Newman > Bicycling > Leadville 100

The Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race

The Leadville 100 Mountain Bike race is a 100 mile mountain bike race on an out-and-back course starting in Leadville Colorado and traveling on jeep roads and some pavement around the north side of Turquoise Lake and south to the Columbine Mine, which is just south of Twin Lakes. The organizers award a small belt buckle to those who finish the race in under 12 hours, and a big belt buckle to those who finish the race in under 9 hours. Riders who complete 10 LT100 races also receive a big belt buckle. I have done the race in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009. I earned the small buckle three times by finishing in 11:41, 11:25, and 10:53. I DNFed in 2009, and pulled out of the race after 60 miles.

Note that I have not participated in the LT100 since 2009. Much of the data in this web page is very probably out of date.

The Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race is popular enough that the organizers limit the number of riders in the race. That limit has gone up over the years, but some who submit an application to enter the race will not be accepted. Further information on entering the race can be found at the Leadville 100 web site and those who are interested in doing the race may find the discussion on the LT100Bike Yahoo Group useful. There are a number of people on the web who have described their experiences in the race. If you're thinking of doing the race, their stories can be useful in learning what the race can be like. Below I'll list a few that I've found, but I'm sure there are others available as well.

In 2007, I rode with a Garmin Edge 305 GPS. I created maps and an elevation profile based on the data I collected that year. A small overview map is visible below, and the profile and larger maps are available here. The route between the Pipeline aid station and the Twin Lakes aid station changed in 2009, and other small changes to the route were made in 2010. Those changes are not reflected in the maps or the profile. The section new in 2009 is a section of singletrack that bypasses a short steep hill known as the cobra, about 5 miles north of Twin Lakes aid station. For information on that route change, see this page. I did not race in 2010, so I can't describe the latest changes to the route.

Overview of LT100 Race Course
Map Created with TOPO!
©2007 National Geographic.

Percentage of starters who
finished in under 12 hours:

2009 75.70%
2008 80.79%
2007 70.53%
2006 70.81%
2005 78.76%
2004 70.30%
2003 76.01%
2002 88.27%

(Data from the Leadville 100 site.)

The course is only mildly technical. It includes some paved road but most of it is on jeep roads. There is one stream crossing. The section of single track new in 2009 is about 1.25 miles long by my measurement, and which includes some tree roots (see the cobra). Some of the jeep roads are rocky and rugged, and their condition can change from year to year or depending on the weather. The course is fairly steep in some sections, and most riders walk up the steepest sections on race day. These sections include parts of the last 2.5 miles on the outbound leg to Columbine Mine, one short steep hill that one must climb on the return leg about 5 miles north of the Twin Lakes aid station, and the steepest half-mile of the so-called "Powerline Climb" about 1.5 miles north of the Leadville Fish Hatchery. Many riders will walk more, potentially including some of the climb up St. Kevin's gulch less than 10 miles into the race, more of the climb to Columbine Mine, the steeper and rockier portions of the 2.5 miles between the Powerline Climb and the top of Sugarloaf Pass, and some steeper parts of the 2.25 miles between the last aid station at Carter Summit and the descent of St. Kevin's gulch. Near the end of the race, there is also a short rocky section of the Boulevard that some riders will walk. Even riders who have the strength and skill to ride these sections when they are fresh may walk them on race day due to fatigue or in order to conserve their energy.

One must also go down the steep sections. Some riders find these sections difficult, and some lose a significant amount of time by descending very cautiously. It's good to ride within your limits, both to avoid hurting yourself in a crash, and to avoid hurting others who are in the race with you. Those who are not experienced mountain bikers should consider pre-riding the climb up St. Kevin's, the descent of Powerline, and the climb to and the descent from Columbine Mine. Pre-riding these sections will let you know what you're in for, and will help you out on race day. Those who are slow descenders should consider doing more mountain biking and working to improve their descending. Slow descenders should also try to be considerate of other racers, and try to allow them to pass when it's safe to do so. Speedy descenders should also try to be considerate of other racers, and try to pass slower riders only when it is safe and without surprising the slower rider. Although the course does not require much mountain biking skill, those with little mountain biking experience should remember that it's still not the same as riding on the road, and some skill will be useful. That's illustrated by the fact that three skilled riders I know of crashed in 2007. Floyd Landis and my brother crashed and were able to continue racing, but Jan Bear crashed and broke his femur: you want to avoid that kind of accident!

