I had just crossed the turnaround point of the Leadville 100 and — just a few minutes later, before the course turned downhill in earnest — I had come across The Hammer, riding with Rebecca Rusch immediately behind her and with a big smile on her face.
She knew how well she was doing. She had to know.
Maybe I should wait, I thought. I could just wait here for like five minutes, tops, and then we could do the rest of the race together.
It was tempting. So tempting. I’ve never ridden The Leadville 100 with anyone. Sure, I’ll occasionally meet up with another rider and we’ll work together for a while, but it happens a lot less often than you might think, considering there are close to 2000 racers on the course.
But I have never raced with people I know (OK, I have once, but that was so long ago it’s like I was a totally different person).
I kept riding. In fact, I redoubled my efforts and took some risks, trying to get down off the mountain as fast as I possibly could.
I had my reasons.
Why I Didn’t Want The Hammer to Catch Me
The worst thing I could have done to The Hammer this year is ride with her. She had a shot at getting in under nine hours, and all I would have done is ruined those chances.
And in the process, she would have ruined mine, too.
You see, on the flats, there’s no way I could have kept up with her — using her fast SRAM XX1 1×11 drivetrain — as I pedaled all spun-out on my singlespeed. Even if I tried to draft the whole time. It’s just not possible.
Similarly, while The Hammer is a fast climber, I’m…well, I’m a little bit faster.
So if we’d have ridden together, we would have eliminated each others’ advantages.
And that would have made Reba mad.
You don’t want to see The Queen of Pain when she’s mad. (Actually, I’ve never seen Reba when she’s mad. I have seen her when she’s focused, though, and that’s close enough.)
Besides, it wasn’t my job to help or work with The Hammer. And if I’d tried, I’d simply have gotten in the way, given The Hammer a comfortable, reassuring person to tell her, “It’s OK to back off; you’ve done enough.”
For this race, The Hammer and The Queen were a team. This was going to be their victory or their defeat.
My job would be to cheer them on. From afar.
Oh, and also it was my job to get myself across the finish line, ASAP.
I Do Some Math
So with that dilemma mentally resolved, I now had a new puzzle to consider:
When was I going to next see The Hammer?
Of course, it was possible I wouldn’t see her until the finish line, if I stayed in front for the rest of the race. But that seemed unlikely. There was a 20-mile flat section coming up after this descent, and then another few flat miles toward the end of the race.
That seemed like easily enough flat for The Hammer and The Queen of Pain to catch and pass me.
But it wasn’t all flat between Columbine and the finish line. Far from it. The question was, would they put enough distance between us on the flats that I’d be unable to catch them on the climbs?
My expectation was that I’d see them at least twice: once as they passed me between Twin Lakes and Pipeline, and again as I passed them climbing toward Carter Summit. After that, I figured I’d stay ahead for the rest of the race.
And in the end, I pictured that we’d finish so close together that when I finished, I’d just wait right in the finish line area for three or four minutes ’til they crossed together.
Of course, that is not how it worked out in the end. I sometimes wonder why I even bother making predictions; I don’t think I have ever once been right.
Ode to Root Beer
I am always so relieved when I get to the bottom of the Columbine Mine descent. The hairpin turns wig me out. The racers zipping by me wig me out. The racers weaving their way up in the opposite direction — some of them not clearheaded due to exhaustion and altitude — wig me out.
But I got to the bottom. Intact. Happy. With forty-two miles left in the course, there was nothing left for me to fear in the race. The climbs ahead were hard, and the descents were fast, but there wasn’t anything left that scared me.
Plus, there were a few things that were distinctly going my way.
First, my biggest concern of the whole race — that my feet would hurt so badly that I’d be forced to quit — had turned out to be a non-issue. The Giro Codes I was wearing, in spite of this being my first ride of any real distance with them, fit comfortably. The shoe repair place had done a good job of stretching out the spot where my bunion is.
It felt so good to ride without my feet protesting.
The second thing I was loving is the new Gu flavor: Root Beer.
