I can confidently label my first LT100 pre-ride adventure of St. Kevin to Carter Summit, just past May Queen and back, a success. It's encouraging to have the introduction to the course under my belt, for the next leg of this expedition includes my descent of the steep and rutted Powerline section, only to turn around and wrestle the return climb.
The success of back-to-back hard days hinges on a solid recovery in between. Despite keeping my fueling needs met during the ride, I'm famished. I head to High Mountain Pies in downtown Leadville to bite off the first step of recovery in the form of a warm turkey club, oversized brownie, and pitcher of water. I spotted a few campsites along the course, so after a pilgrimage to the Leadville Race Series store, Hazel and I set up camp and get ready for an early night and a good sleep.
That was the plan, at least. Even though I'd been staying at 5,500 feet and riding regularly at 8-9000 feet, I could feel the Cloud City's elevation of 10,200 feet taking its toll. Sleep was elusive. At about 2:30 am, I make a bowl of Wheaties and honey. If I can't sleep, I might as well eat! The lack of oxygen is accompanied by a lack of cellular service, which I am fine with in many ways. But often, an educational lecture in the form of a racing video is the perfect distraction for my cluttered mind, lulling me to sleep as I focus on someone else's race day dramas instead of contemplating mine.
Eventually, I find a few hours of sleep, but it is nowhere near enough. Nevertheless, I begin my morning routine, preparing to face the mythical beast that is Powerline. A fellow camper strolls by, a racing veteran who has multiple Leadville buckles to his name. We start chatting about the race, my first experience with the full beauty of being on the ground in Leadville: the people. The discussion turns to gearing, and he gives me what might be a pace-saving idea: have I considered swapping out my 34-tooth chainring for something smaller?
No, I hadn't. But now I am.
I drop Hazel off at Mountain Dogs Romp n' Chomp for daycare and drive out to the start of today's pre-ride, which will pick up exactly where I left off yesterday, a mile or so before the turn onto the dirt road known as Hagerman Pass. Pedaling feels good, consistent on the steady climb. Over to my right are stunning views of Turquoise Lake with snow-dotted mountains in the background. The road is dusty, so as cars pass, I get a small taste of what race morning could bring when there are hundreds of riders ahead of me. The road has some washboard sections, but there is plenty of solid ground on either side of the road, and I file this away for race day.
However, there was no need for that, for almost immediately after having that thought, I come upon a huge grader. Road maintenance is generally a good thing. However, a freshly graded dirt road usually results in a speed-sucking one or two-inch layer of loose gravel, dirt, and rocks. It's not smooth going on a bicycle. There are two weeks left before the race; with plenty of everyday use plus the upcoming stage race, I figure it will pack down a bit.
I turn left onto the more technical 4x4 road to ascend Sugarloaf Mountain, leading me to the top of Powerline. I gingerly navigate the sandy, loose-over-hard lines of singletrack that weave through ruts, sharper rocks, and baby heads. I start to doubt my tire choice. They are extremely fast rolling on roads, and there is a lot of road on this course. But right now, I'm itching for some more traction.
I finally reach the top of Powerline, and as I start down the other side, I am incredibly grateful for all my years on a mountain bike. There are a few reasons you don't see gravel bikes at the starting line of this race, and this section is one of them. Initially, the descent is manageable and quite enjoyable. This course is like the weather in Florida: If you don't like it, wait a few minutes, and it will change. The downhill is a reward for the 1,300 feet of climbing I've just completed, and I find it extremely fun. That said, it's not easy—crisscrossing ruts dump into sand traps bordered by sizable rocks and mini boulders. Looking closely, I see a smooth line weaving itself through the chaos, and I focus on maintaining it.
At one point, my Wahoo and Ride With GPS app start furiously chirping at me; I've made a wrong turn. I quickly recover and end up staring down at the belly of the beast. The steepest section of Powerline averages around 22 percent, plus or minus, with an overall average of nine percent. The photos make it looks smooth. It's not. The same ruts, baby heads, and sandpits await. I'm giving my brakes a workout, and I take this part of the descent much slower than I'm naturally inclined. This is challenging but well within my wheelhouse—when I have the place to myself.
Imagining all the other riders around me, I am reminded of something else my fellow camper said: Protect your space. My space is in front of me. I need to call out to folks ahead if I want to pass and give them a respectful amount of room as we descend this section. But I cannot worry about what's going on behind me, short of being careful not to make sudden darting moves to the left or right, much like you wouldn't change lanes on the highway without a signal.
