“I PRE-RODE THE LEADVILLE 100 WITH TOPEAK-ERGON”
Story and images below by Ft. Collins, CO resident and Leadville 100 rider, Jim Fu
With barely over a year of experience riding, and, as a possible portent, the reality hanging over my head of having been dinged from the entry lottery this year, I spent the night prior to a 50-mile pre-ride of the Leadville 100 MTB race course in a waking nightmare pondering the implications of just having committed myself to making a go at one of the sport’s most notorious venues. And if the course itself wasn’t formidable enough, I’d be tagging along on the wheel of Topeak-Ergon pro rider Yuki Saito who, along with his teammates Jeff Kerkove and Dave Wiens (yes, him), have posted top finishes in a race that most who go out for it only want to get back intact, under their own power, or before the 12 hour cutoff (now choose two of the three).
However, if cycling has reinforced any of life’s lessons, the one here for me is that doubting oneself doesn’t put one in front of situations that provide opportunities to earn the kinds of experience that yield personal improvement. To the extent that I’ve been doing my homework so as to have been able to finish the Firecracker 50 in Breckenridge as my first race several weeks prior, I still know that I don’t even know how much I don’t know about cycling and training. So, on the heels of blissful ignorance and naïve ambition, and after getting through a night of paranoid insomnia that was abbreviated to 4AM, I found myself wending and weaving along I-70 among a corps of diehards in their SUV’s and Subarus laden with bikes, gear, and healthy-outdoorsy-looking self-loading freight heading west to really cool places to do really cool things. “Yeah, me too. ”
I arrived about a half-hour before the 8AM meeting in the parking lot of the Silver City Cinema in town, and ran across Harrison Street to the Provin’ Grounds Coffee & Bakery shop where upon entering I immediately regretted quaffing down the two PB&J’s I made for myself for the drive. Provin Grounds’ incredible pastry cabinet featured absolutely monstrous cinnamon rolls, but all I could bring myself to stomach was a tall… green tea. Now as much as I am sure Provin’ Grounds has some of the world’s best coffee, and as much as I love the taste of coffee, the way its caffeine is packaged and/or delivered somehow drives me absolutely batshit halo-seeing insane. Moreover, the turnout for the ride could have been a casting call for the “Asian Cycling Mafia” – now how cool would that kit be?! So true to my birthright, green tea it was for me. Come to think of it, Junko was even sporting an Ito En tee-shirt that also just happened to be in Ergon black and green… hmmm….
After changing into our kits, with sunscreen duly applied (the sky was clear at the time of departure – UV rays are particularly strong at elevation), our bike lineup consisted of Yuki on his Rotwild carbon full-suspension, Kei on his Motobecane aluminum hardtail, Junko on her full-suspension Turner, and me on my Motobecane titanium hardtail. We struck a consensus with our Shimano XTR drivetrains, but our forks, wheelsets, and brakesets sported a pageant of united cycling nations represented between Magura, RockShox, DT Swiss, Shimano, Easton, Avid, and Vuelta. Tires ran the gamut from the Kenda Small Block 8’s twirling around both my front and rear dropouts, to Yuki’s Conti Mountain King in front and Race King in back. Yuki, Junko, and I ran tubeless, which is a very advisable way to go in Leadville as was confirmed later with Kei’s pinch-flatting while descending the upper midsection of Powerline.
As we struck out from the quaint downtown, a giddiness alternating between exhilaration and trepidation rose and fell in me to the rhythm of our cranks turning and the pulse of our freewheels clicking. Among all the thoughts rambling through my head over what I had gotten myself into and what would be in store, I resolved that if my legs and lungs weren’t going to get me through that ride… then fending off the shame if I caused Yuki to regret having a newb like me along would!
Our route was established with the Leadville National Fish Hatchery off of SH300 as the turnaround point, which allowed us to get in effectively the first and last quarters of the race course, recalling that the course is an out-and-back. According to my Garmin Edge 305, our route put us through 13300’ of total vertical across 51 miles which was nearly equally split between climbs, descents, and flats, give or take a mile or two. Although Yuki’s computer captured slightly higher figures, our numbers generally jived. Among segments, our route included Powerline which I was truly ecstatic to actually roll my wheels over after hearing so much about it – and it certainly lives up to its lore (more on Powerline later).
