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Behind the Podium at Leadville with Alexey Vermeulen

Alexey's Leadville 100 History:

Leadville is kind of an enigma in the mountain bike community. It's this thing that everybody has on their list and wants to do no matter what. If you don't finish or get your belt buckle, you probably come back, but it's really hard to prepare for as a pro. I think you need altitude time on the front end, no question. I've only done it three times, my first year just living in Boulder, which is obviously still 5,500 feet but God did I suffer. I think every year the race gets harder and no matter what you do, it's still a test of just playing your chips where you have them. If you don't get the space or gap you wanted or expected, you come to the finish with it with a group and it's just whoever has it left.

In 2021, I finished ninth. I was exhausted the whole time and barely finished in ninth. I wasn't really ever in the race in my opinion. In 2022, I felt spectacular, felt awesome. It's funny, I went and hung out in Europe for five days without a bike a week before the race, but that's how things go. I think just overrode all day, to be honest.

The Race Report

This year, I honestly felt like sh*t all day. Obviously, this is with an asterisk, bad is relative when you're still riding in the top 10. I just didn't have pop, didn't feel great, and I think it [actually] kept me from going too hard all day – just focusing on the things you have to do like eating and drinking.

I still tried to take some chances, I went with Keegan for the first half of Columbine, but on the way back up Powerline, I was just trying to sit on as long as I can. As we started Carter Summit, Cole (Paton) got a flat and then all of a sudden Howie (Howard Grotts) just wasn't there.

Then, it went from maybe a top seven or a top 10 to a podium [position] in this race – that belief just grows and then the roadie takes over and I was like, “Oh a sprint against a Skimo racer? I'll take this any day.” I love John, we raced all the way to the asphalt together, but it is one of those things where there's not a bad situation. We're both getting up on the podium. No one's going to catch us now. It's just kind of who has the legs left on that uphill sprint. It was definitely a day that I think was unique. For most of the day it was tacky dirt and perfect weather and it was never too hot.

Looking at times, you all are getting almost significantly faster every year. How has the introduction of the Lifetime Grand Prix forced a higher level of performance?

…it's fun. I mean, it's hard to finish second by 25 minutes or so and consider that a success of any kind. I keep saying I was first of the mortals, which is kind of a funny thing. People tend to somehow gravitate or grab onto that. I mean, Keegan wasn't really in the race, but he was in the race, and as an athlete, it's hard sometimes.

I think that overall the race is just getting faster. It makes it more fun for me if the competition grows and people want to come over and try to beat Keegan, that's awesome.

On the fueling front, have you made significant changes since this race last year, or did you make any acute adjustments?

Last year I took a bit more electrolyte hydration on the back end of the race, whereas this year without it being that hot, it was mainly just water. Over the last year, I have also just figured out how to race mountain bikes a little bit. I think when I first started racing with you guys (the mountain bikers), I was always just going to carry bottles, no problem. Now it's pretty much one bottle max on the bike, especially at Leadville. So I spent a good amount of time just planning out how to pick up stuff and how much to carry. I'm pretty bad about carrying too much ride food.

I'm a big start bottle fan now, either getting in a lot of sodium or a lot of carbs depending on what I think the day is going to be like. For Leadville, it's always a [bottle] of a lot of carbs where I’m trying to load that system before we start. And depending on how hard it is, you don't really eat for the first 30-45 minutes. So I start with two bottles and pretty much want to have those done by that first feed zone, 16 miles in at Pipeline. Then, every setup is the exact same after that. I'll grab a musette, it'll have two bottles in it, one water, one mix, and a gel. And usually, it's just the choice of like, “Is it hot? Do I want this water?” I may just throw some over my body or just quench the thirst. Otherwise, I'll usually toss that bottle and just not carry the weight around.

Then the gel is just a reminder. Usually, I don't even put it in my pocket – I eat it, and then can move forward. I think a lot of these endurance races are just about how you remind yourself to stay on it with it making the right choices. The reason I struggle with setting alerts on my Wahoo is that usually they pop up when I'm struggling on a climb. I'm like, “I'm not going to eat now. I can't do that.” So I try to pick different things. It has gotten easier with how concentrated things can be now, if I can do a 500mL bottle with 100-120 grams of carbs, then it's not fun to drink, but the minute you get it down you're good. And that's kind of the name of the game.

I think the only thing I changed at Leadville this year was a little bit of caffeine on the way home. I'm not a big caffeine guy. I don't drink coffee in the mornings, so it usually hits me pretty hard. I think I had a caffeine gel on the way back and grabbed a little bottle with some Red Bull in it. Just that little kick. I don't even think I drank it, just swished it around. It (caffeine) kind of puts you in that weird mindset of going to battle.

