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The Leadville 100 is the most prestigious 100-mile mountain bike race in the United States, if not the world.
A mix of the world’s best cyclists across road, mountain and triathlon disciplines, amateur veterans of the race and first timers compete in the race. Some are riding to win, some are riding for the coveted Leadville Trail 100 belt buckle and some are racing just for the knowledge that they are tough enough to finish.
Held since 1994, the Leadville 100 has grown in popularity every year, with its appeal exploding exponentially since the epic battle between Dave Wiens and Lance Armstrong in 2008.
Wiens came out on top that year after leaving Armstrong behind in the final miles of the race, but Armstrong returned to break the course record the following year. Since then, a series of high-profile professional road and mountain bike riders including Armstrong’s teammate, Levi Leipheimer and 2012 cross-country Olympian Todd Wells have contested the race, steadily improving the course record year by year.
On the women’s side, Rebecca Rusch has won the race a record three years in a row in several closely contested battles.
To get tips from the woman who knows the Leadville Trail 100 better than nearly anyone, follow @TheQueenOfPain Rebecca Rusch and @LTRaceSeries on Wednesday, August 8 at 5PM Mountain Standard Time with the official Leadville Trail 100 hash tag #LT100.
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Race and course
Part of the popularity of the Leadville course lies in its combination of accessibility to many riders coupled with the extreme challenge it serves up as a high-altitude race with copious climbing.
The out and back race begins and ends in downtown Leadville, elevation 10,152 feet. Although the route begins by descending, the low point of the entire course is only 9,200 feet.
The high point at the Columbine mine at the midpoint is at a staggering 12,424 feet above sea level, an elevation that puts even the most acclimatized riders into difficulty. In between, riders pass by seven well stocked aid stations to restock on calories and water.
As an out and back course, Leadville racers get to preview all the climbs and descents on their way from Leadville to the Columbine Mine before turning around and riding it all in reverse.
The race format also allows riders to see where their competition is, both in front of them and behind them as each racer gets to see every other racer out on the course.
There are three major climbs, Powerline, St. Kevins, and the 3,000 foot grunt up to the Columbine Mine with countless other small climbs in between. St. Kevins and Powerline come early and late in the race, with the 10-mile ascent to Columbine smack in the middle.
The course follows mostly dirt roads, allowing for two-way traffic as long as racers stay on the appropriate side of the road and keep their eyes up. The roads are no walks in the park and many of them, especially on the climbs and descents, are covered in the loose rocks that characterize high alpine riding in Colorado.
Flat tires are commonplace as the wide open roads lend themselves to high speed descending and lightweight tires take a beating over the sharp rocks.
The final miles of the course are a long, gradual uphill drag that keeps the town of Leadville and the finishing line in view. With a time cutoff of 12 hours, many racers find themselves racing up the straightaway in the final minutes of the race with the finish line in sight but still far away.
Because the majority of the route is mostly on dirt roads, the majority of bikes on the start line will be lightweight, hardtail 29ers.
With approximately 14,000 feet of climbing over the 100 miles, bike weight becomes an important factor when choosing a race machine. Even with some rocky sections on the road, a dual suspension bike is overkill and most racers don’t consider the extra weight worth the added comfort.
While there are certainly some who forgo suspension entirely, choosing to run a rigid fork in order to save weight and improve climbing efficiency, the descents are rocky and technical enough to warrant front suspension for most riders, especially over the course of 100 miles.
Tire choice is always a point of debate among racers as the tendency is to try to run as lightweight of a tire as possible. There have been several high-profile flat tires in the race, including Lance Armstrong riding in on a flat in 2009, which have led some to reconsider the risk to reward ratio of ultra light tires.
A compromise can be found by running a slightly heavier tire with a strong sidewall that will stand up to 100 miles of abuse over sharp rocks that has a low tread pattern that allows for low rolling resistance on the faster sections of the course. With no technical singletrack, cornering grip isn’t a high priority. Good choices would be a tire similar to the Kenda Karma or Smallblok 8.