You know those little barrel-shaped root beer-flavored candies you used to eat when you were a kid? That’s exactly what this new Gu flavor is like.
During the race, I was grabbing Gus randomly — whichever one happened to be tucked under my shorts — but I was always excited when I happened to get a Root Beer Gu.
Yes, you read that right. I was sixty miles into a race, and was happy to be eating a gel.
Seriously, these are that good.
Honestly, I don’t know what has happened at Gu recently, but they have stepped up their gel game, both in terms of effectiveness (Gu Roctane works better than anything else) and flavor (Salted Caramel, Salted Watermelon, Root Beer, Cherry-Lime, Island Nectar, Pineapple, Vanilla-Orange).
Between Gu and Carborocket 333, My energy level never crashed during this race, and I never dealt with any stomach issues. Not once. Going hard the entire race.
Simple. Tasty. Convenient. Effective. I’ve hit my endurance cycling nutrition happy place.
Before the Big Climb
I get to the Twin Lakes Dam, and within moments — less than a minute — I have had my bottles swapped, my wrappers exchanged for new Gu packets, and I’ve slammed down some chicken and stars soup.
My sister Kellene tells me, “Lisa and Reba were only three minutes behind you the first time through.”
“Yeah, that’s about how far back they were at the top of Columbine,” I replied. “They’ll be here in just a couple minutes, I’m sure!”
And I am gone again. The days when I spent several minutes at the aid station are gone forever, I think.
Or at least until the next time I come to Leadville 30 pounds overweight. Which could be next year, the way I’ve been eating this past week.
I ride up the short paved climb that comes right after the aid station. I stand and can feel the cramps lurking somewhere close. Somewhere real close.
But they aren’t here quite yet.
I step up my effort, thinking two things.
- The Hammer and Reba are bound to catch me somewhere on this 20-mile stretch before the Powerline climb. But I’d like it to be later, rather than sooner.
- I used to have such a hard time with this little road climb. For years and years, I took a good long rest the second time through the Twin Lakes Dam aid station, eating some sandwich, drinking some water. Just long enough to let my legs stiffen up and my heart rate to drop. Then I’d get out of the aid station and hit this climb and it would flatten me. Now I get to this climb still warmed up and without a sandwich sitting like a rock in my gut…and this little climb is so much easier to ride.
I go hard, working to be as fast as I can be, in spite of my singlespeededness. People pass me anyway — the same people I passed as I went up Columbine. I don’t hold this against them, but I do start thinking. I think, “Next year, I don’t want to be passed here. Next year, I’m racing with gears.”
Then I realize: this is the first time I have ever started planning my next racing of the Leadville 100…during the racing of the current Leadville 100.
I need help.
I find a rare tree off the side of the road — I am a private man — and take care of things which need taking care of.
As I swing my leg back over my bike, it occurs to me: i no longer know where I stand vis-à-vis The Hammer and The Queen of Pain. They could have passed me whilst I was having my moment of privacy. In fact, I think, it would be very surprising if they didn’t.
Furthermore, that guy with the singlespeed I passed on Columbine. If he’s faster on downhills (and let’s face it: who isn’t?), he could have just passed me.
I ride harder, considering the fact that this race is so tight that my pee break may well have put me permanently behind The Hammer and knocked me off the singlespeed podium.
Confusion and Terror
When you’re racing, it’s amazing how fast your attention changes. How quickly you forget things.
One moment, my entire mind was occupied with the question of whether my wife was now racing ahead of me, or behind me.
The next moment I came tearing into the Pipeline aid station:
Photo taken by Linda Guerrette. Used with permission.
Among all the excitement and noise and people, I completely forgot all about that question; the only important thing now was to find my crew.
Which I did, without difficulty. They were standing off the the left side of the trail, about fifty feet before the official aid station tables and timing mat, waving frantically at me.
