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Leadville 100: Previewing The Course

First, let’s get one thing straight: The Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race is 103 miles long. That’s really important to know, especially at the end of the race when you’re staring down at your Garmin, wondering why it says 101 or 102, yet the finish line is…

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First, let’s get one thing straight: The Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race is 103 miles long. That’s really important to know, especially at the end of the race when you’re staring down at your Garmin, wondering why it says 101 or 102, yet the finish line is nowhere in sight.

Second, remember that though mountain biking is traditionally a solo, mano-a-mano competition, Leadville is essentially a road race on dirt roads. That means if you’re not aligning with other riders, sharing the workload, and drafting during extended flat road sections, you’re not racing smart.

If you want a belt buckle – big or small – make some friends out there. It will enrich the experience and get you across the finish line quicker.

For more on the infamous out-and-back course that starts and finishes in America’s highest incorporated city (10,152 feet), spoke to five top pros, asking each of them about the cruxes of the course – and how best to handle them.

The Start

It’s 6:30 in the morning, it’s cold, and you’re surrounded by about 2,000 fellow racers. Get ready to be nervous. The good news is once the gun sounds, most of that nervous energy will fade, allowing you to focus on the task at hand.

“For me the start is always a challenge,” says two-time champ and women’s course record holder Rebecca Rusch. “Two thousand racers is a lot of people whether you’re up front, in the middle, or at the back. Add in the fact that a lot of the people around you have probably never ridden in such a large group, and it just adds to the anxiety. But once you get rolling and get to the base of the St. Kevins climb, the selections get made and you can settle in. The key is just staying safe and getting to the climb in a good position. That will set you up for a good race.”

St. Kevins Climb

“If you want to put down a fast time, you need to be near the front coming into St. Kevins,” advises six-time winner Dave Wiens, who is not racing this year. “The good thing is that the last few years the pace car has been going pretty fast right from the start, so it’s not really a neutral start. That strings people out right away, which makes it safer for everyone.”

Once you get rolling up St. Kevins remember it’s the first climb of many, so no need to go all out right away.

“Don’t blow your day there,” recommends Nate Whitman, director of the Herbalife24 Basecamp, and an elite level racer with nine Leadville finishes and numerous top 20 placings. “There will be a lot of anxiety if you’re in the big pack on St. Kevins. It’s steep, it’s not easy to keep traction, so you may end up walking if someone dabs. Just remember that the steep portion at beginning is only about a mile. So whether you are going for just a finish, a 9-hour buckle or trying to win, don’t over think this climb. Just get over it and carry on with your day.”

Powerline Descent

Remember the age old adage: You can’t win the race on the Powerline Descent, but you can definitely lose it. Indeed, this descent is steep, rutted, rocky and downright dangerous if you don’t use a little sensible caution.

“The ruts can wreck your day really fast,” says Jeremiah Bishop, who finished fifth overall in 2010 and will be among the contenders for victory this year. “It can be hard to see that early in the morning. I personally found it terrifying to blast down that with dust in your face. It’s off camber in sections and if you end up in the ditch going 35mph, you’re going to get hurt bad. And that will happen to some people. That’s always where the most crashes are.”

Adds Herbalife’s Whitman, “It’s the most technical section of the course. It’s not crazy rock gardens or anything, but it’s very rutted, it’s hard pack so tires can slide out, and there are whoops that can kick and buck and throw you if you’re not ready. Don’t try to do too much here. You wont make that much time, so you’re way better off just to get safely down without incident.”

The Flats – Out and Back

It can be a long, lonely drag between the base of the Powerline Descent and the Twin Lakes aid station. The course is mostly flat (and often paved) as it stair-steps down to the base of the Columbine Climb. On the way back it does the opposite, slowly heading back up on the out-and-back course.

“Leadville is a weird mix between a mountain bike race and a road race,” says Rusch. “The whole middle section going both ways is like a road race. You are trying to hang onto wheels and stay out of the wind. This is where you really want to be focusing on your fueling, taking in food and drinking.”

