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Leadville Trail 100

On Saturday 10th August, EF Education First Pro Cycling competed at the third event of their alternative racing calendar, the Leadville Trail 100, a 100-mile, out-and-back MTB race in the high mountains of Colorado.

16 August 2019

Leadville has been called the toughest day on a bike by many who have ridden it, and EF’s two alternative racers on the startline were newly minted US road champion Alex Howes and GBDuro conqueror Lachlan Morton. Here, they offer us a unique first-hand account of their day, from breakfast to the podium.

Lachlan.

Alex.

I woke up at 4am, and thought I was getting a head start on everyone. I came downstairs and there was already about twelve people down in the kitchen. It was a party, with coffee flying, and oatmeal everywhere.

Taylor [Phinney, who pulled out of Leadville with a back injury] not racing was probably a net gain because he cooked us eggs in the morning [laughs]. He showed up at 4am and I was like, that’s a real teammate.

We jumped in the van and the road to Leadville was super dark through the mountains so it was very eerie. All of a sudden we dropped into Leadville. It was five in the morning and a hub of activity. A loudspeaker was going, they were playing Smashmouth. I thought: Okay, here we go.

On the startline I was all fuzzy and warm feeling after seeing family and friends. My dad was there, my wife was there. I was trying to remind myself that I was here to do a 100-mile bike race. But once Ken [Chlouber, race founder] shot that double-barrel off I remembered pretty quickly. Giddy up!

There’s quite a big road section to start the race. It’s slightly downhill and fast but on mountain bikes you don’t have very big gears so everyone was just pedalling away, stuck together. Then out of nowhere this tandem came through from the back and led the bunch into the first climb! Alex looked at me and was like, ‘Cape Epic next year? Tandem?!’

We hit the first hill, everybody was sort of looking at each other. Nobody wanted to show their cards. Then Lachlan Morton – of course – sends it, turns the screw. I was back there just suffering, like I do…

We hit the first climb, and I’m not going to be the guy who waits for the race to come to me, so I said let’s go for it [laughs]. I began to ride tempo and the group slowly started splitting.

We came over the top of the first climb with something like twelve guys. We worked our way over to Powerline, which isn’t super hard, but we just went ballistic. I was like, this is only 20-miles in! Hey kids, what’re we doin’?

After you do the first couple of climbs, there’s the most technical downhill of the course, and as a road rider you can’t help but think that it’s coming. We hit it and I was following Alex and we started overtaking guys. We even started bringing back these two guys off the front who were legit mountain bikers. Alex and I both just had these huge smiles on our faces, and started yelling out at each other. I was like: Yes! This is what I’m here for. Let’s race!

We regrouped, ‘cause that’s what you’re gonna do with 80 miles to go, and we rode together all the way until the base of the Columbine climb at 40 miles in. Lachlan Morton being Lachlan Morton, he hits it again, pretty much straight away. He said he was trying to psyche the other guys out but I think he psyched me out more than anybody. I was like, man, are we going to do this to the top?

There was a lull in the bunch at the bottom of Columbine because the racing had been pretty fast. Again, I had a rush of blood to the head and launched a move at the bottom of an hour-long climb [laughs].

There were five of us going up to the top. I was feeling okay, but there’s this magic invisible line that I’ve always had, and I always forget I’ve got. I think I’m going great, but then I hit 12,000 feet and BAM the wheels come off. Sure enough, today we were going up that climb, and we hit 12,000 feet and I was glued to the ground, huffing and puffing and going nowhere. It took me a little while to remember why. I have selective memory when it comes to things like that – I try to forget failure when I can… but yeah, that hurt, watching those guys slowly crawl away.

It’s weird at that altitude because you can’t really sustain any sort of attack. You’d have a moment where you think you feel fine, and go to the front. But then you’d be like: Suffering! Suffering! And it only gets worse as you go up and up and up. Columbine starts at 3,000m and goes up to 3,800m. The last three km really ramps up, and it’s rocky. That’s where I noticed that on the steeper technical stuff the mountain bike guys had something I didn’t. They could charge up these little sections and keep momentum. All of a sudden they’d be twenty metres away, and I’d have to slowly grind back. That was definitely a skill they had that I absolutely didn’t have.

I’m going to go ahead and say I waited for the guys behind me [laughs]. I did and I didn’t, but we came down the climb, and I got to follow Todd Wells’ wheel. He’s a two- or three-time Olympian, a total eagle on a bike when it comes to going down a dirt descent, and I just thought, this is freaking cool. I put my tyres wherever he put his, and closed my eyes. I was just grinning ear to ear, thinking this is a once in a lifetime thing. I mean, I had his poster on my wall when I was a kid.

All of the people coming up the hill were shouting my name as I was coming down. It was really cool because they were watching the race unfold, which they were a part of. Leadville is a very unique course in that it’s an out-and-back. Everyone starts together, and it all splits apart over the first 50 miles. Then you do a U-turn at the top of Columbine, and you see every single other person you started with all the way back. You get to see the different days that people are having. It goes from really serious guys to slowly less serious but still worried about what time they do, and you get to the back and they’re people just trying to get it done. All of a sudden you realise how long the days are going to be for a lot of those people.

