The Lead boat challenge in Colorado was the toughest two days of racing I’ve ever done back to back. Racing 168 km at 10,000ft + on Saturday at the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race is enough to send the system into shock. Toss in a 2.5 hr drive, bike maintenance, a 3 hr sleep, then lining up for the SteamBoat Gravel 228 km in Steamboat Springs the next morning against a bunch of fresh roadie legs and you have a ticket to really cratering yourself!
The two races were on the radar back in May, but unable to get an entry to Leadville, the idea was put on the back burner as efforts were focused towards a 2x Everesting World record attempt. The Everesting attempt went well for a while, hitting the first Everesting at 10 hrs, 28 minutes, possibly the 2nd fastest known mountain bike Everest ever, but heavy smoke and an upset stomach ended the attempt at hour 14. 1 week after this, and 1 week before Leadville, a race entry to Leadville 100 became available. It wasn’t ideal to have just 1 week to prep for this doubleheader but I jumped on it anyways and was soon on a jet plane south to Colorado!
With one race being on a mountain bike and the other one on a gravel bike it was going to be a logistical challenge to get two bikes down there from Canada, especially since I would be flying with United who charges an arm and a leg to fly with each bike. Thus I opted to take just one bike, my Kona Libre gravel rig.
Having raced Leadville in 2015 on my full suspension ( Kona Hei Hei), I knew the course was mostly rideable on a gravel bike. I would have to do some modifications and run a FOX RAD fork with a 2.25 Maxxis Aspen mtb tire on the front and a Maxxis Rambler 50 C with Cushcore protection in the rear. For Sunday’s smooth gravel race the suspension would be exchanged for a ridged carbon fork and some smooth rolling Maxxis Velocita 40 c tires would be swapped in. I was actually expecting more of the heavy hitters to be running gravel bikes at Leadville but to my surprise, I was the only one near the front of the race on one.
Race Day # 1. Leadville is a very cool city located at 10,200 ft whose economy used to be based on mining before that was shut down. Now the economy depends highly on races like the Leadville 100 to bring money into town with its 1500-2000 racers, plus all the supporting staff.
Leadville 100 started out great waking up in a bed on the start line at Mitch’s house as my buddy Tyler Andrews from Chaski coaching, offered his bed for the night when he heard I was planning on camping out. I’ve had some of my best races the night after camping, but also some tough ones as it can be a gamble how it will play out. All it takes is some partiers, a set of train tracks or late-night rednecks to throw a wrench in the plans. Feeling fresh and with the bike dialed in, I knew it was going to be a good day!
Going over the first climb to Turquoise lake the 1600 rider field was whittled down to 20-30 riders. Heading into the paved descent I figured I’d go into a super tuck on the gravel bike and soon found myself with a 20-second gap on the field. With the Sugarloaf climb next, I opted to soft-pedal till the group came back, which in hindsight was a bit of a mistake as towards the top of the Sugarloaf climb I would end up losing a few seconds due to the rough nature of the surface, making it tough to put sustained power down with the gravel bike as a few riders upped the tempo.
Eventually, I would go over the top with World tour roadie pro Eddie Anderson and figured we could work together after the rough Powerline descent to get back to the front of the race. Unfortunately, I soon found out Eddie is an insanely talented mountain biker, and there was no way I could hold his wheel down the rutted-out, rocky descent as he bombed it on his full suspension. This part of the course I had practiced a few times and felt good on it, and even passed a few riders on the way down, but in reality, my gravel bike was no match for chasing America’s top mountain bikers on their full suspensions. A lead group of 11 got away, and a group of 3 of us would chase from behind for the next 1.5 hours to the base of the Columbine climb, actually closing the gap from 2.5 minutes to 1.5 as the lead group seemed to be saving themselves for the big climb up to 12,500 ft.
