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LeadBoat Challenge: What pro riders say about altitude, recovery, and suffering

The strategy to win includes going all out at Saturday's MTB race, say Alex Howes and Payson McElveen. Alison Tetrick's secret weapon is bombproof preparation.

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There are many reasons to do both races.

That’s the vibe around bike racing in the U.S. this weekend, with two major participatory cycling events being held back-to-back in Colorado. For the pros who couldn’t choose between Saturday’s Leadville Trail 100 MTB race and Sunday’s SBT GRVL, a mega challenge is in store, dubbed LeadBoat Challenge.

Around 120 riders have committed to the LeadBoat Challenge, including a healthy handful of pro riders. Some strong contenders in the men’s race include EF Education-NIPPO’s Lachlan Morton, just off his alt-Tour de France, as well as teammate and high-altitude dweller Alex Howes. Alpecin-Fenix’s Eddie Anderson and privateer Payson McElveen have also been putting in strong MTB and gravel miles ahead of LeadBoat; in fact, Howes, Anderson, McElveen, and Pete Stetina have their own summer of 2021 GC battle going. Migration Gravel Race champ Laurens ten Dam is also stateside for the races.

The women of LeadBoat include former Unbound Gravel champs Amity Rockwell and Alison Tetrick. Both will race Leadville for the first time, and it will be Tetrick’s first SBT. On the other hand, Durango all rounder Sarah Sturm returns to both races after standing on the podium in 2019 at both (she placed second in Leadville and third at SBT). Liv Factory Racing’s Kaysee Armstrong will be a strong contender on the mountain bike, as will Kristen Legan. In her first season of racing, SoCal’s Isabel King is only getting better.

The miles, altitude, and climbing of LeadBoat are no joke. None of the collective 250 miles and 22,400 feet of climbing takes place below 8,000 feet of altitude, and riders will have every little time to recover in between. Here’s what some of the pros are saying about the decision to take on such a massive challenge.

Why LeadBoat?

Alex HowesThey’re both in Colorado, and I love Colorado. I think Leadville is the biggest mountain bike race in Colorado, and I think Steamboat is the biggest gravel or road race in Colorado. The two biggest of two different disciplines on the same weekend. If you’re gonna be a bike racer in Colorado, you can’t not. You gotta be there.

Payson McElveen: Mostly it was a matter of, Leadville is what I’m prioritizing. If they were switched, Steamboat first and Leadville second, the decision would be a lot harder for me. Other than the incredible discomfort of doing 140 miles the next day, there wasn’t too much reason to not do it. I don’t have any major goals shortly thereafter so not too much downside. It’s a cool unique format, we’ve never really seen anything like this. It’ll be fun to be a part of history. I also wanted to support the collaboration between two rival organizers. It’s a really cool concept and speaks highly to both Steamboat and Life Time. It’s indicative of where sport is here in the U.S.

Alison Tetrick: LeadBoat is a challenge that inspires me. It isn’t about racing – I have never done a MTB race before and can count on one hand the number of times I’ve even ridden a mountain bike in my life. LeadBoat is about the physical and mental barriers we will all have to break through, due to the distance and altitude and short transition between events.  It isn’t about a result, it is about completion, perseverance, and a whole lot of snacks and celebration along the way. I would love to see my body be able to conquer both days with a consistent effort from start to finish.

Isabel King: I think one of my strengths is the ability to put my head down, embrace the suffering and just ride. In 2020, I developed little three-day challenges for myself because I loved waking up tired, but knowing I still had another goal to accomplish that day. LeadBoat will be an extreme version of that. Taking on this challenge makes me both terrified and excited. I’ve only heard stories and warnings about the altitude and the ‘climbs that will break you’ for Leadville. Steamboat in comparison will seem like silky smooth gravel with plenty of oxygen, but I’ll be sitting at the start line with Leadville spent legs. I think ignorance is bliss when it comes to LeadBoat. It’s never been done before, so no one can tell you what a terrible idea it is.

VN:  What’s your strategy around pacing? Will you hold back or go all in on the first day? 

