The Leadville 100 mountain bike race has the reputation of being the most difficult one-day race in North America. There are plenty of other 100-mile races that have equally difficult terrain and altitude, but none have attracted the star power of the Leadville 100. Consider the likes of Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma Quickstep), Todd Wells (Specialized), Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (Subaru Trek), and Dave Weins (Topeak Ergon) driving the pace of a peleton that may contain a couple dozen of the best distance riders in the world.
After his 2010 victory, Levi Leipheimer said, "That was ridiculous. I don't know if I've ever suffered that much before, but I guess that the distance and the fitness from 'The Tour' was enough, although we don't go this hard in the Tour." Leipheimer still holds the course record of 6:16:37.
Nearly 2,000 professional and amateur racers from all 50 states and 35 countries will be competing Saturday on the demanding 104-mile Leadville course. While much of the course consists of fireroads, there are plenty of steep technical climbs and descents.
The race starts at an elevation of 10,200 feet and tops out on Columbine Mountain at 12,640 feet. Total climbing for the day is an incredible 12,612 feet. The nature of the dirt roads and trails has leveled the playing field, making it possible for road racers with minimal off-road experience to compete with professional mountain bikers. Drafting is a big part of the race, particularly if the Colorado winds kick up on the return trip to Leadville.
Riders depart en mass at 6:30 am on pavement for several miles before hitting the dirt trails around picturesque Turquoise Lake. The first serious test of their legs comes on the climb over Sugarloaf Pass at 11,071 ft. Riders will then make the hair-raising descent beneath power lines to the valley below.
Somewhat less demanding fireroads lead the racers to the Twin Lakes Dam Aid Station at 9,263 ft. From there, they begin to make their way uphill to the high point on the course at 12,550 ft. just before the Columbine Mine Aid Station.
The course is out-and-back so two-way traffic on Columbine Mine Road can be a bit frightening at times. The top pro racers will likely be hitting speeds between 30 and 40 miles per hour on the descent, while amateur racers will be climbing the road in the opposite direction and searching for the same good lines.
The final climb back up "Power Line" and over Sugarloaf Pass has often been where the race is decided. Spectators cram the hillside to see the action and cheer for their favorite racers.
With Todd Wells at the Olympics, his Specialized teammate Christoph Sauser is being dispacthed to take up the slack. Sauser is the reigning marathon world champion and a former cross country world champion. Sauser and teammate Burry Stander won the grueling Absa Cape Epic again earlier this year.
Sauser told Cyclingnews, "I am looking forward to Leadville, not sure about the thin air though, but it will be a great challenge, which I am ready to take on. At the moment I am sleeping on a mountain near my home. I can even bike up there, and the view is stunning - I have never raced over six hrs especially not at such high altitude. At least there will be less resistance through the thin air!"
With Sauser's three Specialized teammates at the London Olympics with a good chance for medals, you can be sure that he will be working towards a big result here in the USA.
Austria's Alban Lakata (Topeak Ergon) will likely be one of Sauser's main rivals on Sunday. He is the current leader in the UCI Marathon points and is a former world and European champion at the marathon distance. Known as "The Albanator", he finished second last year in Leadville, just 4:19 off Wells' pace. His motto is, "Nothing comes from nothing."
Nobody will be very surprised if veteran American racer Jeremiah Bishop (Cannondale) pulls off a victory this year. He has come close at Leadville on more than one occasion. Spending most of this season racing shorter World Cup distances in a failed bid to win an Olympic Team berth, his fitness and speed are probably excellent. During the past few years, he concentrated mostly on stage races and long-distance races.
Bishop commented on the upcoming race, "Leadville is one of the hardest sporting events in the world. If Sauser is ready he will be tough competition, but we have a well-oiled machine waiting for him. [Cannondale Factory Racing] CFR is ready. "
Two weeks ago, Bishop returned to 100-mile racing by winning the Wilderness 101 NUE by nearly five minutes. He is also one of the very few professional cyclists who races extremely well at altitude despite living near sea level.
Bishop will be working with teammate Alex Grant, a former runner-up at La Ruta de los Conquistadores. Grant, too, has improved his speed this year by competing in some World Cup races. He finished third last year in Leadville.
