This piece is from HPT athlete Alexey Vermeulen. Read about his experience at the Leadville 100.
Leadville 100, err 105. 11,977 ft of climbing, 5,217 calories, and 6hr 16 minutes of riding – the belt buckle is pretty shiny though!
Racing, like life, is consistently a game of balancing your goals with reality and figuring out what to prioritize when shit hits the fan. Driving up to Leadville this year I was focused, excited, and somewhat nervous to take on the event for the 2nd time. In 2021, Leadville showed me that I wasn’t ready. Although I finished and at the time, I was happy, but the race broke me.
Coming into 2022 I felt more prepared, physically, mentally, and most importantly, I had spent a lot of time working on how to prioritize, balance, and compartmentalize different things that I needed to do before the race.
The background on Leadville is that it’s a very hard 100 mile mountain bike race that takes place between 10,200ft and 12,800 ft of altitude with time cuts. If you make it, you earn yourself a belt buckle if you make it under 12 hours. Under 9hours? It’s a bit bigger, do it for 20 years? It’s too big to sit down with.
After arriving on Wednesday, I left early Thursday morning to do a pre-ride of the course with Cold Collaborative in tow. Shannon and his team were filming for an athlete feature, and I was excited to have them a long…but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t another thing to think about. I wanted to ride about 3 hours and planned a route that allowed me to see a majority of the first 20 miles and final 10. Avery tagged along and shot some of my favorite BTS ever and by 10:30am we were wrapped, and the day was off to a great start. The rest of Thursday was spent getting From the Ground Up things done like bike checks, registrations and sponsor ‘hello’s’ before getting home and cooking dinner for 16 people! I’ll admit, at first, I was intimidated by this but with some help we cooked the 6 lbs of chicken, 2 lbs of tofu and 8 cups of rice that it took to feed our crew tacos. 10pm, lights out, tomorrow is Friday and less than 48 hours until race start.
Photo: Avery Stumm
Friday morning, we woke up and got ready to ride. We planned a short pre-race spin on the first 5 and last 5 miles of the course with the FTGU crew (don’t worry, Willie got to join) that would end at the athlete meeting. After riding it was back to the house for some interviews and to get ready for the race. I had a busy day, but luckily everything fit, and I just kept busy until I went to bed around 10pm.
I wake up and immediately try to leave the room quietly to avoid waking Willie or Sophie. I make myself a massive plate of white rice with butter and salt and quickly scramble some eggs (6) to go on top. It takes me a while, but by 5am I am done eating and starting to think about getting dressed. The rest of the FTGU crew wakes up and the house starts to come alive as Cold Collaborative shows up for some race day footage and I work through feed zone plans with Sophie.
These races are not possible without feedzone support. At the front of the race there is ZERO stopping. We grab musette bags filled with bottles, ice and food at 20MPH and keep moving. I labeled the top of each bottle with a ‘P’, ‘T’ or an ‘S’ to denote Pipeline (aid 1 and 4), Twin Lakes (aid 2 and 3) or Start bottles. Most bottles are filled with a full serving of Skratch Superfuel with some including electrolytes as well. My pockets have regular Never Second c30 gels on the right as well as caffeine gels in the pocket on the left. I take a bag of chews, some plugs and a multi tool before tightening my shoes and heading towards the start line around 6am.
Standing on the start line for 25 minutes is always an interesting time. There is nothing you can do to change your bike or what you brought, but you have enough time to take in what everyone else is racing or using. Lots of time to think. When I first arrive, I am chatty, saying hi to people and enjoying the community of a race like Leadville. By 10 minutes to go to the start I am trying to visualize the small things I need to do to start my race off well and make sure everything is in order: correct gear, right bottles, and giving away all my extra clothes to Avery.
At the sound of the gun the race is off and at this race it starts fast. Not hard, but fast. With a downhill pavement start you must be vigilant about EVERYTHING. You are in charge of your front wheel, and you have to pay attention to all the little things that can go wrong, like a 4 wheeler not being able to keep enough speed to stay in front as it gets swallowed into the field or a car parked on the side of the road.
Photo: Wil Mathews
The first pinch point is a left/right chicane that takes us off the asphalt and onto a somewhat smaller dirt road that leads to the bottom of the first climb, St. Keivens. As we enter the climb, I want to be in the top 5 riders and be able to follow any quick moves that happen. You must pick a few riders you think are your rivals and pay attention to them, you can’t follow everything. We go up the climb somewhat quickly compared to 2021 with a small group of about 15 at the top as we start the downhill singletrack section.
After getting through the first 15 miles, we begin climbing towards Sugar Loaf…our second climb of the day with a big descent down the famous Powerline section. The group swelled to about 30-40 riders, but that won’t be the case after we descend. After climbing and descending, powerline claimed a lot of riders to flats. We hit the asphalt towards Pipeline aid station with 5 riders in the lead and 5 of us chasing behind. Luckily, we catch the front group just before Pipeline and the race reshuffles as we cross through the 30-mile mark.
From Pipeline to Twin lakes, the second feed zone the group meanders and little changes. After Twin lakes the biggest climb of the day looms: Columbine Mine. At 8.5 miles and 3,300ft of gain this climb is usually where the climb breaks apart. As we hit the slopes I focus on position and riding my pace. The Keegan train starts early and the next time I look back it is only Howard Grotts and myself hanging on. For a while I think that I might be able to challenge Keegan this year, but around 2.5 or so miles to go I realize that might not be the best idea. Riding at such a high altitude sometimes you have to quit before you go boom – even if you don’t want to sometimes.
By the time we turn around at the top, Keegan has put about 90 seconds into Howie and another minute into me. I ride down fast, but also focus on keeping the bike safe. There’s nothing slower than a flat or crash.
By the time we hit Twin Lakes again on the way back towards home, Keegan is off the front and I am in a group of 2nd through 5th together with Howie, Cole Paton, and John Gaston. We roll well and bring the gap down, but get nowhere close to catching Keegan – the superhero still has his cape.
As we begin the steep ascent back up Powerline I decide to put in a dig. At moments I have a gap, but everything comes back together as we start to descend back down Sugar Loaf with 20 miles to go.
With 15 miles to go I am 30 seconds off the back of Howard and John. As my descending has gotten a lot better since 2019, I am still learning and still struggle to descend with the best. That 30 second gap ends up being my race as I chase the podium all the way to the finish but never get closer. Finishing 4th, in sight of 2nd and 3rd was hard, but also, I was so happy to feel in control of Leadville this time around and leave more motivated to come back next year. After drug testing, a Lifetime Grand Prix podium, and a shower we headed back to watch riders come across the line at the 12-hour mark. It was so inspirational to see people dedicate so much of their life to this race and the emotional moments that ensue seconds after the finish line.
With a result that I was happy with, Sunday was filled with some more filming and sad goodbyes as the second season of the FTGU project ended. As I drove back to Boulder I reminisced all the best moments of the weekend and year leading up to the race. The next week is a small break before we build up towards the end of the season with some punchier races in Michigan, Arkansas and Wisconsin. Stay tuned and follow along – the season and year will be over before we know it!
Photo: Avery Stumm
Header Image: Avery Stumm