“The trail steepened and that’s when he said ‘I’m done’”
Last year Dave Wiens beat 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis (although Landis was stripped of his title for doping) in the Leadville Trail 100 bike race.
This year he took on and defeated seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong on Saturday, August 9, for his sixth straight Leadville 100 title.
Who next for Wiens—2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre?
The Leadville Trail 100 Race Across the Sky mountain bike race starts in downtown Leadville and covers 100 miles. The course reaches its highest point of 12,600 feet at the 50-mile mark, at which point riders turn around and return via the same route, covering a total of 14,000 feet of climbing.
Wiens gained ownership of the Leadville Trail 100 when he won it in 2003.
This year, with prime trail conditions and Armstrong on his rear wheel, or out in front, almost the entire race, Wiens set a new course record of six hours, 45 minutes and 45 seconds. Armstrong crossed in second place one minute and 56 seconds later.
“Lance was the instigator for us riding harder,” says Wiens. “We established that early on.”
This was Armstrong’s first competitive bike race since 2005 when he last won the tour.
In the weeks leading up to the race, Armstrong admitted he was looking for a top-five finish, maybe top-three, and recognized Wiens’ prowess in this type of race.
But it’s not like Armstrong came into the race off the couch. He spent five to six weeks preparing for the race, including spending the last two weeks training at altitude, riding in Aspen. There were even reports of Armstrong and his training coach Chris Carmichael on Gothic Road in the Schofield Pass area.
Last year, Wiens held off a late run by Landis to win and set a new course record of six hours, 58 minutes and 46 seconds.
“It was the most intense bike race of my life,” said Wiens following the win.
Wiens was ready to defend his title against the likes of Armstrong, especially considering the race Landis gave him a year ago.
“What Floyd did to me was in my mind,” says Wiens. “I took what I did training last year and smoothed it out. I felt like my preparation was as good as it could be.”
While the two didn’t speak much the whole race, Armstrong and Wiens did exchange words at the beginning of the race.
“He told me two things,” says Wiens. “He said, ‘Dave, you’ve got a chain ring mark on your leg.’ And he said he was concerned about Manny (Prado the eventual third place finisher).”
The two riders were part of a lead group of five racers for a majority of the first 40 miles, when another group of five riders joined in on the lead.
While they worked together and were riding at a fairly strong clip, Wiens thought it was starting out pretty lethargic.
“The race felt really slow to me at that point,” says Wiens. “It felt like we had been out there for hours.”
It wasn’t until Armstrong jumped in front halfway up the Columbine Mine climb that things got going.
Wiens jumped on his rear wheel and the two riders pulled away from the rest of the pack. By the time they broke tree line and turned onto the final mile of climbing Columbine, Wiens was in front, with Armstrong on his rear wheel.
The two descended the same and continued on a “friendly” competitive pace for the rest of the race with each rider taking a turn in front.
“We basically had a two-person time trial for 40 miles,” says Wiens. “In a friendly low-key way we were seeing who would break who first.”
When the course hit a hike-a-bike section, Wiens decided it was a good time to see how Armstrong was doing.
“I wanted to test him a little bit,” explains Wiens. “I wanted to see how quickly he would get back on his bike.”
Wiens gained a small gap off the section but Armstrong reeled back in on his rear wheel and then set a new standard on the typically hike-a-bike section of the Powerline climb.
“He asked me ‘Do you ride this or do you walk this?’” says Wiens. “I walk it but he just never got off his bike and I just tried to match him stroke for stroke.”
It was on one of the last steep climbs that Wiens discovered he had won the “informal” test of wills. Wiens turned to Armstrong to get him to finish the race the way they’d been riding all morning, but Armstrong was through.
“The trail steepened and that’s when he said, ‘I’m done,’” explains Wiens. “I’m not going to argue with him.”
At that point, it was record-setting time for Wiens as he stomped on his pedals to push all the way through to the finish. And just like last year, he finished on a flat tire.
“That was the hardest I went the whole time,” says Wiens. “Right when I hit the pavement I felt my tire go flat—that was a little unnerving.”
While Wiens’ triumph is impressive, Brick Oven/Crested Butte Builders rider Ethan Passant’s rise to a fourth-place finish with a time of seven hours, 27 minutes and 54 seconds is near equal in feat.
Five days prior to the Leadville race, Passant was in the throes of a kidney infection that took hold while he was setting a new record in the Colorado Trail Race, an epic 530-mile self-supported bike race.
Yet, when asked about the status of his kidney prior to the race, Passant responded, “It’s alright, I got another one.”
In addition, because Passant had never raced the Leadville 100 before, he was forced to start in the middle of the pack of 960 riders.
The race opens with a four-mile neutral start with riders cruising out of town behind a pace car.
Ideally, Passant was going to start moving his way through the masses during the neutral start. Unfortunately, so was everyone else.
“I tried to but everyone was doing that,” says Passant. “There were a bunch of crashes at the start.”
Ten miles into the race, things were looking grim for Passant.
“In the first five or ten miles, I thought I wasn’t even going to finish,” says Passant. “I just felt so stiff.”
Passant gritted his teeth, though, and worked his way into a pack of five riders chasing down the lead group that included both Wiens and Armstrong.
By the start of the climb up to the Columbine Mine, Passant was with the leaders and made his move and took over the lead and started to push even harder.
“I thought, this is maybe my moment, so I went as fast as I could,” explains Passant. “I found myself in the lead on the Columbine climb and I felt good.”
Ultimately, after leading for a portion of the climb, Wiens and Armstrong caught Passant and by the midway race point at the top of the Columbine Mine climb, Passant was in fifth place, five and a half minutes off the leaders and descending like a banshee down the rutty, rocky top portion.
Passant made one last push on the final climb of the race on pavement and reeled in fourth place to cross in a time of seven hours, 27 minutes and 54 seconds.
“I just never really felt that good,” says Passant. “The fact that I did come in fourth place was a shock to me.”
Gunnison’s Keri Nelson shaved two minutes off her time to finish in second place, 77th overall, in a time of eight hours, 42 minutes and 19 seconds.
Nelson led the women up to the top of the Columbine Mine climb and was feeling strong but it was during the descent that things started to turn.
“I felt awesome all the way up but I started getting side stitches on the way down,” says Nelson. “The last 40 miles were pretty tough.”
Nelson held her lead up and over the Powerline climb on the way back but in the last mile she was handed a surprise attack from Susan Williams of Littleton, Colo.
“I knew I was in first but I didn’t know she was back there,” says Nelson. “When she went by it was too late and I had nothing left.”
Still, it was Nelson’s best finish of the three Leadville races she has done and she looks forward to next year.
“I’m definitely happy with how it went,” says Nelson. “I really had fun this year and I definitely want to go back next year.”
Passant is planning on returning as well.
Wiens, on the other hand, is undecided.
“Maybe I will, maybe I won’t,” says Wiens. “This was a culmination of a journey that started when I heard Lance was doing it. To show up there and be competitive is a commitment. The last two have been so physically and mentally demanding.”
Armstrong said he intends to return.
“If Lance comes back next year I think it will be really hard to beat him,” says Wiens.