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Like it or not, wherever Lance goes the air becomes rarified.
Drop Mr. Armstrong into the already wispy-thin air of Leadville, Colorado – elevation 10,152 feet – and there is a distinct possibility that the “Lance Vortex” will suck up the remaining oxygen leaving all other living souls prone on the ground gasping like so many landed fish.
Indeed, the “Lance Effect” coupled with Saturday’s Leadville Trail 100 mile mountain bike race, which tops out at more than 12,000-rarified feet, made for a spectacle unseen heretofore in the fat-tire world. The 20-percent pitches of the Powerline climb were planted with thousands of fans. They were there to see a replay of the 2008 LT100, when then-five-time winner Dave Wiens bested the then-retired Armstrong. (For added effect, Wiens crossed the finish line in ’08 on a flat. To crank the drama up a notch, Lance did the same on Saturday.)
Unlike last year, though, when Armstrong was an eleventh-hour entry, this year everybody and their mothers knew that a rematch was in store. And from the looks of things up on Powerline, there were more than a few yellow-clad mothers (and dads) waiting to gaze at Lance.
Overheard: “He was right there,” a fit, fifty-something woman sporting a yellow wristband said as she pointed out the line Armstrong took on his ascent. “I could have touched him.”
Chalk it up to Livestrong, the elevation or both, but the Lance Effect is (apologies to you, pre-1999 cyclists) undeniable. LT 100 co-founder Ken Chlouber estimated that some 20,000 spectators descended on Leadville this year.
“It’s been incredible,” Chlouber said. “They didn’t come to see Ken Chlouber or Leadville, they came to see Lance.”
Strip away all the buzz, however, and there is something that Chlouber and the mountain bikers who have taken on the LT100 for the last 16 years know: It’s all about the race, the ride, the legs and the will.
Hell, both Armstrong and Wiens admitted to being nervous prior to the start of this year’s race, albeit their jitters were likely a bit different than those of the 1,228 other pros and age-groupers who rolled over the start line.
Sixteen years: What that says is that pre- and post-Lance, the air surrounding Leadville and the LT100 will remain – figuratively and literally – rarified.
“I never thought I’d win Leadville,” said Specialized-Red Bull pro Rebecca Rusch, who was the first woman across the line Saturday. “It’s a very prestigious race.”
Prestigious for pros and passionate weekend rippers alike. What else could account for the roars that accompanied racers across the finish line three, four and five hours after Lance and Dave?
“There is definitely the whole vibe of being a very competitive race at the top end,” Rusch said.
But she pinpointed the true allure of the LT100.
“There’s definitely the community spirit of people trying to help,” Rusch said. ” There are so many people psyched to be riding their bikes.”
Distill down the Lance Effect, even past Livestrong, and what remains for so many people is swinging legs over top tubes and challenging themselves on bikes. Armstrong and Wiens both said they’ll likely be riding the LT100 when they are in their fifties – not for course records but because of the rarified ride.
Will the Lance Effect be in such force then? Who knows? But some things are for sure: The Rocky Mountains won’t be any shorter, the air less rare or the challenge of the LT100 easier for the passionate who throw their legs over their mountain bikes.
Sure, Powerline won’t be thronged with screaming fans, but by and large they were there for Armstrong and Wiens and then on to the finish line leaving the mere mortals to conquer the beastly climb all but alone.
“The heart and soul of the race,” Chlouber said, “is the guy and gal who want to test themselves against the course and these mountains.”
<i>Jamie Bate is the editor of Singletrack.com. Reach him at email@example.com.</i>