Photo: Pete McBride Photography
Last week, we took a closer look at the superlight (under 22 pounds!) 2023 Specialized S-Works Epic Evo that our Receiving and Catalog Supervisor, Craig Wu, built to race this year’s Leadville Trail 100 MTB. This was Craig’s first Leadville experience, and he smashed his goal of finishing in under 8.5 hours with a finish time of 8:17:25. This earned him the coveted Leadville 100 big belt buckle, which is awarded to riders who finish in under 9 hours.
We were all stoked with Craig’s result, so I caught up with him when he came back to work on Monday to get a recap of his Leadville experience. He explained how his bike set-up worked out, how his race went, and what he’ll change if/when he does Leadville again.
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This was your first time doing the Leadville Trail 100 MTB. What were your initial impressions?
Craig Wu: I was really surprised at how big a deal it was! Growing up riding in Colorado, you hear about it all the time, right? But you're just like, it's Leadville, everyone around here has heard of it. But I was really surprised that the majority of people I met were from out of state. So many people actually fly in and spend some time here to get acclimated and race. I think that's really impressive. I mean, around 1900 people started this year. It was just enormous.
The other thing that really impressed me was the number of people who were just there to support other people or even just to watch the race. It really does make you feel like you've “made it.” Just getting there feels like a huge accomplishment. I think it’s up there with events like Unbound Gravel.
Speaking of support, did you bring a support crew with you?
CW: I did not, which was a mistake. I decided to just use the neutral drop bags, which was okay. In my bags, I had a CamelBak full of Skratch, some more hydration and nutrition, a spare AXS battery, and some plugs and other stuff just in case. But if you go with just drop bags, you pretty much have to stop and get off your bike at the aid stations. They have volunteers there that will try to go find your bag if they're not too busy. Otherwise, you have to go find your bag yourself, fumble through it all, then put it back yourself too. Fortunately, at both stops, someone did come up and ask to fill my bottles, so that helped.
Did I think it mattered the time? No. But I didn’t realize I was so close to a sub-8-hour finish. If you're focused on finishing under a specific time, then having a crew will definitely make life easier and help knock minutes off your time. If you’re just there to finish, waiting around for 5 or 10 minutes at each aid station doesn't matter. But it could be the difference between getting that belt buckle and not!
What was your lodging situation for Leadville?
Craig would have preferred to stay in Leadville but there's not much space.
CW: I ended up staying about an hour away in Edwards. I had to get up at 3:45 AM. That’s not ideal, but it’s hard to stay in Leadville because it's such a small town. The majority of people that I talked to either stayed somewhere in Summit County like Copper, Dillon, or Frisco. Or they slept in their cars.
How did you feel about your bike setup during Leadville?
CW: I really thought my setup was nearly perfect. Interestingly enough, in the groups that I was riding with, mostly riders from the red and silver corrals, something like 1-in-4 bikes were an S-Works Epic Evo with the exact same build as mine. I’m not exaggerating. If I saw an Epic Evo, it was almost always an S-Works with a full XX-SL Transmission power meter build. I’d never seen that many in one place!
What about your decision to use a rigid seatpost instead of a dropper post?
CW: I think that was the right decision. If I were to just go ride Leadville without racing it, I would have a dropper and I would definitely drop it on the descents. But for racing I didn’t want it. I never felt like I was out of control. The descents are, for the most part, just chunky fire roads and I don't feel like a dropper would have helped me place any higher or go significantly faster. I feel like the weight savings on the climbs definitely did help. Mentally, at least, I felt like switching to a rigid post was worth it.
You were happy racing a full-suspension vs. a hardtail?
CW: Terrain dictates the bike, and for me, the terrain dictates a full-suspension mountain bike over a hardtail. It’s so much more comfortable, you have more traction, and you can go so much faster on the descents. There’s nothing gnarly, but you can just do everything so much faster and more comfortably.
One thing that did surprise me was how much I used my lockout. I usually never use my lockout unless I get on the road. But I had the rear locked out for all the fire road climbs. The new SID Ultimate has a three-position compression switch with a middle “pedal” position, and I used that all the time too.
If I were to build a bike specifically for Leadville, and only for Leadville, it would be a 100mm full-suspension bike with a remote lockout. But the thing is, I wouldn’t want that for an everyday bike. And I'm not going to build a bike specifically for Leadville, so I’m fine with what I had.
