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Like so many others before them, Jim Birrell and Andrew Messick were moved by their experience at the famed Leadville 100 cross country mountain bike race. The difference was that Birrell and Messick had the ability and means to take inspiration and turn it into opportunity. But first a little background for the uninitiated.
The pair are two of the more influential figures in U.S. cycling, Birrell making his name as a managing partner of national cycling event management company Medalist Sports, while Messick has served as the president of AEG Sports until recently when he left to take a similar position with the World Triathlon Corporation.
Together the pair have collaborated on running the successful Tour of California road race – and subsequently became friends. And that’s how they ended up in Leadville last year, where both carded respectable sub-11-hour times, earning the coveted Leadville belt buckle.
Perhaps more importantly, though, they saw an opportunity.
“We both thought there was a chance to create something like what you see with Ironman,” explained Birrell of the famous triathlon series that holds more than two dozen events in locales around the world. “We knew that each year about 5,000 people enter the Leadville lottery, but because of event limitations only about 1,100 actually get in. So we approached (Leadville event owner) Lifetime Fitness with a licensing agreement to create a qualifier series like what you see for people trying to get into Ironman Hawaii.”
And what started as a light bulb idea late last summer, became reality on March 1, 2011, when AEG launched a three-race series with events in New York, California and Colorado.
“We feel like we are off to a great start,” continued Birrell, during an interview with Singletrack.com at the series finale last Sunday held at and around Crested Butte Mountain Resort in the Colorado Rockies. “We are tracking in the 200-250 range for each of the events, and we feel like we can get to 800-1,000 in the years to come.”
Those years to come also include expansion, said Birrell, with five qualifier events slated for 2012, and as many as eight in 2013. He wouldn’t reveal where the additional events would be located, but did say all three first-year races – Wilmington, Tahoe and Crested Butte – would be back next year.
“As soon as we get done with the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, we’ll start working on that,” said Birrell, alluding to the upcoming stage race in Colorado, August 22-28. “Certainly we’d look at places like Arizona or New Mexico or Southern California, places where we could hold events earlier in the year when the event calendar isn’t so packed.”
Other locales tossed out were Arkansas, Georgia and even overseas.
“Ironman was initially all about Kona, but it eventually went around the globe,” said Dave Wiens, who was hired by Medalist to serve as the series’ competition and technical director. “We’ll see if Leadville can support that kind of growth, but I’ve already talked to some of the people I work with at (personal sponsor) Ergon in Germany, and they say Leadville is huge there. The idea is to motivate people to try something they are not totally comfortable with, but if they train and prepare enough they can pull it off.”
The three qualifying races provided a multitude of opportunities toward that end. At roughly 60 miles each, all three events served as solid tune-up efforts for Leadville’s 100-mile distance. They were also a solid pre-big-race testing ground, allowing racers to dial in nutrition, hydration, pacing and gear choice.
And of course, these were qualifying races, meaning if you didn’t get into Leadville via the main lottery, you could still snag a golden ticket with a stand-out performance at one of the LQS races, or by earning the right to buy an entry via random lottery. There were 100 total entries available at each race, with a 50-50 split between performance and luck.
The races themselves were modeled after the basic Leadville formula, difficult in distance and effort required, but not overly technical. Or as the LQS website puts it, “These races are long and tough, with lots of climbing. They are similar to the classic course at Leadville in that they avoid technically demanding singletrack trails and consist mainly of rugged jeep roads and gravel and dirt roads so they do not require exceptional bike handling skills. They are a perfect cross-over event if you are a roadie or triathlete and are looking for something hard yet different.”
Still each had its own unique character. Wilmington yielded the fastest time, with Leadville favorite Jeremiah Bishop carding a day’s best mark of 3:33:34. Tahoe slotted in the middle, with Paul Mach winning in 4:02:42. And Colorado, thanks to the course’s precipitous altitude (two trips above 11,000 feet) was the toughest, with Armstrong finishing first in 4:32:21.
There were also big differences in the riders that showed up.
“In New York, people were not as aware of Leadville,” said Wiens, a six-time Leadville 100 champion. “The common thread was there were a lot of new riders, a lot of Lance Armstrong fans, a lot of road racers and triathletes, and a lot of people who saw the Leadville movies and thought that looks really tough, but I think I can do it.”
“In Tahoe and Colorado there was more familiarity with the race, so it’s more preaching to the choir,” continued Wiens. “But that said, we still had a lot of people coming in from out of town and out of state.”
Because just like Messick and Birrell, a lot of people are moved by the Leadville experience.