Racing with the Gang in Leadville, Colorado

“Make pain your friend and you will never be alone”

It’s five days before the 1997 Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race and my left arm is weak, inflexible, and swollen with pain. A cavalier training ride through Rocky Mountain single track ended in a power endo, landing square on my tucked forearm. While I quickly returned to my feet in front of my two cohorts, riding the remaining 15 miles home was miserable.

With the ice bag across my arm, I can only get disappointed thinking about missing the “big race.” The one I’ve spent $165 in entry fees, six days of vacation, lodging, and more. The one my parents are flying to in hopes of seeing their son break the legendary nine-hour deadline and earn a gold and silver Leadville belt buckle. The one where eight friends of mine are also entered with another eight friends providing race support. The one I’ve been training for and thinking about all year long.

Fortunately, after 48 hours of rest, ice, compression, and elevation, a small glimpse of hope appears. I’m finally able to let my arm hang by my side without pain.

I quickly checked into the Leadville Recreation Center and jumped in the whirlpool where I was entertained by a group of senior women exchanging tales of traffic violations. The clear winner was the woman who drove a quick Chevy Camero IROC and racked up two grand in speeding fees across the USA. To them, I was just another one of those crazy biker kids. Why bike up a mountain when you can cruise in your Chevy. It was a good question for a guy from Detroit.

Our race day started at 4:45AM alarm. Most of our group was staying in a tasteful condo just outside of town. It was still dark out and the coffee maker was gurgling as we gave last minute requests to our support crew. We loaded our bikes in the VW van and listened as the engine started, stalled, and flooded. After what seemed like eternity, the van engine turned over. Whew! I had a worried look on my face from visualizing a brisk four-mile bike ride to the starting line in the dark.

We arrived at a chaotic downtown Leadville, Colorado just fifteen minutes before the 6:00 AM start. That was just enough time to weasel a good starting position in the staging area before realizing that nature was calling. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to answer.

Leadville 100 startThe local bank thermometer read 38 degrees F. I decided to wear shorts because I hate getting off the bike to remove my leg warmers. My knees weren’t too happy with the decision so I bathed them in ICYHOT and the 10% menthol lotion kept them warm for the start. I wore a short-sleeved jersey and arm warmers, which wasn’t a problem. Though the race begins with a chilly 4 mile descent at 25 MPH, I knew I’d be toasty by the first major climb over St. Kevin (rhymes with Steven). The biggest problem with the St. Kevin climb is your legs feel better than your lungs. In last year’s race, this is where I really noticed the lack of oxygen at 10,000 feet above sea level. But most everyone felt it for there was no chit-chat in the 400-strong peloton as we slowly cranked up the dirt road.

The reward for climbing St. Kevin is a twisty 40+ MPH paved descent. Everyone assumed the aero-tuck position and took full advantage of the smooth road. As I glided by my skinnier brethren, my semi-slick tires barely hummed. I was coasting like a top professional!

But the downhill ended with short jaunt through some rocky, uphill Colorado single track followed by a dirt road climb to the top of Sugarloaf pass. The official race photographers were along this road. I saw their “Race Photos Ahead” sign, shifted into the big ring, stood on the pedals, and smiled effortlessly at the camera. I didn’t want a picture of me climbing in some stinkin’ middle ring.

The Sugarloaf downhill is a trip: super steep and deeply rutted. I praised my V-brakes while wishing my slicks would bite just a little more. But I survived with only a couple near-death experiences.

Upon reaching the fish hatchery aid station, the first of five, I soft-pedaled looking for my parents. My dad called me and switched Camelbaks. I was drinking generic Gatorade diluted with 50% water and it tasted okay. Experience told me “taste” was not going to be a big factor in this grueling race. Prior to the day’s start, I had calculated the average aid station splits for the last nine racers who broke 9 hours in the 1996 race. These splits were taped to my stem, and a quick glance showed me a couple minutes better than my first target, as well as 10 minutes faster than my last year’s split. This gave me a little confidence boost despite my arm’s condition.

The next 16 miles to the second aid station are relatively flat and the pace was red-hot. I jumped on every wheel that came past and tried to not spin out my 42×11. Of course this portion was not completely flat — there were a few steep downhills. In the pre-race meeting, the promoters mentioned that two riders had broken collarbones on this section earlier in the week. In response, they promised to park an ambulance at the bottom of the ravine. Recalling my off the trail, brush-clearing maneuver from last year, I tried to keep things under control.

Leadville 100 climbFeeling frisky, I did a power-slide into the next aid station at the Twin Lakes Dam, swapped Camelbaks, sang a chorus of Kool and the Gang’s Fresh and headed for the big climb. The climb to Columbine mine is over 3,500 feet. For flatlanders like myself, this is mentally tough. But I saw racer #29 climbing in front of me. Twenty-nine was his finish last year, good enough for a gold and silver buckle. I picked up my pace and eventually caught him. We proceeded to crank up the remainder of the evil mountain together. Needless to say, I lost my friskiness as the trail became steeper just past the tree line.

