Leadville Race Report: Tom from Performance Bicycle

Our team has recovered from the altitude and exertion of the fabled Leadville Trail 100 MTB Race, and has finally had time to get some coherent thoughts down on paper (or on the computer, in this case). This year Performance Bicycle sent a crew to Leadville to find out what the race is really like, and we found that our friends at Lifetime Fitness have built upon the tradition that race founder Ken Chlouber started 30 years ago – this is a race where you have to “dig deep” just to cross the finish line. In addition to our 3 racers (Chris, Tom and David), Performance Bicycle also supplied the only official neutral support mechanics for the race – our expert team of Spin Doctor mechanics, Kyle and Jeff. Check out our video below to see a few of the sights and sounds from the race, and read on below for Tom’s take on the Leadville experience.

I’ve always had a thing for endurance sports.  As a kid I idolized Rocky movies; I loved the idea of pushing the human body beyond what was considered possible.  I used to dream not of the first several rounds, but of the last – what it would feel like to be on the verge of collapse, yet still be able to push on and persevere. It’s the punching in the face part I can do without. Fast forward several years and instead of slugging it out in a ring I gravitated toward long course triathlons and marathons.  I made up silly long endurance events for my birthday each year and invited friends to complete them just for fun. So when I first heard of the Leadville Trail 100 MTB Race, I knew it would end up on my bucket list.

I’m a cycling fanatic and for years I cheered on Lance, Floyd, Jan, and others with great joy.  When Floyd, then Lance, then Levi targeted the Leadville Trail 100 I had just re-discovered my love of mountain biking and I was instantly captivated.  I bought and watched the Race Across the Sky films as if they were homework.  Names like Ken Chlouber, Ricky McDonald, Rebecca Rusch and Dave Wiens became mythic.  I read everything I could find about the race, the area, and the event.  So when I learned that my colleagues and I had finally received invites to Leadville, I was thrilled!

Preparing for the LT100:

Once I learned I would really be going to Leadville, I became very serious about seeing the dream through to the finish. Right away I acquired a bike more suited for the race, as opposed to my typical trail-riding style.  I bought a GT Zaskar Carbon 29er Pro hardtail mountain bike and rode it exclusively every day.  I decided that every ride I would do would be on this bike; I wanted it to become a part of me.  My rides became all about Leadville.  I now had a mission and that was, above all else, not to crash and hurt myself.  I knew that getting to the start line healthy was half the battle, and did not want anything to interfere with my goal.  Training became more about long endurance rides than about speeding through single track. I took to riding alone more than I was accustomed.  My focus was singular – build fitness and endurance while working on my nutrition plans (and NOT CRASHING).  I won’t lie… I was a bit obsessive with my preparation.  I read everything I could about the race each evening.  I visualized the racecourse while going to sleep.  I watched Youtube videos showing the course, and must have watched the two “Race Across the Sky” videos 6 times each.  I obsessed about minor details with my riding buddies Chris and David constantly (and frankly was perhaps a wee bit annoying).

Our home in North Carolina is very hot in the summer, and we live and train barely over sea level.  Leadville, Colorado, sits at 10,200 feet and the out-and-back Leadville course reaches a high point of around 12,600 feet.  There is more than 13K feet of elevation gain and loss during the race, which we had little chance of emulating in our home environment.  The best we could do was long rides in intense heat followed by short intense bursts of single track.  I would typically ride 4 or 5 hours (often in temps over 100 degrees) on the road and finish up with an hour or two of single track riding with a buddy who would meet me along the way. Generally I rode up to 180 miles a week (including my daily round trip of 18 miles of commuting) preparing for the race.

