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An orange glow from the rising sun lit the sky and awoke the locals of the old mining town of Leadville, as the frosted breath of thousands of cyclists filled the air.
As the temperature crept near the 40-degree mark and the bright red start-line clock counted down the minutes to the start of the Leadville Trail 100 MTB Race, a hand rose into the air.
Dutchman Laurens Ten Dam, one of several WorldTour roadies, past and present, trying their hand at Leadville for the first time, had a puncture. Instinctively, Ten Dam (Giant-Alpecin) put his hand in the air, the universal call for assistance from inside the race caravan.
The moment foreshadowed the kind of day many of the roadies who toed the start line would have – not fully prepared for what was to come.
Meanwhile, American mountain-bike veteran Todd Wells (SRAM-Troy Lee Designs) quietly went through the same pre-race preparations that had brought him two Leadville victories. A three-time Olympian, Wells, 40, won Leadville in 2011 and 2014, having moved toward longer endurance events after a career that saw three national cyclocross championships and three national cross-country championships.
Six hours and 19 minutes after the customary shotgun blast, under warm, sunny skies, Wells crossed the same line first, alone, three minutes ahead of Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale-Drapac), who finished his first Leadville in a time of 6:22:40.
Another mountain-bike veteran, Jeremiah Bishop (Topeak-Ergon), took third in 6:28:46.
Other professional road racers in the top 10 included Chris Jones (UnitedHealthcare) in fifth, in 6:46:20, and Alex Howes (Cannondale-Drapac) in sixth, in 6:47:58.
— Brian Patrick (@BoulderVideo) August 14, 2016
“Well, JB [Bishop] attacked right at the start, and I was like ‘Oh man, here we go again,’” Wells said. “I went across to him and Joe bridged to us on the first climb and we just rolled together the rest of the day, just the three of us.
“It was really long, and Bishop wanted to break the record [5:58:35] so he was pushing hard. Once it became apparent we didn’t have a big enough group for that he kind of eased back, and we kind of took it easy up [the Columbine climb]. Then, I was surprised to be able to hang with Joe on [the Powerline climb] and even gap him a little bit. I attacked him over the top, and that was the race.”
Dombrowski’s Leadville debut was impressive considering he doesn’t spend much time on a mountain bike. “It was actually not what I expected in that Jeremiah and Todd went from the pavement, really early,” Dombrowski said. “I came across on the climb, which seems pretty aggressive pretty early, but I was thinking, with those guys, you can’t just let them ride away.
“I had a gap on the [Powerline] climb, but then bobbled and was running with the bike and [Wells] came back. Then we were together over the top of Powerline and he attacked me on the descent. I just made a mistake on the descent, went off the trail, and he had a gap. Then it was basically a time trial.”
One week earlier, Bishop and world road champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) competed at the Pierre’s Hole 50/100, at Grand Targhee Resort in Wyoming, which offered 50km, 100km, and 100-mile courses. Sagan won the 50km event, while Bishop won the 100-mile event.
“I blame Peter Sagan for my performance today, because he wouldn’t meet me in the middle and do the 100km event, so I went and did an eight-hour sufferfest and crucified myself,” Bishop joked.
“[Leadville] is not a technical mountain biker’s course, but it’s the perfect mash-up, and I think that is why it has fascinated a lot of the road guys and mountain-bike guys, because we can just juggle the ball and see who wins,” Bishop said. “It’s always crazy, but it’s a mash-up. It’s awesome seeing the guys from the road, mountain biking.”
Sally Bigham (Topeak-Ergon) crushed the women’s race, finishing in a time of 7:05:47, her third victory at the Leadville Trail 100 and good enough for 14th overall. Lorenza Morfin finished second in 8:01:02 and Jennifer Smith was third in 8:04:19.
The finish corral at the Leadville 100 is one filled with pain, populated by smelly, sweaty people, faces covered in dirt.
The handful of pro road racers at the event, however, seemed to be in more pain than most.
Ten Dam (Giant-Alpecin), who completed the Tour de France weeks earlier, appeared shellshocked at the finish, and was in awe at the race’s primary climb, Columbine, a 12km climb with an elevation gain of 3,126 feet, topping out at 12,424 feet, the highest point on the course, also serving as the mid-race turnaround point.
“Way, way above,” Ten Dam said, when asked if the race had been above or below his pre-race expectations. “I’ve never done such a hard race, I think. Also, I had a crash in the second downhill, so I think I have some bruised ribs or something. The altitude man … The first two climbs I was still in the group, and then after the crash I’m not anymore. That fucking climb, Columbine, and then after that I was just in the fucking box all day after. I cannot move anymore.”
— laurenstendam (@laurenstendam) August 13, 2016
Dombrowski compared the day to one of road racing’s one-day classics, “except you’re getting beat up from the terrain, and you’re riding on your limit on the climbs.”
The Cannondale-Drapac rider, who flew to Spain on Sunday to prepare for the Vuelta a España beginning on August 20th, joked that Leadville was also good training for the opening team trial at the Vuelta.
