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Leadville 100: Two Rookies and an 11-Year Race Veteran

Two Leadville Trail 100 MTB rookies sit down with an 11-year race veteran to ask questions about the course, pacing, nutrition, and what makes Leadville such a special mountain bike race.

Written by: Spencer Powlison

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Two Leadville 100 rookies and an 11-year race veteran walk into a bar … Is that how the joke goes? Probably not, but here at The Pro’s Closet, we have all three on our team, so we pulled them together for a little roundtable.

On the one hand, we had the rookies. Bike technician Chris Blick is a triathlete who wanted to take a year off racing and try something different. His mountain biking experience is limited. His MTB racing experience is practically nonexistent. Along with Blick, merchandise manager Seth Holmes will race his first Leadville Trail 100 MTB this Saturday. After living in Colorado for a year or two, he realized he needed to experience some epic bucket-list events. He entered the Leadville lottery and got a spot in the 2019 race.

On the other hand, we have one of our photographers, Robert Jones, who rode and finished 11 Leadville 100 races from 1997-2007. You can read more about his experiences in our recent blog post. He seemed like the perfect expert to give our rookies advice on this 100-mile mountain bike race that climbs about 12,000 feet in total and never dips lower than 9,000 feet above sea level.

Here are the highlights of our conversation. Have you raced the Leadville Trail 100 MTB? Leave your best tips, advice, and stories in the comments!

Leadville Trail 100 MTBRobert Jones, Chris Blick, and Seth Holmes (L-R). Photo: Caroline Tan | The Pro's Closet

How to Handle High Elevation

Unless you’re a Leadville local, this race is defined by breathtakingly thin air. There are ways to acclimate for riding at high elevation, but not everybody has time to skip work and arrive days (or weeks) in advance. Instead, careful, conservative pacing is one of the best ways to avoid the perils of racing above 9,000 feet.

Chris Blick: What do you think about the elevation? Most of the technical stuff I’ve figured out, my equipment and nutrition, but do you just go slower at that elevation?

Rob Jones: Just pace yourself. Once you go into the red it takes a lot longer to recover. The first year I did it I didn’t do any interval training and I followed the cop car [that led out the race start] at 35 miles per hour and it took me like half an hour to recover. My heart rate was about 180. If you’ve trained and ridden at altitude before, you know yourself. I could ride about 170, that’s the hardest I could go, but down here in Boulder, I could go 180 sometimes and still be OK. That just depends on your physiology.

The altitude is a huge part, especially going up to the mine. The mine is like 3,000 feet of climbing in seven miles. The first five miles or so are on a good-surface dirt road and you take a right-hand turn and it goes to shit. It’s essentially a singletrack. There are two lines, the people climbing get the good line, which is generally on the right. There are pitches you can ride and walk. I was never able to clean the whole thing, but I know some people have. For me, it was so hard up there if I was riding too hard it was just time to get off and it's easier to just slow down a little bit and recover when you’re walking

Leadville Trail 100 MTB Photo courtesy Life Time Fitness

What to Eat for 100 Miles of Mountain Biking

Nutrition is doubly challenging in this race — it is a long day (up to 12 hours to get a finisher’s medal), and it’s on rough, rocky trails that don’t make it easy to eat solid food. A lot of riders rely on gels and sports drinks to take in calories. That can work, but it’s a good idea to also have some solid food options for late in the race when you can’t stomach any more sugar.

Seth Holmes: I’ve been training all year with no solid foods. It’s pretty much just gels and Beta Fuel from Science in Sport.

CB: That’s what I’ve been thinking too. I’m wondering if I should sneak in some solid food early, while my body is still able to handle it.

RJ: On the way back I had a ham sandwich, it was incredibly good, at the Pipeline around mile 70. You get tired of the tech food. But if you can tolerate it, then keep eating.

Spencer Powlison: Pringles are amazing.

SH: I’ve become a fan of the pickle juice. Salty. You’ll burp it up for an hour and a half, but it’s worth it.

SP: Did you ever have any cramping issues, Rob?

RJ: One year I was using Hammer Nutrition’s Perpetuum, I called it their potato water, and I was mixing in too much. For the first half of the race, I was nauseous. But I ate less for a little while and that helped hugely. No cramping though. I used Hammer’s Endurolytes for cramping and never had a problem with that.

What’s the Hardest Part of the Race?

Since it’s held on the same out-and-back course every year, Leadville 100 has some familiar climbs that race veterans will name-drop as casually as you’d describe your commute to the office. The two most notable sections are the climb up to the Columbine mine, which is the course’s turnaround point at 12,500 feet above sea level, and the Power Line climb, which is also known as Sugarloaf because it climbs the shoulder of Sugarloaf mountain. Power Line is a rugged descent on the outbound portion of the course, around 20 miles in, and it’s a nasty, steep grunt of a climb around 80 miles in on the way home.

