Alternative racing goes higher

Howes, Phinney, and Morton to take on Leadville 100

A bona fide shotgun start in a historic Colorado mining town nearly two miles above sea level. A hundred miles of racing way, way up in the Rocky Mountains. Flat bars. Full suspension.

Yep, the next event on the EF Education First Pro Cycling alternative racing calendar fits right in. Alex Howes, Taylor Phinney, and Lachlan Morton will all take the start bright and early Saturday in Leadville.

The Stages Cycling Leadville Trail 100 MTB is a mountain bike race with unrivaled character and hours upon hours of high-elevation challenges. The event starts at 10,152 feet, over a thousand feet above the highest point reached by this year’s Tour de France, hailed as the highest Tour in history. It’s a perfect next stop on the alternative racing journey Alex HowesHowes, Lachlan MortonMorton, and Taylor PhinneyPhinney.

“It’s kind of crazy, a hundred miles at over ten thousand feet. It’s fun being a roadie and testing yourself against all the mountain bike racers,” Howes says. “Everyone expects us to crash the whole time. Getting out there, showing that we can stay upright – I say that and I’ll probably biff it now – but that’s part of the motivation.”

Part of a series of Leadville endurance races that first started with a trail run, the Leadville 100 mountain bike event has grown into must-ride test for cyclists looking for a (much) higher challenge.

At Leadville, the views are staggering but the air is thin as the race ascends to an incredible 12,424 feet above sea level. Riders have only the sun and the clouds for company high above the tree line. There is not much in the way of shelter for tired racers.

“You’re so exposed up there,” says Howes. “There’s very little cover there for the entire route.”

Traversing a variety of surfaces in the form of forest tracks and mining roads, the Leadville 100 has a ruggedness to it that is fitting of the town that hosts it start and finish.

“What makes the Leadville Trail Series so unique is Leadville,” says Ken Chlouber, who started the first event of the series at time when one of America’s great mining towns was facing real economic hardship.

“In 1982 the Climax Mine closed and we lost 3,250 jobs,” Chlouber says. “We started the race to bring people to our community and it’s been incredibly successful.”

Chlouber and series co-founder Merilee Maupin built an event that celebrates Leadville’s spirit and historic origins still today, even as the town has transformed into an outdoor destination for endurance athletes.

“It was a small community established in the 1860s by people wanting to do more with their lives, and to do that they had to dig deep,” Chlouber says. “Those exact same qualities from 150 years ago that made the miners successful are the same characteristics that make the runners and mountain bikers successful.”

A double-barreled shotgun blast signals the start of the race in Leadville, and riders proceed to head into the mountains. An up-and-down journey takes the race to the foot of the challenging climb to Columbine Mine, the midway point of the race, and then it’s more up-and-down all the way back.

To have a shot at contending, riders will need the legs and lungs to ascend into the thinning air and the skills and steel nerves to complete some tricky descents.

Sounds like fun, especially for three bike racers that call Colorado home.

“It’s like doing a local race. It’s neat to be part of the community and have an excuse to race at home,” says Howes. He and Morton have both raced Leadville in the past.

For Phinney, Leadville presents the perfect opportunity to make his first mountain bike race start as a pro.

“Being from Colorado, I’ve been hearing about Leadville my whole life really,” Phinney says. “I’ve always been intrigued by it and I’ve always loved mountain biking.”

And if the challenge, the scenery, and the community weren’t enough motivation, as with any good bike race, Leadville awards finishers with a unique wardrobe addition that matches the character of the event and the town.

“I’m looking forward to fighting for that belt buckle,” says Phinney.

Phinney, Howes, and Morton will roll out from Leadville for the “race across the sky” on Saturday, August 10.