Grant expressed confidence in his Cannondale team, "CFR is looking forward to another hard edition of the Leadville 100. We've had a rider on the podium for the past three years and would love to stand on the top step this year. With Jeremiah Bishop, Alex Grant and Tinker Juarez all lining up, we have a very strong team and many cards to play. We know the competition will be top notch, though, so nothing is taken for granted. It will be an epic hypoxic battle on August 11!"
Also expected to be part of the lead pack are Jay Henry, Gerry Cody, Stig Somme, and Greg Krause, all of whom finished in the top 10 in last year. A wild card will be the addition of "Honey Badger" Justin Lindine (Bikereg.com) who was only a few minutes off Bishop's pace two weeks ago at the Wilderness 100 NUE.
Finally, it is fair to say that no one is likely to let six-time winner Dave Weins out of sight by choice. While he is now in his upper 40s, his endurance is legendary. In 2010, he towed Bishop the last few miles of the race. Bishop was so grateful that he graciously did not contest Wein's fourth place finish with a sprint.
Thousands of amateur racers have competed in qualifying events or entered a lottery system to gain entry to the race. All eligible racers must report to a mandatory Medical check-in on Friday, followed by a final briefing. On Friday night, there is a free carbo-loading dinner at the high school.
Racers who finish the race in nine hours or less receive one of the coveted gold and silver trophy buckles. Racers who finish in 12 hours or less receive a silver trophy buckle. Racer co-founder Ken Chlouber got the idea of awarding belt buckles from the longstanding practice at western rodeos.
Rebecca Rusch (Specialized), "The Queen of Pain", was considering retiring from Leadville competition. After three wins and setting the women's course record last year of 7:31:46, she was wondering if enough was enough. When Lifetime Fitness bought the race, they convinced her that she was and important part of what made the Leadville 100 truly a Classic. She changed her mind and signed up.
Last year Rusch had to overcome a two-minute deficit to Gretchen Reeves on the Columbine climb. Rusch remarked after the race, "I love that climb and two minutes is not a lot of time in a 100-mile race. I'm a diesel so it takes me a while to get going sometimes."
Rusch is likely to have her hands full again with Pua Mata (Sho-Air Specialized). Mata's resume includes the 2011 US Marathon National Championship and the 2011 US Pro Ultra-Endurance Series Championship. She bested cross country world champion Catharine Pendrel in the 2011 Whiskey 50. In the 2012 edition, she beat American cross country champion Georgia Gould.
Mata seems to have bad luck at times with her equipment. During the 2011 Leadville race, she suffered several chain drops, a poorly shifting drivetrain, a cracked wheel, and a front tire puncture. Despite all this, she still finished third. In this year's Whiskey 50, she was off her bike several times dealing with chain suck.
"Leadville 2012 is going to be a good one. This year I am going to have the Bostrom Brothers out there with me, and it will be awesome motivation knowing that my teammates are out there killing themselves and hurting along with me!" said Mata.
Mata also told Cyclingnews, "It is my second time around for Leadville and on top of being not only a mountain bike race and an endurance race, where anything can happen...this is a race that starts at 10,000 feet and just keeps going up from there, and is definitely a race that anything can happen. This year I am hoping to go as fast as I possibly can, have fun doing it, and make Sho-Air proud."
Mata added, "I spent the last week in Leadville training with CTS and my coach and have been learning every rock and trail that is out there...so I know I am doing my homework! It is amazing to be out there and see everyone from all walks of life training for this crazy race and it is so much fun because it is like a reunion to come back and see all my friends and be back at the Hostel where I now have an extended family. "
Sho-Air Team Director Ty Kady told Cyclingnews that Mata has been training in Colorado since the Montana US Pro XCT. He warned, "If she keeps her equipment together, I wouldn't bet against her."
The remainder of the top five women finishers from 2011 will be racing including former winner Gretchen Reeves (Tokyo Joe's), Jenny Smith (NoTubes Elite Women's Team) and former pro Tammy Jacques (Honey Stinger)
Long distance specialist Amanda Carey (Kenda Felt) will not be racing this year. She told Cyclingnews, "After four years of trying and bad luck - well, a gal's gotta know when to say when." During last year's race, she suffered so many flat tires she was forced to abandon the effort.
Stay tuned. Cyclingnews will be in Leadville this weekend to bring you all the action.