This weekend, a handful of pro roadies are swapping the sound of smooth rubber on freshly laid tarmac for the heavy metal of Rocky Mountain singletrack.
A WorldTour showdown, past and present, is set for the Leadville Trail 100 mountain-bike race on Saturday. Among them are Joe Dombrowski and Alex Howes (Cannondale-Drapac), Laurens Ten Dam (Giant-Alpecin), recent Tour of Utah winner Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly-Maxxis), Jon Hornbeck (Holowesko-Citadel), and retired WorldTour pros Timmy Duggan, Craig Lewis, and Ted King.
Dombrowski, Ten Dam, King and Duggan are racing as part of a special World Bicycle Relief team for Leadville.
Expectations range from thoughts of winning to just hoping to avoid embarrassment.
“I’d like to go and try and win Leadville, but obviously it’s a mountain-bike race and I’m not a mountain-bike racer, so it’s hard to say exactly,” said Dombrowski, who raced the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah last week, helping Andrew Talansky to third overall. “It is a bit of an unknown. I guess I would like to be at the front of the race and try to win the race, but I realize anything can really happen.”
Duggan, the former national road champion and 2012 Olympic team member who retired after the 2013 season, has a different level of ambition. “Goal one would be to not embarrass myself,” he laughed. “I really have no goals or expectations, I just to go out there and do my best and have fun. I have no idea what to expect. I don’t know if I could be on the podium or if there’s going to be 500 guys who are going to smoke me. We’ll go out there and find out.”
Ten Dam, the Dutch rider based in Santa Cruz, California, this year, is taking an easygoing attitude towards the race, making it a family affair.
“To be honest, I don’t expect too much from myself,” Ten Dam said. “It’s going to be my first mountain-bike race ever.”
— laurenstendam (@laurenstendam) August 10, 2016
Like Howes, Ten Dam completed the Tour de France last month. He then returned to Santa Cruz before driving to Colorado.
“I came straight from the airplane, two days in the car and straight from sea level to 2,000 metres, so it’s going to be difficult racing the guys who did Utah last week. For me, it’s based around fun. I’m here with the family and it’s fun to race a nice mountain-bike race. I hope to do more of those races in the future.
Leadville has been a race on Howes’ mind for while. “I’ve always wanted to do Leadville,” Howes said. “I asked to race a few years ago, but the team shot me down. When I found out Joe was racing my first thought was, ‘now they have to let me race.
“I’m not really sure what to expect,” Howes added. “I’ve raced a number of mountain-bike races over the years, and they have always gone quite well, but Leadville is a higher level and a very unique event. So, your guess is as good as mine.”
Leadville Trail 100 is an interesting event with its 50-mile out-and-back course and 11,000 feet in climbing, but the primary factor is the altitude. The lowest point on the course is 9,200 feet, and the highest point is at the Columbine Mine turnaround, which sits at 12,424 feet above sea level. The route includes a range of singletrack and dirt fire roads.
The course is not technical, enabling pro roadies to hop in with little specific preparation. Exceptional mountain-bike skills — which Peter Sagan will need in the Olympic cross-country race later this month — are not required.
Leadville is no stranger to roadie vs. mountain-biker battles. In 2007, six-time winner Dave Wiens broke the seven-hour mark for the first time, finishing in 6:58:46, holding off Floyd Landis by under two minutes. Lance Armstrong won in 2009, with a time of 6:28:51, and Levi Leipheimer won the race in 2010, with a time of 6:16:37.
Dombrowski rode most of the course on Wednesday, starting with the Colombine climb, which leads to the turnaround, and then rode the course back towards the finish in town. “It’s pretty non-technical and it’s the kind of course where actually there could be team tactics involved,” he said. “That could play a pretty big part — pack racing.”
Team tactics factored into last year’s race, as the Topeak-Ergon Racing Team powered to a record-breaking time, under six hours. Riding in the rainbow bands as world mountain-bike marathon champion, Austrian Alban Lakata won in a time of 5:58:35, with his teammate Kristian Hynek finishing second, also under six hours. The team just missed out on a podium sweep, with American Jeremiah Bishop losing out on the sprint for third, finishing fourth in 6:01:01.
Bishop is returning to Leadville this year, along with Topeak-Ergon teammate Bryan Dillon; Hynek and Lakata are not. Hynek broke his collarbone at TransAlp in July, while Lakata, a three-time winner, has a new baby and is staying closer to home this year.
Two-time Leadville winner Todd Wells (SRAM-Troy Lee Designs), a multiple-time national champion in cross-country and cyclocross, is also competing.
“I can’t really speak from experience, I’ve hardly done any mountain-bike racing since I was a lot younger, and I’ve never done Leadville before, but it definitely seems to me to be more of a road race on mountain-bikes,” Duggan said.
“There are some pavement sections and smoother dirt sections, and there’s definitely some tough mountain-bike sections too, but tactically there’s definitely going to be an element of road racing in there for sure. I think having seven or eight of us who are former pros on the road, if we are on the pointy end of the race, I think that will make the tactics a little different.”
Asked if the trash-talking among the roadies had begun, Duggan laughed. “Oh yeah, that started a long time ago.”
— alex howes (@alex_howes) August 10, 2016
Howes and Dombrowski recently dueled in a mustache growing competition at the Tour of Utah, with the former demolishing the later. Howes said there’s not an official in-team competition among the Cannondale teammates — not yet, anyhow.
“No wager between Joe and me,” Howes confirmed. “I think we both think we’re a better mountain biker than the other, but we don’t have anything to base that on other than a couple of hungover mountain-bike rides at team camp last fall in Aspen.
“Joe has the advantage of doing a 100-mile mountain-bike race in the past, but I did a 120-mile solo vision quest mountain-bike ride through some of the most desolate desert in the world last fall, so I’m sure I can survive at the very least.”
The pro road crew, past and present, is entering Leadville with a variety of goals and expectations. On Saturday we’ll find out whether some may have bitten off more than they can chew, or if the roadies are able to challenge the pro mountain bikers who make a career racing off road.
Visit Topeak-Ergon’s interactive page dedicated to the Leadville 100 here.