Endurance MTB socialising - Part I

Not content with just riding a 100-mile endurance MTB event, Elden Nelson (aka 'the Fat cyclist')...

Tales from the Peloton, August 20, 2005

Not content with just riding a 100-mile endurance MTB event, Elden Nelson (aka 'the Fat cyclist') wanted to share the experience of over 900 people riding this tough race - so taking out his voice recorder was the obvious thing to do. He couldn't do 900 interviews in 100 miles, but tried gallantly, and brings us real tales from the peloton - at Colorado high altitude.

Bike racing is a pretty internally-focused sport. You're thinking about your strategy, your legs, your suffering, your energy level. You, you, you. The only time you tend to think about other people is when you want to either use them or to pass them.

Pretty darned selfish, if you ask me.

On August 13, I raced the Leadville 100 - a 100-mile mountain bike race in Leadville, CO - the highest city in North America. Ranging from 9000 feet up to 12,600 feet with about 12,000 feet of climbing altogether, it's recognized as a brutal, demanding race that requires strength, endurance, and concentration to get through.

Here's the thing, though. I'd done the race eight times before, and while I wasn't worried about finishing, you can guess that with the nickname "Fat Cyclist" I knew I wouldn't be setting a personal best.

So why not use the race as an opportunity to get to know my fellow mid-pack riders? I picked up a small voice recorder - one that easily tucked under the elastic of my shorts, rolled up to the starting line, and set out to see what a serious epic race is like if you treat it like a tea party.

And please note: I did not cherry-pick riders. I had never met any of these riders before talking with them during this ride. My rider selection criteria were simple: they had to be near me and going approximately my speed.

The Local: Roxanne

Mustering the courage to stick a tape recorder in front of people's mouths while they race was no easy thing, so I started easy: I found a woman much, much smaller than I was - someone I was confident I could defend myself against, if it came down to it. Roxanne and I talked while we rode along flat doubletrack, before any difficult climbs.

Fat cyclist: So how many times have you done this epic race?
Roxanne: 5 times
Fat cyclist: What's your best time so far, and what do you think you can do this year?
Roxanne: 11:06 is the best I've done so far. I'm hoping for under 11 this year.
Fat cyclist: Any parts of the race you hate?
Roxanne: Columbine.

I didn't have to ask Roxanne why she hated the road to Columbine mine. This eight mile stretch of road climbs more than 3000 feet up to the highest point in the course. The final three miles of this climb are technical and rocky.

Fat cyclist: How do you like Sugarloaf? (Sugarloaf, AKA Powerline, is the last long, technical climb of the day. Every year, multiple people give up and turn around rather than climb this steep, 3.5 mile monster.)
Roxanne: I do OK there, because I know that I'm almost home. If I can make it over Sugarloaf, I know I've only got a few more miles 'til I can climb into bed.

Roxanne would finish with a time of 11:27:18, placing 16th in her category.

Next it was Annie (Evergreen, CO), who was climbing St. Kevins...

What makes the Leadville 100 difficult is the length and difficulty of the climbs. Almost immediately after beginning this race, you're forced to climb St. Kevins, about three miles of sandy doubletrack. It's not a time when you're necessarily in the mood to talk. But I talked with Annie anyway.

Fat cyclist: Is this the first time you've ridden this race, Annie?
Annie: Third.
Fat cyclist: What's your best time?
Annie: 10:27.
Fat cyclist: What's your worst time?
Annie: 10:37.
Fat cyclist: So you're very consistent! What're you hoping for today?
Annie: I've been sick, so I just want to finish.
Fat cyclist: Where are you coming from?
Annie: Evergreen, Colorado. Aren't you supposed to be asking me yes/no questions?
Fat cyclist: No way. I ask short questions, you give me nice long answers. Especially on the long climbs. I should mention, by the way, that you are seriously putting the hurt on me. Anything you love or hate about this ride?
Annie: No, I love it all.
Fat cyclist: Got someone crewing for you?
Annie: My husband.
Fat cyclist: OK, cool. Hey, I can't keep up with you anymore, so I'm going to let you take off. Go!

Annie - clearly all business - would finish in 10:01, fifth place in her category: her best time by nearly half an hour. Not all that sick after all, were you, Annie?

Stephen (Houston, TX) Demonstrates anti-trash-talk technique

After you've battled your way up St. Kevins, you drop down the other side on pavement. Then it's time to climb Sugarloaf. That's where I met up with Stephen.

Fat cyclist: Racer 125, you had a good time last year. (In the Leadville 100, a race bib number below 500 indicates that was your finishing place in the race the previous year.)
Stephen: Yeah, but I've got a big belly this year.
Fat cyclist: When did you finish last year?
Stephen: 9:56.
Fat cyclist: That's great! How about this year?
Stephen: I expect to be slow. Last year, I trained for endurance, did a lot of climbing. This year, I didn't get much riding in. I was hoping for a better time, but...plans change when you hit St. Kevins.
Fat cyclist: How're you doing with the altitude?
Stephen: So far, OK. If I don't have a headache by now, I think I'm going to do all right.
Fat cyclist: How many times have you done this race?
Stephen: This is my second.
Fat cyclist: Why did you come back?
Stephen: Friend of mine who lives close by dragged me over. I said I'd do it one last time.
Fat cyclist: What's the hardest part of the ride?
Stephen: Well, last year, it was that long dirt road at the end of the ride. Nobody told me about it (author's note: this is a sort of initiation rite with the Leadville 100. First-timers never expect "The Boulevard," a nasty, seemingly-endless climb only 2.5 miles from the finish line.) The rest of the race hurts, but I at least knew what to expect.
Fat cyclist: So what do you eat when riding?
Stephen: Powergels, PowerBars.
Fat cyclist: Seriously? You can eat PowerBars while riding at this altitude? Man, you deserve a special prize for that. I have to leave my mouth open full time just to breathe.

