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Monuments of Gravel

Groad Trip: The LeadBoat Challenge

How to race two big events back-to-back, and what I plan to do for Leadville and SBT GRVL.

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There are some folks who consider the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race the original gravel race, having taken place well before Unbound Gravel and gravel bikes were even a dream.

True, it’s done on a mountain bike, but we’ve established by now that gravel isn’t necessarily bound by the terrain but rather the ethos and vibe. Leadville holds these same values to heart: the mass start, the festival atmosphere, and the immense sense of accomplishment from just finishing.

Plus, you could feasibly race Leadville on a modern gravel bike. It’s endurance-based and really only 10 miles are rough enough that you would wish you had big tires. Furthermore, this race has speeds and tactics similar to most gravel races. So, yes, I’d actually argue that the Leadville 100 is a gravel race where a mountain bike just happens to be the best tool for the job.

Leadville is gravel, kinda. Photo: Jered Gruber

SBT GRVL, on the other hand, is a purebred gravel race. Long, hard, and prestigious as hell. It’s 144 miles of classic Colorado dirt roads taking place in a summer paradise resort of Steamboat Springs.

Both races happen to be on the same weekend, August 14-15, and are conveniently 2.5 hours apart by car. So instead of vying for participants and under-cutting each other, the organizers got together and created the LeadBoat Challenge, where you race the Leadville 100 on Saturday, then drive over to Steamboat just in time for dinner and race SBT GRVL at 6:30 the next morning!

When the organizers developed this devilish challenge, they reached out to a few of us pros, and my answer was an immediate yes. I was fully committed and circled this weekend on my calendar, in red, twice.

Beyond the pros, a heap of age group racers got the nod from the LeadBoat Challenge. Let’s be honest: their accomplishments will be a much bigger deal than mine and those of my pro counterparts. However, demand was higher than anticipated; we cyclists are a masochistic group, after all. Those who didn’t get in through the official challenge but were able to make the lottery of Leadville and snag a coveted SBT spot are “rowing their own LeadBoat.” All told, about 100 foolish souls will tackle this mini odyssey.

Racing SBT GRVL a few hours after Leadville will be… interesting. Photo: 1000% Studio

Recover like a pro

For those attempting the LeadBoat, or even those out for an epic weekend, overnight recovery is the name of the game. I’ve made a career off of recovering for stage racing. Being on some top teams, I’ve been privileged to work with and learn from some of the best sports scientists in the world. Here are some tips.

First, just focus on a successful Leadville. Race it like it’s one day, but mentally, as you are getting close to the finish of Leadville, don’t think about “emptying the tank” to the line. I mean, do an effort, but try not to finish shelled and on your last gel. Keep taking on carbs even in the last hour or rolling into the finish. It’s OK to eat an entire bar 5 miles from the finish. It’s all going in the bank for Sunday.

Immediately post race are where things get serious. After you finish, you have one hour when your body is extremely sensitive to glycogen. We call this the glycogen window. Your poor, shocked body doesn’t know the effort is over and wants to absorb whatever you throw in there — “More fuel in the engine room, STAT!” If you have a support crew, have them meet you at the finish with a recovery shake or some pizza leftover from last night’s dinner. If no one is there to pamper you, don’t sit around the finish line in the soggy chamois. Hurry over to the meal tent and then sit around in that same chamois, but with a fork in your hand and food in your mouth.

As much as I hate to say it, keep away from the beer on Saturday as well. I know Athletic Brewing will be on scene with their non-alcoholic award winners so opt for that. But, this is gravel style in the end, so I’ll just say keep it at one pilsner (Avery Brewing is another sponsor of the event and has Pacer, a session IPA) instead of a big bad IPA. Sunday afternoon the full strength stuff will taste that much better anyway.

If you’re not too tight on time, swing by the Normatec booth and get a flush from those fancy boots before hitting the road. Dinner should be as big as you can handle. You can’t overeat here! Don’t hurt yourself by forcing it down, but go big or go home. Some of the best stage racers in the world actually gain weight during races due to their ability to fuel well.

Floyd’s of Leadville products work for me for recovery — and hey, they’re right there in town.

Sometimes I really struggle with falling asleep after a massive effort. Altitude can also hinder sleep. You’re in a losing battle here: you’re going to be wired and also will need to wake up at 4:30 a.m. for SBT breakfast (yes, at least two hours before start time is best). I personally take some Floyd’s of Leadville CBD for such occasions (their office is on the way out of town as you start your drive anyway). A little bit will help relax you and mellow you out so you can hit the hay before 10 p.m.

On the start line of SBT, you may feel stiff and groggy from the day before, but you’ll likely come around after a few hours of the race. Good luck!

The pro storyline

Beyond just simply surviving the double, for those of us racing, things will get complicated tactically. It would be one thing if this was just a two-day stage race with a cumulative time. But this is two of the biggest one-day races in the USA, back to back. There will be riders solely focused on Leadville, and others only attending SBT. Us LeadBoaters will be on the back foot come Sunday, especially if we go all in on Saturday.

Cash may be an incentive as well. SBT offers a mighty fine purse for the men and women, so I wonder if some may think about that in the back of their mind on Saturday, especially if bad luck strikes and they’re not in the hunt for a podium.

Regardless, recovery will be paramount. I’ll be saving those fancy Colorado IPA’s for Sunday afternoon on the river in Steamboat.

I’ve got the big buckle. Can I add some hardware at SBT GRVL the day after?