Unlike many 100 milers held in different parts of the country that have fairly accurate weather forecasts, the weather at the Leaville 100 can be unpredictable and can change rapidly. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in August and can release frigid rain, hail, and sleet at 12,000 feet in the middle of summer. Because of this risk, a light rain jacket in a jersey pocket or camelback could be worth its weight in gold if the skies decide to open up.
Part of the challenge of the Leadville 100 is the altitude. While the advantage clearly goes to those who live at high altitudes, or choose to sleep in an altitude tent leading up the event, those who live at lower elevations can take steps to prepare for the thin air.
It takes months to truly acclimatize to elevations such as Leadville, but two weeks tends to be an adequate amount of time for the body to start making physiological changes to adapt to the lower oxygen levels.
In an ideal world, it would be best to slowly gain altitude and acclimatize in stages, much like high-altitude mountaineers do with different base camps that they ascend to for training and then descend for recovery. Unfortunately, this luxury is not available to most, but there are other options as well.
Altitude sickness generally takes some time to set in, so those coming from lower elevations can attempt to go up to altitude as close to the race start as possible and then return to lower elevations as soon as possible after the race. Hydration is also crucial and can be aided with a vitamin mix such as Acclimate, which can be consumed before arriving at altitude and while there.
Racing at altitude
Racing at altitude is profoundly different from racing at sea level, especially for those not fully acclimatized. Because of the lower oxygen content per breath, muscles receive less oxygen per breath, reducing their power output.
According to Carmichael Training Systems, riders tend to have a 10% decline in their lactate threshold at 8,000 feet compared to sea level and a 20-30% decline at elevations around 12,000 feet, the elevation of Columbine Mine.
High altitude racing also makes it difficult to recover from hard efforts, such as those required to get over a steep section of a hill. Efforts that generally take only a handful of seconds to recover from at sea level can have minute-long recoveries at high altitudes.
Thus, the most efficient way to ride at altitude is to keep effort levels steady and to try not to cross over the lactate threshold line whenever possible.
Riders to watch
The increasing popularity of the Leadville 100 has started to draw a strong contingent of professional and former professional riders. With a brutally hard 100-mile course, any number of riders could come out on top.
Gerry Cody (Los Angeles, CA) – Finishing 10th in the 2011 edition of the Leadville 100, Cody has finished many brutal races, including La Ruta de los Conquistadores.
Nate English (Berkeley, CA) – As a road racer for Kenda/5-Hour Energy, English cracked the top 20 in 2011 and has the motor to go faster.
Alex Grant (Salt Lake City, UT) – A multiple time top 10 finisher in Leadville, Grants is no stranger to the front of the race with his best finish being third in 2011.
Alex Hagman (Fort Collins, CO) – A former mountain bike collegiate national champion, Hagman has spent 2012 on the road racing for Jelly Belly Pro Cycling P/B Kenda.
Jay Henry (Avon, CO) – Another multiple-time top-10 finisher of Leadville, Henry has countless endurance wins to his name, including the 2012 Firecracker 50 in Breckenridge.
Yuki Ikeda (Tokyo, Japan) – Specializing in 50-mile races, the distance of Leadville has proven a challenge but Ikeda improves yearly and 2012 may be his year to shine.
Greg Krause (Littleton, CO) – Finishing 7th in the 2011 edition, Krause finished just seconds behind Lance Armstrong in the 2011 Alpine Odyssey, another high-altitude endurance race in Crested Butte, CO.
Brian Laiho (Boulder, CO) – A former mountain bike pro, Laiho has over 12 years of racing experience under his belt.
Alban Lakata (Leinz, Austria) – Hailing from Lienz, Austria and racing for Team Topeak Ergon, Lakata is hoping to improve on his second-place finish in 2011.
Justin Lindine (New Salem, NY) – An east coast ‘cross racer, Lindine was part of the top American team in the Absa Cape Epic showing that he is a capable endurance racer as well.