“Today I was thinking this wouldn’t be bad practice for the team time trial because I spent 50% of the time with my hand [over the center] of the bars.” The Vuelta kicks off with a 29.4km [18.26mi] team time trial.
Ted King, the retired Cannondale pro who won the Dirty Kanza 200 in June, was caught-off guard by the amount he suffered in Leadville.
“It’s funny because I did Dirty Kanaza, which is nearly 12 hours, and that was a whole lot of suffering, but then I go into this thinking it’s going to be literally half the time, it’s the same amount of suffering,” said King, who finished 12th with a time of 7:04:29.
“I mean those guys are in the middle of their season, they’re peaking their fitness, they’re between races… I’m in beer season. I’m in retirement. It was fun to go out there, but when I see those guys attacking, I mean c’est la vie, let them do their race,” King said. “I was basically here to be as tactical as I could and race it like a road race, and sit in and draft and use experience there, but I knew it was going to be a gnarly day.”
Howes, who just completed the Tour de France and the Tour of Utah, wasn’t a fan of the 6:30 a.m. start, which required riders to wake up around 4:30 a.m.
“I think the early start was probably the hardest part of the whole thing,” said Howes. “I went up the first climb and I was not awake, not ready for that, but overall, it was pretty sweet.”
Howes was sporting a bit of blood on his elbow, the result of a crash at a local weeknight short-track mountain-bike race in Boulder days prior; he explained the scab simply fell off when he peeled off his arm warmer.
This MTB stuff is just great. Thanks @LTRaceSeries for 6+hrs of fun today! I’ll be back.
— alex howes (@alex_howes) August 14, 2016
Still riding the wave of his overall victory at the Tour of Utah, Australian Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly), had the worst day of all the pro roadies, with multiple punctures and a torn sidewall. He would pull out at the Twin Lakes feed zone, at mile 40.
Other former WorldTour riders competing in Leadville included Dave Zabriskie, Craig Lewis, and Timmy Duggan. All three would finish within nine minutes of each other with Duggan coming in first in 7:27:15, Zabriskie next in 7:33:11, and Lewis posting a time of 7:35:49.
After the race, most of the roadies were hesitant to commit to returning next year, either not knowing how their race schedules might play out, or simply not ready to commit to that level of suffering.
Mentor vs. Apprentice
Sporting the stars and stripes of national marathon cross-country champion, Wells demonstrated his years of experience, and well-tuned diesel engine, to take an emphatic victory. But behind him, an interesting dynamic played out between the second- and third-place finishers, as Bishop had coached Dombrowski from when he was a junior amateur sensation to when he signed his first WorldTour contract with Team Sky in 2013.
“This was the final exam, as far as Joes versus JB, and he passed with flying colors,” Bishop said before he shared a hug with Dombrowski. “There were times before that he was physically strong, but not tactically aware, and I helped him a little bit before the race with ideas and equipment and talked to him about pacing. Then, during the race, I was like ‘no more mister nice guy.’ I tried to chop him coming down Powerline and take the descent, and he came into me and put me almost into the trees. I’m like ‘holy crap, this guy is serious.'”
“It’s funny how that loops back,” Dombrowski said. “It’s a small community. Road, cyclocross, mountain, if you put it all together it’s still not that many of us, so it’s cool to all come together.”
• Full attribution for the clever term “Fireroadies” goes to Twitter user Medium Rick.
• In a pre-race email, Dombrowski detailed his reasons for running a 2x drivetrain, rather than 1x. “On the high end, the difference I see between a 36/26 2x and a 32 single ring when in the 11 is basically 24.2 mph at 90 rpm for the 2x versus 21.5 mph with a 1x set up in the 11 on the cassette at 90 rpm. At 100 rpm you get up to 29.6 mph on the 2x setup, which seems like it would plenty, even for the fastest bits of the course. On the low end with a 26×42 double setup I could ride at 3.1 mph at 60 rpm versus needing to move at 3.8 mph with a single 32×46 gear to maintain 60 rpm. I think this could be significant also in ability to remain seated and keep traction the rear wheel during steep, loose climbs, and additionally we can keep the torque lower which is always good for me. Obviously there is the additional weight of a shifter and derailleur, and a slightly higher risk for chain issues on a 2x, but it seems the way to go. The guys I’ve spoken to who have done the race before seem to think that’s best.”
• Away from the racing, a noteworthy scenario developed behind-the-scenes, as Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong — former teammates turned bitter litigants in a federal lawsuit — were both in attendance at the race. Landis made no secret of his presence at the event; he recently opened a recreational marijuana product, “Floyd’s of Leadville,” with an office in town. Landis was present at the Twin Lakes feed zone, hanging out under a branded tent. Armstrong, who owns a home in nearby Aspen, was also present in Leadville, as his partner, Anna Hansen, was racing. Armstrong’s presence was more low-key than Landis’, and it is unknown if the two spoke at any point. Both men have competed at Leadville, with Landis finishing second to Dave Wiens in 2007, and Armstrong winning in 2009.