With about 30 miles to go in the Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race, I resorted to the most ancient shifting technique known — with a slight acceleration, I unclipped my right foot, kept spinning the left, and gently tapped my chain into the granny gear on my triple-chainring crankset.
This is the sort of adaptation one makes when riding a bike from 1983 in a grueling 104-mile race up above 12,000 feet among Colorado’s highest peaks.
A few months before the race on August 11, I decided to take a different approach. Instead of sourcing the bike industry’s top-of-the-line products to maximize speed and comfort, I wheeled out my vintage Specialized Stumpjumper — a bike approximately as old as I am, bought on eBay last year. I chose to ride this piece of mountain biking memorabilia to prove that no matter how outdated your gear might be, you can (and should) get out and ride.
It came as no surprise that Leadville was a hard 10 hours on the bike. However, I had way more fun than I expected, and that old bike, well, it was almost trouble-free.
I started this 25th edition of Leadville at the very back of a field of about 1,500 riders, among my fellow first-timers. In practically any other race, this would have been cause for anxiety. I’m naturally a very competitive person. But on that cold Saturday morning, with dawn breaking on the peaks above the highest city in the U.S. (10,152 feet above sea level), it was the perfect place to begin my introduction to this race that founder Ken Chlouber calls a “family.”
It is quite an exceptional family. On the pointy end of the masses, there are pro athletes such as Howard Grotts (Specialized) and Larissa Connors (Felt-Sho-Air), who each won their second consecutive titles. In the back where I started, there are even more inspiring riders, just hoping to finish inside the 12-hour cutoff time to win a coveted belt buckle.
For the first 15 miles, I rode near a man who is legally blind and relies on a guide rider to pilot him through the field. As we rode along the field changed pace erratically. We sometimes even dismounted to hike climbs as the course twisted up the trail on St. Kevins. I couldn’t believe the blind rider’s confidence on this trail, which was strewn with loose rocks. I was also amazed by the pilot rider’s selfish devotion to his blind companion.
He wasn’t the only one devoting a long day in the sun to a Leadville rider. At the course’s five aid stations, hundreds of supporters set up tents to hand off bottles, food, Slim Jims, you name it. And they cheered on practically every rider who came through.
This support has provided me my fondest memories from my race at Leadville. The vibe amongst riders and spectators was positive, from mile 1 to 104. Within the mass of humanity, riders encouraged each other. On the side of the trail, fans, friends, and supporters urged everyone on. At the end of the race, the questions asked are more along the lines of, “How was it?” or “Did you make it under 12 hours?” rather than “What place did you finish?”
Well, I did finish. And it was awesome. As I said at the beginning, riding my vintage bike was almost trouble-free. Thankfully I didn’t suffer any flat tires, which was my chief concern. But when I got back to my hotel after a post-race dinner, I heard a funny rush of air, and sure enough, my front tire had just gone flat, not more than six hours after my finish.
The old bike did have a few issues on the trail. The chain fell off on rough descents. I had to stop and get the headset tightened three times — when I finished, the steering was perilously clunky.
And of course, there was that front-shifting malfunction that made the final climb up Powerline quite an adventure.
Despite all that, it was totally worth it. It was worth the sore back, limp arms, and momentary cross-eyed vision on one descent (can your eyeballs get rattled loose?). It was worthwhile because so many people — in the race and along the course were stoked to see this old bike in action.
I finished in time to get that coveted belt buckle, as did 1,100 other riders. The real reward for me, though, was the experience of riding with this family and brushing up on my old-school shifting techniques.
Thanks to The Leadville Race Series for letting us participate in this year’s race to bring you the most in-depth coverage around the event.