Vincent Lombardi (Los Angeles, CA) – A top-20 Leadville finisher in 2011, Lombardi is back for another crack.
Bryson Perry (Sandy, UT) – Two-time winner of Leadville in 2001 and 2002, Perry is back to race again in 2012.
Christoph Sauser (Switzerland) – Coming from the cross-country world where he was the 2008 world champion and UCI World Cup winner in 2004 and 2005, Sauser will surely be at the front of the race.
Kimo Seymour –(Tempe, AZ) – A finisher of multiple Ironman events, Seymour has shifted towards ultra endurance mountain bike racing to put his endurance to use.
Trapper Steinle (Scottsdale, AZ) – Multiple-time Leadville finisher, Steinle has finished as high as 23 in past races.
Russell Stevenson (Seattle, WA) – An avid east coast ‘cross racer and coach, Stevenson is back to improve upon his 2011 result at Leadville.
Stig Somme (Denver, CO) – Finishing in the top 10 in the 2010 and 2011 editions of Leadville, the Norwegian is back to challenge for the top of the leaderboard in 2012.
Mike Sutter (Boulder, CO) – Multiple time Leadville finisher, Sutter spends the majority of his time racing on the road for the Boulder Orthopedics team.
Scott Tietzel (Boulder, CO) – A pro both on the road and on the mountain bike, Tietzel is back to improve upon his 11th place finish in Leadville in 2011.
Will White (Scottsdale, AZ) – A 2011 Leadville finisher, White excels in many forms of racing from cross-country, to marathon distance, to road.
Nate Whitman (Los Angeles, CA) – With two top-20 finishes in the 2010 and 2011 editions of Leadville, Whitman could stay near the front of the race in 2012.
Anne Gonzales – A multiple time finisher of the Leadville 100, Gonzales has a masters cross-country national title from 2011 and finished 4th at the Steamboat Springs Honey Stinger 50.
Tammy Jacques-Grewalt – A former pro mountain biker forced into retirement in 1999, Jacques-Grewalt staged an impressive comeback in 2010 after an extended illness to finish 15th at elite cross-country nationals.
Pua Mata – Mata has an impressive resume with several national titles to her name, in addition to wins in other high-profile races such as the Whiskey 50. A Leadville victory has eluded her so far.
Grechen Reeves – In 2011, Reeves finished less than 4 minutes behind Rusch in 2011. A multiple time winner of the Firecracker 50, Reeves can never be counted out.
Rebecca Rusch – Three-time defending Leadville champion, Rusch is the odds on favorite to win the women’s race. A multiple time 24-hour Solo and XC singlespeed national champion, Rusch can do it all.
Jennifer Smith – After finishing 4th in 2011 during her first Leadville, Smith hopes to challenge for the top spot in 2012.
Jamie Whitmore – An Xterra athlete by trade, Whitmore has a national title and a second place at Xterra world championships to her name.
As one of the highest profile races on the calendar, it’s a fair bet that the top contenders will show up in peak form. What will result is a race of attrition with its fair share of road racing tactics, attacks and counter attacks
With the addition of Sauser, the 2012 race is expected to be the fastest yet as veterans of the race, such as Lakata, Henry, and Grant attempt to outride the former world champion.
The initial selection of the race will most likely happen on the first climb, as top contenders will push the pace from the gun.
From there, it will most likely be a race of attrition with challengers dropping off the pace one by one until there is only the victor left.
Because it is generally a race below threshold, riders don’t tend to attack or get especially caught up in others around them, but ride their own race in stead.
If the weather cooperates, there is a good chance the men’s record will fall.
With last year’s race as close as it was, with only eight minutes separating the top four, Rusch, Reeves, Mata, and Smith, and those four all returning to race the 2012 edition, the women’s race will be as competitive as the men’s.
Unlike the top men who will most likely form a group and ride together on the fast road sections of the course, the women will most likely be spread throughout a handful of groups working with different groups of men.
All four women have had successful seasons thus far and will arrive to Leadville hungry for a win.