Leadville. An old mining town turned outdoor mecca. Listen close and you’ll hear whispers of legends past. The likes of Dave Wiens’ win over Lance Armstrong in the Leadville 100 is just one legend of many. Dig deeper and you’ll learn of Baby Doe Tabor and “Unsinkable” Molly Brown whose own tales of enduring the impossible just might inspire you in your own epic journey in the Leadville MTB 100. If you dare, here are our Leadville 100 MTB training tips:
The Leadville 100 MTB race features 3 major climbs on the out & back course: Columbine, Powerline, and St. Kevins. The St. Kevins climb is your first chance to rev your engine but you’ll need to play it smart and hold yourself back to Tempo, you’ve got a lot of riding and even more altitude yet to come. From the top of St. Kevins, you’ll get to catch your breath and let your HR come down again as you go into Turquoise Lake.
The Powerline climb goes up Sugarloaf Pass and is a solid climb going out, but the steep descent on the backside will require full concentration to navigate the ruts and rocks. Don’t expect to get a lot of recovery after that climb until you hit the bottom again and can follow the pipeline into Twin Lakes.
The 10 mile climb to the Columbine Mine is steady forest access road for the first 8 miles. You’ll want to settle into your Tempo or Sweet Spot climbing effort and make sure you’re fueling well. The last 2 miles go from service road to steep doubletrack or even singletrack and depending on your home elevation, you may find it easier to hike-a-bike to the top as the altitude gets over 12,000 feet! Grab a bite to eat and refill your water at the top because you’ve only got 50 miles left and the first 10 are all downhill!
If you’re lucky enough to live high in the Rockies, you’ll have a big advantage with the altitude of this race! If not, you’re going to need to pace yourself by heart rate on those climbs. As the elevation increases, your effective FTP decreases. On the Columbine climb alone, your FTP could drop 6% from bottom to top. And if you are from sea level, your FTP could be 18% lower than what you’ve been training with at home. But your threshold heart rate will remain the same no matter the altitude, your aerobic system just has to work harder as you get higher. So while it’s great to train with watts, it’s better to pace the Leadville 100 via heart rate.
If you want to read more about how altitude affects your racing, check out Coach Jake’s in-depth article here.
With a starting elevation over 9000′, the weather can be unpredictable for Leadville! Expect cool to cold morning temps down to freezing, even in August, and midday temps in around 60-70 degrees F. Mountain weather can change quickly that high and winds and rain are not unheard of in the afternoon so make sure you dress in layers!
I recommend starting with a mid-weight sleeveless base layer that will help keep your core warm in the morning and dry in the heat of the afternoon. Arm warmers are essential and black ones will soak up the heat from the early morning sun to feel even warmer. If you aren’t acclimated to the cooler mountain temps, knee warmers are also essential. And speaking of the sun, you’re closer to it at 9-12,000 feet so bring sunscreen and sunglasses! A vest is handy for the cool mornings and helps keep you dry in the case of a passing afternoon shower. I prefer it to a full rain jacket because it keeps your core warm without turning you into a sauna, but if you aren’t comfortable with wet arm warmers in the rain, grab that rain jacket just in case.
While many riders will opt for a hat or beanie at the start of the race, I prefer to use a piece of rip-stop nylon cut to the shape of the bug net of my helmet as a liner between the net & my lid. It blocks the wind and light rain and it’s super easy to pull out and stash without having to remove the helmet. Plus it weighs almost nothing! And if you don’t have enough hair to pull down over your ears, a Velcro ear band can be worn over helmet straps for faster removal when it gets warm.
Lightweight shoes are great, but it’s a good idea to have some that are comfortable for walking too as you may prefer to hike the top of the Columbine and Powerline climbs. Make sure your socks are up for a little hiking too, a 6-inch light wool cycling sock can help protect your calves from errant pedals if you have to hike and keep you warm at the start.
The Leadville 100 is a long day in the saddle so make sure you’ve got your most comfortable shorts or bibs and favorite chamois creme! Be sure to try out both in your long training rides so you know you and your shorts will still be friends at the end of the day. Stash some extra chamois creme in your pack too, you may need it. And ladies, don’t use your guy’s chamois creme, go with one specific to women!
Lightweight long finger gloves are a must but if your fingers take a long time to warm up, consider layering up with a cheap pair of knit gloves over your mtb gloves. You don’t want numb fingers off the start!
It goes without saying that you’ll want an awesome hydration pack for this race. Make sure you use one that is comfortable to wear all day and fits well, you don’t need it sliding up on the Powerline descent! And make sure it’s easy for you to use. Side pockets aren’t any good if you can’t reach them from the saddle.
Tires are also a big thing to consider. The trails are mostly dirt or eroding granite so leave your sticky rubber at home. Choose a tire that’s got sturdy sidewalls because the granite’s not very gneiss (that one’s for you geologists!). Better to have a slightly heavier tire than to have to stop and patch a sidewall!
The high altitude means you’re going to dehydrate faster than usual, on and off the bike, so make sure you are constantly hydrating before, during, and after the race. It can also mean headaches from altitude sickness so bring along some of your favorite headache remedy, just in case. Caffeine can also help but it will depend in part on your daily intake & personal tolerance. If you lose more sodium in your sweat than you can replace with your favorite sports drink, bring some salt pills. You can pre-hydrate a day or 2 before the race with extra sodium too.
The general rule of thumb for ultra endurance events is to take in 300-400 calories per hour or roughly 75-100g of carbs. Note that female athletes tend to do better with 200-300 calories or 50-75g of carbs. The terrain at Leadville will make sticking to such a formula challenging so consider setting a nutritional alarm to remind you to bite & swallow some sports chews when you can’t manage something more solid. It’s also a great idea to pack a special treat that you will be looking forward to when you’re 5, 6, 8 hours into the race. That could be a PB&J, Snicker’s Bar, whatever food you know will motivate you! Use the long training rides to get all of your nutrition dialed, including that special treat!
Pack more fuel than you think you’ll need because the aid stations will be crowded and you don’t want to rely on them. If you have your own crew, you can carry a little less because you know they will seek you out & make sure you’re taken care of.
When you’re high up on the Columbine climb, listen closely and you’ll hear the winds whisper of those who have come before you, from Baby Doe to Rebecca Rusch. Leadville brings out the fierce determination in all!
Between the gear & nutrition alone, there’s a lot to consider for Leadville! You can make it easier on yourself with a training plan for only $49. You get a free TrainingPeaks Premium account with a mobile app so you can see your data and always know what to do each and every day for six weeks leading into Leadville.
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Coach Nadia is a Colorado native and a Senior Coach at FasCat Coaching in Boulder, CO. She’s raced and ridden her bike all over the state and loves to “earn her turns” on long climbs and descents. You can buy FasCat’s six week interval Leadville 100 training plans designed by Nadia here.