The above three paragraphs are my best attempts (my favorite is the third) at describing the sound I was hearing, more or less constantly, within one minute of the 2014 Leadville Trail 100 start.
That sound, for your information, was the sound of people passing me. By the hundreds.
And there was nothing I could do about it. When you’re going steeply downhill on pavement on a singlespeed MTB, you’re going to get passed. Lots.
Lots and lots.
But you know what? It’s not that big of a deal. You expect it. Accept it, even. Welcome it, saying to yourself, “Well, I knew this would happen, and I made this equipment choice knowing this would happen.” And so you’re fine with being passed on paved downhills. And on flats of any sort.
Except you’re not fine with it. Not really. Not if you’re racing. Not if you’re me.
Oh my, this introduction took a turn for the dark. Let’s back up a bit to the really fun, nice, positive part. Which is, honestly, most of the story here.
And then I’ll blindside you at the end of the post with the part of me crashing hard onto my side.
Obstacles and Near-Disaster
Starting the Leadville 100 is an amazing experience for most mountain bikers, because very few mountain bikers have ever started a group ride containing upwards of 2000 people.
And each and every one of those people has either heard or figured out the advice to “get up front to get out of danger.”
Which is definitely good advice. Unfortunately, it’s not advice everyone can heed.
But everyone can sure try. Which they do.
And at the beginning of this year’s Leadville 100, all those people trying to get up front were surprised — about 100 yards into the race — to find that the entire right half of the road had been cordoned off.
The announcer had explained that this was the case before the race began, and I had cleverly moved over to the left side of the starting area.
But still: you’ve got around 2000 people all wanting to get to the front of the line, and suddenly all 2000 of those people also want to be on one side of the road.
It’s not a great situation.
Fortunately for me, only around 200 people had passed me by ten seconds into the race (I’m exaggerating; really only 175 had passed me), so it wasn’t too bad of a mess when all of a sudden everyone in front of me essentially came to a stop.
I braked hard, skidded a little with my rear tire and didn’t hit the guy in front of me. I mentally flinched, expecting that the guy behind me wouldn’t be so lucky and would take me out.
Nope. He missed me. Everything was OK.
I Am Not The Star Here
With this little push through the hourglass complete, I was able to start riding in earnest again, people zipping by me constantly. Meanwhile I considered choices I had made leading up to this moment.
“I’ll see a lot of you guys again when we start climbing,” I said to myself, by way of self-consolation.
Mostly, it worked. And no small number of people remarked on the sexiness of my new Ibis Tranny 29, outfitted with the belt drive.
Then I saw this:
Photo borrowed with permission from Linda Guerrette’s blog post, “Delivering the Goods.”
Yep, as near as I could tell, a complete stranger had erected a sign wishing Rebecca and my wife good luck in finishing the race in under nine hours.
Hey. I thought I’m supposed to be the famous one in the family.
A Farewell to The Hammer and The Queen
As I zoomed down, going very fast but also being constantly passed by people with a mechanical advantage over me, I wondered how long it would be ’til I was passed by The Hammer and the Queen of Pain
But I didn’t have to wonder very long.
The Hammer passed me first. “I love you, baby!” she yelled as she flew by. Which is a huge improvement over what she had said the last time she passed me while racing.
Then Rebecca Rusch — right behind The Hammer — flashed by. “Hi Reba,” I said.
“Hey Buddy,” she said back.
When did I become “Buddy?”
Now The Race Begins for Really and Truly
Here’s a cycling-related axiom I just made up but am pretty darned sure is actually correct: Your perceived effort has no correlation to how fast you’re going. Which is to say, the days I’ve felt like crap — like there is no power or pop or jam or juice in my legs at all — are some of the times I’ve gone the fastest. And some of the times I’ve really felt great are the times I’ve missed PRs by a lot.
