All eyes will be on the handful of WorldTour riders set to trade in skinny tires for a mountain bike Saturday morning at the start line of the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race. If they are to find glory and bring home a belt buckle at the end of their ride, they will have to contend with a strong contingent of Durango’s cycling royalty.
With EF Education First road cycling stars Alex Howes, Lachlan Morton and Taylor Phinney all at the start line along with Trek-Segafredo’s Peter Stetina and Ted King of Cannondale-Garmin, this year’s roughly 104-mile high-altitude race has plenty of star power.
They will contend with the likes of two-time defending champion Howard Grotts, likely in his final race for Specialized Racing, and three-time winner Todd Wells. The two Durangoans have won the last three Leadville 100 races and are the only Americans to win the event since road star Levi Leipheimer won in 2010 on the heels of Lance Armstrong’s 2009 victory.
“We are so fortunate here in Durango to have an event like Leadville,” said Wells, who retired from full-time pro mountain biking two years ago after a career that saw him win double-digit national championships and race in three Olympics. “It’s a really global event, and it attracts people, and we have it only four or five hours up the road. Whenever it’s soft on international mountain bikers one year, then that year is full of international and domestic road guys like this year.”
Throw in two-time marathon mountain bike champion and Leadville 100 veteran Payson McElveen and rising road star Quinn Simmons, still only a teenager, and the men’s field is stacked with Durango talent. And the man McElveen and Wells both expect to be right at the front of the race setting the pace on the grueling climbs of Columbine and Powerline is Grotts, even after the 2016 Olympian took off most of the spring and summer. He showed no signs of race rust or lack of form two weeks ago in Winter Park, where he finished second in the men’s cross-country national championship to Keegan Swenson in a final-lap battle to relinquish the title after four years of dominance. After nationals, Grotts rode his bike back to Durango from Winter Park.
“If you would have asked me before he raced at XC nationals, I’d say probably not. After what I saw at nationals, I’d say absolutely, yes, Howard is the favorite,” said McElveen, Grotts’ roommate in Durango. “He’s been riding a lot and a good amount of volume, and that carries over really well to high-country racing. He showed he absolutely has the fitness right now, and at Leadville, I’d expect him to be at least as fast as in years past. The fact he hasn’t raced hardly at all, he’s a lot fresher mentally and physically.
“Howard is one of the most quietly prideful guys I know. He takes a lot of pride any time he does something, and he wants to be proud of his work, whatever it looks like. He’s not in your face about it, but he’s one of the most competitive people I know. If he’s on the start line, then he means to be there.”
On the women’s side, Sarah Sturm is set to make her Leadville debut, and the Specialized rider is no stranger to long distances and will have plenty of intel to lean on before she contends with Montana’s Rose Grant and 2019 Land Run 100 gravel race winner and this year’s Leadville Stage Race champion Nina Laughlin, a former road racer from North Carolina.
Sturm is only a week removed from the Downieville Classic in California, where she raced cross-country and downhill. This year, she has bagged wins on pavement at the Sea Otter Classic’s road criterium and Iron Horse Bicycle Classic road race as well as on dirt at the 133-mile Belgian Waffle Ride. Shaking off a mid-season shoulder injury, she is going into Leadville with her usual laid-back approach.
“I found out I was going to race Leadville like three weeks ago, and I’m pretty excited about it,” she said. “I know I’m fit, and I think the shorter notice kind of helps me. I haven’t had the whole summer to stress out and try to peak for one race.”
Sturm will have knowledge from her boyfriend and mechanic, Dylan Stucki, who has raced Leadville before. She can also lean on Specialized teammates such as Grotts. Still, she’s trying not to think too much about it. She will race the new Specialized Epic Hardtail with an ultra-light setup. The cyclocross singlespeed national champion said it will be her first time racing a hardtail mountain bike since the Telluride 100 a few years ago.
“All I have to do is suffer at Leadville, and that’s pretty straightforward,” she said. “Leadville is a bucket-list thing. I have just enough info, and I just know it’s going to hurt. It’s an out-and-back, but that can be deceiving. When you’re climbing up on the way out, you don’t realize how much descending you do. When you flip around and come back, there’s still a fair amount of climbing. I’m prepared to suffer for seven to nine hours.”
