Thori Wolfe, who races cyclocross and MTB for Hyattsville CX sponsors Route1Velo/Arrow Bicycle, headed west to Colorado and toed the line with Lance Armstrong, Dave Wiens and over 1100 others to tackle the Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race. Here is Thori's take on how the day went down:
Leadville Trail 100 2009 Race Report
This was an epic and well worth doing. The course is an out and back of approximately 105 miles on a mix of asphalt, fire road, and double and single track. Not very technical with the exception of a few sections on Powerline and Columbine. The challenge is the elevation, weather, distance—and obviously, your own mental state.
I wanted to finish in less than 12 hours first and foremost. I planned on maintaining an average 10 hour pace to provide a buffer for stops, mechanicals, hiking the bike, and the inevitable fatigue at the end. That ended up working for me as the race wore on as I needed the time … additionally you have to make the time cutoffs throughout the course. Min speed was 0.0 mph, max speed was 42 mph.
The weather was something of a factor, but not unexpected: 40 degrees with rain clouds shrouding the peaks we would ride that morning. Temperatures probably got into the 60s eventually. I wore a very light Assos waterproof / windbreaker that I wear all the time, knee and arm warmers, Craft short-sleeve undershirt, and euro-dork cycling cap. Nothing you wouldn’t wear here in DC on a cold and wet winter morning.
I rode my FS 26” Blur with Kenda Small Block 8s (clinchers)—good tires, I really like them for hardpack. It was also nice to have disc brakes today because of the rain. FWIW, I also switched to my road saddle—Fizik Arione because of the distance and the planned riding conditions (e.g., fire road, double track, road—generally non-technical). I don’t ride my bikes too hard so there were no mechanicals (e.g., broken chain, broken derailleur cables, blown sidewalls) to f-up my day.
Training was predominately road training, some MTB in Gambrill/Shed or Rosaryville, and 30-45 minute roller sessions before work during weekdays. The week prior I was in Colorado Springs at an elevation between 6000’ and 10,000’ doing 3 to 4 hour rides with sustained (30 minute to 2 hour) climbing on both easy and steep climbs. The key for me was elevation (or a lack thereof in my training). I needed to get more elevation during training. I could have used more distance and specific training too, but then again I would also like to split my time between Girona, Spain and Aspen riding my bike with the odd surf trip—but somewhere in my life I missed the ticket on that train. I was prepared to ride conservatively to finish, and deal with the elevation as it came.
I did not pre-ride any of the course, unless you count “You Tube” videos as pre-riding, which I will say did help. So with that in mind, the only real surprise for me came when I got above the treeline at Columbine. To see the seemingly endless line of riders (nobody was riding read: hike-a-bikers) heading to the turnaround was impressive and —kind of Spielberg/MacGillivray-esque in scope. The image and altitude combined to hurt. I also counted on the return trip up Powerline/Sugarloaf as difficult because of its location relative to the overall course (e.g., 80 miles into a 100+ mile race). Two critical points in the race: Columbine climb outbound, and Powerline/Sugarloaf climb inbound. Neither disappointed.
I prepared drop bags at the three full aid stations (Hatchery/Pipeline—24 and 76 miles respectively; Twin Lakes—40 and 60 miles respectively; and Columbine Mine—50 mile turnaround), but used relatively little of their contents. Contents in each consisted of warmer clothes, ride food and powdered electrolyte mix, extra tubes, cartridges, and chain lube. They were there for contingency purposes but I used them sparingly.
I started waaaay in the back (basically at the 6th Street Gym), although I wasn't too worried about that given the likelihood of a 10.5 to 12 hour ride (ahem 'race') for me. I wanted to finish in less than 12, but planned on riding a 10 hour pace to provide a buffer for stops, hiking/pushing the bike, delirium and mechanicals.
Overall the course was really fun. Seriously. Even when I was feeling hypoxic or just like crap, I couldn't get enough of the terrain – particularly the downhills. The elevation at Columbine, then the elevation and distance combined on the return back up Powerline to Sugarloaf was tough and took me a looong time.
So, the race report: The ride out of town is an approximate 5 mile downhill ride to the start of the race, then you hit fire road enroute to St. Kevin's Mining District climb. The official description for the initial climb is extremely narrow and steep, but really it was double track and rideable the whole way up unless you were stuck in the scrum like me, and even then folks were pretty civil and if you asked to pass, they would let you. That went up to approx. 10,500’, but again completely rideable with some fun little downhill sections to break up the climb.