I pulled over and we began the ritual of trading out food and drink one last time. They took care of everything while I drank the entirety of a chicken and stars soup. I figured that with a big climb coming up and the problems I’d been having with cramps, the extra sodium I was taking on board was well worth the time it took to drink.
This would have been a perfect time to ask a simple question. A simple question that had been the central focus of my existence five minutes ago. A question along the lines of, “Has Lisa come through yet?”
I did not ask that question. Nope. Didn’t even occur to me.
Instead I finished up, thanked my crew for being so awesome, and told them that I’d see them in the finish line in just under three hours.
I clipped in, stood up, and got up to speed.
And then my head spun around at what I saw.
The Hammer. Stopped. At the aid station. Talking with one of the race officials. Without Reba anywhere in sight.
Baffled, scared of what this must mean, and utterly out of my head from the storm of conflicting messages going through my brain, I pulled off the trail and locked up my brakes so I could stop and talk to The Hammer. So I could find out what she was doing there, and figure out what was going on.
I shouted out the first thing that came to mind:
PS: This seems like a good place to pick up tomorrow.
A note from Fatty: The Hammer and I are PlentyPlus™ excited to be coming to Rebecca’s Private Idaho this Labor Day weekend (the ride is 8/31) — a 90-mile (with a shorter 56-mile option) dirt road ride in the mountains outside Ketchum Idaho, hosted by The Queen of Pain herself.
The atmosphere is friendly and low-key, the ride is challenging, the place is beautiful. We’re excited to be going.
If there’s a chance you’re going — and there should be a very good chance indeed that you’re going — too, we should totally meet up. Like maybe meet somewhere for dinner on Saturday night, the evening before the race.
I’ll figure out the “where” part once I know how many of us are going. Let me know if you’ll be around and how many are going to be in your party in the comments, OK?
Finally, on the day of the ride itself, The Hammer and I are going to be going to be trying for the new-for-this-year RPI Bolo Tie. The only way to get one of these is to finish the ride in less than 6:30. We wouldn’t have made that time cutoff last year. This year I think we’ve got the incentive to get it done.
2014 Leadville 100 Race Report, Part 3: I am the Fast Guy, I am the Slow Guy
Now it’s my turn. Those are the exact words that ran through my head, over and over and over. Like it was payback time. My opportunity to get revenge for an injustice done to me.
Except, of course, the slight was purely imaginary. All these people who had been passing, passing, passing me on the flattish 20 or so miles we had just completed were just riding their bikes. Racing. Going hard, like I was. It wasn’t their fault I had made the singlespeed equipment decision.
But hey. I needed something to get worked up about. Some reason to get angry, so I could stand up and climb from 9600 feet to 12,600 feet in eight miles.
(And yes, I would be standing for all but short moments of that climb.)
Revenge is is as good a fake-anger motivation as any.
I began climbing. And I began passing people. Even though I was turning the cranks over slowly, slowly. It’s hard work, and requires some serious power, as well as a willingness to embrace pain.
Both of which I have.
To get a sense of what the The first five or so miles look like in the Leadville 100 Columbine climb, take a look at this photo, which I took while riding the Columbine climb a week before the actual race:
Okay, that’s what it looks like. For five miles. Except there are a bunch of people ahead of you. Some you are passing, and some are passing you.
And then, at some point, race leaders begin tearing down the other side of the road, inconsiderately leaving you to deal with the sonic boom in their wake.
So it’s extremely important to stay on your side of the road at all times. I don’t even want to think what the collision of a a racer going slowly uphill with a racer going 40mph downhill would look like.
Inklings of Trouble
I keep riding, and — to my vast pride — I keep eating. Every thirty minutes or so, whether I feel like it or not, I suck down a Gu Roctane gel. I don’t even check what flavor I’m putting in my mouth, because I made sure when packing my stuff the night before that only my favorite flavors (Island Nectars, Cherry Lime, Vanilla Orange, Pineapple) are with me for this leg.
I don’t want to give myself any excuse to not keep eating.
And — whenever I get a moment of climbing reprieve — I sit and take a quick tug of water.