Stephen, "big belly" and all, finished with a 10:03, only marginally slower than last year's time.

Mike (Evergreen, CO): Riding for Redemption

Still climbing Sugarloaf - it's a reasonably gradual, non-technical climb, giving you time to chat if you're willing to be nosy about it - I stuck my microphone into Mike's face.

Fat cyclist: Have you ever quit this race?
Mike: Yeah. Wrong fuel, bad advice. I had too much protein in liquid form.
Fat cyclist: Like hamburger milkshakes? (Mike does not respond to this)
Mike: I got rid of it - both ends. No good. My BVDs are still somewhere up there on Columbine mine. I had no fuel in my stomach. I stopped at the Fish Hatchery, tried to recover. I couldn't eat, but I went on anyway. I was pushing up Powerline. It was raining, I was seeing spots, stumbling, falling to my knees. I knew I was going to damage myself. So I did the smart thing, and turned around, rode down. It haunts me to this day. I kick myself every day for quitting. When I'm 70, I'll still be doing this race to make up for it.

Mike, age 41, finished in 10:13. I hope you can sleep at night now, Mike.

The Sounds of Crashing

I managed to leave the recorder on for 17 minutes, recording nothing but the sound of me pedaling - and then, as I started down the other side of SugarLoaf, of my brakes squealing (borrowed bike).

During this unintentional 17 minutes, I managed to capture a priceless moment. Riding down the Powerline, a rider yells, "On your right!" I yell back, "Go!" One second later, he hits a whoop-de-do, and then there's a plop-crunch as he lands too far forward, wiping out. There's a squeal of brakes as I swerve hard to avoid running over him.

I yell, "You OK?" and he replies "Yeah." I then say to another rider, "Ouch." He replies, "Yeah."

Long Road for Fiona

I rode with Fiona for a few miles between the first and second aid stations - a relatively flat section where people often try to form groups (my friend Kenny rightly points out that it's often hilarious to watch mountain bikers try to form a paceline) and work together.

Fat cyclist: Are you having fun?
Fiona: I'm hanging in there.
Fat cyclist: Did you think you'd be having fun today? Or did you expect pure agony the whole day?
Fiona: Oh yeah (author's note: it's unclear which question the "oh yeah" is an answer to. That's what I get for ramming opposing questions together like that.). It's an epic ride. And you know what? Ten minutes from now, I might be having fun again. And then ten minutes later it could be the worst day of my life.
Fat cyclist: How many times have you done this race?
Fiona: Started five, finished three.
Fat cyclist: When did you finish last year?
Fiona: 9:42. That was a good year for me.
Fat cyclist: Why do you do epic races?
Fiona: I have no idea - I don't know. I used to do it to challenge myself. Now I just show up because I'm used to showing up. Every year, I say, "This is my last. This is it." And then January rolls around and I sign up again. If you had to sign up just two weeks before the race, I don't think anyone would sign up.

Fiona made it up to the hardest part of the race - the top of Columbine mine, but DNF'd at the next aid station. I hope she had fun somewhere along the way, but I kind of doubt it.

John, (Cedar Crest, NM): Grizzled Veteran

Endurance racing isn't a young pups' sport. It seems that the longer you do it and the older you get, the better you are. John is living proof of this. As you read the following dialogue, please picture in your mind John riding and chatting, while I keep dropping back and then sprinting to catch up. He was trying not to drop me, but just couldn't seem to help it.

Fat cyclist: How many times have you done this race?
John: 11.
Fat cyclist: You're one of the guys who's done them all! So what keeps bringing you back?
John: It's just a great race.
Fat cyclist: What's your best time?
John: 10:39.
Fat cyclist: What are you hoping for this year?
John: 10:25.
Fat cyclist: Are we going to get rained on today? (Weather forecasts had predicted rain)
John: Nope.
Fat cyclist: The seasoned pro says it's going to be dry.

John - age 54 - would finish in 10:20 - his best time ever, by nearly twenty minutes. 17th in his category. As we rode together, John also mentioned that he reads the Fat Cyclist blog, which earns him 5000 brownie points. John was right about the rain, at least as far as he and I were concerned. In spite of predictions of rain, I never needed to bring out my rain jacket. Anyone slower than John or me, however, got hailed and rained upon up at 12,000 feet.

Check out Part II as the fatty gets chatty with some amazing tales from a rather breathless peloton...

Read more epic stories, Tour de France tomfoolery, fake news and advice you can't use at the 'Fat Cyclist' blog

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