So you want to ride Leadville? Get in line. Since founding in 1994, the event has become one of the most popular mountain bike races in the country. So popular that a lottery determines who gets a slot. Or riders can win an entry based on their finishing time at five qualifier races. For eastern riders, the closest Leadville qualifier is the Wilmington-Whiteface 100K, held in the second week of June in the Adirondacks.
For a shot at a top-20 finish, I lined up early at the base of Whiteface ski area and hid in the draft for the first five miles of gentle downhill pavement. I said hi to six-time Leadville winner Dave Wiens and followed the steady wheel of Rebecca Rusch. Since Leadville is a non-technical course with lots of climbing, the qualifiers tend to be similar. Whiteface is no exception. The race is actually 111 kilometers (69 miles), with about 8,000 feet of climbing. Only four miles are singletrack, so the course plays well to roadies. I prepared for smooth roads with long climbs that require sustained power, and I quickly learned hard-tail bikes and fast-rolling tires are optimal.
A lead group separated on Bartlett Road, a 1.7-mile dirt climb. Then the real climbing started: first with the steep, paved Styles Brook Road, then the Luke Glen forest road. Combined, they gain roughly 1,500 feet in six miles. It’s easy to go too hard here, but I set a reasonable pace and remembered to drink and eat. The course is mostly an out-and-back, but it has spurs of singletrack at the halfway point and nine miles from the finish. The techy asides give strong mountain bikers a chance to drop roadies, but each section is followed by dirt and paved roads where the road riders can make up time.
For the first two years, the race finished with a two-mile climb up Whiteface and a sketchy descent. Now, the finish consists of two loops on a short service road climb followed by a rooty singletrack downhill. I still had some gas in the tank, and pushed through a few minutes of suffering to chase a higher placement. Most racers were fatigued, just trying to make it to the line. My late attack worked. I just barely squeaked in under five hours: 4:57. But it was good enough to nab a spot at Leadville, which means I’ve got some soul-searching to do.—Kirk Kardashian