LEADVILLE, Colo. (VN) — Saturday, this rutted mess will be a battleground. First as a descent, ripping sidewalls and forcing crashes, then as the second-to-last climb in the Leadville Trail 100 MTB, the final monster standing between contenders and those struggling to finish.
But on Friday, it was largely empty, as the thick clouds swallowed central Colorado’s Sawatch Mountains, and rain began to fall. A few riders were out tasting one of the race’s significant hurdles.
It’s called Powerline because the old jeep road runs directly under an old power line. But the thing about those old lines is that they just go straight up, like the climb itself — 3.4 miles, with a 7.3 percent average grade and 1,300 feet of elevation gain, 80 miles into the race. The best times for the ascent will be a shade under 30 minutes. Some will need more than an hour, walking the entire section.
This is the binary of Leadville: Pros demolishing the course and themselves, going twice as fast as those hoping to simply scrawl a finishing achievement across the Colorado sky.
Melina Bernecker, a pro road racer, cut an imposing figure halfway up the climb, surveying the damage to come. She’s a pro road racer, with Primal Pro Women’s Racing, based out of Denver, but hasn’t raced mountain bikes much. She bought a mountain bike a week ago.
Asked what her hopes were for the climb, and the race itself, she was frank. “This is my fourth time on a mountain bike. I bought it a week ago. I am absolutely terrified, and I’m hoping to make it alive, let alone to the finish,” she said.
And with that, it began to rain. Riders came now at a trickle, too, up the loose red dirt road.
Victor Ayala, from Mexico, rode up the climb, asking for a photo on one of Colorado’s infamous pitches. His goals are concrete for one of the nation’s hardest mountain bike races.
“I wanna get the big [belt] buckle. That’s my main goal,” he said. “I just know I’ve got to go under nine [hours]. That’s my goal.
“This was on my bucket list. I’m a roadie. I’ve been racing since I was 13 years old, but on the road. So, practicing on the mountain bike for a while. And they say this is one of the hardest. So I want to do it, and get a good memory doing it.”
Asked his impressions of Powerline, where the race can surely be decided, he was cautiously optimistic.
“I don’t think it’s that bad. But maybe that’s because we did it fresh, not with 80 miles on,” he said.
“I think people tend to exaggerate when they tell their stories. It’s not easy. … I guess we’ll see tomorrow. It’s going to be hard with 80 miles on, but I don’t think it’s over the moon, right? I just want to get the buckle. Big buckle. That’s my goal.”
The rain picked up, and the remaining riders scurried from the mountains, faster than they’d come. Back in town at the bike shop, riders milled in and out, picking up last-minute things. Gels, adaptations for bikes, more gear for what promised to be a cold Leadville, with temps projected to be at freezing come the opening shotgun blast.
Kimo Seymour, vice president of Life Time Athletic Events, which owns the Leadville series, has raced the event six times and will suit up for a seventh on Saturday.
“I’m hoping to actually just have an enjoyable ride with a bunch of friends tomorrow. I’m going to take it a little bit easier than I have in the past, and maybe try to help a couple guys get under nine hours,” he said.
Asked which part of the course he most loathed, sure enough, it was Powerline.
“I’ll tell you. Probably the toughest part of that whole ride is Powerline on the way back. It’s 80 miles in. Legs are tired. Whole body’s tired. It’s a wicked climb,” he said.
“A lot of years, not like this year, but a lot of years it’s hot, sun beating down on your back. And it just seems like it goes on forever,” he said. “There’s five or six humps you get over, and every time you get over one, you see another one. And another one. And it’s just like five or six false summits. Mentally, that’s the hardest part of the course for me.”