I hit 11,000 feet and noticed that — unlike most years — I still felt pretty good. It seems that coming out to Leadville a week early to make some red blood cells has helped.
But no matter how acclimated you are or well you fuel, when you’re doing this much climbing, at this high an effort (I’m pushing a 46:26 — reducing down to 1.8:1 — gear ratio), your muscles will get fatigued.
And then they might cramp.
But they weren’t cramping yet. Not yet. But I could start to feel them twinge. My hamstrings. My quads. My calves. Both legs. Just the bare inklings that my legs aren’t a bottomless well of power.
If I wasn’t smart about this climb, I’d pay the price at some point.
So I tried to be smart. At about five miles into the Columbine climb, suddenly you turn a corner and all the trees disappear.
Now you’re on the final three miles to the summit. And this is the hard part.
The trail, most of the time, looks about like this:
Except with a lot more people, and a lot of them are walking, and there are people flying down one side of the road, and there are sections that are terrifyingly loose and rocky.
But otherwise, a lot like that picture above.
As you climb that last three miles, you have to make decisions pretty frequently. But really, it’s the same decision, over and over, at different places on the trail:
Is it smarter for me to ride this section, or hike it?
As The Hammer had demonstrated a week ago, the whole Columbine mine climb — all eight miles of it — is rideable. But there’s a price to pay. You only have a certain number of matches in your box for the day: do you burn one now?
It’s a hard question, because you really don’t know how many matches you have until you’ve burned your last one.
With twinges of oncoming cramps in my legs, I opt to walk pretty early, and pretty often. Hey, I’ve got nothing to prove to anyone.
Except there’s a guy there. Wearing a cowboy hat. Sitting on an ATV. And he’s yelling at me.
“Get back on that bike! Get back on that bike and pedal!“
It’s Ken Chlouber, one of the founders of The Leadville 100. He’s every bit as much an icon of this race as the climbs. As much of an icon as the red carpet finish, or the big belt buckles.
And right now he’s laughing at me and telling me to get back on my bike and ride it.
I try reasoning with him.
“I’m on a singlespeed! Walking this part of the climb is a sound race strategy!”
He laughs at me again.
“Around here, we just call that being a sissy!” (Except he doesn’t exactly use the word “sissy.”)
I’ve just been called out by Ken Chlouber, as I climb the Columbine mine. It’s like being called out by Elvis as you’re passing through the doors of Graceland.
So what am I going to do?
I get back on my bike and climb. Obviously. Until I’m out of site of the man, anyway.
At which point I have to get off the bike, because my quads and hamstrings, on both legs, have just gone into full-blown cramp mode, and there’s nothing in the world I could do right now to keep pedaling my bike.
The pain of your two biggest muscles, on both legs, going into a monster cramp, is incredible. Exquisite even.
There was nothing I could do to ride. I couldn’t even walk. I just held on to my handlebars for balance and crouched on the side of the trail, grabbing my brake levers to keep my bike in place.
Hoping, hoping the pain would pass soon so I could continue on.
Hoping, hoping the cramp would subside before The Hammer caught me. I don’t want her to find me here, immobile. If she caught me here, she’d want to stop, check on me. Help me.
Then I’d ruin both our chances at finishing this race under nine hours.
Oh great. Here comes a rider and he’s on his bike. I’m directly in his way.
I scuttle — crouching — to the other side of the trail.
Oh, even better. Here comes a racer, bombing downhill. I’m directly in his way. He’s yelling at me and rightly so.
I scuttlecrouch back to the correct side of the trail.
I wait, and I suffer.
The pain backs off a little bit. I can stand again. I try walking, leaning forward to stretch my hamstrings.
Yes. Yes, I can do this.
I begin walking again. And if Ken Chlouber himself would have walked up to me and started yelling in my ear to get back on my bike and beating me about the head and shoulders with an enormous Leadville belt buckle to drive home his point, I would have kept right on walking.
