Things I Learned from the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race
The following post is from Steel City Endurance athlete Mike Quigley. I (Coach Suzanne) helped prepare Mike for the Leadville 100 as his first ultra endurance mountain bike race, and my first experience helping someone prepare for a race of this grueling intensity. Mike followed every bit of the training plan that I prepared for him, and by his finishing time, I think the plan was successful!
Incidentally, this is the year that Dave Weins and Lance Armstrong battled it out for 1st place. As thrilling as that was for me at the time, 99% of my energy that day was spent crewing for Mike, with one other friend using 2 way radios along the course.
After Mike finished the race in 11 hours, 31 minutes, earning a silver buckle, I asked him if he’d be willing to document some of the things that he learned in preparation and execution of the race. Mike’s race report is one of the most comprehensive things I have since read about the race.
Thinking about doing Leadville 100 or done it already? Please share your experiences in the comments!
Cover photo credit: CNN
Things I learned from Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race
by Mike Quigley
The Starting Line
The race starts fast, don’t get caught up in the excitement. Go your own pace from the get go. Riding above your limit here will just get you in trouble later. Race smart!
Many mountain bike riders do not know how to ride in a pack very well. Keep alert during the crowded start.
On the way outbound…
• The first climb (St. Kevin’s) will be as crowded as New York City in rush hour. Many people with good endurance but poor bike handling skills will fall all over this climb. It is not technical other than trying to avoid poor bike handlers. Singlespeeders will be walking this climb unless they get way out in front. Holding a track stand up a climb is a good skill to have here, practice.
• The decent from St. Kevins is fast and on pavement. Good descenders can pass dozens of people here.
• The climb up to the Powerline decent is wide open. There will be many places to pass or be passed by people. It is a fairly consistent grade and the top brings you to the Powerline Decent.
• I did not find the powerline decent nearly as technical as all the reports I read. As long as you look ahead of you, scope your line, and follow the tracks of other riders there is little to fear. My biggest problem here was trying to pass people with poor descending skills. Much of the decent has only one good line, making you wait behind the slower riders or ride very technical areas to get around them.
• The bottom of the powerline climb has a creek crossing. You have 2 choices, go through the creek or ride/walk over the “bridge” consisting of slippery planks. You will likely find the option of riding the creek will save you 20 seconds or so because there will be a line of people crossing the planks on foot. I would highly recommend giving up those 20 seconds and wait to cross on foot. Wet feet (and bearings) 20 or so miles into a 100 mile race is not a good idea if you ask me. You will be a crowd favorite if you ride the creek.
• On the way to Columbine you will find a few small road sections where pace lines could save you time. I found people uninterested in joining a pace line for some reason. Hopefully your results will differ.
• Before twin lakes, you will find a rather nice singletrack section, this is a nice break from the rest of the race but passing will be difficult.
• Columbine is a long hard climb. It is mentally and physically tough. It starts to climb on a dirt road and passing people is as easy as pie. The road seems to go on forever, you keep climbing yet the actual elevation does not seem to increase that much. Finally you get above the tree line and you think you are getting close… you are not. You think you see the top. When you get there you see riders VERY far away and VERY far above and ahead of you. You will think they are near the top… they are not. Once you get to where you saw those people the same thing will happen again. You will see more riders way ahead and above you. Those riders are just starting to near the top. The trail narrows and becomes rockier and off camber on the side where you must stay. Passing becomes increasingly difficult and even the people walking their bike are too fatigued to move out of your way. Once you actually do get to the elevation where the Columbine aid station is located you will still have a little while to go. You will be able to see the aid station quite a while before you get there. It is mostly a lateral move with the exception of one small but mentally difficult hill. The altitude up here is killer. I found myself going way slower than expected up this climb.
• An altimeter is a very smart thing to have. This mentally lets you know how much farther you have to go to the top. This will help you over every mountain in the race. Memorize the elevations of each summit (St. keven’s est 10,900 ft., Powerline est. 11,200ft., Columbine est. 12,600 ft.)
