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Few novice cyclists end up racing the Leadville Trail 100 MTB.
For one, Leadville is hard. The event begins and ends in the old Colorado mining town at 10,000 feet above sea level, and over the course of 100 miles, riders gain nearly 13,000 feet of elevation. Its logistics can be tough: most people have support crews to feed and fill their bottles, and pre-race scouting is a must. And, it’s expensive and difficult to get into.
This year, thanks to the efforts of two Colorado-based pro cyclists, Alexey Vermeulen and Ryan Petry, three riders, none of whom have tackled a race like the Leadville Trail 100 MTB, will participate in the race as part of a project called From The Ground Up.
Vermeulen and Petry hatched the idea for From The Ground Up on — where else — a bike ride. The two, who raced together on pro conti squad LottoNL-Jumbo in 2016 and 2018, were on bikepacking adventure through the high Rockies between Boulder and Crested Butte last summer, and the topic of how to create meaningful change in the sport of cycling kept coming up.
“We both came into cycling wanting to institute change in some way,” Vermeulen told VeloNews. “That was the biggest issue with road cycling — we didn’t feel in control of anything. Then with COVID, the pressure you normally feel like you’re under as an athlete, had dissipated. We wondered how we could support the companies that had been supporting us, but in a real way, the way I’d always wanted to.”
The simple premise of From The Ground Up was to give three novice cyclists the training, equipment, knowledge, and encouragement to tackle the nation’s most storied mountain bike race, the Leadville Trail 100. To show how, with some support from the cycling industry, even the most unlikely of riders could pedal toward a massive goal.
In some ways, it was an attempt by Vermeulen, who has been riding at an elite level since he was a teen, to step outside of his own box.
“The overarching goal was, ‘how do you affect the people that pros are not reaching?'” he said. “In my mind pros aren’t talking to amateurs. They’re not talking to new riders. They’re talking to people who already get deals on bikes, who are already in the sport.”
Not the people who are starting from the ground up.
Meet the three riders
Enzo Moscarella, a 34-year-old artist from Queens, was about to delete all of his social media accounts when he stumbled upon an Instagram post for From The Ground Up.
The post that caught his eye listed a simple prompt for a difficult task: tell us about yourself and why you want to go to the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race.
“I wasn’t sure if I had the skill to put together the submission or much less do the actual ride,” Moscarella told VeloNews. “I told myself, ‘if you are able to get something together to send, send it and see what happens.’”
Vermeulen said that the three applications stood out in what, at times, felt like a sea of stereotypes.
“To be honest, it was a lot of white males who wanted to be sponsored. It was fine, but a lot started their videos with ‘I know I’m too good for this.'”
Moscarella, Anderson, and Nuñez, on the other hand, were aligned in one common sentiment: none of them had ever really considered themself a cyclist.
“I’m a 47-year-old purple haired, middle-aged, slightly overweight special education teacher from northern Wisconsin,” Anderson said. “I was a bike rider but I didn’t know the lingo, I didn’t have the ‘cool clothes’, I didn’t know enough to consider myself a cyclist.”
“When I saw actual cyclists with their kits, I would just put my head down and keep pedaling as they passed me by,” said Nuñez, a 30-year-old Boston ICU nurse. “Deep down, I yearned to be like them, but I had no idea how to start and with my commuter bike, I wasn’t going anywhere fast. I would say I definitely didn’t feel like I fit in.”
Despite their hesitation to call themselves cyclists, all three felt that the bike had given them a sense of stability amidst the COVID craziness, and each expressed a sentiment of wanting to see if indeed it could take them further.
“Becoming a mountain biker has been a dream of mine — mostly a pipe dream because the price tag made it seem so unattainable for me,” Nuñez said. “Yet, here I was staring at a once in a lifetime opportunity where everything was provided. All I had to do was put in the effort. Also, representation matters and as a person of color, I definitely wanted to take part in Alexey and Ryan’s dream of helping change the cycling world.”
Every setback is a step forward
Now that the race is less than one week away, Vermeulen said that reality is sinking in. According to Neal Henderson, the head of sport science at Wahoo Fitness, 18 months would be a sufficient time frame to get someone to the start line at Leadville from the ground up.
Enzo, Shawna, and Roberta have had six.
And, most of those six months have been filled with physical training and getting used to new bikes and equipment. Now, the text messages about minutiae are rolling in.
“It’s been a constant evaluation on our side to not overwhelm but also educate,” Vermeulen said. “It’s really easy to say, ‘here’s how you fix a flat, sometimes you plug it and sometime you put a tube in.’ As we get closer, the little things we’ve purposely skipped over, they start to realize, ‘hey what happens if I do flat?’ When you do decide to take on Leadville in six months, you don’t focus on those things.”
In July, the three riders met with Vermeulen and Petry and others from the project to ride the course in Leadville over two days. It was mind-opening for everyone, Vermeulen especially.
The 26-year-old had been packing to move — an inconvenient request from his landlord during the peak of his own Leadville training — and it struck him how the major setback, because of his experience in cycling, only felt like a hiccup.
“You just see different setback and goals clearly,” Vermeulen said. “For me, moving before Leadville, OK that’s a setback, but I moved through it and I still trained. For them, every setback is a step forward. They’ve dedicated everything beyond the bike to being ready.”
Nuñez: “The hardest part of training has been the days when I have back-to-back hectic shifts at the hospital and then have to get home, dig insanely deep for any energy that’s left to be able to do a 2-4 hour training session.
Moscarella: “The hardest part for sure had been managing relationships. Relationships with people, food, habits, all of it. It’s hard to reframe your day-to-day to fit in a new commitment. It takes that work to really sort out what you need versus what you want.”
Anderson: “Without a doubt the hardest part for me has been the mental/emotional prep. I’ve spent almost 48 years limiting myself, telling myself that I can’t. I don’t see myself as an ‘athlete.’ That thought process doesn’t just go away with a few weeks of training.”
Vermeulen said that no one, himself or the riders, has illusions that finishing the race is a guarantee. Completing one of the country’s most difficult races in under 12 hours is a crapshoot even if you’re not starting from the ground up.
But, if the project’s simple premise — to arm three novice riders with the tools to finish a race — doesn’t quite pan out, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t already achieved a far more significant goal.
“Ryan and Alexey have made me realize that I do belong in the sport and I deserve to occupy some space in the cycling world,” Nuñez said. “All the challenges I have overcome throughout these six months have changed my perspective on how I view myself, not only in sports but at work and in my personal life. I have gained so much confidence and as cliche as this may sound, I learned to love myself and the body that has allowed me to do this. Becoming a cyclist has brought about so much joy, peace, freedom, empowerment, and adventure that I cannot imagine life without it.”