RJ: Power Line on the way back at 70 miles. because you can see it as you’re riding to it. It’s slightly uphill on the pavement, and then you’ll take a left you’ll cross a creek, and it’ll start. It was like the Columbine Mine climb for me — there were parts I could ride and there were parts that I walked.

SH: That’s the segment where you sometimes see the pros walk it.

RJ: Didn’t you clean it, Spencer?

SP: Yep, I cleaned it on my 1983 Stumpjumper!

RJ: Also be careful going down that after the climb, because generally there’s a good line and they’ll tell you to go slow and there’s always at least a couple people that get hurt.

Leadville Trail 100 MTBPhoto courtesy Life Time Fitness

The Start and How to Pace Yourself

With about 1,800 people on the start line at 6:30 a.m., it can be easy to overdo it at the start of Leadville. However, if you burn all of your matches trying to stay with a fast group in the first part of the course, you’re bound to pay for it on the climb to Columbine or on Power Line. Drafting is important on some of the course’s flat sections, like Pipe Line, but don’t get goaded into riding out of your comfort zone.

SH: What corral are you starting in?

CB: Just the general corral, I didn’t have any qualifying. That’s something I'm thinking about. The competitor in me wants to get out in front of the crowd but the realist is thinking don’t burn too many matches too soon. I’m wondering if I should use the crowdedness to control my pace.

RJ: My plan was always to get to the turnaround and then spend all the energy on the way back. Once you get over the Power Line on the way back, there’s a big descent on the way back and then some climbing on the pavement, but it always felt like a fast climb to me.

The first three miles and the last three miles of the route are different. So the last three miles it takes you on this thing they call the boulevard. You’ll be on a dirt road, then it gets a little narrower, you’ll take a left and the bottom of it will be steep

SP: That climb was a surprise to me last year. I did not expect that!

SH: I’d like to do it sub-nine hours but I don’t know how feasible that would be for me. It would be nice, but we’ll see. But I know it’s not common for a first-time racer.

RJ: That would be super-impressive. My fastest time was 9:19. Draft as much as you can. There’s generally going to be a tandem somewhere so draft off them!

How to Handle Bad Weather

The mountains can serve up unpredictable weather, and when it starts to rain, the temperature can drop to near-freezing in a matter of minutes. If you’re prepared with emergency clothes at the aid stations, you can cope with the conditions and keep going to the finish.

SH: Have you ever had any bad weather?

RJ: Yeah the fourth year we did it, it rained. We could see it raining up on the Power Line climb. I took a jacket and still got soaked. There was a guy riding right next to me and there was lightning striking around us. He looked at me and said, “I told my wife I’m not going to die!” He turned around and rode back down the hill. I was like, “Well I’m going to go to the top and see what it’s like!”

When I got to the next aid station, I totally swapped all of my clothes. New shorts, new top, long sleeves, jacket, hat. I used to make bags for different kinds of weather. I’d have a wet-weather bag and a dry-weather bag and put it in with your stuff. If you needed something you could just say, “Hey it’s in this bag and it’s labeled ‘rain.’”

SH: I’ve heard about people switching helmets before Columbine. When you start in the morning, you want an aero helmet and then when it’s closer to midday and you’re climbing, you want as many vents as possible.

RJ: We didn’t have aero helmets when I was racing!

CB: Even if it’s good weather, it’s probably going to be pretty cold in the morning and warm during the day. You can at least plan for that, right?

RJ: Yeah, 40s in the morning and 70s during the day. I would always have arm warmers. I’d just leave them on and put them up and down. Knee warmers to start or leg warmers. A little hat under your helmet helps tremendously. If you want to do the helmet swap, that sounds cool. Nobody ever told us about that.

The Leadville Spirit

The 2019 edition will be the Leadville Trail 100 MTB’s 25th year, and for good reason. The event has an addictive quality that keeps people coming back for more, year after year.

CB: Everyone I know who has done this race, every year they think about it and plan for it. Why is that?

RJ: It feels like a family. It’s just a good atmosphere.

Ken Chlouber, he started the Leadville Trail 100 run first and then started the mountain bike race, he used to be a mining supervisor at the Climax mine. When the mine closed it put like 80 percent of Leadville out of work. So he started the races. Every year he says, “You’re better than you think you are, you can do more than you think you can.” I get emotional every time I hear that.

SH: Yeah I’ve never heard a bad Leadville story.

RJ: It’s a great event, it’s a good family, and I think a lot of people keep coming back because it’s a good event and because of the people who are there.

Have you raced the Leadville Trail 100 MTB? Leave your best tips, advice, and stories in the comments!