The last three miles to the turnaround point in the race isn’t all hiking and misery. Some of it is very mild climbing, and a lot of it is beautiful.
I ride when I can, and walk when I need to. And during one of these marching sections, I see something important: a guy on a singlespeed. Or more to the point, another guy walking his singlespeed.
I commence marching with purpose. I catch him, say “hi,” and push by.
I do not know whether I have just marched myself into fourth or fifth place, or onto the podium, or maybe into second place. This is the first singlespeed I’ve seen the whole race.
I start thinking about how nice it would be to have a spot on the podium. And that thought gives me purpose as, little by little, conservatively, I get to the turnaround point.
4:18 on my Garmin. Which, using my simple-but-reliable calculus of “finish time for Leadville is double your turnaround time,” I was still in good shape for a sub-nine finish. 8:36 was my probable finish time.
My heart leaps for joy.
I dreamed of a Columbine split time of less than 4:30 for so many years. For more than a decade I dreamed and worked toward this. I don’t think it will ever feel ordinary for me to have this kind of power, this kind of speed.
I stop, put a leg down. This is the view from the Columbine mine, if you care to take a look:
I don’t look. Not today. Today is not about sightseeing (but I’m glad I had the chance to sightsee a week ago).
I take a drink of Coke a volunteer offers me. Ask for another. I drink it, toss the paper cup in the trash, and clip in. Half a minute is all the time I want to spend up here at 12,600 feet.
I wonder about The Hammer. Was she on track for a sub-nine-hour finish? If so, she’d need to hit this turnaround point soon. Really soon. Like, within ten minutes at the very most.
Then I begin climbing, so I can’t wonder about The Hammer anymore.
Yes, the first thing you do after climbing for eight miles and get to the turnaround point at the top of Columbine mine is climb some more. Just for a minute, though, and then it’s time to descend for eight solid miles, trying to choose a balance between going as fast as you can and not wrecking into one of the hundreds of people marching up the mountain, while also trying not to hit one of the loose or embedded rocks that will give you a flat.
It’s been maybe four minutes since I left the turnaround point. I’m picking my way down through rocks and around a mud puddle.
It’s The Hammer. She’s right there. I had hoped to see her soon, but I hadn’t expected to see her this soon.
She’s on track for a sub-nine-hour finish. Right at that moment, I become absolutely, completely certain: She is going to do it.
I want to shout. I want to yell. I am so incredibly happy I cannot even come close to describing it.
But also I’m surprised and my brain is not functioning and I don’t have words ready to say what I want to say.
So I just yelled, “Hey!” And hoped that conveyed everything I wanted it to. But I kind of suspect it didn’t.
Close maybe, but not quite.
PS: I think you’ll agree that once in a while, it’s kind of nice to have an installment end in a happy place. So let’s pick up here in the next installment of this story.
Here’s a fun way to determine what kind of person you are.
Step 1. Go sign up for a big, long, hard-to-get-in race.
Step 2. Train for that race all year. Make it the main thing you think about.
Step 3. Go race that race.
Step 4. Repeat steps 1-3 every year for close to twenty years.
Step 5. Crash your bike about 7% of the way through step 3.
Step 6. See how you react.
- If your primary reaction is pain, then you are a well-adjusted individual who doesn’t let externalities bother you. You live in the moment and experience the world as it is.
- If your primary reaction is embarrassment at the prospect that someone saw you have a totally rookie crash, mingled with terror that someone is going to run over you in just a second, coupled with a fear that your bike is ruined and you won’t be able to finish the race, all wrapped up in a bundle of pain…well, then you are an award-winning, beloved, and pretty darned neurotic cycling lifestyle blogger (i.e., me).
Which is to say, after I hit the downhill left turn at speed, bumped my rear wheel into and over an erosion rut — and slightly into the air — and crashed hard onto my left side, I scrambled off to the side of the road, desperate to not be the cause of a multi-rider stack-up. Simultaneously, I looked behind me, hoping that whoever I was scrambling to avoid didn’t see me.