• Going down Columbine is fast and long. It is easy to pass people once you get past the very top narrow section.
On the Way Inbound…
• You will be at Twin Lakes before you know it… There are road sections that can be very windy. Paceline if possible.
• After Twin lakes you hit the singletrack again, this time with more climbing albeit it at a gradual grade. Passing will be next to impossible here. Eventually you get to the dirt road and it will be easy to pass. Get ready for one short but very steep climb after the singletrack. Many walk this. If you keep up your speed going in to the hill you can use momentum to get you up the bottom ¼ of the climb with little work.
• After the Pipeline Aid station you will see more road and likely much more wind. Buddy up and work together if you can. The road gradually turns uphill. You are approaching the powerline climb.
• The powerline climb is very long and quite steep at the bottom. Hopefully you saved something in reserve for this climb and the St. Kevin’s climb after because you will need it. It is completely ridable from a technical standpoint. It will likely prove difficult to stay on your bike from an endurance standpoint after 80 miles in the saddle however. Just follow the tire mark lines, look ahead and you will be fine. Stay in a low gear and get ready for a long climb. • Much like Columbine, Powerline is another mentally tough climb. There are many false summits and people think they are at the top long before they actually get there. If you cannot pre-ride the course, use an altimeter to know how close you are to the top. There are even a few short downhill sections on the way to the top.
• The Powerline decent is fast and wide enough to easily pass slower riders.
St. Kevin’s Climb
The St. Kevin’s climb is a long road climb, followed by a shorter dirt climb. If you saved anything in your legs, now is the time to cash in. Be prepared, the road climb is quite long but not terribly steep, the dirt section climbs can put a hurt to you if you are not ready for it (I was not).
• After a good bit of up and down you will get to the St. Kevin’s decent. This is also wide enough to easily pass slower riders.
• Once down the St. Kevins Climb you will hit a slightly undulating dirt road. This goes on for a while then you hit pavement. After the pavement you are back on dirt on the way to the boulevard.
• The boulevard is not a difficult climb. It is a difficult climb after almost 100 miles on the bike however. It is fairly steep and loose at first and eventually turns into a dirt road. The dirt road continues up for a while. Once you get to pavement you have less than a mile to go and you are home free.
• Have a thick jacket and a hat waiting for you at the finish. Once you get off the bike you can get cold fast.
Info for your Pit crew:
• I made the mistake of meeting my crew at 4 locations. That was more stops than I needed and they could hardly keep up with me on one stop due to the crowds. Next time I would have them stay at Twin lakes… possibly have them go to pipeline on the return trip.
• The “crew” pit stop at the bottom of Columbine was not easy for the pit to get to and they had to hike the pit gear for a long trip up a dirt road on foot. This stop is no better than twin lakes other than it is not as crowded.
• Have your crew erect something noticeable, especially in twin lakes. You (the rider) should wear something noticeable too.
• I used small GMRS/FRS radio with a remote push to talk button earpiece for crew communications. This worked out quite well. I would say it was worth the extra few ounces. I was able to find the crew easier as well as have them get anything specific ready for me. They were able to encourage me and give me splits over the radio. I ditched it at the last stop to save weight up Powerline/St. Kevins return.
• Crew, prepare for a long day. Bring rain gear, seats, perhaps something to block the sun (or rain). Have clothes/jackets for a variety of weather conditions as temperatures can vary between 34-78 degrees f on a regular day in August.
Things I did wrong:
• I had my crew stop at too many pit stops (4)
• I lined up in the back of the field at the start of the race instead of being more aggressive with my placement
• I over planned my nutrition. Next time I will just have my crew have a variety of things available for me to pick from instead of choosing before the race what I will have at each stop. It is hard enough to eat at all during the race so more variety and choice is the best bet.
• I needed more food variety. Give yourself a wide variety of things to choose from depending on how you feel. You need calories however you can get them.
