so. The other idiot, your’s truly, jumps at the opportunity to adventure. Super condensed synopsis: we raced, it was muddy, we both got coins (those are the necessary qualifying coins needed to do the LT100), and we snuck into the 2018 Final Four. Done, finito, drive back to Denver.
Getting a coin to revisit the Leadville 100 hadn’t popped on my radar. At least not until the moment they called my number for a coveted coin. I’d already accomplished my LT100 goals: I finished it in 2016 (9:15 finish time) and I went back for a big buckle finish in 2017 (8:38 finish time). I had nothing left to prove. But to honor thy coin is to honor the Leadville 100, and it deserves all the honor. So…make things interesting. Register for Singlespeed. BOOM! Goal made. Stupid, out there, what are you doing goal made. Thing is, I’d never ridden a singlespeed mountain bike.
Dedicated to my knee-slapping, good-time idea of an outlandish goal, I’ve been training, and racing, on a one-geared mountain bike for 9 months. I’ve enjoyed great results in both training, racing, and adventuring on my simple bike. Heading into the final months leading up to the LT100 I stretched my goal. I want a podium finish. Yes. I want to be one of the first 3 racers to ride that red carpet with a one-geared steed.
Yes. I decided to do Leadville on a singlespeed in about 3 minutes, and the first two minutes were simply deciding to do the event at all. While those wiser than I would argue that this foolish pursuit could have used a bit more contemplation, those owls would be pleased to know that I did research, test ride, and mettle over the correct single gear to use for the race.
In the final few weeks, I rode 3 of the 4 key climbs of the course. St. Kevin’s, Sugarloaf, and Columbine. If I could simply pedal these three climbs, and not resort to hike-a-bike, then I knew my equipment matched my ability. Also, if I could climb these 3 stretches confidently, I could draw on that memory when I faced them during the race. So, with a night spent in the back of my truck and a couple slices of quiche from City on a Hill Coffeehouse I tucked away these successes to be used on August 10th. Gear, body, and mind, check.
“You’re doing what?!”
The Breck Epic 6-Day Stage Race immediately after the Leadville 100. Seven days of mountain bike racing covering 320 miles and over 50,000’ of elevation gain. NO. This was not part of the original plan, but when your good friend Harley McClellan of Base Camp Cyclery asks you to start a podcast, “No Ride Around”, track a year’s worth of training, riding, and all-around bike-radness in pursuit of the Breck Epic, you do it. Because, again, you’re an idiot.
Leaving Denver for Leadville, on Thursday, I was packed and prepped for 9 days away from responsibilities to others, and narrowly focused my efforts on seeking the best cyclist version of myself.
Race Course Details: 103 miles. 11,316’ elevation gain. Out and back course beginning and ending in the heart of Leadville, CO.
Mountain bikers argue the Leadville 100 is a roadie’s race, meaning there isn’t much by way of true mountain biking. These same folks use that slight to diminish the LT100 as the iconic event it’s proven to be. To those folks, I say, try it. The Leadville 100 founders, organizers, and leaders hearts spill out over the 3 mandatory days above 10,000’ and with that outpouring any rider, roadie or dirtbag, finds themselves warmed by the Leadville spirit. The same held true this, my third year, as I milled about the event expo, attended the racer meeting, and pre-rode the final stretch of the race. Yes, on Friday afternoon I took a mellow 10-mile shakeout ride that ended with a sprint up 6th avenue to what would be the red-carpeted finish line in just 24 hours. See the win.
Unlike my previous 2 Leadville experiences, I embarked on this mission in true solo fashion. Not just with gearing, but in each aspect up to the start gun. I broke camping regulations and hid behind the defunct mines that once defined Leadville’s existence, and then, were the basis of this race series being founded. Race morning I woke up to silence, history, and confidence borne from my sharing this day, this effort, with the spirit of the miners most surely buried under the very dirt I camped.
The start line at Leadville is ALIVE! Over 2,000 racers, all in final preparations, hugging loved ones, and staring at the dark clouds hanging low over our racer course, jostle for a spot in their assigned corrals. Many wear hydration packs, jackets, and take selfies, while others, like myself, are in race mode attire – be bold, start cold. AC/DC, followed by the National Anthem, and then by a shotgun blast set all of us down 6th avenue and onto our personal quests.
Spectators of this start must wonder what it’s like being jammed into a 2-lane road with this many excited folks on bikes. Surely you do? Best similarity: being let out of the last day of elementary school for summer break. That sprint? Yeah, that’s how we take off. And, that’s when I realized my 3rd year will be a different year. While I started near the front of the race, due to my corral placement and qualifying time, dozens of riders blast by me on the fast road sprint toward St. Kevin’s. Dozens, approaching hundreds, fly by me as I’m spinning my legs at over 125 rpm, failing to produce any more speed. Many yell to others that the race isn’t won here, to take it easy, to be careful, but I know that each of these passersby will become formidable obstacles as I climb up Kevin’s, on my sole gear.