Fastest ever?McElveen, who has finished third each of the last two years, has been in Leadville all week and has had a chance to get out on the course. The recent rain has actually helped conditions, but he said more rain Saturday morning could slow down a race he went into expecting to be one of the fastest ever.
The record is 5 hours, 58 minutes, 35 seconds, set in 2015 by Austrian mountain biker Alban Lakata. Grotts won the 2017 race in 6:15:00, and last year he won in 6:18:08 in a race McElveen called slow.
The women’s record also was set in 2015 by Denmark’s Annika Langvad in 6:59:24, as she is the only woman to have broken seven hours.
The only rider in this year’s field to flirt with a sub-6-hour finish is Jeremiah Bishop of Virginia, as he finished fourth in 2015 in 6:01:01.
McElveen believes this could be a year to rival 2015, though he’s not sure it will be because of WorldTour riders such as reigning road national champion Howes or even men’s 2019 Belgian Waffle Ride winner Stetina.
“The EF guys are probably going to be more in the camp of playing it tactically, but I could see someone like (Simmons) being excited at a moment and going hard from the get-go and changing the race dynamics early,” McElveen said. “I’ve been telling people I think it will be the fastest edition ever seen. If it keeps raining, though, it could be kind of wet and less fast. We will have to see. If it doesn’t rain anymore, I think it’s going to be wicked fast.”
‘Knowing how to race it’King, Howes and Morton all have raced previously, but Stetina is a Leadville rookie despite growing up in Boulder. Wells said experience is key.
“Everyone asks about the great road guys coming and if I expect them to just crush it. The only road guy who ever won it on the first try is Leipheimer the year after he won a stage at the Tour de France,” Wells said, referencing Leipheimer’s 2010 win days before he went on to a winning ride at the Tour of Utah. “Lance (Armstrong) tried to do it, and he got beat by (six-time champion) Dave Wiems. Floyd Landis tried, and he got beat by Wiems. Joe Dombrowski tried it a couple years ago, and I ended up winning that year.
“There’s something to be said about having experienced it before and knowing how to race it.”
Wells won the Telluride 100 this year on a course with 12,725 feet of climbing and a maximum elevation of 11,182 feet. Leadville offers an estimated 11,000 feet of climbing with a high elevation of 12,424 feet at the top of the Columbine climb that completes a 3,000-foot ascent in 10 miles. But Telluride is a more technical course, and Leadville offers plenty of opportunities to pass, as it is held entirely on roads. That could help Simmons, who hasn’t been on a mountain bike since he swiped the White Rim 100 fastest known time away from McElveen this spring.
Simmons has been busy on the road all season, with wins at the Junior Gent-Wevelgem in Belgium to go with a stage win at the Redlands Bicycle Classic, and Junior Three Days of Axel as well as the junior men’s time trial and criterium national championships. Admittedly not the strongest of climbers, the Specialized rider will try to hang with Grotts and company as long as he can. He committed to Leadville only two weeks before race day and is excited to hop on his new Epic Hardtail.
“It’s last minute, and a lot of my training has still been focused toward road world championships,” the 18-year-old said. “I’ve had one long ride on the mountain bike, but I’m feeling good. From what I hear, it’s not super technical, so that makes it better for guys like myself. It comes down to fitness and who rides the smartest race. With WorldTour guys and everyone from Durango, it should be a fun race. There’s enough fast guys this year that I think it will be a more tactical race than the typical mountain bike race that’s blown apart after the first couple of climbs.
“Obviously, I’m going to be spending a lot of time suffering on the climbs to hang with a guy like (Grotts), but at the end it should be a lot of fun.”
HHHWhile fans may have their eyes fixed on the WorldTour riders, it’s clear the Leadville veterans will have their eyes set on Grotts.
“Howie is my favorite,” Wells said. “Even though he’s had a soft summer, he’s trained a lot. Everyone in this is a racer, regardless of where you end up, you’re going to give it your all, and Howie is no different. He took it easy this summer, but you don’t end up in second place at nationals by less than a minute without doing training and having big motivation. Any time you put the number on, you’re racing. For me, he’s the guy I’m expecting to see be up there.”