Off St. Kevin's you hit an asphalt downhill for approximately 3 miles on your way to the Sugarloaf Pass/Powerline drop. Even better. The climb is mellow fire road followed by a switchback to double-track (also mellow) up to about 11,200’. It was raining the whole time on both these climbs, but drainage is good, so in reality it got rid of the dust and loose dirt. The down was truly epic despite the crush of riders, most of whom were pretty cool and sufficiently proficient to ensure no crashes. The upper part off Sugarloaf is double track, not really technical and just basically fun. Then you hit Powerline proper (as I understand it), which was also hard pack, a little steeper with some ruts, but no reason to get gripped – still good fun. If you were in Leadville, Colorado riding for fun, this would be a great out and back with good climbs and descents, which would probably take about 4+ hours depending on how hard you were going.
For me the initial two climbs were easy and I did not feel any ill effects from the elevation. Well within my own capability. After Sugarloaf/Powerline you hit the flats with quite a bit of asphalt and fire road – good to form up a pace line toward the Fish Hatchery/Pipeline aid station at 24 miles outbound. I didn't stop at this station on the way out, but did use it inbound. I pressed to the Twin Lakes aid station (at 40 miles) on kind of a mesa fire road for a few miles— the sun came out along this point of the race as well. The race course was altered from previous years with some single track coming off the mesa— hard pack surface cut out of scrub that meandered along a hillside down to the lower elevations (9500’) followed by an easy fire road climb to the circus known as the Twin Lakes aid station. This was the 40 mile point and 4 hour cutoff. I rolled in at approximately 3 hours 20 minutes and filled up my water bottle. I still felt good at this point (mostly because I was conservative and at lower elevations).
The crowd on Twin Lakes was impressive— rode through the rest of the crowd on the Twin Lakes lead in to Columbine, and onto the Columbine climb. This is where I saw Lance coming down the last portion of the Columbine fire road as I entered that portion of the climb – there weren’t many other racers coming down close behind him— he had opened quite a gap on the other racers in the climb. This is also where my sea level training started to meet with reality. I was pedaling at a decent pace up Columbine until about 4 miles to go when I could feel the effects of 11,000+ feet of altitude. Very familiar feelings from my physiology training in military and aviation training—no graying of vision and all that, but light-headed for sure. I estimated I was on a 10 hour pace at that point, but quickly dialed back my pace to keep from dying. It also got warm in the treeline—off with the arm warmers, and unzipped the jacket and jersey—a la Frank Schleck. Glad I kept the jacket on though, because shortly thereafter there was a mix of rain and hail followed by the "above the tree line" section chill. Columbine was amazing. It was crowded and a death march, but what a sight to see all those riders going (slowly) up hill, with a few dudes bombing the downhill. You are EXPOSED above the tree line. For me and most of the other folks it was hike-a-bike to the top ... the hiking starts just above the tree line for most of us, when it gets steep and rocky. I heard some say about two miles or so, and that makes sense looking at the times. I stopped and helped a guy with a flat that lost his pump—karma. The down was a little tentative because there were so many people coming up—so not too smart to bomb the down, nor was it smart to fall either. But still killer.
I recovered on the way down the Columbine double track and fire road, and flat section to Twin Lakes, followed by the ride across the flats to the single track climb back to the mesa I mentioned earlier. Backing up a bit—I did stop and shed clothes at Twin Lakes and refilled the Camelbak. I can’t say enough about the volunteers at those aid stations. One guy grabbed my bike, another got my drop bag, another filled my Camelbak—then another that I was shooting the shit with says “hey do you want me to clean your sunglasses?” Unbelievable—plus you had all these people cheering you on as you went through—very motivating.
Back to riding: I started feeling the mileage (and a little bit of bonk) on the single track climb back up to the mesa and the Hatchery/Pipeline aid station. The single-track to Hatchery encompasses a section of about 65 to 76 miles into the race. I stopped for about 10-15 minutes at the Hatchery aid station to clean and lube my chain, drink coke and refill bottles—and take a break before hitting Powerline inbound. The road ride back to Powerline was quick and I actually felt pretty good all things considered until I hit the Powerline climb. That comes at 80 miles and is a steep, long, technical climb for approximately 3 miles to 11,200’. This hurt and I slowed to a crawl on this climb, adding an hour or more to my overall time. Finally crested the pass and took the double-track and fire road down to the asphalt climb to St. Kevin’s. The asphalt climb wasn’t too bad despite its length simply because there isn’t the uneven terrain and steep grade to contend with. I put my head down for the three-ish mile climb back to the top of St. Kevin’s express station (approximately 10,500’) grabbed some Sprite, Coke and watermelon and started back down to Leadville. This is a super fast, and non-technical down toward Leadville Junction and the beginning of the race. The last part is flat asphalt and gravel road into town. About 1.5 miles longer than I expected, but not all bad because of the gradual climb into town—and you’re almost done.
I finished in 11.5 hours—about an hour longer than I would have liked, but realistically about what I expected given my first look at the course and the type of training I did in advance. This race is worth doing.
That’s it. I enjoyed the race and look forward to doing it again. I will put in some more miles on the MTB, and get in some more altitude training.