Leadville Nutrition Specifics

I used 4 x bottles with Skratch Labs High Carb, a mix of NEVERSECOND C30 and SIS Beta Fuel gels. Then, the only chew I had that day was the SIS Beta Fuel.

How has the From the Ground Up Project been going for you?

I think after I got second, people were like, “How?” It's the one race where I feel like I'm completely overextended the entire weekend. I can't think about myself until probably 11:00 p.m. the night before the race. Everyone else is freaking out and you can't teach people how to take on Leadville in five and a half months and really satisfy everything. There are things you have to leave to the last minute because they're not going to be learned. They're just going to be remembered. Nutrition and plugging tires are those things.

The night before the race I'm like, “Hey guys, this is a plug. This is a CO2, this is how you [use them].” Even nutrition. It’s one of those last things [for them]. We'd done some testing with them that helped to figure out how many carbohydrates they expend, but other than that, it is just about, “What do you enjoy eating?” For them, it's not always gel. I mean, there was one of the guys who ate 30 gels that day, props to him, I could never do it. But there are a lot of people making sandwiches and finding meal bars and things like that.

Overall, From the Ground Up for me has been the reason why I think I still love doing the endurance stuff. It's this true connection to people who are still coming into the sport who have been in the sport since Covid that allows me this selfish feeling of actually moving the sport forward. I don't pretend it's not always one-sided.

I feel like I learn just as much as I'm trying to teach. The point of teaching is just that cycling is inherently inaccessible and very intimidating. If you can hopefully give the tools to a couple of people who are beginners, they can go into their groups back home or their communities back home and spread it. If one person knows how to change a tube and one person knows how to plug a tire and one person knows how to eat, you pretty much can learn how to do a bike ride. Taking time to make a pro teach probably isn't going to go that well. So it's been a learning experience for us. This is the third year and every year we've had no one make it past Twin Lakes, This year, all five made it past Twin Lakes and a lot of it is just equipment and nutrition. We started on hard tails with high posts and this year we were on 130mm bikes and it's the right bike for a beginner.

When you start to apply yourself in a meaningful way, separate from solely personal needs, and your prep doesn't go perfectly, it seems that somehow on race day you can be fine. You're full of energy. Why do you think that is?

You're just doing it by what your body already knows how to do, right? We've done it so many times, and I think the biggest thing is that it's just a mental choice. When you make that choice, yeah, you might lose a couple of percent, you won't be your best on the day. I made that choice in January to be a part of this, then, when it comes to August, there's not a decision to [be made]. Everyone's saying I need to get off my feet, but I'm like, “Well, I have six more things to do and then I'll do that.” It's that weird love of the list. I don't know. I love checking things off the list. I think cycling needs more people who are just doing it for the belt buckle or for the finish.

What are you looking forward to in the next series of events? Things are going to be pretty different than the first half, so what are you expecting?

Without sounding arrogant or cocky, I think a lot of people come into the season really, really hot… and I'm like just jazzing on training right now. It's just a weird feeling to be excited and it helps to have some good results coming into the end of the season. It helps when equipment starts to feel good and you haven't had any bad luck. I'm honestly excited to go out and just kind of ‘go to war’. The reason I've loved the Grand Prix is that it forces everyone to do the things they probably don't want to do at different times. I did UNBOUND and then have always tried to go to Road Nats after. Going into Crusher, I was trashed. I took a week off before it took a week off after. I didn't want to go race at all.

That's the point of the LTGP. The point of this series is that you show up on your good days and your bad and you see what you're made of. Keegan doesn't have any bad days, but everyone else does. It's fun to get excited about where I'm sitting right now. Everyone has to bring their A game every single race now. It's not like there's one race left, there's three. So I'm just excited to go race. There are very different races [remaining]. I love Chequamegon, it was my most fun race last year because it's so vastly different. I think we'll go do a sub-two-hour race this year. Then you go into two more gravel races that are very different themselves. Trinidad is at a little bit of altitude, fast gravel (kind of Steamboat-esque), and then you go straight to Big Sugar.

So now, it's about if I can go win one of these races at the end of the year and cap it off and be happy. Racing for me is a couple of validated results that I feel like I gave it all on the day. It's not always the number. There are just certain days that you know where you are and you're happy with it.

Avatar Carson Beckett

Carson Beckett / Monday, August 28, 2023