Wow. What a sufferfest! Racing the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race is easily one of the hardest things I have ever done; it’s almost 15,000 feet of elevation gain, most above 10,000 feet.
As with most great endeavors, it started over a couple beers at a block party in a neighbor’s garage. I bet this was the way the Wright Brothers first discussed the possibility of flight or Einstein pondered the theory of relativity. My neighbor, John Lemon, had been one of my main tandem mountain bike partners for several years, known for his fast and fearless descents. I loved screaming down narrow mountain trails, leaning left and right a fraction of a second behind John. Also the thrill of hitting sizeable bumps which would have sent me rocketing over John’s head if not for my clipless pedals. My favorite line from John is, “Hang on! I think we can do this, but if we fall, just don’t fall right.”
We were standing around the keg when John threw out the challenge, “Wanna ride Leadville?” I naively asked, “What’s that?” Soon a lively discussion ensued and next thing I know, I’ve agreed with gusto! The next morning the realization hit me—I’d just agreed to ride one of the hardest single day bike races in the country, and I’d never even done a mountain bike race before.
Getting in wasn’t a sure thing, though, since a major movie, Race Across The Sky, came out last year. The movie got tons of attention, partly because Lance Armstrong had clobbered the competition with a time of 6:28:50. Countless cyclists were inspired to enter. In fact, over 8,000 people entered the lottery for only 1,500 spots. So John and I contacted the race organizer (Ken Chlouber) to see if he’d let us in. Ken obviously figured any blind person who was stupid enough to ask was his kinda guy.
With the reality of our undertaking upon us, John and I trained hard much of the spring and early summer. What I love about John is that he’s the perfect representative of a Colorado weekend warrior. He’s got a very demanding job at the high-tech company, Cisco, plus a wife and two kids. But at the break of dawn, he can be found aggressively hammering up steep, technical trails around Golden, often returning home with bruised ribs, sprained wrists, oozing trail rash, bloody gashes, and at least once, a separated collar bone.
So for several months, my typical routine was get up at 4:30 AM and pound some breakfast and coffee. John would lightly knock at the door around 5:30 AM, and we’d ride up Look Out Mountain or Golden Gate Canyon. On weekends, we’d go out on long mountain rides, once a killer 75 mile day up to Rollins Pass from the east side, over to Winter Park, and back again; crossing the Continental Divide twice. At the top the temperature dropped to 40 degrees with pounding hail, but at least there was lightening!
On our first long rides, John and I found it was hard to take in the massive amounts of calories needed not to bonk half way through the day; dry energy bars were really hard to choke down, and more satisfying things like sandwiches took too long to eat. We were previewing part of the Leadville course when a veteran racer gave us a helpful nutrition tip: “During the race, forget solid food; usually you’re too nauseated anyway to eat.” He turned us on to Ensure, a quickly absorbed energy drink—250 calories in eight ounces and about five seconds to swallow.
We also managed to support the local bike industry with a constant need for service and part upgrades to my Ellsworth tandem bike. Repairs ranged from replacing hydraulic fluid, brake pads, and scorched rotors, to a multitude of busted chains, spokes, and wheels. In the Ellsworth’s defense, few bike frames or bike parts are designed sturdy enough to take the massive stress of two 175 pound riders plus a forty pound frame pounding down a steep rocky 3,000 foot mountain pass.
At last, the big day arrived! John and I, plus Skyler Williams, our support crew, woke at 4 AM to prepare but none of us really slept much. My stomach was full of butterflies, and I had a hard time downing any food, though I did force myself to eat. By 5:30, we were at the start line with a wall-to-wall crowd of hardcore cyclists, crew, and family. You could smell the adrenaline in the air, as well as the overflowing port-a-potties!
When the shotgun went off at 6:30, we were off and peddling…and wondering what we’d gotten ourselves into. The weather was cloudless, with a cold nip in the air. Later it would warm up and get hot, but never as brutally hot as one of our scouting rides a month earlier when John and I both ran out of water.
With 1,328 cyclists, including pros like Levi Leipheimmer, all charging to the same hill a few miles away, a massive bottleneck was inevitable. The first climb, called St. Kevin, quickly turned into a hike-a-bike since one person getting off meant all behind them had to dismount too. Things began to thin out by the second big climb so more of it was rideable.
Then came the scariest part of the day, the nasty descent down the Powerline road with its heinous ruts and double fall lines. I called it, “Crazy Town,” because folks were veering and weaving and stopping in front of us. A guy rode up behind me, clipping my handle bars in the process. I instinctively nudged him, and he careened off into the woods. We stopped to make sure he was not hurt and then kept riding. Further along in the ride he came up behind us and called out “Erik, I competed against you in Primal Quest!” We passed one guy unconscious on his back on the side of the trail with paramedics around him. Another guy endoed right in front of us and landed on his back; John had to brake fast and whip around him.