• I took only one set of full finger gloves. A race start at 35 degrees f with rain makes for cold wet fingers. It would have been nice to trade those out for fresh, dry gloves during my pit stop.
Things I did right:
• I used an altimeter to judge my progress up the mountain (I used a Garmin Edge 705)
• I trained with power zones but I raced this race with heart rate zones. The altitude sucked my power and increased my heart rate compared to sea level training. Having a HRM helped me pace myself throughout the race.
• I did not start out too fast. My return from Columbine was much faster than my time to get there. I wanted to make sure I had gas in the tank for the climbs up Powerline and St. Kevin on the return.
• I had my crew give me a thick jacket to wear before race start. It can get very cold in the morning in Leadville. Hand off the Jacket to your crew just before the shotgun blast starting the race. I did the same thing with leg warmers but that may be unnecessary.
• I used very low tread, fast rolling tires (see below in tips)
• You will need every gear on your bike. I considered running a double instead of a triple chain ring up front. I opted for the triple for a larger range of gearing. I needed every gear and then some. If you are shooting for a sub 8:00 finish then by all means run a double… otherwise you will need that granny up the powerline climb at least.
• I agonized over tire choice for a long time. I ended up running VERY low tread tires. I believe this was the best choice without question. Even in the rain and mud, Leadville is not a very technical course. I ran Stan’s Raven tires (tubeless) in the rain and never slipped an inch.
• I would however recommend a tire with a fairly tough sidewall as there are rocky areas as you ride down high speed descents. AKA don’t run MaxxLite 310’s or similar unless you want to deal with a flat or worse, a sidewall rip.
• Full suspension or hard tail? The course is suited for a hardtail as it is not very technical BUT I would highly recommend a full suspension rig for comfort. If you are in the saddle for all those hours I think the suspension keeps your legs and body fresher and does help out on the long descents.
• 26er or 29er? I am huge big fan of 29” bikes but I would say this race slightly favors a 26” wheel size strictly because of weight. Again, it is not very technical. If I would rank my choice of rides I would put it like this: 1. 26” full suspension (Good mix of comfort and weight) 2. 29” hard tail (More comfortable than a 26” hard tail) followed VERY closely by: 3. 26” hard tail (Lightest weight) 4. 29” full suspension (Heavier but more comfortable) The choice between 26-29 hardtail is very close if you ask me. This will all depend on what you own and your budget however. This is a cost no object, all things equal scenario selection.
• Practice very fast, not terribly technical descents. You should be comfortable going 45mph on your mountain bike down a road descent. You should also be comfortable going 30-40mph on a fire road descent with rocks.
• Everyone will tell you this but EAT EAT EAT and DRINK DRINK DRINK. Find food that you love and give it to your crew (or your drop bags). Eating during hours 6-12+ will be very difficult. Find something you either love or can choke down easily. Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem (espresso flavor) saved me. I was largely unable to eat much of anything after hour 6 but I was able to choke down this stuff fairly easily. I mix it thick in a hammer flask. Always try out your different foods during training.
• People show up very early to lay their bikes down for the start. Other people show up later and find enough space to stand towards the front in between the bikes and squeeze in. Getting up front will save you considerable hassle going up the first climb. Lesson, squeeze in toward the front (If you are a fast enough rider) instead of being polite and lining up at the back. The actual start time from the first person to the last is only about 2 min but as the group elongates this stretches into many minutes. I may guess as many as 10-15 by the time you go up St. Kevens
• If you want a good seat for the pre race meeting or awards ceremony just show up very early and toss something on your seat. Everyone seems to use this technique and it works well. The small auditorium gets full fast.
• Thinking about doing the Leadville 100? Make your hotel reservation LONG before you send in your entry or receive your acceptance letter. The hotel rooms go FAST and Leadville is a small town. Hotel room reservations can be canceled easily and without a fee. The Super 8 seems to be the best place in town.