[Alchemy: A medieval magic concerned primarily of turning base metals into gold.]
When I found out that the Leadville Trail 100 was an obligatory team race, I was not exactly excited.
Its lack of prize money is one thing, but the previous LT100 races I’d done were about as painful and mind numbing as doing a six and a half hour wall-sit with while huffing through a dirty paper bag.
I love a good challenge; especially the trill sound of wheels clanking on rocks and experiencing the roller coaster G’s of finely-tuned single track peppered with berms. Slicing and dicing along single track; these are thing things I’m stoked to do. It’s races like the Breck Epic that bring a big smile to my face.
So I waxed philosophical about the Leadville race. ‘Maybe I’ll just think of it as a road race on a rough course?’
Eureka! Bringing a new narrative to the same old race this was the key to motivate and get the best out of my teammates and myself.
Leaville 100 is a dirt road out-and-back course at 10,000+ feet average elevation that climbs to 12,300 feet at the halfway point then returns through a flattish valley and finishes with two tough climbs. Since it’s dirt roads are constant, it’s one of the few iconic races in mountain biking that has an unchangeable course – and therefore a course record.
In 2013, my Topeak-Ergon teammate Alban Lakata smashed Levi Leipheimer’s course record by 10 minutes, An unreal time of 6:04:00 was set (The LT100 is actually 103.5 miles, and features 11,000 feet of climbing through dizzying altitudes so the speed need is 17 mph ) In that race, the reigning world champion at the time, Christopher Sauser, and Alban ( Reigning and former world champion) waged a battle of epic proportions! How could anyone go faster than that? Those guys had a dog fight right to the end. Their intense rivalry propelled them 24-minutes ahead of even Lance Armstrong’s finishing time on the course in a previous year!
Fast forward to 2015, while our team was enjoying a pizza at the end of a tough TransAlp Challenge: thinking ahead to the LT100, the gears in my head turned. I said to Alban, “a sub-6 hour is possible; it’s only four minutes!” Alban and I, with our teammate Kristian “The Hammer” Hynek, could work together on the extensive flat dirt road sections and paceline into the headwinds to slice seconds off the winning splits from 2013.
The goal crystalized. The coach/scientist in my head began running scenarios of how this might work out.
Historically, the LT100 lead-group blasts it to pieces on the monster hour-long climb to Columbine Mine at 12,300 feet. Then, on the way back it’s like a solo time-trial across the valley – often into the wind.
It’s metabolically reaching the physiological limits to ride more than 1,000 Kilojoules per hour for more than 6 hours while hypoxic and only 75% of normal sea level oxygen. Hitting the climbs at anaerobic threshold causes a metabolic shift to approximately 90% glycogen fueling. What this means is: if you ride really hard on the climbs, you will empty the tank after five hours and suffer pins and needles numbness in your arms legs, searing pain and a general bonking sensation. Kristian experienced this while leading the LT100 race by six minutes last year.
A few clever aerodynamic tricks combined with the team strategy of sticking together should enable us to split the workload and unlock the key 5-minute split lead needed before the grueling final 20 miles.
With our team’s goal firmly in place and a strategy to support it, the Leadville Trail 100 starting shotgun blasted off just before sunrise. I went to the front and pushed the pace, helping cut some easy seconds off our normally brisk pace of 40k an hour to St Kevin’s (our first checkpoint along the course).
I hit the first climb and knew the 10 previous days I had spent at altitude had paid off! At the top we had a 1-minute advantage on the ghost pace of 2013.
A big lead group split off from the main field, including all the contenders: Todd Wells, Alban Lakata, Kristian Heinik, Christoph Sauser, Soren Nissen and me.
Todd flatted and our group shrank. Alban moved into a super-tuck and dive-bombed the paved downhill; leaning through blind corners like a motorcycle.
Once at the bottom, I rolled to the front and got to work leaning on the mini aerobars I’d been testing in secret. We were moving; already 90seconds up on our time splits by mile 16. Game on!
After a blistering climb up Sugar Loaf, we rocketed through the early morning shadows of the dusty sidehill descent of Powerline. I could see the dust swirl and the ruts – big enough in places to eat a VW bug. It could be the end of your season if you took the wrong line.