Which I guess is my explanation for why, in this case, even though I hadn’t been able to pedal, and had been passed constantly, I managed to get down the pavement onto the dirt, then to the base of the first climb, faster than I ever have before — including in 2011, when I rode with gears.
Also, what was my problem in 2010? I was nine minutes slower getting to the base of the first climb? Really? How was that even possible? (I just checked my race report from that year; it gives no clue as to why I was so much slower)
Just before the left turn that signals that you’re about to go uphill in a very big way for the next mile or so, took a slug of Lemonade Carborocket 333 (awesome new flavor) and sucked down a root beer-flavored Gu (awesome new flavor).
I took a moment to reflect on the fact that energy food and drink (Honey Stinger Waffles! Awesome Gu flavors! Grape and Lemonade Carborocket 333!) has become so much better than it used to be (remember apple-flavored Cytomax, anyone? [shudder]).
Oh brave new world!
I began to climb, and that meant I began to pass people. Left and right, using the tried-and-true practice of being a nonstop, friendly chatterbox. (“Hey there racer, looking good. I’m looking for a line to pass, help me out when you can.”)
Then I saw Reba. And Lisa. Climbing together, The Queen of Pain letting The Hammer set the pace.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is The Hammer and the Queeeeeen Uuuuuvvvv Paaaaaaaaaaaiin!” I shouted, in my very best Dave Towle impression. Which, admittedly, is never very good, and is especially not that great when I’m riding my bike at race pace, uphill, at 10,500 feet.
Still, credit for trying, right?
“I love you baby,” The Hammer said as I went by, which pretty much made my day.
And this time, Reba remembered to call me by my name: “Fatty.” (“Buddy.” Sheesh. I’m still not sure what’s up with that.)
The climbing was hard, but my Ibis Tranny 29 felt great — I’ve never felt at home and right on a bike so quickly before. And the belt drive feels…well, it’s hard to describe, but “instant” might be an OK word for it. You put your foot down and feel like all your power is going straight to the wheel. And so smoothly too.
Things End Badly
It’s always astonishing to me to look back and see that the St Kevens climb to the left turn signifying you’re about to get a break is only 1.1 miles. It’s not a long distance. But by the time you get there, the race has thinned out a bit and you’re unlikely to have to fight a crowd again for the rest of the day.
I hit a relatively flat place, sucked down another gel, and kept going.
The trail was rolling along now, and I was feeling great. The day was mild, the trail — thanks to a lot of rain earlier in the month, followed by occasional showers and warm temperatures the preceding week — was as perfect as could be.
I wen past the place where Merilee — one of the founders of the race — traditionally stands. “I love you Merilee!” I shouted.
Then I hit the next quick downhill, which intersects a different trail, making for a downhill left turn across an erosion rut.
I easily popped my front wheel across the rut and made my turn at speed.
Which, as you no doubt expect, is when I crashed. Good and hard.
Which seems like a good place to pick up the next installment of the story.
Things were going wrong. So very, very wrong. By which I mean that things were going far too right, which felt wrong.
I should probably start over and explain.
My mistrust of this year’s Leadville 100 started with the weather. As usual, I checked the Weather.com app incessantly, starting ten days before the race began.
The forecast varied, but often looked a lot like this:
No, that can’t be right. It’s too…nice. It didn’t freak me out enough. Sure, that 10% chance would eventually climb to a 40% chance, but even then it said the rain wouldn’t happen ’til the afternoon.
Something was bound to give.
Thanks to the Hammer’s co-workers saying they’d cover for her for an extra couple days, along with my job that lets me work anywhere there’s phone service and reasonable internet access, we went to Leadville a full week before the race, for three very important purposes:
- To go to Rebecca Rusch’s racing clinics
- To make some additional red blood cells
- To give The Hammer and The Queen of Pain some time to strategize their race.
As soon as we got to Leadville — 9am on Saturday — we unpacked our bikes and rode to the top of Columbine.