I had a pretty good group heading back towards the finish, with Todd, Pete Stetina and a number of others. But guys just started falling away. I looked around at one point and I was all alone. Lachlan’s group was a minute and change up the road. There were big wide open roads and giant mountains to make me remember how small I am. And I was just in this huge epic landscape, alone on my little bicycle trying to get to the finish. And I thought, aww, I want a friend right now...

We didn’t have a big gap so the three of us at the front were just swapping off. I thought it was pretty sick: a Cape Epic winner, a Cape Epic stage winner, and then me, a road racer, just chopping off. I felt like the odd one out, but it was cool watching those guys do their thing, seeing how they managed.

With about twenty miles to go I was down and out. I had missed a couple of feeds, and was totally bonking. I came into where the EF tent was at 80 miles and I spiked two bottles. I watched them roll away on the ground, thinking ‘I should probably turn round and get those’, and then I see my wife, and she’s just got this power pose on, holding a bottle. If she could have taken the liquid out of that bottle and put it into my stomach she would have. I was like ‘Oh, not going to miss that one,’ and boom, strongest connection ever. Totally saved me.

There’s a point after the last feed and Powerline, which is the last major climb. It all of a sudden goes from being a regular race to nobody really having any legs left. So you’ve got to use what you’ve got left in the tank to get up Powerline the best you can, and that’s what the race is.

It was kind of a bummer because we hit the final climb of Powerline and I think I was about 30 seconds behind Lachlan’s group. I could almost touch them. And we all just hit this wall, and it was like some crappy 1980s computer game. Tch-tch-tch-tch-tch... Eurgh where’s the top of this freaking thing? Everybody was catching everybody and nobody was catching nobody, and it was all happening in super double slow motion.

When we hit the bottom of Powerline, I knew Howard [Grotts, eventual race winner] was riding really strong – and he’s won this race twice and this is his terrain – so I knew he was going to go for it. I thought, how am I going to play this? What’s my move? [laughs]. I set tempo at the bottom, going at what I thought I could do, and I thought maybe it’ll be strong enough that it’ll throw him that he actually thinks I’ve got more in the tank when I don’t. [laughs]. We dropped the Colombian rider [Luis Mejia] and it was just the two of us when we hit the really steep section. Howard came through – it wasn’t even an attack – and I saw that tempo and I was just like, that’s just too much. I can’t. I got on the wheel but on one steep section he got out the seat and did that little acceleration and I couldn’t do it.

I was pretty cross eyed towards the top, and I had a little slip of the front wheel and jumped off. As soon as I was running I realised I was probably going faster. I should have just put some trainers on and hoofed it up this sucker. I would have taken five minutes out of these guys.

I was watching my clock: 20 seconds, 30 seconds, 40 seconds, and I held him there for a long time. But in the twisty section I just lost him. As soon as I didn’t have that carrot there, I had a bit of a mental lapse. It was strange because there was no spectators, you were just alone in the woods, really suffering up this last climb. And that was it. All of a sudden it was two minutes and I wasn’t coming back. I sort of felt like I was on my own ride there for twenty minutes. And suddenly I looked back and saw two guys coming up and I thought, ‘Oh, now we’ve got a race,’ because someone would miss out on the podium.

Quinn [Simmons, eventual second place finisher] passed me, and I was like, ciao man. He didn’t even look like he was in the same race. I’d caught the Colombian, so I was sitting in fifth, and I was thinking ‘Oh man, I’m gonna get on the mountain bike podium.’ And then I thought if Quinn caught me, for sure Todd Wells is gonna be right behind me. Your heroes are always so big in your head. And so the ghost of Todd Wells chased me all the way to the line [Wells finished in eighth, two minutes behind Alex].

Over the next 15km the three of us came together and we just had a classic road finish. There was no one coming from behind so we were just foxing, knowing it would be a sprint. I had no idea who the young 18 year old kid who took second was, but just by the look of him I thought, this guy’s quick. He’d come back through the group so he obviously had good legs late in the race, and I knew I’d have a hard time beating him. But I know Pete Stetina pretty well and I was pretty sure I could get him in the sprint. That was my play: just make sure I beat Pete. [laughs]. As soon as the young guy launched his sprint, I just followed Pete and made him chase. I latched onto his wheel and rolled him with 50 metres to go for third.

I was pretty pumped to go one better than last time [Alex finished sixth in 2016]. We got to really shred some downhills. It was super fun getting to watch Lachlan be the eagle that he is. Rolling into Leadville, I was pretty happy.

I had a great day. It was fun. I thought I was going to be hanging on for dear life in the technical sections and enjoying the smoother, road sections, but I actually just enjoyed smashing around on a mountain bike. I really enjoyed pretending to be a mountain biker for the day.

The only thing I’m not happy about Leadville is that we’re going to pile into a van tomorrow and drive eight hours to Utah, before starting the Tour of Utah on Monday. I was sitting in the car driving down the hill today and thinking about how much my butt hurt, and how much more it’s going to hurt sitting in the car all day tomorrow.

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