Proven correct, I charge up St. Kevin’s (best described as a 2-rut, gravel, jeep road winding up 1,500’ elevation over a couple of miles) and start navigating these once-high-speeded-riders. Fortunately, as would prove evident throughout the race, the respect us singlespeeders receive bode well for my aim to stay on the bike. “Singlespeed on your left,” became my war cry. As I plowed through the field, most riders moved the barely available, much needed 6 inches over to let me pass. A few other singlespeeders jumped in line behind me and we charged up, grunting, and pulling our simple steeds to the top. During the climb, I started mentally noting the other riders on singlespeeds. While I didn’t pass them with malice, we are brothers, after all, I passed them confidently and promised, silently, to not see them again.
Over Kevin’s and down the screaming road descent, I settled into the race. It’ll be a long day. Eat a waffle. Have a swig. Focus. The next road climb turned to a dirt road and then to another rough jeep road, Sugarloaf. I’ve already pre-ridden this, play the tape. Get to the top. Charging through more geared racers, fueled by the “hurrah’s” and “go-get-em’s” from the geared riders I crested Sugarloaf and tore down the famed Powerline descent feeling strong and fresh.
Crux Leadville moment, the road section around the Fish Hatchery. Falling into a fast paceline on the way out can shorten your race by a handful of minutes, and on the way back, facing the inevitable headwind can save dozens. The grace afforded me by geared racers kept me in the hunt. I jumped into a pack of more than 15 riders with a few of them going all Might Ducks on me with the Flying-V formation. When you have a single gear, humming along the road at 22+ mph is akin to the moving walkways at DIA. Thank you guys!
Never to be a free-loader, I repaid my paceline debt on the following chunk of gravel. Spinning at 120 rpm, coasting, and spinning in intervals moves the SS along the trail with speed. With geared racers holding my rear tire, we made short work of the miles and started the single track descent down Pipeline. And it was there, on the downhill flow, that I violated my commitment to a race effort. I stopped. I got off the bike. I peed. At length, I have documented my reverence for the “pee the bibs” tactic. Want to win a race? Don’t stop to pee, just let it go, man, let it go… However, looking ahead at the log-jammed downhill, I took the moment to step off. This better not come back to haunt me.
Twin Lakes. Aid Station. There are two types of aid station users: 1) grab, go, Nascar-style. 2) stop, enjoy your friends and family, have a bite, recharge your internal battery. I’m all for enjoying the moment, but I prescribe to style 1. Bottles swapped, pockets reloaded, and off I roll. Confession, racing endurance events can get pretty lonely. For miles, and hours, the voice and community you share is often an audience of one. The Twin Lakes aid area reminds the loneliest of racers that though the ride may be solo, the shared event includes 1,000’s. Fans and support crew line both sides of the dam over the lakes and another huge chunk of flag-waving, bell ringing, and food offering faces stand just before the Columbine climb. A welcomed retreat both at 40 and 60 miles. Cruising through the last of the aid crews I see the Cycles of Life tent and ask how their singlespeed racer is doing, “Has he come through yet?” I ask. “Just a minute or so ago,” they reply. Having raced against the SS rider from the local Leadville bike shop before, I knew he’d be near the top of the field. If I could catch him, I could be sure I was in contention.
Columbine. 7.4 miles of UP. Gaining 3,126’ and topping out at 12,424’. Souls are lost forever during this climb. Moreover, self-worth can completely bottom out as hundreds of racers continue their uphill grunt as the top contenders are zooming past, already on their way down. Each year I’ve been further up the climb as the top pros fly by me at over 30 mph. Having trained for this climb, I knew what was ahead and how the singlespeed would perform. True to my expectation, I continued to pass geared racers. 1 mile. Another. Then over halfway. Sometime during the gravel road portion of the climb, I passed a racer, off his bike, hobbling with cramps. A singlespeeder. A compatriot any other day of the year. Today, an obstacle. I asked how he was getting along as I passed and knew if I could stay on my pedals, he’d never have a chance to catch up. Nearing the top of the road, and where I planned to start hiking my bike, I felt the exhilarating rush of what I was pursuing. I might have just passed the only singlespeeder ahead of me, I might be in the lead.