Apart from burning matches trying to get back to the lead group, the race was going great grabbing bottles from Leland and Tyler in the feed zones as the body was firing well. The Libre was rolling great along the flat road part of the course and the Infinit nutrition I was trying thanks to my buddy Josh Tostado was working well. Josh also gave me an 11 spd XTR rear cassette before the race so I would have the gearing needed on the steep climbs. What a true brother he is. We have battled each other so hard at 24 HR World Championships over the years yet it has brought us closer together. These relationships are what I value the most and will be taking with me when I retire from bike racing!
Heading up Columbine I’d drop my two chase partners and picked off USA National Road Champion Alex Howells towards the top, as he was having an obviously tough day. At the turnaround point, I was in 12th with 7th not too far up based on the out and back course which allowed us to see all the riders in the race. The top of Columbine was a bit rough on the gravel bike, with MTB pro-Ryan Petry catching my wheel near the top on the rocky descent. The bottom half of the descent I actually went faster this year than back in 2015 with my full suspension and managed to stick near Ryan’s wheel. Back onto the long flat section, I waited up a bit for Ryan, and we would work together to the base of the legendary Powerline climb. From the base of Columbine back to the finish I believe the Libre was an advantage, except for the small decent off Sugarloaf mountain, as it was rolling along amazingly well.
At the base of the crazy steep Powerline climb, Ryan would drop off as I surged to catch 1 rider on the relentless ascent, and soon had 10th place in sight. Getting to within 15 seconds of Alexey Vermeulen, was as close as I’d get before he caught another rider, Alex Wild, at the top of the climb. The two would work together to keep me at bay on the rougher descent. Heading back into Leadville and the slightly uphill 4 km finishing straight I could see these two guys about 1-1.5 minutes ahead. Putting in a good surge I closed the gap, but ran out of real estate, with them coming across the line 28 seconds ahead. A top 10 would’ve been great, but coming in at 6:41:54 was nearly twenty minutes faster than 2015 (when I had mechanicals), and in some years it would have been enough for a podium. This year the field was stacked, so 11th is what it equated to, although it did break Peter Glassfords decade-old Canadian record of 6:57 at the race which was a nice consolation prize. It will hopefully give future Canadians at the race something to gun for as well as motivation for others to give it a go on their gravel bikes as the bar is now set.
Overall I think running the gravel setup vs a full-suspension mountain bike was a pretty neutral decision at Leadville. The lighter more aerodynamic setup of the gravel bike along with the added hand positioning on the drop bars and the added water bottle holders are a plus. The two rough descents and some of the rocky climbs you lose a bit. My thought is that if a gravel biker could get over Sugarloaf mountain and still be in contact with the lead group that the advantage would be in his/her favor. As more gravel bikers enter the race it will also make it easier to get back to the lead group after any setbacks on the descents as you should have more strong riders to work with. If I come back next year I’m not sure what bike I will run. It would probably depend on what other races I planned on doing that trip, and I’d take whatever would make the logistics easier. I think you will see a gravel biker on the podium at Leadville in the coming years as these bikes have progressed to the point in which they can be very similar to riding hardtail Mtb but with a few small advantages.
The post-race atmosphere at Leadville is amazing as the whole community seems to come out to cheer the riders on. There wasn’t too much time to soak it in this year as I had to get my bike swapped over, eat some food, rest a bit, and then drive 2.5 hours North to Steamboat Springs for race #2 on the weekend. Leland looked after the bike swap over and maintenance, while I showered, shoveled some food in, grabbed a 20-minute nap then packed up to head out of town towards Steamboat Gravel.
Rolling into Steamboat at 7:30 pm I had some more work cut out as, unfortunately, I was unable to get any tires in time so they had to show up in Steamboat with my buddy Matt Lieto last minute. This meant trying to swap tubeless tires out without a compressor, in a parking lot with a floor pump. Luckily I had help from my friend Lauren, and by 9 pm the tires were swapped and my bike was ready for round two!
Having missed a proper dinner dealing with the tires, and now needing to find a random campsite for the night, things were starting to roll behind the eight ball. When Lauren found out my plan/no plan, she called Matt, and they generously offered a couch in their condo to crash on for the night. This saved a runaround and allowed some snacks to be stuffed into the mouth before crashing around 10:30 for a brief rest.