Because the race is at high elevation, including a peak elevation of about 12,500 feet at Columbine mine, the weather can be unpredictable and potentially dangerous. Some riders finished the 2006 race with hypothermia after racing in a cold rain, and some finished the 2007 race with dehydration after racing in warm dry conditions. Whether they are racing or not, riders in this area should be prepared for all the conditions they might meet. The race is made difficult by the distance covered, the amount of elevation climbed, the steepness of some of the climbs, and the altitude. These factors require that racers have good fitness, and that they eat and drink enough during the race to avoid bonking, dehydration, or other problems. Racers should also carry sufficient clothing, food and water, and tools. While there are aid stations along the course, one can still be miles from an aid station, and being prepared for the conditions is always a good idea in the high mountains.

I'm not a cycling coach, but I feel that to complete this race in under 12 hours, one needs excellent endurance, good ability to climb, and moderate speed. I think the need for acclimatization varies from person to person. Some people will get altitude sickness on the way to Columbine mine no matter what they do. Others will benefit from being acclimatized properly, and others with good fitness can complete the race without acclimatizing to the altitude. Racers should know how their body reacts to altitude before doing this race. Endurance is obviously important when you may be on your bike for 12 hours. The ability to climb is important since the course involves more than 11,000 feet of elevation gain (some say it is over 14,000 feet gained but my GPS data does not support this claim), and completing the race in under 12 hours requires that you be able to climb at reasonable speed. Speed is important in the sense that you need to be able to make good time on the flatter sections of the course. I can't tell you how to train for this event, all I can do is say a little about how I trained for the event in the hope that this will help you figure out what's best for you.

In 2006, 2007, and 2009 I rode more than 4000 miles before the race, including a good number of long rides, a bunch of rides in the mountains, and a 400 mile week-long road bike tour about six weeks before the race (the Bicycle Tour of Colorado). I also went to high elevation (9600 feet) for three or four weeks before the race. In 2008, my training was similar, but I did a 200-mile mountain bike tour rather than a 400-mile road bike tour. The week-long tours really boosted my fitness, and I'm convinced that good acclimatization was important for me in that it helped me to overcome the problems I encountered in 2006 and 2007. Each year I can remember feeling comfortable while climbing St. Kevin's Gulch and listening to other competitors who were breathing much harder than I was. In 2007 and 2008, I included more hiking in my training than I had done in 2006. That helped me in those sections of the course where I was pushing my bike. In 2009, I did the Silver Rush 50 race as part of my preparation for the Leadville 100. In 2007 and 2008, I rested before the race better than in 2006 and 2009 which resulted in me feeling fresher on the morning of the race. After four tries, there are two ways I think my preparation could have been improved: I should have done more speed work, and I should have done more riding in the mountains. If I do the race again, I'll try to do both of those things.

Those who are preparing for this race often spend lots of time and energy deciding what bike to ride and what tires to use. Additional time and energy may be spent obtaining the bike and setting it up. I don't think the bike you ride is as crucial an issue as one might think because the riders in this race use a wide variety of bicycles. The most common bikes seem to be dual-suspension bikes oriented toward cross-country racing, but some riders use hardtails or even single-speeds. There are also a number of tandems in this race. I saw a cyclocross bike in 2006, and I know of one rider who installed an unsuspended fork on his hardtail mountain bike to reduce its weight. I think that within reason, the bike you choose to use isn't as important as your fitness and your mental toughness.

