Altitude alone would make this ride a challenge, but the course itself adds even more.
Each summer Leadville, Colorado, a city rich with mining and Wild West history, is host to a number of challenging endurance events. Endurance events are a challenge in and of themselves; but once you add altitude to the equation, the ante is increased. The town of Leadville sits at a crisp 10,152 feet above sea level.
One of the events, the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race, is so popular that racers enter a lottery in January to secure one of the 750 available starting line spots for the August race. Riders are looking for a start at a ride where the entire event is at elevations above 9,200 feet, with the highest point at the famed Columbine Mine aid station at 12,600 feet.
For some, it's the challenge of riding a mountain bike 100 miles at altitude that attracts them to send in the entry fee. For others, it's that in any given January, fitness goals are promised after a plentiful holiday. No matter the promises made in January, most riders find simply getting to the start line on race day challenge enough. Of course, once at the start line, the big challenge is to finish.
Of the 750 entrants, about 600 made it to the start line at 6:30 am on race morning, August 13, 2005. Of those 600 riders, only 471 would be "official" finishers. The cut-off time to be an "official finisher" for Leadville is 12 hours. If a rider's finish time is between 12 and 13 hours, he or she is awarded a finisher's medal signifying completion of the distance; but not within the cut-off time.
Riders expected to finish over 13 hours are helped off the course for their own personal safety and for the safety of all the volunteers that have spent long hours on the course.
For all finishers under the 12-hour mark, riders receive a shiny silver belt buckle, women get a pendant in addition to the buckle, and there is a sweatshirt with the rider's name and finish time on the sleeve. (Yes, people stay up all night doing printing operations so the shirts can be handed out at the awards ceremony the next morning.)
Riders under the nine-hour mark receive the coveted gold and silver belt buckle, "La Plata Grande," to signify the accomplishment of this challenge. Category winners receive a mining pan filled with goodies. For the last finisher under the 12-hour mark, a small statuette of the hind end of mule is awarded. The trophy says, "Leadville Trail 100 Bike Race, LAST ASS UP THE PASS."
What is it that causes roughly 37 percent of the entrants to miss their goal of finishing under 12 hours? Certainly the altitude is one challenge; but this challenge doesn't stop entrants from 37 states and five countries from giving the event a shot. Athletes come from coastal areas, living at sea level. Many of the racers coming from altitude-challenged states do just fine, finishing well within the 12-hour mark. Living high is no guarantee, as some racers that live and train at altitude don't finish.
Altitude is one challenge and certainly the course itself can keep riders from reaching the finish line. It's essentially an out-and-back course, with only the last few miles to the finish that are different than the start. There are five areas of the course that seem to cause the most problems.
First is the downhill start on pavement. Riders too eager to score the best spot in the peloton, vying for a key position when the road turns to dirt, make silly mistakes and take themselves or other riders out within minutes of the 38-degree Fahrenheit, 6:30 am start.