The Powerline section ends in a stretch of western-style fenceline, and if the high peaks surrounding me weren't enough of a reminder, I smile: I'm in Colorado. I spin down the road for a little to warm up my legs before turning around to head back up Powerline. This is where the race begins—that's what they say. Maybe the race starts here, at mile 80, for the pros and elites seeking a podium, PR, or course record. For citizen athletes like myself, the race has been going on for a while. I'll concede that if my pacing, fueling, and hydration have not been on point throughout the race so far, this 1,600-foot climb is where the wheels might fall off the wagon.
I push all that out of my mind. I briefly acknowledge all the oranges and reds on my bike computer defining the climb for me, much like the radar establishes the severity of the storms ahead. Here is where I switch to my map view to ensure I stay on course for the climb, for that is all the info I really need. There is no pacing myself at this point—that implies holding back so I can spend the precious energy later. Making it up this hill requires a complete effort, and I admit to mashing the pedals in my lowest gear while I try to stay in the saddle for as long as possible.
Eventually, I clip out and begin the push, and now my mind has time to wander to race day and the other folks around me who will likely be doing the same thing. I imagine there won't be a ton of chit-chat, but words aren't needed. We'll all be in this together. It's an oddly comforting thought. That must be where the "misery loves company" concept comes from.
I count five dismounts in the four miles of the climb back to Sugarloaf. At least two hiking sections feel odd, like I should've been riding. I chalk it up to the elevation. But, when I later take my bike in for its final pre-race tune-up, we find a few extra points of friction that, once fixed, could be the difference between a hike and a ride. Also, I did opt for a 32-tooth chain ring up front, buying me a slightly lower granny gear. But really, by mile 80, will I even notice?
Enough about dismounts and chainrings. I am out here to recon the terrain under my wheels as much as the space between my ears. I had heard so much about this section; it has a mythology all its own. The iconic film Race Across the Sky chronicles the 2009 LT100 MTB race, the year that Lance Armstrong returns to attempt to beat David Weins, six-time Leadville champion. Cameras capture them grimacing their way up Powerline as if glued to the pedals by sheer willpower. A few riders followed suit, but the bulk of the crowd settled in for an arduous hike-a-bike.
I remember my second fat bike race this year in one of the few significant winter snowfalls at our local XC ski center, White Grass. The course was five laps of snowy vertical followed by even steeper descents. I had to push the bike at two points in each lap. As much as I'd like to blame the conditions, I can't. I just didn't have the power. The first couple of laps found me quite demoralized during those sections. Why can't I do this? Look, that person is. Haven't I been training?
I've learned these negative thoughts serve no function. But to pretend I'm some Zen master and will never have them is laughable. Instead, I've been focusing on putting them in their place, flushing them out with a few deep breaths, and opening my eyes and looking at what's around me. Snow began to fall that day at White Grass—big, fat, complicated flakes. Winter finally made a showing, as did my friends with slushy Cokes, bacon, and chocolate chip cookies. I decided to have fun while still keeping my goal of finishing the race.
So, I found myself in a similar predicament this afternoon on Powerline. The pushing gets old after a few minutes. The false summits provide a refreshing chance to increase my cadence but also seem to drag out the torture. I wonder how I'm going to do this 80 miles in. But I know this section is short-lived. There is a snack at the top and a fun downhill on the other side. I take a few deep breaths. I am capable of this, and I know it. Two other pre-riders are descending, and they kindly pull over so I can keep pedaling. They shout out words of encouragement which give me the boost I need. I'm at the top this time, confirmed by my Wahoo. This section was everything it is cracked up to be, and I have a simple yet powerful epiphany: I just climbed Powerline!
Descending Sugarloaf and Hagerman Pass Road, I'm just a girl on a mountain bike having a blast. The grader is long gone, but his work has sucked the speed out of my sails. That's ok; more time to breathe in the vibrant colors of Turquoise Lake. Back at the van, I allow a sense of victory to take over for just a moment. I've just planned and executed my first two pre-rides of the LT100, and they represent some of the most challenging sections of the course. Yes, Columbine awaits. It might even wait until race day. But I'm starting to believe in myself, finally. This race has my name all over it.
As I write this, Leadville recently received over two inches of rain in just one afternoon. Most of the lines I used to descend and climb during my pre-ride sessions have likely washed away. The course itself will have experienced a transformation, as I imagine each of its riders will as they navigate the life-changing bike ride known as the Leadville Trail 100 MTB Race.
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