This summer, Mitch Docker embraced the alt calendar spirit in a major way.
Alex Howes is nervous. He has ridden every one of professional cycling’s grand tours and made a name for himself in the peloton with his consistent grit during his 14 years in the sport, but taking to the road day in and day out during World Tour stage races hasn’t quite prepared him for his next challenge.
This weekend, Alex is going to try to complete Leadboat—and win. On Saturday, he and Lachlan Morton are going to race the Leadville 100 — the famous 100-mile (160-km) marathon mountain-bike race in the backcountry of the Colorado Rockies. Then, Alex is going to wake up the next morning and take to the start of SBT GRVL — a 225-km race over unpaved roads in the forests and fields around Steamboat Spring while Morton prepares to race the Breck Epic, a high-altitude mountain bike stage race from Aug. 15-20 in Breckenridge.
Steamboat and Leadville races are prestigious in their own right. World-class mountain bikers and gravel racers have made the trip to Colorado to try to win one or the other. Taking them both on in one weekend — what they call Leadboat — is for the very crazy ones, like Alex.
“I kind of signed up for the whole thing thinking, oh yeah, it will be good,” Howes says. “But then, as we get closer to the event, it’s like, oh, this is going to be really hard.”
First, there is the altitude. Alex’s home in Colorado is 2,500 metres above sea level, so he is no stranger to thin air, but Leadville climbs above 3,700 metres, where every effort has to be gauged. At that height, there is so little oxygen in the air that the slightest overexertion can leave you seeing stars. It’s very easy to push yourself too hard and teeter into a state of hypoxia. You really have to pace yourself and moderate your efforts.
“If you make any sort of sharp acceleration, you’ll probably just have to lay down in a bush for a bit,” Alex says.
Then there is the struggle to consume enough food and drink. At elevation, your body burns through sugars at an alarming rate as there is too little oxygen in the air for it to rely on fat for fuel. Running low on water is also a risk, since the air is much drier and you lose moisture with every ragged, oxygen-starved breath you take.
“If you don’t hydrate well and stay on top of it, you just dry out and collapse,” Alex says.
Alex will be loading his bike up with water bottles and bringing a hydration pack and plenty of food with him. He doesn’t just need to get to the finish of Leadville. He’s got to have enough energy in legs to try to win Steamboat the next day too.
“As soon as you run out of sugars in your body, you’re done,” Alex says. “You really can’t come back from it. So I’ll be really staying on top of eating, really staying on top of drinking. It is so important. You almost can’t even emphasise how important it is up there.”
As much as Leadville is a physical challenge, it’s a technical one too. Long, chunky alpine descents are going to test the riders’ skills and their guts. One mistake could put Howes out of the race with a broken bike or worse. Over the past year, he has been practicing.
“I have spent a lot of time on the mountain bike, just trying to enjoy learning how to ride some of the nasty stuff around my house,” Howes says. “I made it a sort of goal that I can’t not be able to ride something if it is within twenty minutes of my house, so that has definitely seen me sending it off some jumps that scare the living crap out of me.”
"There is room to roam, and these two races highlight that."
Howes is confident that he is going to be able to get through Leadville and be competitive, but wonders if he might have underestimated the next day’s gravel race in Steamboat.
“I think a lot of people are like, oh yeah, you do Leadville, and it is what it is, and then you get out there and race again the next day,” he says, “but Leadville is six to six and a half hours. It’s a super hard race. And then to turn around and race against a bunch of fresh riders the next day, it’s definitely got me worried.”
Alex hopes he’ll be able to hide in the wheels for the first hour or so on Sunday and find his legs. Although the course is unpaved, Steamboat will be more like a road race. There is always the risk that someone will attack from the gun though.
“For me it is going to be a challenge just waking up on Sunday with tired legs and a messed up body and just remembering that I don’t have full suspension on the road bike and trying not to smash into every rock I see,” he says. Expect to see him in the front group, racing for the win, anyways.
Alex is looking forward to an adventure. That’s what he likes about marathon mountain biking and gravel races. He loves racing in his home state of Colorado.
“I like the high-altitude and the wide-open spaces,” he says. “It’s still pretty wild in a lot of ways. It’s still pretty rugged…there is still quite a bit of room out here and you can get yourself into a bit of trouble if you want, so I just love that aspect. There is room to roam, and these two races highlight that.”
Alex is looking forward to sharing the adventure. Leadville and Steamboat are both mass-participation events that draw thousands of recreational racers to Colorado.
“We are talking about thousands of people out there on bikes having a good time, trying to see what they can do, whether they can survive 100 miles of Leadville or 140 miles of gravel out and around Steamboat, so it will be interesting to see what kind of crazy people that draws in.”
Alex doesn’t need to be nervous. He’ll be in good company this weekend.