One of our photographers is part of an exclusive club. Only about 50 people worldwide are in this group, and Robert Jones is one of them.
No, he’s not one of the Illuminati’s shady geopolitical powerbrokers. He isn’t a member of Skull and Bones, rubbing elbows with America’s wealthiest, most influential people. No, actually Rob is a member of the Leadville Trail 100 MTB’s 1,000-Mile Club. To join this group of endurance fanatics, he had to finish the 103-mile Leadville 100 mountain bike race 10 times. Each of those finishes had to be under 12 hours. And just for good measure, he rode Leadville an 11th and final time in 2007.
I wanted to hear about his many experiences in this well-known endurance event held annually at the start of August in Leadville, Colorado. So, I had him put down his camera for a little while, bust out his big belt buckle that’s awarded to members of the 1,000-Mile Club, and tell some stories about his 11-year run at the high-altitude endurance race.Robert Jones shows off his 1,000-Mile Club buckle along with a Leadville 100 finisher's buckle (in his right hand) for scale.
The Pro’s Closet: What made you decide to do Leadville for your first time in 1997?
Rob Jones: I was working at Excel then and a guy named Larry Wans mentioned it. We had seen the Mike Ferrentino story about Leadville where he got caught behind the train. I started doing a little research on it. I had been doing longer rides and was just interested in trying some different kind of racing. I had done some shorter stuff and got my ass kicked.
TPC: Back then, a longer race like Leadville wasn’t a super well-known or common thing for mountain biking.
RJ: Yeah, it had only been going on for a couple of years. The 24 Hours of Moab was big at that time. Leadville was one of the few endurance races, and it seemed like a fun event. They had it capped back then at 500 people.
TPC: What was that first year like for you? What were your expectations?
RJ: I was dating a gal who knew some people up at Twin Lakes — you ride through there on your way to the Columbine Mine [the Leadville 100 course’s high point and turnaround]. She introduced me to a guy and I rode the whole course in two days, we did two 25-milers. I had a good idea what to expect in terms of the terrain but no idea of what I could do with it. My goal was always to ride to get to the turnaround and then I would just spend the rest of the energy I had to get back.Rob Jones racing in his first Leadville 100, in 1997. Photo courtesy Rob Jones
TPC: Did you have a good ride that first race? What was the feeling like to finish?
RJ: Elation, man. It was just such a wonderful feeling. It took a little bit longer. I had been hoping to go faster. My girlfriend and the guy I met up there were crewing for me, and they kept saying you were just a little bit behind where we wanted you to be all day long. An hour over 10 hours isn’t that much time but at the same time, it’s 10 percent. It was a good experience, it was hard for sure, but the altitude was the biggest thing. The low point is 9,000 and the high point is 12,600 and you’re up and down all day long.
TPC: What was the bike like you rode back then?
RJ: I had my Bontrager, I think I got the Race Lite. I had a Race and it broke. Trek had purchased them and they had some California Race Lites and they were going to warranty the frame, and I asked to pay for an upgrade and it was $100 to get the nicer frame. It was a steel Bontrager with a RockShox Judy SL, triple crank, maybe a 30 or 32 for the biggest cog in the back.
TPC: That’s a tough gear to push on Columbine and Power Line.
RJ: I walked Power Line [a steep climb about 24 miles from the finish] — I’ve never ridden that. I’ve walked it every time I’ve done it. I think that’s the crux of the race. You make it up over that and you have a good descent down to the pavement. That paved climb [at 15 miles to go] isn’t as hard comparatively as the other stuff. You get back to St. Kievens and there’s a little more climbing.
TPC: Looks like 1999 was your best time, 9:19. What happened that day?
RJ: I just had a really good day. I’d been working at Excel and I left that job in April. So I felt like I was a little more rested. I trained hard for it and that was the first year that I really started doing intervals to get ready for the race. Before I just did long rides and I would go hard at some times but I never did any climbing intervals. I was really proud of that time and I still am looking back on it. It was a good day. Felt good, the weather was good.
TPC: Was there a particularly bad year when it comes to weather?
RJ: The next year it rained. My dad and sister came out to see me. It got down to 40 degrees. We were at the bottom of the Power Line, and you could see it raining up there. You’re at the fish hatchery station and could see where you needed to go and I took a coat. A couple people didn’t take anything. One of the guys I knew said he didn’t take a coat. I asked why and he said he told his wife it was too heavy. I’m pretty sure he was hypothermic, shivering the rest of the race. At the next aid station I changed every bit of clothing I had, put on arm warmers, leg warmers, a rain jacket, a little hat under my helmet, warmer gloves, and I was able to finish.
TPC: When you got to 2007, were you pretty set that it would be your last year racing Leadville?
RJ: I wanted 2006 to be my last year. A buddy was helping me, so I got him into the race for my 10th one, and he talked me into doing it again. I wanted to do 10 and I did 11 because he wanted to.
TPC: It’s like “Spinal Tap,” it goes to 11!
RJ: It’s one better!
TPC: Did you ever have any major mechanicals over the years?
RJ: No, not really. Maybe three or four flats. I remember getting one flat going up Columbine in either the 10th or 11th year, which was kind of nice because I got a break, but you have to start with cold legs.
TPC: That’s pretty good for a time before tubeless tires.
RJ: Yep, and on 26” wheels. The last couple of years I had a full-suspension bike, and that made a difference even though it was a little heavier. More traction and more comfort.
TPC: I remember Leadville having a cool atmosphere of people being in it together and helping each other out. Do you have any memories of that?
RJ: I was always willing to give people tubes and stuff like that. People always ask if you need anything when you’re standing on the side of the trail.
One thing that was always great for me was how wonderful the people were and how helpful everyone was. You could do it unsupported because the aid stations were so good. It was just such a family feeling. Ken [Chlouber, race founder] would always say this thing every year. I always knew it was coming but I always found it very inspiring and a little emotional too. He would tell you, “You’re better than you think you are, and you can do more than you think you can.” Every time … I can tell I’m getting a little emotional now thinking about it. It was just a good feeling.
The 2019 Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race takes place on August 10.