Stories from Leadville – RACE DAY
At 4 am in the cold morning darkness of Leadville we began our day. Those of us without special placement from a qualification ride were automatically placed in the last (or white) corral. This year there were 3 white corrals, and they were first come first serve. So if you wanted a decent spot, you needed to be there when the corrals opened (at 5:15 am!). It’s typically in the 30s/40s at the start of this race and you stand around for over an hour. When the race begins, it starts with a few fast miles of downhill making it that much colder. This means that most people wear layers over their kits (often purchased from the local thrift store so they aren’t too worried about getting them back), and shed them just before their wave starts. We had puffy jackets, hats, and sweatpants on. Just before the gun, we shed them and tossed them to a waiting friend.
Nerves were high. The start is fast and crowded. It is downhill and everyone is rushing forward, so there is not a lot of room for error. There were crashes before we even left the pavement. Six miles downhill then you turn onto a dirt road with some potholes and puddles and prepare to face the first climb of the day. St. Kevins climb starts at 9,700’ and tops out at 10,800’. It is approximately 7.5 miles long and averages about 4% (though the first 1.5 miles is 18% and really warm you up). It is VERY crowded here with some rocky sections. The main advice for this climb is to remember it’s a LONG race, don’t go burning matches here. As I began this climb I am very aware that I underdressed for the start of this race. I cannot feel my feet or hands and I’m shivering uncontrollably. This I now know was a mistake. I won’t actually begin to be comfortable until over 20 miles into my day.
Next up is the fantastically fun May Queen descent on pavement. It’s a screamer and with few exceptions, a smooth descent. This brings you to the Sugar Loaf climb. This is not considered one of the major climbs in the course (I guess it’s considered the lead in to the Powerline descent), but it is absolutely a climb. It starts out smooth and low grade then turns rocky and a bit steeper, topping out around 11,100’.
Once you top out on Sugar Loaf, it’s time for the well-known Powerline descent. For me, this was the part of the ride I was the most nervous about. This section has two distinct parts, the top half is a mix of rocks, ruts, and packed dirt, the bottom is smooth and steep with loose granite pebbles on top and hard-pack, making it very slippery when braking. The descent can be quite technical in places as you try to avoid and navigate rugged erosion spots and other riders. Starting at about 11,100’ and descending to 9,600’ in about four steep miles, this is a fast and potentially dangerous segment of the course. There is in fact an extremely sharp right hand, off camber, turn near the bottom that if you are not smart about will end your day abruptly and unpleasantly. According to MTB Project App, there are some sections as steep as 46%! We pre-walked a portion of this prior to the race and honestly there were parts it was hard to stand on because your shoes wanted to slide. Unfortunately we did see a handful of reasonably serious accidents on this section.
Next up was a long rolling section in the valley that leads you to the Twin Lakes Dam area and through the singletrack section of the course. This section was fast and fun and involved many types of terrain. Segments of this >20 mile portion were paved, gravel road bed, dirt road, singletrack, etc. During this time, I ran across people going through various struggles and joys of their own. Some were encouraging, one particular guy was in a dark place and tried to bring me down with him. So I dropped him and kept moving. I reached the festive atmosphere at the main Twin Lakes support area, passed through the time checkpoint, and pedaled on to our personal SAG stop to refuel.
Resupplied, now it was time for the Columbine climb. Over the next 9 miles, we would climb some 3,000’ to the highest peak of the day at about 12,600 ft. This is also the turnaround point for the race at mile 52. For me, this was the highlight of the day. I was looking forward to this beautiful and challenging climb. I was feeling great! To this point, I had stuck to my fueling plan and ridden at a pace that allowed me to hit this climb feeling strong and like I had plenty of energy left in my body. I think at this point I started to realize that I could actually do this. I was enjoying going up and though I was far from the front of the race, I was passing many people who were around me and trying to encourage everyone as I went. This joy unfortunately would soon turn.