Then I experienced massive relief. Nobody was immediately behind me, which meant that I wasn’t going to cause anyone else to wreck, and — more importantly — my boneheaded crash had not been witnessed.
At which point the pain hit.
My left forearm stung, feeling like a good case of (dirt) road rash. But that pain was barely playing second fiddle to the whole orchestra of pain that was my left hip and left butt cheek.
I didn’t even look at where it hurt. Didn’t want to know. I just climbed back on my bike — which I also didn’t inspect — and got back to riding.
Every turn of the cranks hurt. For a few minutes. Eventually, though, the sharp pain settled down to a dull pain and I dared to reach down and touch my hip, then take a look at my glove: no blood.
Then, a look down to see if my shorts were ripped. Nope. They looked OK.
I grabbed onto the wheel of the next guy who passed me as we got near the Carter aid station — ten miles into the race — and vowed that I would hold his wheel. That I would not let this crash turn me into a tentative descender (or at least, no more tentative than usual). Not today.
Beauty and Bygones
After the Carter aid station, there’s three miles of paved descent — the Leadville 100 was a road/dirt race before anyone knew they should brand it as such — followed by another 1.5 miles of gently uphill paved climbing. The perfect place for me to eat a packet of Gu Chomps (the Raspberry and Lemon flavors are my favorite).
200 calories down the hatch. I have gotten so good at hitting my food-consuming goals on this race (note: since I have taken Kenny’s axiom that “Leadville is an eating contest disguised as a bike race” to heart, I have not had anything but sub-nine-hour finishes).
Then a couple miles of climbing on dirt road — I pull for a while and get pulled for a while — brought me to the base of the best part of the race: Sugar Loaf.
Here’s the thing about the SugarLoaf climb: people forget about it, because it’s sandwiched between the start of the race (jumpy!) and Powerline (scary!).
But earlier in the week, when Rebecca Rusch asked The Hammer and me what our favorite part of the race is, both of us answered — genuinely together at the exact same moment — “outbound SugarLoaf.”
Rebecca looked startled, then said, “Mine too.”
There are a bunch of good reasons this is the case for all three of us (as well as for anyone else who’s paying attention). The day has warmed up. Your legs have warmed up. The climb is moderate and mildly technical, but with a good line. And the view is extraordinary.
So: If you ever do Leadville, take a second when you get to Sugar Loaf to note that this — right here, right now — is a pretty amazing place to be.
And then get back to work. This ain’t no time for lallygagging.
And, to be clear, I was not lallygagging. I was busy re-passing all the people I had passed on St. Kevens, who had passed me on the pavement and dirt road.
This yo-yo effect is something you get used to on a singlespeed.
One of those people I caught up with was wearing a UtahMountainBiking.com jersey.
“Hey Utah boy,” I said as I pulled up behind him, collecting energy by sucking wheel for a minute. “I’m a Utah boy too.”
“Hi,” he called back. “Who is it?”
“Elden. Who are you?”
“Jason,” he replied. “How much further to the top here?”
“A mile to a mile and a half.” I was wrong; it was less than a mile; this is one section of the race I don’t think about distance on.
“I feel like I’m going slow,” he said.
“Well, we’re right on track for an easy sub-nine finish,” I said. “8:40 is a good bet for us at this pace, in fact. That’s not slow, is it?”
He didn’t respond to that question, but said, “Hey, I want to apologize.”
I knew what he was talking about, but he had already sought me out and apologized, completely and fully and without prompting, more than a year ago, at the finish line area of the Crusher at the Tushar. And I told him so.
“It was a heat of the battle thing,” he said. And I understood. And I appreciate it. Even more so that he would take the time while racing hard — while climbing in a race — to say so.
“We’re good, it’s behind us. I’m happy to see you here,” I said. And I meant it. Everyone has a bad moment from time to time, but not everyone goes out of their way to fix it. Jason did. Twice.
Then, due to the way singlespeeds demand you ride, I passed Jason and continued working my way to the summit.
