Ten minutes before nine o’clock, nearly 300 racers lined up for the final race in the Leadville Qualifier Series, the Alpine Odyssey held in Crested Butte, Colorado.
But unlike the other qualifiers, this one was mired on controversy when it was announced earlier in the week that Lance Armstrong, recently given a lifetime ban by USADA, was intending to race in the unsanctioned race.
Whether the presence of one of most controversial cyclists was intended as a publicity stunt, or whether it increased registration for the race or not, his presence seemed a moot point for the majority of the 300 people in the corral who were far more concerned about tackling the 62 mile course with 8,800 feet of climbing than the last-minute presence of Armstrong on the front line.
With the traditional shotgun blast, racers rolled out behind a neutral start vehicle from the shadow of Mt. Crested Butte. Once racers were escorted onto Slate River road, the vehicle pulled off and the hounds were released.
With a relatively flat first five miles, a large group stayed together but once the road turned upwards at the old mining town of Pittsburg, all eyes were on Armstrong to repeat his dominating performance from 2011. But it was not to be as the lead group was quickly whittled down to Cameron Chambers, Greg Krause, John Gaston, and Brian Smith with Armstrong trailing behind.
As the riders made their way up the switchbacks of the aptly named Slate D’Huez to Paradise Divide, Chambers, unlike most racers who geared their bikes with the steep climbs in mind, opted to run a 1 x 10 drivetrain with a 38 tooth front chainring, opened up a two minute gap on the three chasers by the top. Armstrong rolled through two minutes later.
With a long descent, the four leaders regrouped heading through the second aid station at the base of Mt. Crested Butte and Smith and Chambers started the second climb together before an untimely flat delayed Smith.
“I thought we’d be one and two for the day,” said Smith, recounting his flat tire that ultimately saw him being passed by Krause and Gaston. With a 50-second lead at the top of Paradise Divide over his closest competitors, Chambers didn’t let up and posted the fasted final leg time descending from Paradise Divide, riding into Mt. Crested Butte, and then climbing over the mountain on the singletrack portion of the course to set a new course record of 3:58:58.
Krause finished three and a half minutes later with Gaston close behind. Smith, and Armstrong rounded out the top five with Smith saying that Armstrong “was having a rough day. A lot of cramping.”
On the women’s side, Amy Beisel rode to her first professional victory. Clearly in shock and emotional over the victory, Beisel said that her race strategy was simple, “I just rode my bike as best as I could and won. I’m shocked.”
In the end, the much hyped battle between Armstrong and 16-year-old Keegan Swirbul, who’d beaten him at a mountain bike race in Aspen earlier in the year came to nothing as Swirbul failed to start the race and Armstrong never challenged for the win.
While Chambers stole the spotlight in this year’s Alpine Odyssey, the hype and publicity surrounding the participation of Armstrong has been a catalyst for discussion of the participation of riders serving bans in unsanctioned races.
The Leadville Race Series says that Armstrong was given no special treatment, stating, “From the Leadville Race Series perspective, Lance—just like any other participant who registers for one of our events—is welcome at any time. You see, our organization is passionate about promoting cycling and hosting great events to further the sport.
“Is this event sanctioned? No. Many of our Leadville Race Series events are not. In fact, this is true across our athletic events portfolio. No special treatment or consideration was given here. It’s going to be a beautiful day in Crested Butte with hundreds of racers. One just happens to favor yellow.”