Less than two weeks after dislocating his right shoulder, Howard Grotts dug as deep as he could to win one of the year’s most iconic marathon mountain bike races.
The 24-year-old Durangoan claimed the Leadville Traill 100 MTB race in 6 hours, 15 minutes, 54 seconds to win the famed event for the first time in his young career.
“There is a lot of suffering to go through in that race,” Grotts said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “It was nice to pull it off in the end. I think I was underestimating a little bit how hard it would be.”
Grotts was involved in a high-speed crash on the Colorado Trail a little more than a week before the race. He chose to ride a full-suspension bike to take some pressure off his injured shoulder while most other riders selected hard-tail bikes with no rear suspension.
“I would definitely in the future ride a hard tail and save energy on the climbs,” Grotts said. “I had no previous issues with this shoulder, but I know the drill. When it stays in place it’s not bad. It’s just the initial shock to the body to overcome the ligament damage. It was nice to sit down some more with the full suspension.”
Grotts’ performance headlined a banner day for Durangoans. Three-time Leadville 100 winner and defending champion Todd Wells finished second in 6:18:24, his second-fastest career time in the race. Wells rode with Grotts much of the day before Grotts’ final push to the finish. Wells’ time was faster than two of his previous winning times.
“This season has been one of my most challenging,” Wells said in a phone interview with The Herald. “I’m more than happy with my ride today. I didn’t have the best buildup for the race and got sick and couldn’t ride for a bit. I was really happy with how it went all things considered.”
Payson McElveen, a Durangoan by way of Austin, Texas, finished third Saturday in a race he marked as a big goal all season. McElveen overcame an early flat tire and crossed the line in 6:36:08.
McElveen, who two weeks earlier won the Leadville Stage Race, said his punctured tire coincided with Grotts taking a “nature break,” and the two worked together to bridge the gap back to Wells.
“He and I ended up chasing incredibly hard all the way from the beginning of Pipeline to Twin Lakes,” McElveen said in a post to Instagram. “There was a third rider with us, but he wasn’t willing to do any work. Once we got to the bottom of Columbine, I was pretty trashed.
“Credit where it is due, Howard was head and shoulders above us today and able to absorb that effort and go on for the win and barely beat Todd. Kudos to him. I’m happy to end up third.”
Grotts said the timing of his nature break wasn’t wise, as it came during a long stretch of flat terrain, allowing Wells and two others to build a big lead.
“We had to chase for such a long time,” Grotts said. “The gap was hard to close down, and it was a bigger effort than either of us expected.”
The Leadville 100, which officially began in 1994, begins at 10,152 feet and climbs to 12,424 feet. It is an out-and-back course. There is a 3,000-foot climb up the Columbine mine for the final 10 miles of the out, with another solid climb at Powerline near the 80th mile. The race features an estimated 11,000 feet of climbing. There are five aid stations along the route and 2,000 cyclists who can gain entry via qualifying races or a lottery. Thousands of supporters and spectators fill the streets of the small mining town each summer for the event.
“I can unequivocally say the Leadville 100 is the hardest race I’ve ever done,” McElveen said. “I haven’t hurt so much in so many places in my life. Those last two hours, miserable.”
Wells, who won the race in 2011, 2014 and 2016, said the group started with four riders on the start of Columbine and was down to three halfway up the big climb and quickly whittled down to two. Wells and Grotts separated themselves on the final portion of the climb and rode together for roughly 25 miles back to the Powerline climb.
“I thought it was best to stay with people on the flats and then back to the base of Powerline,” Grotts said. “From there it’s climb, descent, climb, descent. Todd would gain time in the descents, but then there is not much the last three miles with the last bit up the boulevard to the finish. It’s uphill and hits when you’re just empty. You want it to be mellow, but it’s a death march.”
Wells, 41, was happy to see the all-Durango podium alongside two 24-year-olds.
“It speaks volumes to the community,” Wells said. “Durango has a big cycling heritage, and it’s cool to see is still has that.”
Christopher Jones of Oregon was fourth in 6:55:19, and Jamey Yanik of Idaho finished fifth in 6:56:21.
California’s Larissa Connors won the women’s race in 7:31:51. Andrea Dvorak of Charlottesville, Virginia, was second in 7:58:18. She finished ahead of third-place Anne Perry of Utah, who crossed in 8:18:53.
Durango’s Benjamin Sonntag was at the start line in Leadville after a summer spent rehabilitating a broken shoulder. But he was involved in what many riders called a senseless crash when another rider made contact with his handlebars in a pace line. He said the scapula probably was not re-broken, but he will not be able to race again soon.
“That’s brutal to deal with,” Grotts said of Sonntag’s injury. “We all deal with injuries, but he’s had a particularly rough season. All hopes he gets back to racing because it’s a lot of fun to race with him.”
Many elite professionals, including Grotts, McElveen and Wells, had the tough task of waking up Sunday to the start line of the Breck Epic stage race in Breckenridge. It is a six-stage event featuring lots of single-track at high altitude.
Wells won the opening stage followed by Virginia’s Jeremiah Bishop, who did not race the Leadville 100. Grotts was third and McElveen placed seventh.
“I felt surprisingly good,” Grotts said after the first stage. “I’m climbing pretty well.”