The Leadville Trail 100 MTB Race: Calling all roadies

The Leadville Trail 100 MTB Race: Calling all roadies

I have done four Leadville Trail 100 MTB races, three as a competitor and one as a crew member. I mention the one as a crew member because it was equally as rewarding as the three on the bike. But that’s another story. For the times I have lined it up, I have finished off my training for the monster of mountain bike races the same way: with a good dose of hard and fast road riding. The last intense ride I did before this year’s Leadville Trail 100 MTB race was a local throw down group ride. Fast, intense, climbs and sprints: your typical Saturday morning stuff for a race-roadie. The group ripped it up and down the climbs, dashed for city limit signs and worked the draft. In between efforts we talked about upcoming races  and when I mentioned Leadville, I got a lot of “good luck with that” looks. It was as if they were saying “I wouldn’t be caught dead doing that thing.”  And they are right, it’s a ridiculously hard day in the saddle. But when you brake it down, the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race has a soft spot for roadies. So RKP proudly presents, the top nine reasons a roadie should enter the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race.

It has Tarmac. The ride out of town, the dash around Turquoise Lake and the run between Powerline and the Pipeline feed are on roadie territory. The surface is black and smooth. The “Trail” 100 has 26 miles of tarmac. Sure you’re on fat tires with less than 30 psi, but knobs make this really cool buzz sound as they are rolling across pavement.

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Pacelines. Between the bottom of Powerline and the Twin Lakes feed zone there is a great opportunity to share the work. This segment has pavement, dirt and the only significant single track. But it’s mostly wide open with plenty of room to get a good pace line working. Roadies know how to go to the front, take a pull and pull off.  And trust me, roadie rotation is needed at Leadville. Dedicated mountain bikers struggle with the concept. They ride the front until they die or surge through or do nothing. Half of Leadville’s mileage is flat and pretty fast so finding working groups can be the difference between a silver and gold buckle.

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Aerodynamics. In 2009, pro mountain biker Travis Brown did Leadville with drop bars on his mountain bike. The idea never caught on but hundreds of riders employ other wind cheating equipment and ideas normally reserved for the road. Skinsuits, booties, aero helmets and aero bars are pretty normal. Check out this shot of Todd Wells. He looks like he’s headed for a TT. Specialized rider Christoph Sauser used road shoes and pedals last year. The 2015 winner, Alban Lakata, had an average speed of almost 17 mph. Cutting the wind is a Leadville requirement and no one knows how to do that better than a roadie.

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Wheel Size. Several years ago I jumped into a group ride on my 29er and someone in the bunch said “man, those wheels are huge”.  “No bigger than yours”, I told the roadie. The 29 inch wheel is tailor made for the Leadville Trail 100. Wagon wheels just roll better and that’s key at Leadville: get rollin’ and keep rollin’.  Roadies should feel right at home on the 29 inch wheel because in the end it’s just a wide 700c.

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Columbine climb. The beast of the Leadville Trail 100 is the 3-thousand foot climb up to Columbine mine. This segment takes riders to the half way point. Yes, you go to 12,600 feet. Yes, you feel like throwing up. But us roadies, we know long climbs. Columbine is just the Croix de Fer minus the pavement. The average gradient is 8 percent. It takes about 1 hour, 45 minutes to get up and less than 30 minutes to descend. Mountain bikers just aren’t used to going uphill for that long. Advantage: roadies.

It’s a double century. Eight, nine, ten hours on the bike is enough to scare off even the dedicated rider. But isn’t that what it takes to complete a double century? I have never done one but have heard stories from my roadie friends who will grind it out for 200 miles. Same thing at Leadville. Get on your bike, pedal lots, hit the rest stops, pedal some more, get a finishers medal at the end. Leadville maybe a century on the odometer (actually it’s 103 miles) but it’s a double when it comes to saddle time, at least to a roadie.

It’s a crit start. The first few miles maybe the most dangerous part of the Leadville Trail 100. First off, some high mountain yahoo fires a shotgun into the air to get the thing going. God knows where the pellets end up. Then 16-hundred or so mountain bikers take off, downhill, elbow to elbow, wheel to wheel, shivering in the sub 40 degrees morning air and still quivering from that shotgun blast. It’s a pretty crazy scene and one that requires the steely nerve of an experienced roadie who knows the ins and outs of pack riding and positioning. Riders are spun out as they hit 40 mph. The race bible says the ride to the first dirt section is supposed to be neutral yet it’s anything but. Riders are moving up, taking chances, chopping wheels and very few of them have ever been in a crit where this is normal practice. The Leadville start is made for the calm and cool roadie.

Taking a feed on the fly. In the early days, Leadvillers trying to make time would come to a full stop at the feed zones. No longer. The fat tire fasties have adopted the way of the road race feed: they take it on the fly. Problem is, they are not very adept at discarding bottles and depositing new ones in their cages. A roadie knows this drill and can tackle it with grace and style. Rebecca Rusch told me if you want to break nine hours and get a gold buckle, the best place to chop time is by making your feed stops fast. Or in the case of a roadie, don’t stop at all.

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Lance and Levi. The Leadville Trail 100 champions list is dominated by mountain bikers. But starting in 2007 with Floyd Landis, prominent roadies were making Leadville part of their summer vacation. The skinny tire boys broke through in 2009 when Lance Armstrong denied Dave Wiens of his 7th Leadville in a row. The following year Levi Leipheimer outdueled Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski. The fact that Leadville’s organizers have not stripped our two admitted EPO’ers of their gold buckles maybe the source of some eye rolling but they did bring a new level of attention to the “Race Across the Sky”. 2009 and 2010 are the only years a DVD was made about the race. Mountain bikers mapped out the route but roadies put it on the map.

So enough excuses my roadie friends. You have all the skills needed to complete and compete in the biggest, baddest, highest, fastest, mountain bike race in the country.  The lottery opens December 1st. The Leadville Trail 100 is usually the second weekend in August. I’ll see you on the start line at 6th and Harrison.

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5 comments


    1. Author
      Michael Hotten

      Arthur-
      Thanks for searching the archives for this piece. Go get you a hardtail, aluminum 29’er. If you need to build it out, Shimano XT or SRAM XO will be perfect group sets. Just make sure you have enough gears. A 2X setup is still a good choice at Leadville. For tires, make sure you have sidewall protection. No S-Works or lightweight, race models from other brands. Look for the words or letters “Control”, “Snake Skin”, or “EXO” on those tires.

  1. Arthur

    Thanks, my friend sent me a link to your last podcast on Leadville. I’m a roadie, and he’s trying to talk me into attempting to qualify for Leadville via Austin. But the biggest impediment is that I don’t own a MTB. I did some gravel grinding this summer near Carbondale on my 120 psi roadbike which was fun. Thanks for the advice, and I will consider the lunacy of doing this race.

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