I figured I must have been doing well. Four aid station volunteers surrounded me at the top of the climb. They offered to refill my Camelbak, hold my bike while I ate food, and even re-lube my chain. The fourth guy was showing me my extra clothing I had sent to this top station. But, after a short discussion with my “crew”, the consensus was I didn’t need anymore clothes — it was time to hit the downhill. I said thanks between gulps of ClifShot and headed back to Leadville.

The first section of the downhill is tough with the climbing riders often taking the best lines. When I wasn’t out of control, I was exchanging words of encouragement to the other riders, trying not to be too snide just because gravity was on my side. And as the end of the descent came into view through the stands of aspen, I gave my brakes a needed rest and cool down. I was flying in the low forties and it felt awesome.

Because this course is an out-and-back, the forth aid station is the same as the second. I found my parents who are now pretty darn excited — I was tied for fifteenth and about a half-hour ahead of schedule. I could only remind them that it was a long race. I popped a couple ibuprofens for my aching back. Clearly, I was no longer “fresh.”

But fortunately the ride back to the fish hatchery is fairly mild with only a couple hike-a-bikes. Before one such section, I rode past a couple race volunteers. I said “hello” but they were engrossed in reading. But, a few seconds later they yelled “Go Todd Scott.” Cool. They noted my race number and were looking up my name in the registration list. It’s these little things that give you a little kick and help keep your motor running.

Back on the paved road and after a couple turns, the last aid station arrives. The main obstacle between me and downtown Leadville is the super-nasty, power line climb over Sugarloaf pass: the steep, rutted wall that never ends. It teases you. Every crested ascent is followed by another. As we begin pushing our bikes, the clouds moved in, replacing the morning’s beautiful blue skies. At this slow speed, you can see many fellow racers both up and down the hill. I estimate the field is spread across forty miles. I remind myself that I’m in this for the belt buckle and I don’t care if I beat joe-blow from Idaho.

In the middle of it all, with both arms on the handlebars and my feet duck-walking beneath me, I look up to see a mosquito on my forearm. I figured he’d take some blood and immediately fall to the earth with lactic acid overload. I spared him the ordeal, moving him off my arm with an exhaled puff.

Ah, the sight of Turquoise Lake! The telltale sign that Sugarloaf is behind you for another year. The gentle downhill lasts for quite some time before dumping into the single track. Fortunately the trail is fully rideable in this direction. Mid-way through I laughed out loud at the rock which caused my earlier arm injury. Ha!

Leadville 100 with DanI was quickly out of the single track and on to the final paved climb when I noticed my chain jumping a half-inch to the right with nearly every pedal stroke. Oh, that sinking feeling that only a bike mechanical can give. I flipped the bike over and noticed my master pin wasn’t going through one of the link plates. This was not good. I grabbed my chain tool and fixed it as best as I could. This was definitely an excuse for taking the last dozen miles a little easier.

Just as soon as I get my heavy legs back in climbing mode, a car starts riding slowly behind me. “Great, some aggressive driver’s going to get confrontational, run over my bike, and take away my belt buckle.” But no, it’s only my friend Dale and behind him is my teammate Robert. He spins past and we talk a bit. I probably mentioned my lousy chain excuse before he took off ahead of me.

Now it’s back to lonely-land for me. It’s easy to run out of mental games to keep your body churning for so long. I’m trying to visualize myself going down the other side of this hill. I’m trying to visualize the finish line, the awards banquet, and the condo shower.

Less than an hour of pain remains. Finally the trail hits the dirt again for a few small remaining climbs followed by the final downhill. The wind whips my face on the descent and my eye contacts are incredibly dry and gritty. I keep squinting to keep them from fluttering away. One extra long squint leaves me approaching a turn much too quickly. As I overshoot the turn, I hit the Tomac-switch, steer the bike up a steep dirt bank, hit a few baby-head rocks, and somehow get back to the trail. I gave a big ol’rodeo scream to a crowd of zero.

Leadville 100 awardsThe downhill dissipates and we’re back on the pavement and over the train tracks. The train is notorious for stopping riders for minutes at a time and stealing their buckle dreams. I yelled “I BEAT THE TRAIN!!!” a couple times. I’m thinking I’m delirious until a mile later when I hear the train grudge past. I’m actually pretty lucky.

I turn towards town and make one final trip to the granny gear for a steep gravel road climb. But the pitch lessens and the nondescript gravel road climbs into town. A couple of turns and a small hill and you can see the finish line. It’s gear-grabbing time. One hundred feet from the finish and I start doing the chicken dance on my bike before landing a big bunny hop onto the red finishing carpet. I check the finishing clock: eight hours, twenty-four minutes and change. The gold buckle is mine, baby.

Robert’s finished a couple minutes in front of me in seventeenth place, while the winner, Mike Volk, finished an hour and nineteen minutes ahead. That’s unbelievable. Somehow I’d managed 21st place and my parents are all smiles despite the cool, windy, overcast weather. I’m surrounded by my friends, I smell bad and look worse, but I did it. I wasn’t singing Fresh but Celebration was a very suitable replacement.

Todd Scott lives in a Detroit, Michigan suburb. A month after the Leadville race, doctors determined Todd had raced with an elbow fracture at the head of the radial bone.

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