For most people, I think a dual-suspension cross-country bike is a good choice. Full suspension will keep the rider fresher during a long day in the saddle, and will help the rider to go faster on the descents, particularly coming down from Columbine mine, and also on both sides of Sugarloaf pass. In addition, because this race includes a lot of climbing and the descents are not very technical, I think a light bike that climbs well is a better choice than a heavier bike that descends well. I think the second choice for most people should be a hardtail because a lightweight hardtail will climb well and won't give up too much on the descents. In either case, I think disc brakes are a good idea in spite of the fact that they are heavier than rim brakes since they reduce fatigue and improve control during the long downhills. Regardless of the bike you choose, I think a tire with relatively low rolling resistance is good since there's little need for big knobbies on this course, and low rolling resistance helps on those parts of the course that are flatter or paved.

If you're looking for more information, the following sites might be helpful:

The 2006 race was the first mass-start bike race I have ever done. The 2007 race was the second, and the 2008 race was the third. So I'm not very experienced at this sort of thing. I do lots of riding, but little racing. I have seen and ridden with racers on various group rides, and I crewed for my brother in 2005, so I knew before the 2006 race that I'm not competitive with the fast riders. I wanted to do the race with some friends and I was responding to my brother's challenge after he had done the race a few times. I learned that nutrition and hydration are the hardest things for me to get right in this race. In 2006, I bonked at about 75 miles, and the cold rain that started at about that same time slowed me even further. In 2007, I overcompensated for bonking the previous year and ate too much, giving myself an upset stomach. I was able to complete the race in spite of these difficulties because I had good fitness and good acclimatization, and because I continued on at the best pace I could achieve rather than quitting. I also knew that I had friends and family waiting at the finish line, and I was motivated to finish in part by their presence and their support. The lesson I learned from this is that I don't have to have a perfect day to finish.

In 2008, I had a good race. The weather was very good, I seem to have avoided serious bonking and dehydration, and my stomach did not bother me to any significant degree. Another rider crashed into me in the first minute of the race, but I was uninjured and my bike was undamaged, and I remounted and got going without any significant problems. I still don't quite have the nutrition figured out, since I don't think I ate or drank enough for optimum performance late in the race, but all things considered, it was a good day for me. I finished 30 minutes faster than I did in 2007, and 82 places higher. I stayed pretty strong through the end of the race, and I wasn't totally wasted at the end. My 2008 race was a success in the sense that I met my primary goal of finishing in less than 11 hours, and I enjoyed myself most of the day

In 2009, the weather was very bad from about 6:50am to about 8:50am. It was cold and wet. The weather started to improve after that, but the conditions slowed many people down, including me. Though the weather started to improve, there was more rain and high winds on Columbine. I DNFed at Twin Lakes on the return leg. It was primarily an attitude problem. I wasn't able to get a positive attitude going after the rain early in the race and some trouble climbing Columbine. I think low blood sugar may have contributed -- I don't think I was eating enough. The day after the race, I was already kicking myself for having made a bad decision. I don't know if I'll attempt this event again since my life has changed significantly, and I may not have time to train for it in the future. But I hope to learn something about decision making and mental toughness for use in the future.

Ken Chlouber, one of the race organizers, likes to say "You are better than you think you are, you can do more than you think you can." In doing the Leadville 100, I've learned that that's true because, while I hoped to finish faster than I did, I would not have predicted that I would finish the race in spite of bonking or an upset stomach. Finishing this race is hard, perhaps the hardest thing I've ever done. I think that finishing the race in 2006 and 2007 has made me mentally tougher. Failing to finish in 2009 showed me that my mental toughness is still something I need to work on. This race is a fun event for those with the ability to do it. I'm glad that I've done it, but I don't have any plans to do it again soon. Of course, I didn't have any plans to do the race in 2004, either ....

Newman > Bicycling > Leadville 100

Last Modified: 6 January 2013
By: David Newman