TELLURIDE, Colo. (VN) — They are the empty miles across the sky that riders return to for years to come, for better and for worse.
They are the miles of the dirt roads and ruts of the Leadville Trail 100 MTB, an audacious mission across the Colorado timberline that asks riders — pros and recreational alike — to cover 103 miles and more than 12,000 feet of elevation gain.
Leadville, as it’s popularly known, is one of mountain bike racing’s paragons, an idea that began as a way to revitalize a boom-turned-bust mining economy in a lonely Colorado town that has turned into, simply, Leadville. This is its 20th running.
VeloNews caught up with race director Josh Colley in the days before Saturday’s high-mountain showdown. He’s lived in Leadville since 2000, raced the bike event twice, and has been the race director since 2010. Here’s what he had to say.
VeloNews: How’d the initial trail-running race come to be?
Josh Colley: [Race co-founder Ken Chlouber] thought of this idea to try to bring people to Leadville after the mines closed, and there was just nothing going on. They wanted to figure out a way to get people up here and spend the night … so, they thought, the longer the race, the more time they’re going to spend in town.
VN: What have you seen change over time?
JC: You know, it’s not only gotten bigger, and that means it’s gotten faster, but it’s also gotten a little bit slower, too, because when you grow the race, it means faster people are coming to town, but it also means slower people, who are going to struggle, are coming to town, too. Both ends of the field have kind of grown. And that’s good, because that means we’re getting some pros, but we’re also getting a lot of new cyclists, and beginners who are trying to come out and accomplish something they’ve never tried to do before. We love them all here. We’re not just about pros. We want everybody to finish, and we want everybody to feel special.
VN: Leadville occupies this sacred space in endurance sports. What makes it so special?
JC: First and foremost, it’s just Leadville. Something about this town, this valley. The headwaters of the Arkansas [River]. The Continental Divide. You’ve got everything right here. And when you mix in elevation, and climate, and our course, it’s just something that people want to come do. When you get to the turnaround at Columbine and you just see miles and miles of mountain ranges in every direction — it’s just something you’ll never forget. Some people come up to challenge themselves and try to get the best time possible. And that’s great. But a lot of people are just here to finish something they never thought they could do. And besides that, I think just a lot of history. This town — you come from anywhere else in the world, you start looking around this town — and Telluride, a lot of towns in Colorado are the same way, you can just feel the history and the grit to it, and how tough people were back in the mining days.
VN: Are you happy with the state of the race? Do you think it’s gotten too big?
JC: A lot of things have changed with the turnover to Life Time [Fitness]. Obviously, the race has changed and gotten bigger. The production level has changed with that. There’s more branding on course, which means we have more control over our aid stations, and what we’re getting out at the aid stations … we’ve just stepped it up even more now. You can do this race completely self-supported. You don’t need a crew to come. You could run through this thing on the aid station supplies and you’re good to go. When it comes to the crowds, that’s just part of it. I think some people really like having that aspect. You’re never alone out there. There’s somebody pushing you the whole way and they’re trying to get you to the finish just like you’re trying to get the next guy to the finish with you.
VN: All one hears is how hard Leadville is. Is it really that hard?
JC: You’re putting me on the spot now. It is. Even for someone who’s done it a couple years. Even for these guys who’ve done it 20 years. I mean there’s still that amount of not knowing what’s going to happen in 8-12 hours. It could be one thing. It could be one bolt that breaks on your bike; it can be one spoke — something as simple as that and your days is done. All this planning you’ve done, bringing your family out, making all the arrangements to stay here. And all the sudden, at any moment you could be out of the race. So I think for a lot of people that’s always in the back of their minds. I’m almost done, but at any minute, I could be walking this bike.
Check back to VeloNews.com over the coming days for more coverage from the Leadville Trail 100 MTB.