A big belt buckle on a fat bike was my stretch goal for the Leadville 100 this year. For those not familiar with the race, it’s 104 miles long with lots of climbing, most of which occurs above 10,000 feet in elevation. Completing it in less than nine hours gets you a big gold and silver belt buckle that would make any cowboy proud.
I have finished this race seven times before this year; five of those finishes have been in less than nine hours. I’ve ridden everything from full suspension to hardtails, 26″ wheels to 29″ wheels. Janine and I even completed it on our tandem in 2011 (and yes, Janine and I are still married). I had some doubts about my ability to go under nine hours on the fat bike. Having ridden it all winter and summer, I knew I would have no problems with the climbs, my concerns were about keeping up on the flats and long descents that are a part of the course. My best guess was that I would come in between nine and ten hours.
Fat bikes have inherited a bad rap from their forefathers: big, heavy, slow, lumbering early fat bikes. They are made for snow, right? As little as three years ago when I saw a fat bike on the course at Leadville I thought, ‘Now THAT is crazy’. But things have changed. Drastically. My Beargrease Carbon fat bike weighs in under 24 pounds, comparable, or lighter, than most of the full suspension and hardtail 29ers on the Leadville course.
The Leadville course is fairly straightforward: most think of it as a non-technical mountain bike race. While there are some sections of pavement and miles of fireroads that do not require much in the way of mountain bike skills, there are climbs (upwards of 12,000 feet of climbing) and several miles of those climbs are technical and rock strewn. This is where the Beargrease excelled. After the “neutral” start (generally downhill and on pavement for the first four miles), you encounter the first climb: St Keven’s. The long paved downhill start saw scores of people go by me. The Beargrease is not made for pavement. At St Keven’s, almost everyone avoids the rocky, rutted lanes on the far sides of the road. You end up with two lines of riders slowly lumbering up the two smooth tire tracks. This is where the fat bike had a huge advantage. Several times I shifted to a bigger gear and pulled out into the rough to pass dozens of people. The fat bike easily handled the loose, rocky outside lane.
In the singletrack…Photo Courtesy Leadville race series…
In fact, I was continuously passing people on the climbs, from the warm up climb at St Keven’s to the big climb of Columbine. I was able to stand and grind without losing traction. The bike is light, and those big fat tires grab onto whatever surface you throw at them. As I passed people on the big climbs, I would get lots of encouragement and a little bit of under-the-breath swearing as people watched a fatty pedal right by them. I tried to explain to as many riders that would listen that “It is not what it looked like. It’s deceiving. Don’t let the looks fool you. It’s light and climbs like a goat.”
It was not all roses. The technical sections of downhills on a rigid bike and the big tires on the flat sections of road made for a bit of a grunt. A Rockshox Bluto on the Beargrease would have helped smooth out the descents. And that certainly is not to say I wasn’t having fun. Everyone that saw me on the course said I was smiling the whole time.
I came through the turnaround on the top of Columbine mine, elevation 12,600 feet, about four hours and 32 minutes into the race. This was good. This is the halfway point in mileage, but more than halfway in terms of climbing. I was in the vicinity of halfway on time for a sub nine-hour finish. It was becoming a possibility.
The wind kicked up on the way back to town. I could definitely feel those big tires pushing against a stiff headwind as we rode on pavement for several miles to the start of the Powerline climb. A big thank you out to Brian S. from Castle Rock, Colorado for trading pulls with me on the pavement. His solid pulls and encouragement helped get me through the tough section quickly.
Nearing the end of the pavement with Brian S…photo courtesy of Hong Van Le…
With three hours and 30 miles to go the big buckle seemed a possibility. I still had two big challenges ahead with the big climb of Powerline and the paved climb of Carter summit.
The Powerline climb came and went without incident…but with some memorable moments. There were several spots on Powerline where people were offering Coca Cola. Not just any coke but ice-cold Coke. I don’t think I said no to any of them. Ice-cold Coke on an endless climb in the hot sun is elixir from the Gods. I could not get enough of it. It got me up and over Powerline. There is a somewhat-technical descent of Hagerman Pass road. Then it is down and around the west end of Turquoise Lake for the final paved climb to Carter Summit. As I came through the final aid station at Carter summit eight hours had passed. I knew I had about 14 miles to go to the finish. Carter-to-finish starts out slow with some small ups and downs but ends with a high-speed downhill. I was now confident, barring any mechanicals, that I would get that big buckle. At eight hours and 46 minutes into the race I had two miles to go, at which point the thought went through my head that I could even run the bike to town if I had to and probably still make it in under nine.
I rolled across the finish line at 8:54:06, almost six minutes to spare. What a feeling! Nine hours had been a stretch goal! Realistically, I thought I would come in around 9:30 or even 10:00. But there it was, 8:54. I was thrilled. The best part of the race comes after you cross the line and collect your big hug from Merilee, one of the original race organizers. Even though the Leadville 100 has grown and become a huge race attracting top riders from around the world, when you cross that line, you still get that hug. That hug was even sweeter as I had met and exceeded a big goal that I set for the day.
The finish…photo courtesy of Hong Van Le…
Huge thanks to the amazing support team of Janine, Art, and Nancy. I don’t think I was stopped for more than 30 seconds at any of the aid stations. It made a huge difference.
My big buckle…
My bike is a stock Salsa Beargrease XX1 with an upgraded HED Big Deal wheelset. I ran 45NRTH Husker Du tires, tubeless at about 9 psi. 9 psi seemingly was a good compromise between traction and ability to survive big hits on the rocks without bottoming out the tire on the rim. The setup ran flawlessly. I hammered the bike on the downhills and it took the abuse with no issues.
Fat bikes have been doing Leadville for three or four years. This year, I saw about five other fat bikes on the trail. With no official fat bike category it is hard to say how many started. I think I was probably the first fat bike to go under nine hours at Leadville, but am not sure on that, and certainly will not be the last. I would expect that as more people actually ride fat bikes and see that they are not just snow bikes, but mountain bikes, you will see a lot more participating in races like Leadville. They are not big, heavy, slow, lumbering, nor only good for snow riding. They can be light, nimble, and give a lot more options when it comes to picking lines.
Post-race rest…photo courtesy of Janine Sieja…
ABOUT THE GUEST BLOGGER
Steve Yore rediscovered biking after a shoulder injury got him out of the kayak. Married with two kids, he finds himself doing fewer, but longer, higher-quality races. He loves the epic and enjoys stumbling across a finish line completely on empty. When not riding his bike, he can be found on the sidelines of a soccer game, BMX track, or wherever else it is that his kids are playing. He also enjoys good food, good coffee, and a good crossword puzzle.
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