I heard my rim, and felt it bottom-out on a rock at near 40 mph. I thought I’d flat, but didn’t.
Our group reassembled at the bottom, as we hit the main flat pavement and dirt road trip out to Twin Lakes. It was time to fuel.
Our group was working well and I made use of the aerobars where they’d be best on the headwind or flats. Alban was obviously motivated by the 3-minutes ahead of record that we posted by the pipeline aid station. His large frame was steady as his tan muscled legs churned out gothic watts on the front. ‘The rainbow jersey is on his back for a reason,’ I thought.
It would have been risky for him to work so hard on pace making, since we had Christopher Sauser in tow, and since we only had him doing courtesy pulls, it was hard to gauge what he might be saving. Kristian also pulled through, but eventually the two would battle it out on the last climb.
Columbine hurt. I was feeling the 45 miles of world record pace setting. Kristian drove the pace at the front and Sauser and Nissen started falling off. I could’t help it but I thought of the extra pound clamped to my bars as the difference between getting dropped from our trian and being comfortable. I buckled down like the race had only this one climb left.
As we reached tree line, something magic happened: I found my alpine groove and was holding strong with the top-two marathon riders in the world. My time on the climb even tied for second fastest recorded on Strava.
As we made our way up, there was an almost-tribal breathing rhythm. Trying to turn the cranks, I could feel the ghostly thin wind and hear it wheezing through the spokes.
The descent gave us a look back on the competition, since the whole course is an out-and-back.
As usual, this kamikaze decent down and against oncoming race traffic is a Russian roulette; with zombie riders weaving their ways up the climb. Many of the racers cheered for us; and that part is really cool. Not cool was trying to follow Sauser as he enduro’d his way back to the lead group.
Phew, made it! My legs were feeling heavy though. On one section, Alban ran into a lady who had bobbled trying to climb up a step section, almost ending his day.
We synchronized and locked into a paceline again. I took some good turns at the front and fought against the threat of legs straining underneath 70 miles of sub-6-hour pace! As we approached the base of Powerline, it looked like we were 5 minutes up on the record pace. “No way I thought”, this will be close!
As the last climb approached, and working to slice seconds off every place I could, I took a final big pull at the front. The others refused to pull hard into the wind, but Alban lead into the base of the climb like a Spartan would.
Now that it was man against the mountain, I could tell Kristian had plans and he lit it up! I had to measure my effort, and lost a little time to Alban who lost a little time to Christian. I was dropping Sauser and Nissen and my legs were feeling surprisingly strong.
Halfway up, it seemed evident that Kristian would have two minutes lead on Alban and three minutes on me by the summit of power line’s nasty half hour climb. To my surprise, Sauser came back like a storm. He was dropping the rock-strewn Jeep trail descent with the reckless speed one might use during his final LT100.
I hung on! We hit the dirt road and could see Alban some 40 seconds ahead!
Sauser asked me to pull through on the smooth 50kph section. ‘No way, I’m not chasing a teammate.’ It would be dangerous if Sauser latched on to Alban. I just hoped Alban had enough left to hold his gap. He did and then came to life as the final 10 miles hit. Making eye contact with Kristian some 90 seconds ahead on the final climb, he put on the turbos; overtaking a now-cracked Kristian in the final 200 meters to win in a historic sub-6-hour time of 5:58:38!
Just out of sight, I was blasting the final climb in an all-out-attempt to go sub-six myself. I had looked to the clock at 6k to go, and realized I was 5:45:00 in. It was SO close to the finish. I said to Sauser, ‘I don’t care about the sprint, I just want my best time!’ I put my head down and drove it.
At the finish line we sprinted. I got pipped at the line – as expected – but, hey, 6:01:01 is an unbelievable time.
The pride of working together as a team for an epic goal was like the magic of turning lead into gold!
This is my account, for the full story and behind the scenes look at the Topeak-Ergon Racing Team assault on the sub-6-hour record at the LT100, check out our our videos, interviews and images from living the legend, beyond limits.
– Jeremiah Bishop
Team Topeak Ergon