It was time to transition from my favorite part of the race to my least-favorite: descending down the Powerline.
If you’re a lousy descender (e.g., me), Powerline is scary. It’s 2500 feet of down, across erosion ruts and over embedded rocks, on a surface made — as near as I can tell — entirely of kitty litter.
This is where people wreck (I once watched a guy stack it up immediately after passing me). This is where people get injured. I’ve seen more people fixing flats here than everywhere else on the course combined.
But I tried to be fast. Fast for me, anyway: I didn’t pass a single person on this descent, and probably got passed by more than ten (including Jason, who I would not see again ’til after the race was over).
I tried to banish my scaredy-cat-ness by yelling. By whooping. By, in short, bluffing with bluster.
To my delight, the amazing Linda Guerrette caught a wonderful photo of me as I shouted my way down one of the steepest grades of the mountain, on what feels like a narrow blade of a ridge:
Photo by Linda Guerrette. Used with permission.
I made it. Without crashing, without flatting. Relieved and grateful to have that part of the race — really, one of only two parts of the race that I don’t look forward to — behind me. I got on the flat pavement that would connect me to the first big aid station — known as Pipeline — and sucked down a gel. I did some math and figured I’d be hitting it right at two hours. A good fast time for a singlespeed.
Oh, who am I trying to kid? I’m going to own my boast: two hours is awesome, and there are very few people who can get to that aid station so quickly.
I’ve earned my fitness, I’ve earned my speed. I get to thump my chest a bit.
My relief and pride turned to resignation as I rode on this flat section, as train after train of riders, working together, blew by me, putting twenty seconds on me for every minute of flat.
I made this choice, I thought to myself. I’ve done this before and I knew it would be like this.
Which is true.
So I’d laugh and yell, “No, you go on. I’m riding sweep today,” as mini-pelotons of racers (including one led by blogger Bart Miller) shot by me.
Om manipadme hum, I thought to myself. Then I dialed “Renegades of Funk” into my head instead. Because some chants are more useful than others at different times.
Through the aid station and into the fifteen mile rolling section before the Columbine climb. Passing people on the short climbs, getting passed by those same people on flats.
And in general seeing the same groups of people. And expecting, any minute, to have The Hammer and the Queen of Pain catch me.
To my surprise (and, let’s face it, delight) they did not catch me. Not yet, anyway. They remained my whip; I remained their carrot.
The short singletrack section — which often is loose and dusty — was tacky and packed.
Photo by Linda Guerrette. Used with permission.
“I love this Tranny 29,” I thought to myself for about the fifteenth time that day.
Quick Change Artists
I hit the first aid station I planned to stop at — Twin Lakes Dam — a few minutes slower than I had hoped to, but only a few minutes. I was still looking good for a sub-nine-hour finish, and since I had not seen any other singlespeeders out there, figured I had a chance at the podium.
My crew — The Hammer’s brother and his foster kids — performed what must be the fastest crew work that has ever been done. As soon as I put my feet down, one kid was pulling my bottles out while another put the new bottle (just one bottle — water — for this next leg of the race).
Meanwhile I threw my empty chew and gel wrappers on the ground with one hand while someone put new gels in my other hand. I stuffed the gels under my shorts’ elastic with that hand while someone put a Coke in the other.
As I took a few quick tugs at the coke, someone asked if I wanted my arm warmers removed, just as I had indicated I wanted them to ask on my plan.
“Yes I do,” I said, and stuck out my arms.
One guy pulled off one arm warmer, another pulled off the other. And then I was off, less than one minute after I had arrived.
It was graceful and fast and perfect. A good crew is a beautiful thing to behold.
Now it was time for the Columbine climb. The part of the race where I typically shine. It’s a climber’s dream, especially for a guy with strong legs, big lungs, and tall gearing.
It’s my wheelhouse.
This time, though, it wasn’t going to be my wheelhouse. Indeed, the wheels were going to come off.
Which seems like a good place to pick up in the next installment of this story on Monday.
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.
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