We rode rolling terrain and some single track the rest of the way to the second aid station at Twin Lakes; so far, we were on schedule, beating the four-hour cut-off by 30 minutes. Here is where the road kicks up big time, going from about 9,200 feet to the Columbine Mine at 12,600 feet in just eight miles. It was brutal. John got a bad cramp in his leg which slowed us down a little. We found ourselves behind an endless line of riders who were pushing their bikes up the loose steep sections nearing the top. We couldn’t pass, since bikers were now flying by on the left on their way back down. We were moving at a crawl, but part of me welcomed the pace since I was gasping for air. John and I started having our first doubts whether we’d be able to make the final cut-off of twelve hours.
At 6 hours and 5 minutes, we finally reached the summit. Fifty long miles from Leadville, we turned around to reverse the entire course. Blasting down the jeep road, we passed all those folks who had passed us on the way up. Because of all the extra weight, tandems crank on the downhill’s. We used the 40 minute descent to recover and rehydrate. It was a relief to get back to the Twin Lakes Aid Station where we were met by our support crew—including my wife, Ellie, and two kids, Emma and Arjun. They were waiting to swap out our water bladders and Ensure.
No rest for the weary, John and I charged on ahead in our race against the clock. About 70 miles into the ride, at the top of the single track climb, we only had a small section of rooted trail to get past. Because of the way tandems sit it is difficult for John to lift the front tire even a few inches. Well, one of the roots was a few inches high. John thought we could ride through it with just a little lift but was sadly mistaken. Before we knew it we were on the ground; not even time to unclip or put a hand down. At least the dirt was soft. We laid there for a few seconds feeling total defeat. But then the voice in our heads start yelling “I commit, I will not quit!” We brushed ourselves off and kept on with the sufferfest.
At some point, it all became a blur of pain and enduring. We were back to Pipe Line in another hour fifteen minutes and on to Power Line, the impossibly steep 1,500 foot hill we had come down earlier in the day. Getting a second wind, John and I pedaled up the first part of Power Line past dozens of folks who were pushing. The volunteers were incredible, cheering, “Go tandem. Go!” One particularly hyper guy jumped out and ran behind us yelling at the top of his lungs, “Don’t quit, tandem. You gotta want it!” John got a boost of energy when his 10 year old son, Ben, was standing on the side of the road waving and saying “Good job Dad and Erik.” It was an awesome feeling for John to see him standing there cheering us on!
After an endless ascent to the summit, we screamed down Sugar Loaf and hit a paved road for another long climb. My butt was starting to feel like a mule had kicked it, my legs were losing steam, and I found myself thinking, “I don’t care about the cut-off. Just let this suffering end now.”
There was still plenty of climbing to go, up another jeep road to the top of St. Kevin, then one last huge descent. We only had an hour until the cut-off. At the bottom of the hill, we thought we only had a mild three-mile ascent up a paved road to the finish, but we were sadly mistaken. The course had been changed. The climb was actually up another steep rocky dirt road, much slower than we had anticipated. Time was ticking away, along with our hope for a pre-twelve hour finish. I remember screaming to John, “We’re not going to finish.” John yelled back, “Yeah we are.”
To make it in time, we needed to do the last three miles at six-miles per hour or better. We were both totally blasted. I was now the one with a bad leg cramp. We were cranking with everything we had. We flew by another dozen people pushing their bikes up the last hills. John checked the odometer: we were averaging 10 miles per hour. We finally hit the paved road for a last hill. As we topped out, I could hear the crowds, at least a thousand people cheering like crazy. Neither of us let up. The cheering crowds helped pull us in. As we slowed down, I began to recognize some familiar voices—Emma and Arjun who were running beside us shouting, “Go Daddy go!” And then, it was over.
We crossed the finish line after 11 hours 44 minutes and 23.5 seconds. Out of the eleven tandem teams that started, we were the ninth to cross the line. The winning team, Andy and Cara Applegate from Black Mountain North Carolina, set a new tandem course record in an astounding 8 hours, 42 minutes, and 14 seconds! Of course, their combined age was a youthful 77 while we were the oldest team with a combined age of 89 years of experience.
For breaking the 12 hour barrier, John and I earned the coveted silver belt buckle that we will wear with pride. But the real prize was training, racing, and finishing with John. Those 5:30 mornings had paid off.
Sure I’m the first blind person to do it. But I’m really just an athlete like anyone else out there that day. John struggled even harder than most—imagine yourself piloting a long, heavy tandem and wrestling that beast for almost twelve hours at altitude. And there were lots of similar heroic stories out there by people from 48 states and 21 countries.
John and I both have to thank our wives for putting up with all of the weekends lost to training and the frequent bike banter. After I finished Leadville, I was wiped out and happy to put the bike away for a long while, vowing to never return. However, as a few days pass, I’m starting to wonder if we could do it faster…shhhh, don’t tell Ellie.
Here’s a short video of our finish:
Keep your eyes out for Race Across The Sky 2, appearing in theaters on November 4th. This incredible documentary will show Levi breaking Lance’s course record by 12 minutes. And there’s a pretty good chance that John and I will be in there too. The producers say this will be even better than the original—I can’t wait!
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