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Quinn Simmons, the 18-year-old rising star of American road racing, finished second place at Saturday’s Leadville Trail 100, out sprinting WorldTour road pros Peter Stetina and Lachlan Morton at the finish line.
That result on paper fails to capture the zany story of Simmons’s ride at Leadville. Simmons is an accomplished road and mountain-bike racer, and in 2018 won the junior national title in both events. Yet this was his first stab at the iconic 100-mile race—previously he was too young to compete. He lacked the luxury of a call-up position, and started midway back in the 2,000-rider field.
And then, there were the multiple flat tires he suffered, the result of thumbtacks that punctured his tires early in the race. Simmons overcame these obstacles to catch back on to the front group and still sprint.
We recently caught up with Simmons to discuss his wild ride at the Leadville 100.
Earlier this year Simmons set a new Fastest Known Time (FKT) record for riding the entire 100-mile White Rim trail in Moab.
“I was in Sittard [the Netherlands] reading about how Payson McElveen went and did the White Rim record [5:45:16] and I wanted to go beat it. My friend told me I could borrow his mountain bike, and I texted my coach and he said it fit into my training plan, and I just figured it would be an awesome training day and a sick prep for racing in Europe. I drove out on a Tuesday night with my dad and then just ripped it and had a great time, and came away with the fastest time [5:41:17]. It was the mental game of being out there alone for that long and not having someone to race.”
That experience persuaded Simmons to sign up for Leadville, because the long training ride fit into his preparation for the UCI road world championships.
“I wasn’t really thinking about [Leadville] until a few weeks ago when I went to dinner with Ned [Overend] and he said they were launching the new [Specialized Epic Hardtail] and he wanted to see if I was interested in racing it. It fit into my worlds training, so I put it on the list. I did one seven-hour ride on the new bike and worked on my nutrition, but other than that I just did normal race prep. I didn’t get a ride on the course because everything was pretty last-minute, but I did research online and watched some YouTube videos. That was about it.”
Simmons had to sprint from the start to get into the front group because he started so far back.
“I didn’t have a call-up so I just focused on moving up because I was so far back. You start with this three-mile downhill so I was just weaving through people, and as soon as we hit the first climb I went really hard, with [Peter] Stetina and Howard [Grotts] setting a fast pace.”
And then, Simmons flatted on the ensuing descent, and discovered that he had run over a number of thumbtacks that had been put on the trail.
“We came over the top of Powerline and started descending. It was Howard [Grotts], a European guy I didn’t know, Stetina, and me, and I decided to pass to get a clean line on the descent, and right as I passed Stetina I heard this hissing noise and was like ‘no, this isn’t happening.’ I tried to ride the flat and it wouldn’t seal, so I got off. I saw it was a thumbtack, and then saw two more. I plugged one hole and hit it with the CO2, and then another tack came loose and I had to plug that. I kept riding and the tire went completely flat, and I thought the feed zone was closer that it was, so I tried to ride it for a while. Eventually I put a tube in, but in the rush to do that I didn’t see that there were more tacks in the tire—I had five total. So, then the tube went flat. I got an extra tube from someone as I was sitting on the side of the trail. I had like 15 psi in my tire and babied that all the way to the tech pit. It was a while before I got going.”
The sabotage frustrated Simmons, and he took his anger out on the bicycle once he got going again.
I went into the pit and the gap was eight minutes, and we had trouble finding a wheel that had the right [brake] rotor size, so when I left it was over 10 minutes to them. At that point, I was like ‘ah, race is done,’ so I figured I’d go for some [Strava] KOMs on course. I couldn’t be frustrated at myself because I made a mistake. I couldn’t be mad that I got dropped. It just felt like something that shouldn’t be happening and I got really frustrated. And that’s why, when I started going, I was so mad that I figured I would ride as hard as I could until I blew up. I fully planned to blow up halfway up Columbine [climb] and I had pretty good motivation to just go as hard as I could.”
Simmons began to blow through the field as he mounted his comeback.
“The whole thing happened when I was like one hour into the race, and I was back pretty far. I would just ride through groups and catch more. I caught Todd [Wells] about an hour after Columbine—I rode probably three hours by myself. And then it was another hour or so before I caught anyone. And then we hit Powerline [climb] and I looked up and could see those guys. At the top of Powerline I finally caught the group with Stetina where I could have someone pull for me. They seemed pretty surprised because I don’t think anybody expected me to come back. It was definitely fun when they turned around and saw who it was—I think every single person I caught was surprised to see me, which was a cool feeling.”
Simmons is a talented sprinter, and handily won the sprint for second, three minutes behind winner Howard Grotts. The result and experience at Leadville has convinced him to someday come back and ride for the win. That may depend on his road schedule.
“For me, road racing in Europe is still the focus. I could definitely see at some point me coming back to do [Leadville] to try and win it. I love mountain biking and would still like to race a World Cup at some point. If I can fit in cool races like this I’m definitely going to try and do that. The road is still the focus of my career path.”