Taylor Phinney is riding a mid-travel full suspension trail bike and aiming to have a good time. Peter Stetina will saddle up on an ultra-light carbon hardtail with an 100mm fork up front and wants to win. Such are the varying ambitions of a handful of current and former WorldTour pros slated to line up at the Stages Cycling Leadville Trail 100 MTB race high in the Colorado Rockies early Saturday morning.
Phinney (EF Education First) will be joined by teammates Lachlan Morton and Alex Howes. Also slated to start is former WorldTour rider Ted King, along with two-time defending Leadville champion Howard Grotts, three-time race winner Todd Wells, and a host of other MTB stalwarts such as Quinn Simmons, Jeremiah Bishop, Payson McElveen, and Alex Grant. The women’s field features Rose Grant, Nina Laughlin, and Sarah Sturm, among others.
For those not in the know, Leadville long ago established itself as a bucket list cross-country mountain bike race, which requires entrance in a competitive lottery just to get in. This year approximately 1,500 riders will start together just off the main drag in the famed sky-scraping mining town, elevation 10,152 feet, the highest of any incorporated town in the United States.
From there it’s a grueling 104-mile out-and-back slog that tops out far above treeline at the summit of the Columbine Mine climb, elevation 12,424 feet. All told the race has approximately 11,000 feet of climbing. But the course isn’t particularly technical, lacking any meaningful amount of singletrack. Hardtails or short-travel full suspension XC bikes are the norm. Still, the sheer length and lack of oxygen make the self-titled “Race Across the Sky” a challenge unlike any other.
“Honestly, it’s probably the hardest one-day race I’ve ever done,” admitted King, who will be taking his second crack at Leadville after finishing 12th in 2016. “Compare it to a 250km spring classic and it’s a totally different kind of effort. With those races, it’s easy, hard, easy, hard all day. But to stay at the front at Leadville, you basically have to haul ass for six to seven hours. There’s almost no reprieve. And even when it does slow down, you’re basically breathing through a straw. When I crossed the line (with a time of 7:04) in 2016, I was absolutely destroyed. I didn’t realize you could push yourself that hard for that long.”
Still, King believes that well-tuned WorldTour legs, and not pro mountain biker experience, could be enough to get the win. His pick is Stetina, who grew up in Boulder, Colorado, but has yet to take the Leadville start line. For that reason the Trek-Segafredo rider is cautiously optimistic with how things could unfold.
“I’ve never done the race before, so I can’t say for sure,” said Stetina, who like the EF trio, raced the Dirty Kanza gravel event earlier this summer, finishing second. “But the course looks pretty roadie friendly. It’s not super techy, and there’s obviously a lot of high altitude climbing, which is my specialty. So yeah, it’s a race and I’m a bike racer and I want to win. That’s the goal and I’ve prepared the best I can.”
At the same time, Stetina, who now lives in Lake Tahoe, is trying not to take things overly seriously, saying he also wants to enjoy the laid back mountain bike scene — and spend some time with his family, many of whom will be coming up to Leadville from Colorado’s Front Range. He also has some other business to attend to soon after the race.
“They’re going to be my pit crew. I’ve been practicing mussette bag handoffs with my wife,” said Stetina, who’s going straight from Leadville to the Tour of Utah, which starts two days later at Snowbird Resort just outside Salt Lake City. “The Monday prologue is gonna hurt pretty bad. But hopefully it’ll open me up for rest of the six stages.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Phinney, who told VeloNews he could care less about the race. “I just want to have a good time,” he added. “Mountain biking for me is about being outside, and community, and getting people out on bikes. Yeah, I hope to be at the sharp end as long as possible, but I’m not going there to measure myself.”
That’s evidenced by Phinney’s bike of choice, a Cannondale Habit, which depending on the model has 130mm of rear travel and 130mm or 140mm up front. It’s a bike that’d be more at home at the Big Mountain Enduro event happening two weekends from now at nearby Snowmass. Needless to say, Phinney and his teammates haven’t cooked up any strategic plans for Saturday.
“I haven’t even talked to those guys,” admitted Phinney. “I would think that [Howes and Morton] will be in a competitive mindset and go for it. I’ll be the guy on the enduro bike sucking wind. I want to be comfortable and go fast on the downhills and enjoy the human experience.”
Howes, who like King, raced Leadville in 2016, finished sixth that year, a shade over 28 minutes behind Wells, who won his third title. This time he’s taking a wait-and-see approach, trying not to put too much pressure on himself.
“I honestly don’t have much of a goal,” said Howes, who won the U.S. national road race title in late June and lives about two hours from Leadville in the equally funky town of Nederland. “The biggest thing is to get out there and race close to home. I get to see people I don’t normally see. I’m just aiming to have a good day in the Rockies. We’ll see how it goes.”
Wells, who retired at the end of the 2017 season but still races for fun, is convinced none of the road pros will cross the finish line first in part because the effort is so much different than what they are used to on the tarmac.
“The guys who do well at Leadville are the ones who don’t slow down all day. They never lose power. That’s the key to this race,” said Wells, who will be piloting a 100mm/100mm Scott Spark RC. “Even when you’re going hard on the road you can sit in the group and recover. Leadville is like being in a solo break all day. There’s some drafting but not a lot. So I gotta go with [Grotts]. He knows how to win and he’s coming into some form right now.”
Of course there is some precedence for road pro success at Leadville. Lance Armstrong won the race in 2009, while Levi Leipheimer took the title in 2010. But many others — including the likes of Floyd Landis and Joe Dombrowski — have come up short. Roughly six hours after the start on Saturday we’ll see which way things fall this year.