It’s astonishing how much easier that climb is when you haven’t preceded it by going 43 miles at race pace.
We took pictures, and smiled, and admired the scenery, and took an adorable picture of the two of us.
The weather for the ride was perfect. Maybe too perfect.
When we got back to the truck after the ride and I took off my shoes, I realized something: they didn’t hurt. At all. The Giro Codes my friend Yuri recommended were doing the trick.
I didn’t know for sure that I’d be good for a full day of racing, but this was a good sign.
I don’t trust good signs. There were too many good signs.
More Disturbing Omens
Because The Hammer and I had come out to Leadville earlier than planned, we were having to be a little bit improvisational with where we stayed the first night.
Rebecca took us under her wing, letting us sleep on her couch. And use her internet access. And take pictures of her using her leg compression recovery thingies.
We went grocery shopping with her:
And lest you think that we just bought little dried bananas, we also bought caramel gelato, all three of us working from the same pint container.
I refrained from using my superpower of deferring ice cream headaches and consuming ice cream at quadruple the rate of most humans.
Because, you know. Guests.
By the way, you should know that The Hammer and I have cooked egg whites and avocados for The Queen of Pain.
OK, we might have left the yolks in, and added a bunch of cheese. And onions and mushrooms. And wrapped the whole mess into tortillas.
I was now on my guard. This “Queen of Pain” was being far too nice.
Something was bound to go horribly wrong. And soon.
But things were going right. Weirdly, strangely wonderfully right.
Like, when I did a Q&A session with Rebecca onstage at the Tabor Opera House, everything went fine.
Afterward, on Twitter, Robyn Stoddard did note a startling similarity between the above photo and this one:
Disaster, Narrowly Averted
We continued riding with Rebecca, going to her clinics, and becoming more and more impressed with her as a teacher and mentor — something we hadn’t known before.
The Hammer began to think that maybe she could do this race in under nine hours.
And then — big mistake here — she went to Strava. And started looking at her best times and my best times and how much faster she’d have to go to beat her previous best.
She didn’t think she could do it.
And then she had an epiphany: she should stop worrying about it. And stop looking at Strava. And go as hard and fast as she could with Reba’s help, and let the finish time sort itself out.
It was a good decision.
A Place of Our Own
After a night on Reba’s couch and a couple nights at the Super 8, we got to move into the house — formerly a bed and breakfast — we had rented for the rest of the trip.
It had eight or nine bedrooms, all of which we had filled with friends, family, and our own enormous amount of stuff.
The Hammer and I were done with any pre-race rides of any distance. But we did take a ride on the beautiful Mineral Belt Trail bike path, as well as a detour into what I think is the most beautiful, peaceful cemetery I’ve ever seen.
The Leadville Hebrew Cemetery is so restful. We walked around and admired how nicely kept, yet still natural, this place looked.
A moment of peace before the anxiety of the race came back upon us, full-bore.
I took a picture of this, Brian Vaughan’s (CEO of Gu), race nutrition and pace plan.
I then compared it with the race plan I had created for my crew (I made three near-identical sheets like this, one for each time I would meet my crew):
I felt like perhaps I could have done more.
We went and registered, where Reba was signing a book for Rage Against the Machine’s Tim Commerford.
Yes, we really did just happen to be there when he was getting his book signed.
And we spent a ton of time hanging out with Dave and Amy Thompson, who I have upgraded from “Friends of Fatty” to “Friends of Everyone in the Universe.”
They’re just that awesome.
Race day approached. On Friday, my friends Jilene Mecham and Bry Christensen — who were going to be doing this race for their tenth time — decorated their bikes and helmets.
I kind of think Bry didn’t like his helmet adornment as much as Jilene did.
As for myself, on the morning of the race I borrowed a big puffy woolen jacket The Hammer had bought at Savers for $2.00, so it could be left at the side of the starting line without too much concern.
You might think it’s easy for me to be this handsome, but really I have to work at it very hard.