One thing that really impressed me about my setup was how much difference switching to the new SID Ultimate made. The small bump compliance is so much better than the old version. My hands usually go numb but they never went numb the entire race. The only thing I changed on my bike was the fork. For me, it might be worth running a bigger 120mm fork like this just for the comfort.
How was your gearing choice?
CW: I ran a 34t chainring with a 10-52t cassette. I would do a 32t chainring next time. Mainly because of one place — the Powerline climb on the way back. It comes at 80 miles and it’s like this sustained 20% climb. I did ride the whole thing, which was my proudest moment of the race, but the whole time I was absolutely grinding! I was barely going faster than the people walking. I thought to myself, “Am I killing my legs? Is this a bad decision? Should I be walking?” But I was still on the bike and moving forward. So I kept going.
I think a 32t would have been a bit easier on the legs. I don't feel like it would have held me back on any of the descents. And honestly, when you're descending, you're not really pedaling. On the road, I didn’t spin out either. So I think it’s worth it to go just a bit smaller since it would really help on the climbs.
You came in well under your goal time. What do you think was the key to your success at Leadville?
Look at all that Skratch Superfuel on Craig's frame.
CW: Hydration and nutrition. The most important thing I did for this race was make a conscious effort to eat regularly. I set a 30-minute timer on my Garmin to remind me to eat and I forced myself to eat even though I didn't want to. I think that made all the difference.
It really felt like too much food. It was A LOT of gels, then caffeine gels in the second half. I did eat a Clif bar at each aid station since I was off my bike. I would just shove it in my mouth and try to chew it while I was getting all my other stuff. I really do need to have something in my stomach other than gels, otherwise, I get hunger pangs. I also had Skratch Superfuel in all of my bottles. I basically tried to take in as many carbs as possible.
I would say a big highlight of my race was that I didn’t feel horrible at any point. It’s interesting because, at Silver Rush 50 and Bailey Hundo, which are both shorter, I had extended periods of seriously low morale. I wanted to quit. Nutrition was definitely the culprit. I never had that during Leadville. I stayed in a positive state.
We also got very lucky with the weather. It was overcast and cool the whole day, which made it easier to push and reduced the amount of fluids I needed. I drank 6 bottles and never had to use a hydration pack. There was a chance of rain, and I think we would have all been screwed because it would have been so cold, but fortunately, it held off.
What would you change for your next Leadville attempt?
Start position matters if you want to go fast. Photo: Life Time
CW: A big thing for me would be to start in a faster corral. I started in green, which is the one behind red, the top amateur corral. I didn't qualify high enough with my Silver Rush result. Me and a couple of other guys were instantly off the front, and we caught the red corral which started 2 minutes ahead of us.
Your corral position is probably one of the most important factors in the race. I think a sub-8-hour finish would be more doable for me if I could stick with the leaders of the red corral. It would have been a huge advantage. It could save 10 minutes or more on the way out.
Above tree line, Columbine turns pretty rocky and there’s really only one line. If you are too far back in the corrals, you're gonna walk most of it because as soon as someone in front of you walks or gets off their bike, everyone behind them has to walk. So the further up you start, the less walking you'll do. My friend who started with the leaders in the red corral never had to walk on Columbine. Everyone walked it in my group.
I would also try to figure out some kind of crew situation so I wouldn't have to rely on a drop bag. If I could rely on someone who knew me well and would know exactly what I needed and just be able to hand me things, it would save me so much time.
Otherwise, I may try to stay a little closer to Leadville! Everything worked out, but as I said, I was up at 3:45 AM, and we left Edwards at 4:15 to get there at 5:15. Then you got to get your bathroom situation taken care of. That's the biggest stress.
Will you race Leadville again?
CW: There’s no guarantee because it's a lottery every year. With my finish time this year, if I do get in next year, I will automatically be qualified to start in the red corral, and that's huge. It’s no small feat to finish this race. But for me, the hardest part was really just staying motivated to do the training. If I don't get in next year, I'll probably never do it again, because I don’t want to go through the work of qualifying for a better start position or dedicating so much of my season to train for one event like this. I had to miss out on so many fun rides!
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