The 18th running of what has become America's most famous long-distance mountain race commences Saturday at 6:30 am when about 1,800 riders will roll away from the Leadville 100 start line. Laying in wait for this giant fat-tire peloton is a 100-mile out-and-back ride through the Colorado Rockies that will take anywhere from six to 12 hours.
But time and distance are just a fraction of the Leadville equation. It is the altitude that separates this race from its brethren. Leadville proper is located at a lung burning 10,152 feet, and things go up from there. Peak race elevation is at the summit of the infamous Columbine Mine climb, where racers will struggle to find adequate oxygen at 12,550 feet.
While it appears that the 2011 race will lack the Tour de France star power that has lit up the previous four renditions, both the men's and women's pro fields are loaded with top-shelf talent.
On the men's side, look for a showdown between Specialized's Todd Wells, Topeak-Ergon rider Alban Lakata, Giant's Carl Decker, 1996 Olympic gold medalist Bart Brentjens, and Cannondale's four-man squadra of Jeremiah Bishop, Alex Grant, Tim Johnson and Tinker Juarez.
Wells was third last year behind Levi Leipheimer and Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, but the 2010 top two are not coming back this year. Radio Shack's Leipheimer, the current course record holder (6:16:37), opted to stick to road racing, and is in the process of defending his Tour of Utah crown. JHK is saving his legs for an upcoming European road trip that will include late August's world championships in Switzerland.
Wells will be in Switzerland, too. But first he's gunning for the Leadville title. His pre-race prep included some calculated weight loss, the switch from a full-suspension to hardtail 29er, and an extended high-altitude training camp in Silverton, Colorado.
If Wells is the favorite, then the biggest threat will likely come from Lakata, who is looking to become the first non-American winner of a race first contested in 1994. The Austrian was the 2010 world marathon champion, a title he won last August in St. Wendel, Germany. How good was Lakata that day? He beat Christoph Sauser, Ralph Naef, Burry Stander and Jose Antonio Hermida. But that race was just 61 miles and 3 hours, 50 minutes long. Leadville will likely be at least 2.5 hours longer.
The Cannondale quartet should also be a factor. Bishop was fifth last year, crossing the line just behind six-time Leadville champion Dave Wiens, who is not racing this year. The specter of having teammates who could work for him should prove invaluable this year.
And then there is 2009 Leadville champion Lance Armstrong. The seven-time Tour de France winner insisted two weeks ago that he would definitely not be returning to Leadville this year. But Armstrong is notorious for last-minute mind changing and surprise appearances, so until the start gun sounds early Saturday morning, never say never.
The women's race looks to be an equally wide-open affair, with at least six names appearing on the favorites list. Tops on that list is two-time defending champion and course record holder Rebecca Rusch (Red Bull-Specialized) who won the final Leadville Qualifying Series race two weeks ago in Crested Butte, Colorado, and has been holed up in Leadville ever since, assuring she is fully acclimatized to the altitude.
Threats to a Rusch three-peat include adventure race specialist Sari Anderson, Giant's Kelli Emmet, last year's second place finisher Amanda Carey, Pua Mata (Team Sho-Air), and Jenny Smith (Alpine Orthopedics-SRAM-Breezer).
Smith looked to have Rusch beat in the 63-mile Crested Butte race, leading the Idaho resident by several minutes at the top of the course's main climb. But while Smith sped for home solo, Rusch linked up with several other riders, and used the extra draft to chase Smith down during a flat road section. Rusch then dropped Smith on the final road climb, eventually winning by exactly three minutes.
As for the rest of the field, two numbers matter most: nine hours and 12 hours. Any rider finishing in nine hours or less receives the coveted gold Leadville belt buckle, an award signifying a very solid day on the bike. A sub-12 hour time means you've made it back to Leadville inside the official cut-off time, and yields a smaller — but equally coveted — silver belt buckle.