Then I did a few minutes of day-job work, which made me sad. I’ve never been so caught up and under pressure with a day-job that I felt I had to work the day of a race.
Am I growing up or something? That’s alarming!
We rode our bikes the two blocks to the starting line and found — to our astonishment — that it was not a terrible, crowded mess. Apparently getting there 45 minutes before the race starts is a good idea.
I found another guy standing around in my corral and made a deal with him: if he’d watch my bike while I went and use the bathroom, I’d do the same for him.
This worked great. Almost too great?
I then stood at the start line, my GPS ready to go, eating a couple Honey Stinger Waffles. The ginger snap flavor is the best.
There. 200 calories, right before the race starts. Good.
I looked forward to the front of the starting line. Really, I was only twenty feet back. I was happy I had earned this spot in this corral by being fast the previous year. I deserved to be where I was.
I checked my brakes. They felt fine. I strummed my Gates Carbon Belt drive. it was nice and taut.
What had I forgotten? Everything had gone too perfect.
There was the countdown. The gunshot. The race was beginning.
In my universe, something leading up to everything always goes wrong. It may not be big, but there’s always something.
But not this time. Everything had gone well in the prep for this event. This big race that I think about pretty much every day of the year, even after I’d been here seventeen times.
And now it was time to ride.
I have so much to say about the 2014 Leadville 100. So much.
But right now, I’ve got some real-life stuff that needs to take priority, mostly like getting caught up with work, and getting the twins off to Camp Kesem.
So for today, let me just tell you a few quick things, to give you a hint of what you’ll be hearing about soon.
- This was the best Leadville 100 experience I have ever had. And the same thing goes for The Hammer.
- The Hammer’s story is bigger and better than mine. As she and I drove home from Leadville yesterday (a seven hour drive), I sat in the passenger seat and took notes on my computer while she told me her story. The bullet-list outline is five pages long. No exaggeration, and no joke. I’m so excited for her to write it up.
- My story is not half bad either. And I’ll begin it in tomorrow’s post.
- We are going to Rebecca’s Private Idaho. And you should too. And we should hang out the night before. Or the night after. Or during the ride. Or all of the above.
And I’m happy to announce that I’ll be including a lot of incredible photography in all of the parts of this story, courtesy of the amazing Linda Guerrette.
In fact, I’ll close today with a shot she took as I screamed (literally) my way down the Powerline, which is at this moment my favorite picture of me of all time.
Thank you to everyone who donated to The Hammer’s World Bicycle Relief fundraiser in order to get a copy of Rusch to Glory. We had Reba come over to the house we’re renting here in Leadville the day the books arrived to show off a copy:
And then we put her to work signing them:
That’s Amy Thompson and The Hammer, telling Reba who’s next, stuffing envelopes, and otherwise being efficient.
I’m happy to say that every one who bought a book as part of Lisa’s fundraiser now has their book in the mail (as of yesterday morning), and should have a Leadville postage mark. Let me know when they start arriving!
Then, yesterday evening, I joined Rebecca on stage to do a Q&A with her about her book:
Photo by the very talented Linda Guerrette
I was nervous as could be beforehand (as was Reba), but once we started talking we just went on and on, chatting for about half an hour. I think there’ll be video of this online at some point; I’ll be sure to link to it.
And now, it’s time for me to focus on my race.
Which is tomorrow.
All About Me
I’m going to keep this short (as short as I can, anyway, which may not be that easy because…well…I’m me.). Because I’m nervous. Freaked out. Amped up. Wigging.
But here are the things I am thinking about.
First and foremost, I’m relieved, because I think I’ve got a good workable solution for my shoe problem: The Giro Code. Here they are:
Yuri Hauswald (a good friend as well as a pro singlespeed mountain biker) pointed me toward these shoes, saying they work great for him and his wide feet. Knowing that he rides the same way I do and trusting his depth of knowledge, I rush-ordered a pair, then took them to a shoe repair store and had them strategically stretched where I have the bunion on my left foot.
