Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Lance in Leadville

By: Chris Carmichael

Two years ago, Lance Armstrong was on the west coast of France on July 1, getting ready to start the final Tour de France of his career. This year, he and I were driving a white Suburban down Independence Pass on the way from Aspen to Leadville, Colorado. I decided I wanted to ride about 40-45 miles of the Leadville 100 race course, and called Lance to see if he wanted to join me. Once I told him that we’d be covering four of the race’s five major climbs, he was in… and he made sure to tell me he was fit and planning on kicking my butt.

The first 20-25 miles of the Leadville 100 race course is also the last 20-25 miles, and though you miss out on the longest climb of the race (the ascent to Columbine Mine at 12,600 feet) you do get to tackle St. Kevins (outbound), Sugarloaf, the dreaded Powerline climb, and St. Kevins (inbound).

Since I’d only seen the course once, and that was on race day with hundreds of other riders, I brought CTS Coach and author Jim Rutberg (aka Rutty) along to be our guide. He’s the guy who attacked me six miles from the finish last year – something I haven’t forgotten, by the way. Bringing Rutty turned out to be a good idea because he pointed out a few turns I didn’t remember at all.

Of course, the biggest worry was that we’d lose Lance. He may not be racing the Tour de France anymore, but the guy’s still really fit and was simply gone as soon as the trail tipped upwards. I could just see the news reports… 7-Time Tour de France Champion Lost in the Colorado Wilderness… In truth, it would be very difficult to get completely lost where we were. You could easily get off the racecourse and end up riding up to an abandoned mine or someone’s cabin, but it would be reasonably easy to find your way back to civilization. Still, though, every one of us had kids waiting at home, so we didn’t have time for getting lost.

For the record, Lance is not only quite fit, but he’s also very good on a mountain bike – uphill and downhill. He was on a carbon hardtail and I was really happy to be riding a dual-suspension Specialized Epic – it made a big difference for me on both the rocky descents and the technical climbs. There are very few riders who can pedal the entire way up the first section of the Powerline climb. It’s literally a washed out, rutted, stupidly-steep ascent underneath – you guessed it – a powerline. After the first section, it’s all rideable, but I think only the top guys in the Leadville race can ride the first steep pitches - all but a handful of the 800-or so competitors end up pushing their bikes instead. I saw Lance dab once, but he pedaled all the way up. Both Rutty and I pedaled farther up the climb than we had previously, before having to dismount and push our bikes, and then rode the rest of the long climb faster than last year. Yet, by the time we caught up with Lance, he was basking in the sun on a big rock, and all too happy to inform us that he’d been there for about 13 minutes.

After going up Powerline, there was only one more climb left. It starts with a few miles of paved road, and then levels out for some more rollers on dirt before descending down to a wide dirt road that leads back to Leadville. As expected, Lance rode out of sight on the climb, and as Rutty and I spotted the white Suburban in the distance, I told him that 10-to-1, the car was already running, music blaring, Lance was changed, his bike was loaded, and he was itching to go. Sure enough, we were on the road about 4 minutes after we hit the parking lot. And if you think Lance rides fast, you should drive with him.

Of course, now that he’s ridden part of the course, everyone wants to know if he’s going to race the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race on August 11. I don’t know, yet. He liked what he saw and was impressed by how hard some of the climbs are, but his schedule is pretty packed. He originally had to cancel his plans to do Leadville because of a schedule conflict, and it remains to be seen whether he’d be able to squeeze it in somehow. I’ll keep you posted.
Chris Carmichael

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