McElveen: I’ll go all in. It’s a GC thing too, so it comes down to every second you get. Also, Leadville is also a more selective event, and the gaps are likely to be bigger. It’s more physically demanding and technically demanding. The opportunity to pick up more time is there in Leadville. I’ve heard course in Steamboat has changed, I’m not sure how much, but in 2019, it was a crazy high average speed, and the gaps were pretty small. 

Tetrick: Oh man, we are practically riding above the clouds here so, especially at Leadville, I definitely need to pace myself for sure. I am not known to excel at altitude and there is no reason for me to take the hole shot against the other pros who know the race, know how to mountain bike, and are in it to win it. Leadville is all about pacing to have a steady, consistent effort to get to the finish line and fueling and hydrating super smart so I can do it again tomorrow. SBT GRVL is all about… finishing? Kaysee [Armstrong] and I hope to ride together and share long tired pulls, snacks, stories, and just roll with the rollers. It is more about having fun, challenging our bodies, and having great conversations and maybe a whiskey handup or two. I dunno.

Howes: I don’t think you can hold back because it’s a GC between the two. I’ve never done Steamboat, so this is me mansplaining how to do something I’ve never done. But from what I understand, you can be in the group quite a bit longer in Steamboat. It will be harder to pull time out, certainly among the top riders, you might get a minute or two. Leadville, I think I was 5th and that was like 10 minutes back. You can make some big time gaps at Leadville so it’s not the one to hold back on, for sure. I think it’s good, it will make Steamboat that much harder.

King: Pacing? Still definitely learning what that means and how to do it. In my three races so far, I’ve been very conservative at the start. My biggest concern is going too deep too early and not being able to recover. I usually get into a groove and start to pick people off after about an hour, but that strategy has also left me a bit too far back from the race leaders, and I haven’t been able to close the gap. For these races, I’ll probably be conservative at Leadville, knowing I have some huge climbs to do. And then at Steamboat, try to stay with the fastest group I can because drafting is going to be a huge benefit. With tired legs you want to hide as much as possible.

How do you recover between the two? 

Howes: You gotta focus on the basics. Drink some water and go to bed. To do the stage race, to do the two of them, to be good for the GC, a lot of will come down to really being on top of staying hydrated during Leadville. Especially at altitude, especially if it’s sunny, you won’t be able to rehydrate between the two. You’ll really pay during that night of sleep. Just put the feet up and drive.

Howes’ Pro tip: If someone is really looking for marginal gains between the two, maybe look for somewhere low to sleep. Get a little more oxygen at night. Probably the worst thing you could do is sleep in Leadville after Leadville.

McElveen: The most important thing is trying to sleep as well as you can. That alarm Sunday morning is gonna be brutal. To be totally honest, this isn’t something the team and I have talked about too much at this point. We’re gonna discuss different strategies. Having a well thought out and simple plan to get from one event to the other will be key. Trying to keep everything as quiet as possible. Probably not go out to dinner. Avoid spending time at expos. The usual stuff that makes these events extra special might have be to put on hiatus if you want to do well at both. Usually you roll across Leadville and you’re trilled to be flat on your back, drinking a beer.

King: Fueling and hydrating during Leadville will be crucial to feeling OK at Steamboat. I’ve noticed with big training rides, if I don’t fuel well during the ride, it’s really hard to get out of the hole and you’ll feel way worse the next day. Secondly, sleep. Usually after races, my body is so jacked up on adrenaline it’s hard to shut down. Luckily we’ll have a nice two hour drive to decompress before getting to Steamboat Springs

Tetrick: Recovery will start even before the shotgun fires at Leadville. It is all in the preparation. I think we need to be completely prepared for both events ahead of time. Camelbaks filled and loaded with supplies. Bikes lubed and tuned. Nutrition set. Numbers pinned. Once Leadville is over we eat, drive to Steamboat, eat again, sleep, get up and ride SBT GRVL without having to do any major equipment checks or wonder whether there is electrolyte in the bottles on the gravel bikes.