"That was a hard fall," I said to myself as I laid in a pool of gravel. Having nearly completed the descent of Columbine, it was just a matter of getting up, dusting myself off and riding another 45 miles to the finish. The fall was caused by a mental error -- the sort I've been making all year after five or six hours in the saddle. It's strange but I tend to get more adventurous as the hours accumulate and in this case I was experimenting to determine how much speed I could take into the loose gravel corners near the bottom of Columbine. Well, that was too much as it turned out but I picked myself up and pressed on with a bloody hip and slightly torn shorts.
The day started with a mental error as well. I lined up without any food or water. I left the AirBnB house in which I was staying early to get a good place in my starting grid. That worked out well, I snagged a second row spot but soon realized I had forgotten my Camelbak and food pouch. I started to bike back to the house, giving up this excellent starting position but stopped myself from being foolish. I have with me the best crew ever -- all I need to do is trust they will see my error and bring me my stuff. Sure enough with lots of time to spare, Steve and Emilie appear with my Camelbak. They kept my place in the grid and even improved it to the first row while I took one more nervous trip to the porta-potty. Thanks to my crew I was ready to start, first row in the last of eight corrals. After the gun it would be several minutes before I crossed the start line but after a cold, road-race-like-start on a long downhill I would improve my starting place by several hundred.
The course starts out downhill on pavement which combined with 38-40 degree temps to make my hands feel like wood. In just a few miles, however, the course turns toward Carter Summit by way of St. Kevins (Kee-vens) Pass. This is a long, rocky and very steep jeep road. There was plenty of room for two cyclists side by side but we were four or more across. There was no choosing a line and when someone came off their bike right in front of me I had to do the same. Almost instinctively, I paused to create a few feet of room ahead, jogged with the bike and cyclocross-mounted it on a slightly less steep section of the climb. Staying on the bike is not much faster because one is trapped behind riders walking but it sure is easier. After St. Kevins we drop down on paved road and head up to Sugarloaf Pass. From the time we hit the road to Sugarloaf until the finish in Leadville, all around me were good, strong riders and I used this group to pace myself most of the day.
The way down from Sugarloaf is called Powerline. It is scary. Mostly because it is very steep with nice smooth sections which allow you to get more speed than you want for the sections where, well, it's not smooth. In fact it is dangerously rutted. Deep ruts and occasionally large rocks make this the trickiest part of the entire 105 mile race. Good fortune smiled on me -- as we headed down I happened to be behind a superb descender. I would later discover he was from Alberta Canada and like the two other Canadians I would chat with during the race, he was an excellent rider. Every time he deviated from the line of the riders just ahead of him, it was the better line. When we hit the bottom I thanked him profusely for the safe and smooth descending. That's not to say the descent was easy -- my rear wheel would lock and slide on loose, fine gravel whenever ample brake was required. Still I kept a safe distance from my Canadian guide and kept in control, rolling onto the pavement at the bottom smiling widely.
There are two main places where your crew can provide aid -- the first is called Pipeline and appears just before 10 miles of flat and rolling terrain. The second is called Twin Lakes and appears just before the 10 mile ascent of Columbine which tops out at 12,500 feet. Because the course is an out and back, your crew gets 4 chances to help you out. I had the best crew and we had pretty good planning. Except for not communicating clearly where and when a kit of spare parts should be -- it was flawless. Scott, Annie, Erika and Ben had the wheels at Pipeline and would get them to Twin Lakes before I returned from Columbine. They had a bit of a panic when they thought the wheels should be there when I come through the first time -- but that was my fault I didn't make it clear that it's at the bottom of the downhills where this matters. Crashing on the way down from Columbine illustrates the point perhaps but fortunately for me -- spare parts were not required.
It is a thrilling to see my crew flagging me down by blowing train whistles and jumping out in front of me! My friends who came out to support this effort was the best part of the entire experience. It's impossible to describe the love I have for the crew in Leadville and my support at home. Besides the crew of Annie, Ben, Emilie, Ericka, Sam, Scott and Steve on the course, my ride would not be possible without the support of Pat all season. I also truly appreciated the advice of Justin Lindine and mechanical support and advice from Isaac Neff.