No more pain.
Now, I haven’t been on any super-long rides with these shoes, but I think they’re going to do the trick. And just in case, I will have another pair of mountain bike shoes — which are kinda old and busted, but generally don’t hurt too bad — I can swap to mid-race.
But I have high hopes that won’t be necessary.
The Ibis Tranny 29
I have to admit, I’m nervous to race on a bike I haven’t ridden for very long (my Ibis Tranny 29), using a drivetrain — the Gates Carbon Drive belt that is new to me.
But here’s the thing: I am in love with this bike. I love the way the Ibis feels, the way I feel on it. I love how direct and smooth the drivetrain feels. And I love that — especially with all the rain and puddles and grit on the course — that I don’t have to worry about lubing a chain or keeping the crud off it. For this course, I like that a lot.
I have high hopes of finishing in under nine hours again. If I do, it will be my fourth sub-nine-hour finish, and my third sub-nine-hour finish on a single speed.
I have no expectations of podiuming. If I’m on a podium at the end of the race, it’s because nobody faster showed up, and there are a lot of people here who are faster than I am.
But — and this is weird for me — I’m a lot less interested in my race than I am in The Hammer’s. The fact that she’s racing with Rebecca Rusch and has a chance at a sub-9 finish is incredible. I am so proud of how fast Lisa has become and what a competitive person she is.
And I am so excited to hear their story.
Here are the two of them, showing off their game face:
Photo by Linda Guerrette
I’m going to give Rebecca a 9.5/10 for her game face. The Hammer gets a 2. And I’m being generous with that 2.
And of course after that shot, the whole “game face” thing went out the window for both of them:
Photo by Linda Guerrette
This is one of my all-time favorite pictures of The Hammer.
I’m pretty sure there’s going to be live updating on the Leadville Trail 100 site, so be sure to watch for us; I’m racer 176 and Lisa is racer 382.
And you’ll also want to watch the awesome Live View feed (more and more cameras are going to be coming online today. Currently I’m watching the Twin Lakes one, and the audio for it is “Eye of the Tiger.” Yeehaw.)
Shout for me as you see me go by, OK?
I’ll post our finish times as soon as I can, and will now ask for your wishes of good luck for The Hammer (and her domestique, The Queen of Pain) and me. And I’ll leave you with one last awesome photo taken by Linda Guerrette during yesterday’s group ride up the Boulevard:
The Hammer and I got to come to Leadville a little earlier than usual this year.
Usually, we drive about halfway to Leadville the Wednesday before the race, finish the drive on Thursday morning, and then more or less fail to get acclimated to the altitude before the race begins on Saturday at 6:30am.
This year, things are a little different, because this year, The Hammer will have an icon of Leadville, Rebecca Rusch, riding with and mentoring her to — hopefully — a personal best.
And so when Rebecca asked The Hammer and me if we’d like to come out to Leadville an extra few days early, participate in her Leadville Experience rides and clinics, well…we made it happen (The Hammer got extra days off work, and I’m able to do my job from anywhere with an internet connection).
And it’s been an extraordinary experience. One that, frankly, I’m going to have to dial back a bit on in order to not come out too…gushy.
The Columbine Climb
On Saturday, The Hammer and I got into Leadville just in time for Reba’s first event: a group ride what most people consider the crux of the Leadville 100 race: the Columbine climb. Here we are at the start of it:
About 7.5 miles long, with more than 3000 feet of climbing, what makes the Columbine climb really tough is the fact that it tops out at around 12,600 feet. Which is high. High enough to make you wonder what happened to all your power.