It was tough to fall asleep after the adrenaline surges from the day, but 3-4 hours of shut-eye were found before it was time to get up, stuff some breakfast down the hatch, and head out to get a race plate before the 6:30 am start. Pulling the bike out of the car I found one tire had leaked overnight. This took some time to fix, before finishing race preps, jamming race food in the pockets, then realizing I was a lot further out of town from the race start then I realized.
I probably set a KOM on the main street of Steamboat springs, sprinting down to the start line to hopefully track down my number plate. Arriving around 6:22, the registration table had been abandoned, and was left with a couple of bags full of number plates. Sorting through the plates I couldn’t find mine. At four minutes to go time was getting tight. Then at 2 minutes to go I thought “screw it”, without a plate and chip timing I can’t race. I picked someone else’s plate out of the bag, tied it on the handlebars, and then hopped the barriers as the race had started. I was probably 400-500 racers from the front but at least I was in the show with chip timing attached!
It was a sketchy rollout as the 1000 rider + group hit some drifty gravel with a few riders going down. I nearly ate it on one of the first corners, realizing the roadie tires I was running had little grip compared to the mountain bike ones from the day before. The first 1.5 hours of the race the body had all the dashboard lights flashing on, almost getting dropped a number of times, before having to pull over to fix my headset which had rattled loose. This set me back around a minute and required a tough effort to get back into the race, but it also helped wake the system up from its Leadville hangover.
The next hour or so was spent yo-yoing off the front group as there were a lot of surges, at one point requiring a 45-minute chase with a strong group to get back into the race. I probably should of sat on more, but was pretty involved in the chase helping some of the contenders like Ian Boswell and Laurens Ten Dam get back into the race. Around mid-race, I would eventually fall off the lead group around the 3rd feed zone. In my life, I can’t remember seeing such a circus at a feed zone. This race was set up so all three different race distances would converge at the feed zones at the same time. This meant when the lead group of 30-40 riders showed up, there were already 50 + riders there from the shorter distance races. What a gong-show, if you were polite you would for sure get dropped, so we did our best to refill our bottles as fast as possible while not causing any fights with the other riders who were often just lounging around. With big prize money for the top five, and a lot of prestige on the table, it was tough to stay relaxed in these settings. The chase after this feed lasted nearly an hour before the lead group slowly drifted out of sight.
What a hectic start to the race, the next few hours were a bit depressing being in no man’s land but we had a small group of 3 riders and did our best to keep trucking towards the finish line. The body was off and on all day, before coming fully online the last hour in which I felt amazing and would catch 10+ riders to eventually roll in a decent 21st on the day. Steamboat gravel was a lot more roadie than I imagined. Some more hard punchy efforts in training would be required to keep up to the front of the race next year. Overall I was content with the day and happy I was able to battle through some adversity as there were times the motivation and energy levels were definitely low.
Overall I’d end up 6th in the Leadboat challenge behind some big hitters. Considering I was the only one to do both races on the same bike and that many of the other pros had full support throughout the weekend I’m happy with this result. I too ended up having great support from old and new friends, and theirs definitely a lot of room for improvement to make the transition between the two races go a little smoother. It would be great to take the experience from this year and come back stronger in 2022 for another shot!
Post-race I needed a break from rushing around, so spent another night in Steamboat with Matt Lieto. We had a nice easy cruise Monday morning on some of the area’s amazing gravel roads. Monday afternoon it was back to Breckenridge where a few nights would be spent high up in the mountains camping, with a bit of downtime mixed in with my friends from Nepal, Jim, Tyler, and Shailee.
Thinking the mayhem was done for this trip I was dead wrong as the Covid Hoola hoops to jump through to get back to Canada nailed me this time. Breckenridge is a very touristy town, so I figured it would be reasonable to think a person could get a Covid test within the required 72 hours of a flight. Unless you said you had symptoms, just 1 place offered tests in the area and the hours were from 8am-6pm daily. I was lined up Monday evening to get the test, but to make it valid so it was within 72 hours of arriving in Canada I couldn’t take it till 6:15 pm, 15 minutes after closing. Thus I had to come back Tuesday.