“This is where the pure climbers struggle,” adds Wiens. “There are a lot of flats and rollers where you can push a bigger gear. That’s really important to remember, because when you add it up, the middle section represents about 40 percent of the 100 miles.”

That’s why it’s imperative to find someone to ride with. “It’s basically a road race here and that’s what you do in road races,” says Todd Wells, third in 2010 and a four-star favorite this year. “You get in groups and work together. That’s why it’s possible to do a 100-mile mountain bike race in less than 6.5 hours.”

But don’t mistake road race tactics for easy. “On the way back from Twin Lakes, it seems like the course is constantly gaining elevation,” says Bishop. “The cumulative effect of that really hurts. It’s a pretty tough section that people don’t talk about a lot.”

Riding up Columbine (one of the big climbs on the course)

Columbine Climb

No doubt the most famous section of the Leadville 100 course, this 10-mile uphill grind to the course’s high point at 12,550 is where the race’s final outcome begins to take shape. A year ago, eventual winner Levi Leipheimer turned the screws, dropping everyone but Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski.

The year before that, a certain seven-time Tour de France champion made his move in the same place. “Lance put about 10 minutes into me here,” remembers Wiens. “Get ready, because you have to be able to climb for at least an hour.”

At the front of the race, getting dropped on Columbine means bad things down the road. “If you get isolated on the climb, you have to ride back on the flats by yourself,” says Wells, who suffered that fate in 2010, finishing third overall after having his ticket punched by Leipheimer.

For the weekend warrior, it’s key to remember that if you can get to the top of Columbine, the worst part of the day is behind you. “No doubt it puts you to the test more than any other part of the race,” concedes Herbalife’s Whitman. “That’s mostly because of the altitude. There is a big difference between 10,000 feet and 12,000 feet. There’s a lot less oxygen, so there is a good chance you’ll start feeling really down in dumps on the way up.”

“But what you need to keep in perspective is that you have a 40-minute descent coming off the top, and you’ll be able to recover, get liquids back in your body, and begin refueling,” continues Whitman. “So when you get back to the Twin Lakes aid station at the base, you’ll probably feel a lot better. That’s why you should never throw in the towel on Columbine, because there is another day coming.”

Powerline Climb

From a pure suffering standpoint, this is arguably the hardest section of the Leadville course. Unless you’re a top pro, you’ll have to walk at least some of this precipitous ascent. Add in the fact that it comes about 70 miles into the race, and things get even uglier.

“Mentally this was always the toughest part of the course for me,” admits Wiens. “It can be pretty windy on the flat section leading into the base, and then boom, you’re on the steepest part of climb. You’ll probably have to walk some because it’s so steep and rocky that it’s hard to get in a groove.”

Rusch concurs, saying, “I find it much harder than Columbine. It’s so deceiving. There are a ton of false summits. The first steep part is just a quarter of the whole climb, and even after Powerline there is still a lot of climbing to be done. When you are at mile 80 you are thinking you are getting there, but there is still quite a bit of racing left and even the smallest hill feels hard.”

Whitman suggests pre-riding this section in both directions so it’s not a huge surprise on race day. “I think it really helps to understand the profile,” he says. “Going up it’s really steep at the beginning, but that’s only a fraction of the climb. If you can break it up into chunks and get past that section of walking or using the granny gear, then you’ll have an easier time getting it behind you.”

Onto the Boulevard

After the Powerline Climb there is still a fair bit of climbing left, including a sustained paved section and the grinding run to the finish along the menacing Boulevard. While this moniker might elicit visions of smooth pavement, this rough gravel road is no walk in the park. It also accounts for the majority of those extra three miles that make Leadville a 103-mile affair.

“If you don’t do your homework, you’ll be pretty dismayed to see 100 miles on your Garmin and still have 30 minutes of climbing left,” warns Whitman, whose personal best time is a lightning quick 7 hours, 26 minutes. “It’s the only part of the course that is not an identical out and back, and it’s a pretty unforgiving, slow, moderate uphill grind into town. But when you’re done and you roll onto the red carpet at the finish line, there’s no better feeling.”

Be sure to check out the full course preview gallery.

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