By Than Acuff
Gunnison Valley riders made their annual pilgrimage of pain to compete in the Leadville 100 bike race on Saturday, August 15. Dawn Passant had the top local women’s finish, taking fourth place with a time of 9 hours, 29 minutes and 43 seconds, and Dave Wiens posted his second-best career time of 6 hours, 57 minutes and two seconds, to come in second place behind Lance Armstrong.
The Leadville 100 bike race has never seen so much hype. What bike is Armstrong riding? Will he break the record? Does he have a team riding with him?
The Internet was clogged with tales of Sir Lancelot.
The answers to those questions are: Armstrong was riding a bike specifically built by Trek for him for the Leadville 100. He did break the record. And, he did, sort of, have a team riding with him.
For example, when six-time Leadville 100 champion Wiens rolled up to the start minutes before the race, he did it alone. When Armstrong rolled up a couple minutes later, he had four other riders with him—a couple of whom were handpicked to ride the race despite the fact they had not been chosen in the lottery.
Furthermore, where you start is directly dependent upon how you finished in the years prior. If you’ve never raced, you’re relegated to the back of the pack alongside the 1,200 or so weekend warriors and endurance amateurs, as well as the odd assortment of tandem riders and plain old kooks.
But not “team” Armstrong. The late arrivals were ushered right into the mix up front alongside Wiens and Crested Butte’s pocket Hercules, Ethan Passant. The difference is Wiens and Passant deserved to be there.
Not that Armstrong’s contingent didn’t, in so far as they are all top-notch riders. Furthermore, if they were there to help pace Armstrong, Wiens could have just as easily slid in there with them and benefited. In the end, it didn’t really matter.
Crested Butte rider Dave Scheefer bum-rushed his way into the front of the pack the old-fashioned way. He’s never raced in the Leadville 100. Nevertheless, Scheefer showed up at 5 o’clock the morning of the race, casually laid his bike down near the front and maintained a low profile until it was time to ride.
“No points for courtesy,” said Scheefer as he slid into position.
Then there was the helicopter following the riders, specifically the lead pack, i.e., Armstrong and Wiens, from start to finish.
Watching the leaders come through the top of the Columbine Mine climb was far different this year from last. For one, I heard the whup-whup-whup of the helicopter about 20 minutes earlier than I expected and it became obvious that there was a new course record in the making.
Secondly, Wiens wasn’t in the lead. With a lead pack setting a frantic pace, Wiens was feeling the hurt from the start, likening the first 60 miles of the race to a time trial.
“My legs were what I called wrecked almost immediately,” said Wiens. “I was cooked on the first climb and I wasn’t sure I was going to finish.”
In years past, including both the race against Floyd Landis and last year against Armstrong, Wiens was able to ride one of the first tough climbs on the course in his little ring—this year he had no such luck.
“Both Floyd [Landis] and Lance weren’t aggressive—they were reactive waiting to see what I was doing,” explains Wiens. “This year, I couldn’t ride that in my little ring. I had to ride in my middle ring and my legs were just dying.”
Nevertheless, Wiens reeled in the lead pod of riders and came into the Twin Lakes feed zone in first place, drenched and cold from the morning rain shower.
“Going over the Powerline we got soaked,” says Wiens. “That was the first time I ever got drenched at that race, and it was cold to boot.”
It was then that the lead pack disintegrated, as Armstrong took off, headed for the Columbine Mine climb with one other rider in tow and Wiens back in fifth.
“From the Twin Lakes feed zone outbound, it blew up,” says Wiens.
Wiens passed two riders before turning uphill and then passed a third during the lower part of the climb, but Armstrong was nowhere to be found.
What started as a minute and a half gap between Armstrong and Wiens turned into closer to eight minutes by the time the course reached tree line.
“The splits were getting astounding,” says Wiens. “It was more confirmation of what kind of fitness a guy has coming back from a podium at the Tour [de France].”
Ultimately, it was just Armstrong cresting the final pitch of the steep section of off-camber two-track. As the pitch of the climb petered out and the course turned across the hillside toward the 50-mile turn-around point at an elevation of 12,600 feet, Armstrong was hammering—I mean big ring chugging across the sky.
Once the top 20 or so riders had reached the midway point and turned back to Leadville, the skies unleashed on the next group of riders with steady sleet mixed with hail and some gusts of wind for good measure. Watching the rest of the field push their bikes up the steep section while getting pounded from above I wondered how many would actually finish this year. I mean they were getting hit from all sides as the rain continued to fall while the trail continued to climb.
In the end, Armstrong crossed the finish in a new record time of 6:28:50, with Wiens in second place posting a time of 6:57:02.
Ironically, Armstrong finished on a flat tire, just as Wiens did last year.
When asked about the flat tire at the post-race press conference, Armstrong turned to Wiens stating, “I was copying you.”
Wiens is just fine with second place and posting his second-fastest time ever.
“I’m really happy with that,” says Wiens. “I would have been a little disappointed had I not come in second. For me it worked out really well.”
Wiens admits that he was pegged the entire race, and while he couldn’t see the support along the course, he definitely knew it was there.
“I felt the support around the course,” says Wiens. “I really appreciate everyone being out there supporting us.”
When asked about a rematch at the press conference, Wiens responded, “If Lance wants to play hockey.”
Armstrong admitted that he was more nervous about the Leadville 100 than the Tour de France and, in the end, he was physically crushed.
“I was empty,” said Armstrong.
Passant made one crucial error in his return to the Leadville 100: his choice of clothing, as he opted to go without layers at the start.
“I just started with a jersey, which was a huge mistake,” says Passant. “I thought it was going to warm up. I spent so much time shivering and burning calories. On the descent of Powerline I froze. I couldn’t eat because I couldn’t get my hand to my back pocket.”
Furthermore, last year he was shoulder-to-shoulder with and sometimes leading the pack, which helped him ride to a fourth-place finish.
This year, the lead pack got away from him.
“It seemed to me Lance and his posse were pushing the pace and on a mission,” says Passant. “It was just too fast, too soon. I feel pretty good that I hung onto 15th place.”
His wife, Dawn Passant, fell short of her pre-race goal but still spun through the 100 miles to a fourth-place finish among the women with a time of 9:29:43.
“I was hoping to go for under nine hours but I’ll take what I got,” says Dawn. “I have no excuses. I just didn’t have any extra zip in my legs.”
Dawn managed to ride sections of the course where almost everyone else was walking their bikes and got a rush out of the downhill on Columbine.
“That was so much fun,” says Dawn. “The people were so stacked in there coming up it was such a tight line through.”
While Wiens may return to the Leadville 100, it won’t be to win. He admits that he was as fit as he’s ever been coming in this year but the time and training he put in takes him away from his family and fun too much.
“I truly believe I’m never going to be as fit as I was two days ago,” says Wiens. “I honestly don’t think I’m going to go back to win the race. I’ll go back just as a participant. It’s always been just this cool race that is just a couple hours from my house and the stretch [winning streak] was never part of it.”