All of the paved, double-track, and jeep road segments preceding the Fish Hatchery were included in our ride, during which I took care to keep one eye pegged on Yuki so as to see “how a pro does it.” Other times, I was either gawking at the breathtaking Rocky Mountain panorama enveloping us, or, as testament to the irrational things we do in the throes of agony, fixated on every detail of the shape, color, and texture of the surface features rolling underwheel as I was grueling up climbs that seemed like they’d never end. As Yuki mentioned, it’s very easy on race day to overlook the scenic beauty of the race course, so the pre-ride was also valuable for providing an opportunity for us to appreciate the profound scenery. It certainly did pay to pick up our heads a little higher, and not just for the sake of improving breathing. Although I was relying on Yuki’s navi-guiding and so wasn’t paying much attention to the names of the roads or the trails that we were on, I did notice that the vast majority of the course was comprised of well-improved dirt or outright solid pavement which made for very fast prolonged descents that, on the return, translated into proportionately formidable climbs. Given the dry trail and road conditions we enjoyed that day, fast XC tires with low-profile knobs, but durable casing and sidewalls, were perfectly appropriate and adequate.
Our moving time over the 51 miles was just under 4.5 hours. We made stops long enough for the gang to regroup, rearrange jersey pockets, and share our respective experiences in Breckenridge from a few weeks before. Yuki ran into some old friends from Golden whom I’ll now be looking out for at the Laramie Enduro. I also listened intently to Yuki and Kei talking about the rest of the Leadville course, their past races, and how they trained for and rode in them. And of course, you cannot possibly get a bunch of Asian guys together and not have them talk about technical/mechanical stuff even if they have as mountain bikers completely smashed the stereotypical mold (sipping green tea, be damned). So the efforts to get up the hills were only really an excuse for us to launch off our bikes to get back to sharing and comparing our frames and components as soon as we could. (Just kidding… kind of).
Yuki’s full-squish Rotwild was hands-down a marvel, with its glistening team-painted carbon frame, Ergon grips featuring carbon bar-ends and shock-dampening elastomer, and Magura fork and brakes that you just don’t see very often. Kei’s Motobecane bore the sordid story of Kei’s getting hit by a car (which then just drove off) only two weeks before he took delivery of the bike brand-new and literally couldn’t touch it for many weeks due to having braces bolted into his forearm. My raw-finish titanium frame, lightweight Ashima brake rotors, and Easton wheelset got notice from both Yuki and Kei right from the start of the ride. However, perhaps most compelling among trail-talk topics was to hear Yuki share a little about his teammates Jeff, Sonya, and Dave, as his friends and real people with personalities beyond the press and glossy advertisements, and through the general mystique that comes with their place in the mountain biking echelon: Jeff’s training dedication and mechanical expertise; Sonya’s infectious energy and buoyant personality; Dave’s predilection for pastries and pizza and other carbo-licious tidbits. At several points during the ride I was genuinely giddy over the unique opportunity of being there. And to think I was actually reconsidering having committed to the ride just several hours earlier…
When considering specific segments of the Leadville course, talk often ultimately focuses on Powerline or Columbine Mine. We didn’t have Columbine Mine in our plans that day, but I certainly got my personal introduction to Powerline. It lives up to its name quite literally, as I could even hear the high-voltage electrical wires overhead actually hum and crackle as I rode beneath them. Powerline presents a steep, moderately winding descent on the outbound course. As soon as we hit it, even before Yuki called it out, I noticed immediately that something was different, that we were “somewhere else.”
By themselves, steep downhill gradients, loose rocks, sharp boulders, deep furrows, crusty edges, off-camber ruts, gravel over hardpack, sand pits, and traces of dead-ending riding lines are, even with my limited experience, readily negotiable. But Powerline takes all of these variables and throws them in front of and underneath you simultaneously and in constantly shifting combinations. The moment you think you’re catching a break, you’re already over a section that jars you right back to the reality that you’re still on Powerline. It’s critical to look ahead and be at the very top of your trail scan, since even slowing down presents a liability as deep furrows with steep off-camber walls will suck you, both wheels at the same time, into narrow, craggy ruts, filled with kitty litter and pocked with cubic boulders, that terminate abruptly at vertical, knee-high hardpack walls. If you stop, there’s really no good clean places to get a good roll again – you just go for it, as if you’re not already being dragged downhill from the gradient. And you certainly need to pick lines, keep your front end alive, and employ lots of body English – plowing through could easily yield an endo, a taco’ed wheel, and all the other nice loot that comes in that goody-bag. This trail also makes a case-in-point for running tubeless tires, especially for anybody who descends with any speed. All the admonitions I’ve heard and read about Powerline were clanging in my head as I was descending – the crashes, the mechanicals, the “won’t win the race here, but certainly can lose it.” But don’t get me wrong: Powerline is one hell of an exhilarating ride that truly distinguishes the mountain biker among other cyclists. It’s a real mind-bender to conceive of the mechanics of negotiating that trail on race day as it runs two-way, and in some spots it’s just not very wide. Indeed, catching glimpses of Yuki ’s descending skills and speed was mesmerizing and also sublime in the sense that, in spite of Powerline’s overt treachery, it takes grace and finesse to conquer it. That dude can descend.