The Hammer and I took off with the lead group at first, and I loved watching her work this group of fast, strong guys over. I shot ahead (yes, that’s a boast), then pulled over and took some pictures of folks as they went by:
Reba, meanwhile, just seemed so relaxed. Happy. Peaceful. When she says her Leadville finish line happened already, she means it. She was riding for fun, and to share what turns out to be an incredible wealth of knowledge and practical riding guidance.
Here she’s riding with one of the guys from Minnesota. She took time to ride with anyone who wanted to talk with her.
I want to point out, though, that The Hammer rode the entire Columbine climb — including the technical steep stuff above 12,000 feet — without putting a foot down.
I have never done that. And Reba was impressed. “We need to start talking seriously about getting you a sub-nine-hour finish,” she told The Hammer.
Of course, we got a group photo:
And then a surprisingly good “jump” group photo (I’ve found the best way to do these is to shoot video and then pull a still from it later).
I don’t want to boast or anything (yes, actually I do), but I think you’ll agree with me that I (second from the right) have some pretty good air there.
At that point, Reba gave an impromptu clinic on descending Columbine during the race, though the reality is this is good guidance for any big descent.
The Hammer and I didn’t have a place to stay that first night, so Reba let us crash on the pull-out couch-bed at the place she was renting. She and The Hammer talked long into the night, planning their race day strategy — as well as what it’s like to have to poop into a pipe.
Yes, really. This is how bonding happens among alpha females.
Also, we bought a pint of Salted Caramel Gelato, which I normally would think is just the right amount for me. By myself.
Feeling self-conscious, however, I only ate about a quarter of the amount I would want to and — this is so weird to me — between the three of us, we didn’t even finish the pint.
I am shaking my head in disbelief even as I write this.
The next morning, The Hammer made breakfast — scrambled egg whites with leftover shredded barbecue chicken, onions, mushrooms, and avocado.
Then we were off to the next group ride Reba was leading — this time going up and down the single hardest climb in the race: The Powerline.
Reba gave us some good guidance on what the climb is like and how to ride it — I caught it on video, and will post it soon.
It was becoming more and more clear that Reba isn’t just an astonishingly fast and strong rider — she’s an inspiring teacher.
The Hammer absolutely killed the climb — nabbing all kinds of Strava trophies on what she said afterward was a relatively easy effort.
Reba gave us more info about this descent, and of course I made sure we got another group jump shot:
All the way down, Reba followed The Hammer, yelling out instructions and advice on how to descend.
I was starting to get a sense that The Queen of Pain was taking The Hammer’s success as seriously as her own. Which is about as awesome a thing as there’s ever been.
About halfway down, Reba put on an impromptu and unplanned tire-changing clinic:
And then she made sure she got a photo of herself with Tim Commerford, the bassist for Rage Against the Machine.
He’s a fast guy and seems to be chasing a sub-nine-hour time himself. I wouldn’t be surprised if he winds up on the Hammer / Queen of Pain train this Saturday.
Reba was nice enough to get an on-bike shot of me with Tim, too, timed just right so it looks like he’s laughing and happy and ready to break into song…as I’m staring intently at my stem, wondering what mysteries it holds.
Really, the whole week’s been like that. The Queen of Pain has been putting on rides and clinics — I recorded her session on how to prepare your bike and clothes for a race like this and will post it soon — all with accessible, practical information. And she’s been gracious, open, and fun.
Meanwhile, The Hammer and I have been reading her book, and getting ready questions for the Q&A session I’ll be doing as part of her book launch and reading tomorrow night.
I already knew it was a good book, but now The Hammer is reading it…and she loves it too.
Honestly, I won’t be able to review this book; I’m no longer even remotely objective regarding Reba. I’m a full-on fan. And friend.
But I think I’m not just blinded by admiration when I say that Rebecca is an extraordinary person, and this book tells the story of her remarkable life remarkably well. You’ll be surprised, impressed, and inspired by it.
I have to say, I’ve never been so excited to see how a race goes as The Hammer’s and Reba’s ride together this Saturday.
And I think it’s going to make a great story.
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