Mountain
Photo: Brad Kaminski | VeloNews.com

Shreddin’ the Lead: My day at Leadville Trail 100

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Betsy Welch had a punishing but fun day racing in Colorado's thin air at the Leadville 100.

Editor’s Note: This summer we are covering a series of mountain bike races, including the Leadville 100. This coverage is made possible by Canyon Bicycles. 

Are you familiar with that post-race hangover? Not the too-many-beers hangover, but that feeling after a huge, hard day on a bike: mildly depressed, groggy, snippy and short with loved ones, and “hangry.”

I’m writing this the day after the Leadville Trail 100, and somehow, I am not feeling the post-race hangover. I’m not entirely sure why. After all, it was a huge day on the bike for me—9 hours and 28 minutes to be exact—so I’m not sure why I feel OK today, but I’ll take it. In fact, I’ll take all of the surprises that Leadville served up because there were more than a few.

I’ve never been much of a planner when it comes to racing, but the buzz around Leadville (including all the advice from people who’ve raced it before) made me nervous. Two nights before I left town for the race, I listened to a Rebecca Rusch podcast entitled “Remember what you need” as I puttered around my kitchen. Bad idea. All of the things that I’m usually calm about—snacks, layers, tools—turned into threats, destined to derail my ride before it had begun. I furiously baked two loaves of zucchini bread, doubling up on the chocolate chips.

Photo: Brad Kaminski | VeloNews.com

The surprise? Leadville is just like any other long race when it comes to snacks, layers, and tools. You need all of those things, and, on a good day—which we had—you get to leave most of it in your pack. The temperature at the start line was a balmy 50 degrees, and I took off in nothing but a kit and arm warmers. My tools never came out of their pouch. I had more than enough food with me, and if I’d needed, I could have grabbed more at the aid stations. When I didn’t ask for food at either stop at Twin Lakes, my boyfriend ate all of the zucchini bread.

The other nerve-wracking thing about Leadville is the place names. St. Kevin’s. Sugarloaf. Pipeline. Powerline. Columbine. The advice I got from more than one person was to go and pre-ride some of these legendary sections, but I selfishly selected a weekend riding, hiking, and SUPing in Crested Butte instead. Again, I thought, I’ve done enough races and suffered through their insulting climbs and uphill finishes, but I’ve always survived. Why would Leadville be any different?

Photo: Brad Kaminski | VeloNews.com

Surprise? The race really is defined by these powerful places. When VeloNews photographer Brad Kaminski took me to the Powerline section for a photo shoot on Friday, I realized why people suggested I ride it. It’s a never-ending climb with a series of false summits on a dry, exposed power line cut through the Ponderosa pines. Coming down it at mile 20 is fun. Going up it at mile 80 is hard. Last week, a colleague had tried to describe the first climb, St. Kevin’s, while we studied the map at work one morning, but nothing made sense until I was stuffed precariously between a hundred other anxious riders on it at 7 a.m. Saturday morning, moving uphill at 3mph for a good 30 minutes.

Aside from the preparation and the place names, Leadville’s reputation is the other thing that precedes it. And, let’s be honest, in certain circles, that reputation has become a bit tarnished. It’s too hard to get into, people say. It’s too expensive, some cry. The riders are too high-strung, others claim. I admit, I wasn’t expecting to see anyone wearing baggies or riding with a fanny pack, and I thought that there might be a little “too-cool-ness” in the air.

Photo: Brad Kaminski | VeloNews.com

Surprisingly, I did see a few people with fanny packs (that one girl passed me with four miles to go, damnit!), but the overall flair factor was definitely low. I was sure that the high-strung flavor would peak as we crawled at a snail’s pace up St. Kevin’s at the beginning of the race, but people were surprisingly polite, even as the less adept bike handlers wobbled into other people’s paths. Standing in lines—for the porta-potties before the race and for the beer after—it was easy to strike up a conversation and hard to tell who’d earned a big buckle or a small one. The number of hoots, hollers, and cheers and “you go girl’s” as I passed through every aid station kept me grinning long after I left all of my new fans behind.

I always try to smile as I cross the finish line of a race—who wants to get the email with their race photos and regret that they looked so haggard? But when I crossed the tape at Sixth and Harrison, I didn’t have to force it. I really did have a great day on the bike. Of course, it might actually have been the bike (the Canyon Lux is the ultimate Lead-shred), but I think the real secret were all the surprises.

What I rode: