The Leadville Trail 100 (LT100) is well on its way to becoming the Ironman of mountain bike racing. There are plenty of people unhappy about the direction the race has taken, others are happy and others have no idea there are any issues.
Let me explain.
The LT100 began in 1994 as a quirky mountain bike race. The major goal of the event was similar to that of the Leadville 100 Run, beginning in 1983, and that was to bring visitors to Leadville. The economy in town was facing hard times and race directors Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin wanted to do something to help. They dreamed of athletes being drawn to Leadville for some of the most challenging events in the world.
Each year, their event grew in popularity. Most of the growth was due to word of mouth. Mountain bike riders that completed the event told their friends about it and recruited more mountain bike riders for the next year. Though the course is not considered technical by mountain biking standards, good bike handling skills are necessary as is good fitness. Many riders struggle to reach the four time check points.
Missing a check point means getting pulled from the race. Missing the 12-hour cut-off time means no coveted belt buckle.
Certainly the event was growing nicely on its own. The first year I entered the event there was a lottery system and not all entrants got into the event. There were 750 entrants, 600 toed the start line. After Lance Armstrong did the event in 2008, the event saw a lot more media attention.
The race not only received more media attention, but it also received more attention from sponsors. The list of sponsors interested in being associated with this event grew. The event attracted the attention of Life Time Fitness owner Bahram Akradi and Life Time Fitness became the title sponsor of the event.
Those familiar with triathlon know that Life Time Fitness was the title sponsor of the first event to pay good prize money to triathletes with the “Equalizer” event. It paid $250,000 to the first male or female across the finish line. Life Time literally changed the pay scale for professional triathletes.
The media attention for the Leadville 100 (LT100) mountain bike race expanded exponentially in 2009 with the release of the film by Citizen Pictures, Race Across the Sky and more Lance Armstrong effect. Suddenly people everywhere around the world wanted entry into this extreme challenge. In the 2010 event there were 1,553 entrants via the lottery system – more than double that of just six years ago. How many racers tried to enter, but were denied entry is uknown but rumored numbers are big.
The LT100 is now faced with what many business owners want - and that is growing pains. Your product is so successful that people are clamoring to get it.
Most people want growth but cannot foresee the problems that growth brings. Successful businesses, and make no mistake this is a business, find ways to solve the problems so the customer (sponsors and racers) remains satisfied with the product.
What are some of the issues that this growing business faces? Below are a few that I gathered after talking with several racers post-event. In no particular order:
- The race is a self-seeded, mass-start event with the exception of the reserved first 100. Certain professionals riders, VIPs and race sponsors are allowed into the first 100. If you lay your bike on the street at 4:00am, you secure a spot. Imagine if you are an expert rider and you have secured your spot behind someone that has never raced a mountain bike before? Yes, it happens all the time.
- The ride begins on a city street and after about 10 minutes of downhill on pavement it turns to single vehicle wide dirt. The first climb, St. Kevin’s begins some 20ish minutes into the race. This climb is rugged jeep road with a good amount of the climb on 15 to 17 percent grade and it’s loose. Riders are tire-to-tire on this section and when one rider clips out, it can send a line of people off their bikes or down. Recall there are no categories for riders and no prequalification. Roadies, can you imagine starting a road race where all categories line up mass-start, first come first serve?
- On the second climb, Sugarloaf, the crowd has thinned ever so slightly, but the first technical descent is coming up. Though it is not single-track there is one good line on the descent. Riders with good climbing fitness on the road and no mountain bike skills are grabbing lots of brake and creating an ant line crawling down the hill. Experienced mountain bike riders are forced to crawl too, or take a chance passing in dicey conditions. This leads to frustration and unnecessary risk taking on most of the descents throughout the race. The worst place is Columbine Mine where two-way traffic makes descending particularly tricky.
- Sponsor racers form working packs (I’m not talking only about the elite racers), similar to a road race, and help each other in any number of ways – including equipment swaps. (Not allowed in most mountain bike races.)
- Summarizing the riding issues, the race has now become an unusual mix of road racing (planned team tactics from corporate sponsors, VIPs and perhaps others), mountain bike (mostly due to equipment and course), and Ironman (no categories, mass start, line-up wherever you think you can finish - no matter if you have zero mountain bike race experience, zero bike racing experience, zero ultra-distance race experience and zero experience at altitude). Rules are loosely enforced and self-interpretation, justification is widely used. Due to the mix of riding skills, safety is an issue.
- Twin Lakes station has become so crowded with support crews and spectators (parking and people) that race volunteers find it impossible to get some people to comply with instructions. This log jam delayed the transport of at least one injured racer to an ambulance.
- Some people are of the mind-set that this race is so heavily supported with the entry fee, etc. that they can just discard bottles and wrappers on the ground (like some of the pros and sponsor riders do) because “someone” is paid to pick all that stuff up. (Never mind what the wind does between Saturday and Sunday when the volunteers go back to clean up after the race.)
Now with all these issues and more that I didn’t mention, it seems that I’m complaining. Not exactly.
You see, I was able to get a personal best time in 2009 because I seeded myself in a good location, was able to descend at a pace that matched my skills and I found great (skilled, fit and experienced) riders to work with on many of the flat sections so I wasn’t solo time trialing in the wind (like this year).
Are there solutions to all the problems?
Of course, but not all riders will be happy with the changes.
This race has the power to inspire a wave of mountain bike enthusiasts like Ironman helped inspire the growth of the sport of triathlon. It can do it with dignity, responsibility for rider safety, and a fair enforcement of rules and standards for all riders. This can grow the sport for everyone at all levels from the individual rider to the businesses behind sport.
Will those things happen?
Time will tell.