Now hiking, the top pros, including Olympian and multi-year National Champion Howard Grotts, flew by me onto the second half of their race. My eyes bulged. I stared down at every bike’s drivetrain as they whizzed by, looking for any single gear rigs. Drink, hike, push, look, drink, hike, look. I stayed on high alert. Only a mile away from my turnaround point, a singlespeeder rolled by. I wasn’t in first. A relief? The pressure off? No. Just a reality. The gap seemed too large to bridge but that meant I was in second. Second?! At Leadville. “Stay on top of it!” I yelled at myself. Making the 50-mile, halfway point, ignoring any offered GUs, watermelon, or water, I reversed course. Aware of the cramp-hobbled competitor surely looking at bikes much like I had just done, I wanted to put a solid gap in place behind me. Flying by the grimaced faces, determined to reach the top, I dropped my seat post and reached Mach 5 speeds. I didn’t work this hard going up to use my godforsaken brakes on the way down. Making short work of the descent, leapfrogging position with former pro snowboarder Chris Klug, who runs a wonderful non-profit out of Aspen focused on organ donation, we laughed at the roadies scorching their brakes in fear. Let it fly!
Again through Twin Lakes. Bottles reloaded, pockets stuffed, pickle juice slammed (does wonder for cramps, look into ion pathways and brain science), and over halfway to the red carpet.
2 sections in the return to Powerline, again, require racers working together against the wind. Pace lines can make these miles fly by or drag on. I alternated between riding with others and being alone. The alone moments caused minor panic as seconds gained on me, multiplying faster than a Gremlin under a sprinkler. Fortunately, a few spirited efforts allowed me to latch onto some geared racers wheels and I worked against the ever-present headwind to Powerline, the final real challenge of the race.
To this point, I’ve stayed atop my nutrition plan. Calorie-laden drinks in my bottles, crushed waffles in my jersey pocket, and GUs ripped from my top tube. Mentally I stayed tough. My goal felt more tangible now than ever. Confidence built in my chest as I saw my wife. My wife? What is she doing here?! This wasn’t planned, but unless I mistook Shot Blocks for mushrooms, there she was. Hell yeah! Cheering me on, with fellow e3er, and rider, Bryan, she waved and screamed, and told me I was in third place.
Wait. Third place? I counted every damn drivetrain that passed by me. I passed cramp-boy. I rode my face off. Third place? Really? You sure? No time to pencil out a diagram, I kept pedaling racking my brain to think of how I missed a second singlespeeder ahead of me. Unable to control another’s race, I refocused my effort. Happy to have Abbe here with me I ignored her and Bryan’s call to my position and looked ahead.
Feeling good I power stepped up the first chunk of Powerline and alternated between confident hiking and power-draining pedaling through the many false summits that steal the joy from the bulk of Leadville 100 racers. Race experience my friend, I held to my effort until the final crest. From there it was a closed grip, bronc bucking ride to the gravel, and then paved, road around Turquoise Lake.
The final climb. Back up to the summit of Kevin’s. Mountain biking grew from a spirited escape from road riding when a group of teenagers in the late 1960s and early 1970s used, then, 30-year old bikes with balloon tires to ride in the mountains around Marin County. They sought something different, they were rebellious. Good for them. At mile 88-ish the smooth, paved road felt as welcoming as a flannel blanket in front of a cabin fire. Cue up the comfort! Alternating between seated and standing efforts, I pushed to maintain an average speed over 8 mph ignoring offers of Coca-Cola and wet towels from the spectators lining the road. Mission-focused. Hitting the top tosses a few under-the-belt jabs with 3, steep, loose gravel climbs before the true summit. But once atop Kevin’s for a second time, another ripping descent back towards town. Passing a few geared racers I noted their jerseys, as they would soon catch me on the dirt county road bringing us into city limits, and I’d need their draft to keep my speeds high into the Boulevard.
The Boulevard. 4 miles to the finish. Year 1 this stretch of the course violated all that seemed Holy about this event. You see, the bike computer just below your nose, the one that’s been your attitude-meter, that’s told you what was left while reminding you what’s already been done, reads 100 miles. And this is the Leadville 100. And you’re still pedaling. For first-timers to the LT100, there’s a term for this, its called: bull shit. But veterans, of which I now am, know better. Us vets put our heads down, smash pedals, drain the tank, and know the finish is closer if we pedal faster. Pedal I did. Faster than my previous years. Faster than my pre-ride the day before. As fast as my single gear allowed. I pedaled. I swung side-to-side over the bike, I ignored the tiny desire to cruise to my finish. I pushed, and panted, and looked up only when the pavement below me turned red. The red carpet. The storied finish to an iconic race.
Abbe, Bryan, Shannon, Michelle, Erin, and Marilee with Ken, and others. Those I don’t know. Those screaming, those crying, fellow racers keeled over, completely spent. The circus at the finish line surely filled the ears of everyone at the corner of 6th and Harrison, but not me. My ears closed. Blinking back tears everything in my body quieted. I did it. This crazy idea turned audacious goal, just came to be. I’ve not only completed my fastest Leadville 100 but I finished atop the podium. For all the areas of life that I knowingly fall short, and the areas that provide no real marker of win/lose, at this moment I know full well I arrived. Quiet. Complete. Content. Victorious.
2019 Leadville 100 MTB Singlespeed / 2nd Place (8:30:32)