The turnaround time was 24-48 hours so it still should work. Heading to Denver Wednesday, before my Thursday afternoon flight I still had no result but had a plan B just in case. United Airlines sent a pre-flight email stating NO Covid test was required for the flight with them from Denver to San Francisco, but from San Francisco to Canada via Air Canada, I would need a test result to cross the border. Perfect I thought. If for some reason the test didn’t come back by Thursday afternoon, I could still get to San Francisco, and by then it should show up in time for my flight to Canada. Worst case if it didn’t arrive, SFO airport offered Rapid Covid tests for $250 USD which I could do during the three-hour layover and would produce a result within 15-30 minutes.
Arriving early for my flight in Denver, United Airlines denied my boarding saying I needed a Covid negative result to fly domestically. I showed them the email they sent stating I didn’t need one, but they were confused with the situation and starting googling the current regulations and decided they had their own secret rules. Eventually, they said don’t worry we will put you on another flight later. For a long time, you haven’t needed a covid test to fly domestically in the USA.
Unfortunately, a lot of travelers are headed to Canada right now so they couldn’t find another flight, they said too bad, you missed your flight, and since it was on Air Canada points you are out of luck. They gave me a number to call which kept disconnecting so I was left sitting at Denver airport with all my luggage twiddling my thumbs.
Looking at Plan B I found a 150-mile gravel race in Nebraska to do called Gravel Worlds. Having returned the rental car, my buddy Tyler thankfully picked me up and we headed back to his place to drink some gluten-free Holidaily beers and figure out if we were headed to Nebraska or not. Calling Air Canada, they were amazing and apologized for the actions which took place by their codeshare partner and offered a direct flight back to Canada in the morning. My head was already into going to Nebraska to race, but to give up the comp’d direct flight, and then have to book another one at $800-$1400, and redo a Covid test, it seemed pretty obvious I shouldn’t pass up Air Canada’s generosity. Besides I was already signed up for TransRockies Gravel Royale and had been looking forward to showing up fresh for this race and racing Gravel Worlds two days before would’ve made this tough.
Arriving two hours before the flight Friday morning, check-in went smoothly then I went to the security line which was probably 2-3 hours long as it wound like a snake for probably a mile through the Denver airport. It took 5-7 minutes of fast walking just to find the end of it. Denver has always had big security lineups but this was like nothing I’d ever seen anywhere before as it had merging lanes, pinch points, and mass confusion. Even flying out of New Delhi, India was smoother than this gong show. There was no way I would make my flight but there was also no way I was going to miss my flight for the second day in a row. Luckily I had some help from a Mexican security guard, and then ran like the airport was on fire, getting to the boarding gate just as it closed. 2.5 hours later I was landing in Canada, grabbed my van from the airport parking, and headed to Canmore to crash at my buddy Heath’s place to prepare for TransRockies.
With TransRockies Gravel Royale kicking off on Monday in Invermere, there was still time to show up in good time and have a great week camping and racing through the Rocky mountains! TransRockies has supported its young Canadian athletes for a very long time and was a key factor in launching my pro career nearly a decade ago. It’s going to be awesome to race on home turf after all that has occurred over the past couple of years!
PS: 2 hours after arriving at my buddy Heath’s place in Canmore Friday night, TransRockies would have to cancel their race due to being blindsided by new Covid Regulations by the government. This doesn’t seem right to ban an outdoor sporting event in the backwoods of BC, which required all participants to either be vaccinated or show a Covid negative test, while at the same time it is still ok to go to a packed bar, with a bunch of anti-vaxxers, drinking beer 1 ft apart. For the government to do this just two days before the event, left a lot of people hanging, especially the organizers whose livelihoods depend on putting on these logistically challenging and expensive events.
It’s time we start to get control of things as a society as right now the rules and regulations are starting to not make sense anymore. It’s becoming more politically and economically influenced than based on science and common sense. Covid is real, and it is here to stay, but we need to start finding ways to minimize the risks and then get on with living.