And that dude can climb. On the return, Powerline was the first major effort to quickly greet us after stopping at the Fish Hatchery where we topped off our bottles and cooed at baby trout. Just as descending Powerline required guts and finesse, so did climbing it, as the very same ruts, scatter, and rocks on the way down were there on the way back up to throw more dogs into the fight to sustain a semblance of cadence and to scratch out efficient lines. The solution to climbing Powerline lies in its very problem, which is not just to not stop, but also to keep going. Altogether, the hills of Leadville served as poignant reminders to me of why it’s important to be honest in training, to put in real effort, time, and quality. I was at times pulling at every reason I could to keep going, coming up with all kinds of non-sequitur rationalizations such as vindicating all those spin classes I dragged myself to during the winter instead of facing the cold outside on a real bike, justifying the purchase of several new bikes during a recessionary year, and accounting for the 45 pounds I shed since last summer leading to my having to buy an entirely new wardrobe, right down to boxer shorts, and not to mention the entire cycling getup, from helmet to bibshorts, from gloves to shoes. Yet in spite of the suffering and delirium, I remained cognizant of the fact that this was still a training ride, and that the sheer length and strenuousness of the climbs afforded ideal, real-life, and under-pressure conditions to really hone form and mental focus. I tried out different pedaling and breathing techniques that I had either picked up from various sources or conjured out of the shallow depths of my mind. And watching Yuki climb (as long as he remained in sight) provided some awe-inspiring and even entertaining mental quelling of the six-alarm emergency sounding in my head to complement my aching-to-the-point-of-numb legs, lungs, and shoulders.
If all of the consideration for the hills alone isn’t enough, then there’s elevation. The race starts in town which sits at 10200’ and rises to just under 12500’ at its highest point. Over the course of our pre-ride, we covered 13300’ of total vertical. My only prior experience with altitude came from the Firecracker 50 and its pre-ride in Breckenridge (9500’-11400’) several weeks prior, so I was eager to acquire another datapoint informing on my response to elevation. I had moved two years ago to Fort Collins, CO (elevation 5100’), from the lowland east coast where I grew up, so I’m no specimen bred at altitude to have benefitted from some presumed benefit to physiological performance from growing up in rare air. However, thus far I’ve noticed that only as long as I pay attention to breathing, as silly as it sounds, I’m alright, and I find the cooler, drier air at altitude actually facilitates sustaining even a grossly exaggerated respiration rate by keeping my respiratory passages clear. It goes without saying that hydrating and fueling remain critical. On this ride I went through one 100 oz. hydration pack of plain water (still making my way around to trying those mixes) carried in my Camelbak M.U.L.E., one Clif Bar, one Clif Mojo bar, a half pack of Clif Shot Bloks, and one Gu Roctane gel. I probably could have used one more of something else during the last 10 miles of the ride, but with getting back into town so imminent, I frankly felt too lazy to reach into my jersey pocket since I hate doing so anyway as I’m about as flexible as a rock. Plus, I figured we’d be getting a bite of real food once we did get back.
The satisfaction of rolling into the end of good hard ride is accompanied by an exquisite sense of accomplishment, renewal, and… starvation. Right after we changed and got our bikes sorted, we made our way up Harrison Street, again under the guidance of Yuki, right into the cozy wings of High Mountain Pies where within only a few short minutes of ordering an extra-large Buffalo Chicken pizza appeared between us and was ferociously dispatched about as quickly as it took the kitchen to get it over to us. Although I am disastrously lactose intolerant and this pizza even went as far as to be topped with chunks of cream cheese, my stomach was already wrecked to hell from the gel and the bloks. Moreover, I simply wasn’t going to argue with that pizza which was as gorgeous as it was delicious. Even the crust was perfectly crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, which is really unusual to find in Colorado due to the elevation. With sincerest gratitude to Yuki, Kei, and Junko for their patience, guidance, and encouragement, and on top of everything else that made that day a benchmark occasion in my development as a mountain biker, I’ll take finding that perfect pizza – or those cinnamon rolls – as an omen that Leadville has something for which it wants me back there again soon. I’m looking forward to answering the call.