The Race itself:

Chris, Tom and David from Performance Bike at the start

After the traditional shotgun start at 6:30 AM, there is a neutral roll-out that lasts a few miles before you actually hit dirt roads. But once you do hit the dirt, the pace slows immediately – an 1,800 rider bottleneck on a narrow dirt road. Since your starting position is based on previous finishing times, first time riders like us start at the back of the pack. If you complete Leadville in 9 hours you’ll earn a large silver and gold belt buckle, and for under 12 hours a smaller but still significant buckle. While we all wanted to do well, knowing that since we were queued in the back of the pack, we had to have more realistic goals – simply to complete the race in 12 hours.  I highly recommend taking it easy and not setting too ambitious of a goal for your first LT100.   The difference between stressing out and pushing too hard at the beginning and relaxing into the race will be minor in terms of finishing times, yet major in terms of energy wasted.  Energy becomes a very valuable commodity after 10+ hours in the saddle!

After around 10 nervous minutes watching the wheels around me, we finally hit dirt.  We came to a halt immediately, and the climbing started shortly after.  The St. Kevin’s (pronounced “Keevins”) climb is around 3 miles, but at this point it was so crowded that it was difficult to pass, let alone go the pace I wanted to. Your best bet is to simply gear low, try to not touch wheels, and maintain your position. The next 2 hours are more or less like that – after climbing Sugarloaf Pass the pack thins out a bit, yet it is still very crowded and you are generally having your pace dictated to you until the first major descent of the day, which is by far the most dangerous (mainly because of the actions of others). The Powerline descent is around 4 miles of rutted steep drop offs with a lot of people trying to make up for 2 hours of bottleneck. By taking huge risks, you might make up 3 minutes during the whole descent, or you might crash out of the race you’ve spent 6 months obsessing over (or, even worse, cause others to crash).

Tom at Twin Lakes

Following the Powerline, the course is relatively uneventful until you reach the Twin Lakes aid station at mile 40.  This was the first aid station I planned to use. Our whole support team was there, and I was delighted to see them, take on supplies, and drop off some clothing.  As I had read, this was where the real race began. Up until that point, everything I had done was simply to set myself up to finish on time.  The cut-off to arrive at Twin Lakes was 4 hours – I did not push the pace, and in hindsight I wish I had.  I arrived in 3 1/2 hours, which was about 30 minutes longer than I had hoped!  I planned to make up time now that the bottle neck was behind me, yet this was not a risk-free plan. I planned on the next 20 miles taking only 3 hours, but it was way harder than I had imagined.

  The Leadville course is an “out and back” course, with a terminus at nearly the 50 mile mark on the top of the Columbine Mine Climb.  The Twin Lakes aid station sits at miles 40 and mile 60 – meaning it is 10 miles to the top of the Combine climb, and 10 miles back.  The climb itself is about 8 miles long and the elevation gain is approximately 3,500 feet – my time for this section ended up being another 3 ½ hours. Not long after starting the climb I saw the leaders come streaming down in the other direction.  They were flying on the descent – because of the 2 way traffic, if you wanted to pass on the way up, you took the chance of a collision with someone on the way down.  After 5 or so miles you make it above the tree line.  After this point, riding was futile. There was a long line of people walking up little more than a goat path at high altitude. My walking pace was 2 miles an hour, riding was 3.  Either way your heart rate is above the anaerobic threshold – above 11K feet your body does not process oxygen at anything like its normal rate. Amazingly, race founder Ken Chlouber was there by the trail, encouraging everyone on the way up. I finally reached the top, where I found a completely stocked aid station and enthusiastic volunteers ready to do anything it took to help you get back down the mountain strong.  They had warm soup, fruit, energy drinks and food.

But the idea is to not spend much time at 12,600 feet, and get down as quickly as possible.  Getting down meant at least a ½ hour descent with your brakes smoking, arms rattling, and your fingers numb from the cold and braking.  At last you arrive back once again at Twin Lakes. With your water and nutrition re-stocked, you are now on your own to complete the race within the 12 hour cut-off.  There are more aid stations, but you’d better not plan on staying too long.  The hard part of the race is just now beginning.  The Columbine climb was by far the most difficult thing I had ever encountered, but the Powerline climb, at mile 80, would prove to be even more difficult.

