Life on 2 Wheels: Summit Cove Elementary principal Crystal Miller at the Leadville 100 MTB
Editor’s note: For countless Summit County residents, a bicycle is more than a machine — it’s a lifestyle. Every week during the summer, we’ll ask our most adventurous residents, “Where has your bike taken you?”
It all started with a belt buckle.
A few years ago, Summit Cove Elementary School principal Crystal Miller was cleaning around the house when she came across her husband’s belt buckle from the Leadville 100 MTB race. Everyone who completes the big, nasty, 100-mile ride above 10,200 feet earns a gold-and-silver buckle — it looks like a cross between a trophy plaque and loot from a medieval raid — and after dusting it listlessly for a while, the gears started turning.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t I have one of these?’” Miller remembered. She couldn’t shake the thought from her head, and so in January of 2016 she entered the lottery for a chance to ride in the race. She’s an avid mountain biker who started on a fully rigid Trek Singletrack when she lived in Montrose more than 15 years ago — “I’ve been biking since the very start,” she said — and fills the rest of her time with trail running, 14er hiking and coaching Crossfit at Crossfit Low Oxygen in Frisco, where she fell in love with the fitness program about five years ago.
Later this January, Miller was flipping through the mail when she came across a postcard from the Leadville 100 folks. She had no idea if her name would be pulled from the thousands and thousands of hopeful riders, but the postcard was the only confirmation she needed.
“You get this awesome postcard that says, ‘You’re in!’” she said. “All I could think about was, ‘Oh man, I’m in.’”
It was time to get serious.
Training for the 100
Miller started training almost immediately, first on her fat bike made for snow, then at the indoor Breckenridge Cycling Lab. She stuck with Crossfit as much as possible, but she admits that prepping for 12-plus hours riding on one of the highest MTB courses in the world ate away at her usual routine. Through it all, though, she kept that bright, glistening buckle in mind.
“I just wanted to get that belt buckle,” she said, and then laughed, and then got right back to the story. “When you find out you made the lottery it puts you into hyper mode, thinking about, ‘How can I train to be on the bike so long?’ and ‘How can I be as strong as possible?’”
Miller also kept her mind on another goal: the 12-hour mark. Anyone who takes longer than half a day to pedal the course misses the cutoff time, and so those riders aren’t technically finishers, even if they complete the entire 100 miles (more like 105 miles, she said). If she was going to put so much time and energy into preparation, she damn well wanted to make the cutoff.
“I had that goal of 12 hours written down,” said Miller, who put it on the wall at the Crossfit gym and saw it day in, day out. “Anytime I was back-squatting I thought about it, or anytime I saw the map of Leadville in my office I thought about it. I just wanted to focus on that particular goal.”
When the snow finally melted, Miller set her sights on training rides with the 100-mile mark in mind. She did the Leadville Stage Race — an early-summer event that splits the 100 course into three stages — along with the Silver Rush 50, yet another event on the 100 trails.
Along with races, she and her husband, Greg Bachman, trained together on road tours to build stamina. He was preparing for the Great Divide ride from Mexico to Canada at the same time — he came close to finishing this summer, but not quite — and the two enjoyed spending time together in the saddle.
Through it all, Miller kept that 12-hour mark in mind.
“There’s something mentally challenging about sitting in your saddle for a full day,” she said. “It’s pretty crazy. I really wanted to finish under the mark.”
When the Leadville 100 finally arrived on Sept. 15, Miller pedaled to the start line with roughly 1,500 fellow competitors on a beautifully calm day in downtown Leadville. She was committed to finishing, whether ready or not, and left the line on a Gary Fisher Super Fly with visions of a sub-12-hour belt buckle dancing through her head.
“It is an amazingly beautiful course,” Miller said. “You’re in the shadow of 14ers, you’re riding around Turquoise Lake — it’s beautiful. Then, you get to those final few miles and you hear town, and that just pulls you in. The energy in that last 10 miles is pretty spectacular.”
Before then, Miller had to face the toughest stretch of the day: an uphill climb to Columbine Mine, the highest point of the race at 12,500 feet. It’s an out-and-back route, and so the toughest part wasn’t the grind itself — it was all the other riders passing back down the hill.
“You have guys like Dave Wiens, who wins all the time, and then these guys who have been in the Tour de France riding past you while you’re still riding up,” Miller remembered. “Once I could turn around at 50 miles you see a little bit of daylight, but that stretch on the out-and-back was mentally the hardest.”
It wasn’t all downhill from there, but it might as well have been. Miller’s favorite part of the ride was the final 10 miles, when she started to hear the activity on Main Street and knew she was ever-so-close to finishing far ahead of her goal. She crossed the line at 11 hours and five minutes — more than enough for the buckle.
Now that she has one trophy, will she return next year?
“No,” she laughed. “Absolutely not. People ask me that, and it’s already been a month, but nothing has changed. It was a once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list type of goal. I know there are people who do it over and over, but that’s not for me.”
After all, she says, there are mountains to climb and Crossfit to coach — not to mention a second belt buckle for her husband to clean.
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