Arriving at the Pipeline stop the first time my crew is ready for all my needs. I downed a pouch of what I call potato chips but is actually a paste-like product from Cliff made from Sweet Potatoes and Sea Salt. It was like a road ride on gavel roads and some single track to get across from Pipeline to Twin Lakes. Greeted happily by the crew at Twin Lakes -- I sat while Steve lubed my chain and Emilie and the others saw to my needs. After a good push off from Steve, I headed toward the monster climb of Columbine.
Columbine is steep, it's rocky, the air is thin and you're going to walk sections. I was able to ride a few sections behind those walking but whenever I tried to pass the extra effort in the thin air would have me panting off the bike in an instant. It's crazy gorgeous above the tree line. As we emerged from the trees onto the alpine landscape, Ken Chlouber was there sitting on a platform above the trail encouraging all riders. Not long before this moment, the professional riders and other leading cyclists started to appear heading downhill on their return and to the finish in Leadville. I have to say, it surprised me to see them this late in the ride and also helped me realize that I'll be on this climb for a long time yet even though more the six of the ten mile climb was behind me.
On the way up Columbine I stayed focused and was able to pass a few cyclists when the stream of downward cyclists abated. I was able to ride sections near the top that others were walking and very nearly made it up a particularly steep section when a pause in the line and a rock conspired to take me off the bike, once again panting violently. At the top I didn't hesitate and headed down. For nearly the entire trip down I was hyper-focused and weary of climbing cyclists zig-zagging on the rocky slope as they pushed their bikes up the steep incline. Joyously I had space in front and no one right behind me. I could see everything coming and let the bike rock and roll over ditches and rocks. The bottom is smooth gravel road which lets you have as much speed as you want and as I discovered a bit more than that.
Another two spectacular stops at Twin Lakes and Powerline fueled my return. The crew once again proving to be invaluable. Two big climbs remain, Powerline and Carter Summit. There's a climb to finish with an extra bit of technical challenge that we didn't see on the way out. I had the good fortune of getting a preview of this rocky climb from Mick, a friend of Steve's who is doing his third Leadville 100 MTB. Mick was one of the first-responders last year when Scott Ellis suffered a heart attack on the Powerline climb. The time I spent with Mick the day before the race will be one of the most cherished memories of the trip. Mick's spectacular attitude and advice helped me in numerous ways throughout the day.
Powerline was another hike and bike affair for all except the super strong. Still most of it is rideable with the first mile or so being the toughest. After Powerline there's some downhill on a paved road and it was here I'd see another cyclist appearing to be in my age class. This was on a downhill leading to another three miles of incline on the smooth road before heading onto another mile of up hill on double track and jeep road. I was pedaling smoothly up the 3 mile climb when I noticed this cyclist in an apparent attack pass me with gusto. This makes me smile but keep my pace unchanged. Good for him. To my surprise I would see this cyclist one more time on the final rocky pitch to Carter Summit. When his tire slipped out on the steep climb I pushed over the top and kept moving quickly to bottom drawing out a younger man in a Trek Factory Racing kit. We would hit final challenge of the day called the Boulevard of Broken Dreams together but thanks to Mick I knew the line to take and remained on my bike to top while the man in the Trek kit was off his bike. All this combine to put me in racer-mode which means I didn't look back and kept what speed I could to finish where I collapsed and was immediately cared for by my excellent crew. Finishing in a time of 10 hours and 16 minutes smashed my expectation of 11 to 11 and half hours. Leadville is everything they say it is and the experience was amplified many fold by the love for my crew.
Joey King - AMR Member since 2013
* Congrats to both Joey King and Stacy Bellestri on their finishes in the Leadville 100 MTB Race. Both did a fantastic job and we are proud to have them on our team.