Digging Deep for La Plata Grande

Leadville Trail 100It was 1998. I was racing across one of the flatter sections of the Leadville 100 when I caught a guy with a strange riding style. He would spin madly then coast, repeating this over and over again. “Weird,” I thought. But later I realized the rest of the story. He was one of those singlespeeders I’d read about. He proceeded to stand for 90-some minutes of climbing and put a half-minute on me. As I spun along in my granny gear I thought how insane he must be.

  • One interesting aspect of endurance racing is it pushes you do stuff that normal people consider practically impossible. For example, in the mid-90s we had a team of five racing at the 24 Hours of Canaan when John Stamstad first raced solo. Initially even the promoter didn’t think it was possible and wouldn’t accept John’s race entry. Pulling a fast one, John signed up using four different variations of his name. Not only did he finish, he almost beat our team.A decade later and we not only had 37 solo racers at the 24 Hours of Boyne, but nine of them are on singlespeeds.

The Leadville 100 race is grassroots mountain bike race steeped in tradition. In its eleventh year, it’s 100 miles of not-too-technical jeep trails and roads with 10,000 feet of climbing. Of course the kicker is the elevation with a low point of 9,000 feet and a peak at 12,600. There’s so little oxygen that even the Denver people wheeze.

This year is my eight Leadville bike race. The promoters are dangling a carrot: finish ten Leadville bike races and they’ll give you a super-sized commemorative belt buckle.

Last year I did this race on a singlespeed just to add some spice to my ten race march. I finished about nine and a half hours, which was good enough for a proper-sized silver buckle. Had I come in under nine hours and I would have had a La Plate Grande – the big gold and silver buckle. I played back the race in my head but no matter what, I never found how I could go 30 minutes faster.

I was all set to resume geared racing at Leadville this year when I learned the promoters had added an official singlespeed category. I could not pass it up so I threw the 32×18 gearing on my Kona and drove to Colorado.

Leadville Trail 100 starting lineIt’s race day at 6:30 AM. A shotgun fires and 650 fat tired racers start with a super fast (25-30MPH) four mile paved road descent. That’s not good for singlespeeders geared to climb mountains. It’s a mix of some 150 cadence pedaling with a lot of aero tuck. One good thing is all the singlespeeders are following the same routine so it’s really easy to figure out where the competition is. The bad thing is getting passed by all the geared guys.

But the first mountain pass evens the field. Last year I ran out of breath near the final crest. This year I cleaned the climb. Yee haw!

The second mountain pass is a singlespeeder’s dream. It’s not too steep and with a bit of effort you can really push your way through the geared field. Plus, it’s always nice to climb comfortably and get slowly warmed by the sun rising over the horizon.

This climb ends with a steep, humbling, collar bone busting downhill. Compared to other years, the previous day’s rain keeps the dust down. We actually get to see the big rocks and ruts before we slam into them.

Leadville has a couple long, flat sections. On a normal bike, it’s a good chance to shift up, ride in pelotons, chat with others, and enjoy art of drafting. On a singlespeed, it’s a good chance to spin out, watch groups ride fly past, and reconsider your race category decision.

Leadville Trail 100Eventually though, you get to the Twin Lakes aid station. I pull on a new Camelbak, grab a full bottle of concentrated energy drink and face an evil seven mile Columbine climb.

As I leave the aid station I spot a local Paint Creek Bicycles jersey. It’s Tony Osgood and this is his first Leadville race. He asks if we are on the big climb and I enjoy telling him that this is just the prolog to his Columbine initiation.

Oddly enough, I feel great climbing Columbine, even at a cadence of 30 RPM. For reference, when Lance Armstrong is climbing his legs go around three times for every one mine go around. It’s slow but it’s the cross singlespeeders bear on Rocky Mountain climbs.

During the ascent, two singlespeeders pass me with one calling me a crazy son of a female dog. I am now in fourth place. But when the trail slope gets steeper past the tree line, one of my competition, a guy with an unusually bright red goatee stops for a break. Further up during a hike-a-bike, I trudge past second-place.

Shooting down Columbine is mostly fun. The scary part is the top since it’s a narrow two-track with one good line and two-way traffic. I can’t complain. I don’t hit anyone, ride too far off the trail, or get a flat.

Back at Twin Lakes my girlfriend puts another Camelbak on me and says I’m only a few minutes down on first place. And, to make things even better, I’ve got a strong, cool tailwind. There’s thunder cracking over my shoulder and it’s rolling over the top of Columbine. My timing is fortunate. Later riders are being greeted with hail and light snow – as if the climbing wasn’t enough.

Far ahead of me I see another rider spinning a low gear. It’s the first-place singlespeeder. When he stops for a trailside bathroom break, I sneak past and into the final aid station. I ask Karen, “Do you know who’s in first place?” and yell “MEEEE!!!” as I ride on.

But the glory doesn’t last long. On the long, flat roads he catches and passes me. With my head down, I draft him as long as I can and try to keep him in sight.

Leadville Trail 100 finish lineAfter 80 miles of riding, the Power Line climb is rarely climbable except by the true billy goats. I don’t mind this because I can push a bike a wee faster than most. Besides, whether pushing or mashing, I still feel great and the gap to #1 keeps getting smaller.

I finally catch and pass him, but he hangs on. He passes me back on the next pitch. We continue to swap leads until I punch it at the top of Power Line. Keeping up the pace, I take some chances on the descent and never see him again.

On the final major climb a spectator mentions that I was “on the cusp” for breaking nine hours. I think he might too optimistic, but just in case, I keep pushing my pace over the pass and back down through the St. Kevin’s historic mining district.

From mile 95 to the finish, the course is relatively flat with one short grinder midway. I am trying to do the math. Do I have enough time to break the nine hour cutoff?

I keep looking back for geared riders that I can draft and go a bit faster. Sure enough my prayers are eventually answered. A group of five pulls up and I jump into their draft. The group keeps fracturing with a couple of us trying to keep everyone motivated and working together. But after a few very fast miles, it all falls apart.

At mille 99, I’m off the front and by myself. With a half mile to go I can see the finish line in Downtown Leadville.

Some guy says “One minute left… No… 40 seconds”

I’m spinning like a man possessed. The race announcer counts down in a screaming voice. The crowd of a couple hundred is so loud. I’m breathing so hard that my diaphragm starts to cramp.

Leadville Trail 100 belt buckleBut I make it, crossing the line with six seconds left on the clock. 8:59:54. I hug my teary-eyed girlfriend and speak small snippets of speech between big gulps of air. It’s a spectacular memory that we’ll never forget.

After the seven prior races, I thought I had a handle on what I was capable of. Once again I was proven wrong.

1 Comment(s)

  1. Comment by pack on May 16, 2008 4:38 pm

    GReat write up! 7 mile columbine climb sounds grueling…

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