Largely due to the participation of Lance Armstrong, the Leadville 100 has grown into one of the country's most prestigious single day mountain biking epics. Two years ago, Armstrong lost a hard fought battle with Dave Weins (Topeak Ergon), but last year, he crushed everyone with his Tour de France fitness. This year, however, Armstrong has withdrawn from the race citing a nagging hip injury suffered in the Tour de France as the reason.
The news came after he was seen out on the course this past weekend with US Marathon National Champion Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski. "We rode 60-70 miles of the course or so," said JHK.
Armstrong's Radio Shack teammate Levi Leipheimer is still registered to race and would automatically become one of the race favorites given his Tour de France fitness and the roadie-friendly fireroad nature of the course. However, Leipheimer is recovering from a wrist injury that was sustained in the Tour de France and may not want to risk that recovery with a grueling race on dirt. In addition, Leipheimer announced last week that he will race in the demanding Tour of Utah set to begin next week, just a few days after Leadville.
What is very different this year is the level of competition. If he races, Leipheimer will have to contend with two current US mountain biking national champions. Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, who is the US marathon national champion, is a two-time Olympian and a World Cup racer and is the favorite for a win. While JHK rarely participates in endurance races, he has proven to be at least 12 minutes faster than any of the other top mountain bike competitors at a 50-mile distance. Given that Armstrong beat Weins by 25 minutes last year, JHK should be competitive for the win. He has also earned the reputation for being best high altitude mountain bike racer in the country.
US cross country National Champion and Olympian Todd Wells (Specialized) has also decided to give the race a go. The Durango native has gone head-to head with JHK dozens of times. Each can beat the other on a given day. JHK probably has the edge in domestic races, while Wells typically posts better finishes on the World Cup circuit. Wells also participates in at least one road stage race per year, so he is no rookie when it comes to the tactics that may be employed on Leadville's fire roads.
When asked about his preparation for the Leadville 100, Wells said, "I haven't had time to do any specific training for Leadville with the two World Cups and Nationals in the past three weekends. All I've been doing is traveling and recovering. I will do a few long high country rides before the race and probably just go up to Leadville the day before the race since it's at such a high altitude. I'm looking forward to that neutral rolling start after the craziness of the World Cup the past few weeks."
The out-and-back Leadville course consists primarily of fireroads along with a few paved sections. Thousands of spectators and support crews will line the route. The starting elevation is 10,152 feet and the course reaches 12,550 feet at the Columbine Mountain at the turn-around. This climb has proven to be a decisive point in the race for years.
Former US marathon champion Jeremiah Bishop (Cannondale) is racing, too. "You can be sure of nothing in a 100-miler. Riders who you would not expect to crack will crack like glass on a rock. Among the favorites, I expect a battle," said Bishop. "A lead group will shatter the field on Columbine. 12,000 feet has a magnifying effect on one's form or lack of it. Since Leadville is so much of a dirt road race, tactics will play a big factor..and it's lack of technical features will favor the roadies."
Last year's second place female finisher Amanda Carey (Kenda-Felt) may disagree. "I think Leadville gets too much undeserved characterization as a "roadie" course. Having raced Leadville twice, I know it well enough to know that it definitely favors a certain type of rider but it is certainly not a cakewalk! Personally, I think that JHK or Wells can take it if they are smart (i.e. draft) and they have good days. Weather and wind can have a huge impact on the race. It would be great for the spectators if all the men could hang together at least until the return trip up Powerline."
Bishop is expected to be a force in this year's race. Earlier this season he swept the Triple Crown final weekend in Virginia, and followed that up by winning the Trans-Sylvania stage race in Pennsylvania. Normally Bishop would have been at the marathon World Championships this past weekend in Germany, but he decided to skip it while recovering from an infection.
Other racers who are expected to compete for the win include, of course, Colorado favorite and many-time winner Dave Weins (Topeak Ergon). Alex Grant (Cannondale), a top finisher at La Ruta del los Conquistadores, finished fourth last year at Leadville after crashing on the final descent. Tokyo Joes' Jay Henry has looked sharp this season including a third place finish at the marathon National Championships.
Fort Lewis College cycling coach Matt Shriver was also part of the elite group pushing the pace on the front last year. He finished third. He recently made these predictions to Cyclingnews: "My thoughts are that the pace will be close to the same. I think that riders like Jeremiah Bishop will be early animators. There will be more fireworks on the climbs. JHK and Wells will be looking to make it up Columbine Climb with the leaders."
"There will be a larger group that goes up Columbine together and rides together all the way to the bottom of Powerline (80 miles in) on the return," said Shriver. "This will be the final selection. Powerline will be where the race is won this year."
Manny Prado (Sho-Air/ Specialized), who is both the Costa Rican champion and La Ruta del los Conquistadores champion, will not compete in Leadville due to unforeseen circumstances. Prado finished eighth last year and had named the Leadville 100 as one of his major goals of this season.
In the women's race, Rebecca Rush (Specialized) comes in as the overwhelming favorite, having won by 25 minutes last year. What was surprising last year is that she did not really prepare specifically for the race, but things appear to be different this time around.
"I got here (Leadville) 10 days early to acclimatize, familiarize myself with the course, relax and breathe the thin air," said Rusch. "My preparation and focus this year have been way different than last year. Last year's race was icing on the cake after winning 24-hour solo worlds for the third time. That race was my major priority for the year and coming to Leadville was just to cap off the season. I did not know the course, did not acclimatize, pretty much had no idea what to expect."
"This year, Leadville has been on of my main focuses for the year so my training has been a bit different with a bunch of 50 and 100-milers, coming early, scouting the course, bringing crew, etc," said Rusch. "I was a bit like a deer in the headlights last year and yet had a great result. This year, I am much more educated about the event, more prepared and really excited!"
Amanda Carey, who looks stronger this season, may provide a closer battle. Last year she had to overcome a starting position far behind Rusch, and expended a great deal of energy early in the race just to make contact.
"She's a heck of a strong rider in this distance and has shown that she can race well at altitude," said Carey of her main competition, Rusch. "I spent all of July in Colorado racing cross country on the weekends and trained on the Leadville course a few days in between those races. I raced the Laramie Enduro last weekend for my final long prep and that went pretty well."
Leadville race veterans will tell you that a host of factors need to go right on race day, and luck often plays a pivotal role in the outcome. Riders will need to have the ability to deal with mechanical issues out on the trail. To ride 100 miles on this terrain without having a tire puncture is somewhat unlikely. Most of the top contenders live at an altitude of 6,000-8,000 feet but know that 12,000 feet is a whole different ballgame. At that altitude, the same rider can have very good days, but also very bad days. Jeremiah Bishop, who lives near sea level in Virginia, is one of the very few "flatlanders" who typically performs well at these altitudes.
Stay tuned to Cyclingnews this weekend for all the latest results, stories, and photography from the Leadville Trail 100.