A flat tire, a mechanical failure, an injury or just plain pushing too hard too early — in the world of professional mountain biking any one of those can be the difference between first place and a DNF (“did not finish”). Combine that with riding a 100-mile course between 9,000 and 12,000 feet in elevation and you have the annual Leadville 100, one of the nation’s most challenging bike races.
Last year at Leadville, Specialized pro team mountain biker Todd Wells sat at the finish line defeated — unsatisfied with a third-place finish. The 2011 race winner had pushed it too hard. For more than 80 miles he was neck and neck with the eventual first- and second-place finishers — Austrian pro Alban Lakata, who went on to set a course record, and Wells’ Specialized teammate Christoph Sauser, of Switzerland — but in the last 20 miles Wells hit the wall, finishing almost 15 minutes behind Lakata’s record-setting time of 6 hours, 4 minutes, 1.8 seconds.
This Sunday all three were back in the mix, along with Lakata’s new Topek Ergon teammate Kristian Hynek — a top-five finisher at the 2013 Worlds and the 2013 Czech Republic national champion.
Running in second place with about 25 miles left to go, it looked like Wells might once again fall short. Sauser and Lakata both had fallen behind with flats, but Hynek — competing in his first Leadville 100 — had built up a nearly 5 minute lead.
“He was going so fast up the Columbine climb, I couldn’t stay on his wheel,” Wells said of Hyneck’s pace on the 3,000-plus foot climb up to Columbine Mine outside of Leadville — the race’s halfway point. “I knew that even if I did I was going to blow up if I hit Powerline,” another climb in the last 20 miles of the race.
But this time Hynek was the one who hit the wall. “It was my first time here, I didn’t know what to expect,” he said after the race.
On the Powerline climb he ran out of gas, and Wells made his move.
“I could tell he was cooked,” Wells said of Hynek when he passed him somewhere in the race’s final 15 miles. He added that Hyneck appeared to be swaying slightly as he passed him.
Following his flat tire early in the race, Lakata — the back-to-back winner in 2012-13 who topped records set by Tour de France cyclists Levi Leipheimer and Lance Armstrong — made an impressive push from eighth place back to fourth, keeping with Sauser, who was recovering ground from his own flat. Lakata, however, was unable to maintain.
“I lost my motivation in my legs,” the Austrian said afterward. “You have to go a steady pace and not overdo it.”
Sauser pushed on, gaining on Wells in the last 5 miles.
“I had given everything,” Wells said of the race’s final push. After passing Hyneck, Wells was all alone until he noticed his teammate behind him.
“I was suffering so badly and he was still coming. That finish line couldn’t come fast enough.”
Cresting the final hill on Sixth Street, Sauser was within 50 yards of Wells for the last quarter mile. But in what was likely one of the closest finishes in the race’s 21 year history, Wells held on, crossing the finish line in 6:16:26 and earning his second Leadville win.
“Man, it feels so good,” Wells said afterward. “I had to go over my limit to stay with those guys last year. This year I just rode my own pace.”
Playing it smart paid off though he said the climb up Columbine — where Hynek took a sizable lead — nearly took him out.
“Halfway up Columbine I didn’t think I was going to finish the race.”
Sauser finished second for the second year in a row, this time just 18 seconds behind Wells.
Last year he was just over a minute behind Lakata. Hynek was able to finish third in 6:22:47; his Topek Ergon teammate Lakata took fourth in 6:29:51.
Fellow Topek Ergon rider Sally Bigham was first among women, earning back to back Leadville wins in the process. She finished in 7:23:57, followed by Jennifer Smith at 8:06:26. Nina Baum finished third in 8:14:07.
Early in the race the top men were on pace to break a sub-six-hour time for the first time in the race’s history, but none could maintain the pace. A strong headwind and course conditions were cited as reasons for the slower times, in addition to the group’s inability to race as a pack this year due to flats and pacing.
Two thousand riders from across the U.S. and across the globe take part in the race every year. This year’s field of competition included a 70-year-old woman and an 81-year-old man; their results were unknown at press time.