I took some solace in the fact that all along the course the views are amazing.  I kept looking around at the mountains and getting emotional about how lucky I was to be here, in this amazing place, doing what I loved with the support of people I cared about.  At last, the Powerline climb began.  Right away the pitches are steep and everyone, top pros included, got off to walk. By now I had a little over 3 hours to cover the last 20 miles to the finish.  Basically it became a never-ending mind game.  Every time you think you are done with the hard stuff, a climb you did not anticipate presents itself.  Even with 3 miles to go in the race, you are faced with “the Boulevard” – a seemingly benign pitch on your normal riding days that becomes a formidable climb after 10+ hours in the saddle.

In the end you simply want to finish.  But it’s not until you turn back on to 6th St that you can sense that the end is near.  You can hear the announcer and feel the energy. I had thought about this very moment more times than I care to admit… almost every day for months, yet the reality was far greater than I had imagined.  By now my wife, who was extremely worried as she expected a much quicker finish, was waiting for the first glimpse of me down the road.  There were only 30 minutes left to officially finish the race within the cut-off and she never imagined I would be so close to that cut-off time. Finally I came into view of the finish and there were my people, the finish line, and everything I had imagined for the last several years. They literally roll out the red carpet for the finishers, and Merilee, the race director for the past 30 years, was there to hang medals the neck of each finisher. It was finally time to soak it all in (although all I really wanted to do was go to bed).

Tom and his wife at the finish line

Stuff I am glad I used:

  • GT Carbon Zaskar Pro 29er hard tail mountain bike.  It was an awesome bike, and has replaced my other bikes as my go-to ride.  I love this bike.
  • Performance Ultra Max Bib shorts.  I never thought once about my shorts.  They were that comfortable, all day.  Just what you want in a pair of shorts.
  • Osprey Viper 7 hydration pack.  Just the right size to carry the stuff I needed, not too big and super comfortable.
  • Bento box. I know… it’s left over from my triathlon days, but it was awesome to have.
  • Stan’s No Tubes tubeless system… enough said.

Some lessons learned that may be useful to anyone considering the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race:

  • Do this race.  It is a special place and an incredible event – but be prepared to suffer. You definitely get what you paid for.
  • Try to meet, and take a picture, with Ken Chlouber.  He is a legend, and I believe it when he says you are a part of his family.  He has a way of making you want to be a part of his family.  Make sure you thank him for creating such an amazing race series.  You might just see his eyes water and this is one tough hombre.

Tom with race founder Ken Chlouber

  • If you recognize some of the race celebrities, say hello.  They are all incredible people, and very gracious.  We had the privilege of meeting Rebecca Rusch, Ricky McDonald, Jamie Whitmore, Ken Chlouber, Elden “Fatty” Nelson of FatCyclist.com, and several others.
  • Read everything you can from Fatcyclist.com about Leadville.  Search for Leadville on his blog, read up, and believe everything he says (including the part about chicken and stars soup).  He knows what he’s talking about.
  • Do not think that because his nickname is Fatty that you can gauge your time off of his.  He is most likely faster than you.  His wife is most likely faster than you.  There is no shame in that.
  • Watch the “Race Across the Sky” videos, and get to know the characters.  It will keep you motivated.
  • Try to meet Ricky McDonald.  He’s done the race 19 times on the same bike, with the same front tire, same helmet, and his father’s old blue service shirt (with the name “Fred” written on it). You can’t miss him.  He’s larger than life.  Meet him before the race because during the race he will be faster than you too… I don’t care that his bike is old, or that he says “I’m not fast”.  He is fast, he is tough, and very humble.  This guy is a legend.

David and Tom from Performance Bike, with Ricky McDonald

  • Eat or have a drink in the old Saloon on Harrison Avenue.  The place is unbelievable.
  • Speaking of eating, take in at least 300 calories every hour.  Too many and your body won’t be able to absorb and use the calories.  Don’t be surprised if everything tastes horrible to you during the race.  You might want to resort to “real” food, which was the case for me.  My nutrition I used in training tasted a lot different during a race and at altitude… this is where I failed.  I should have listened to Fatty and had more of that soup!
  • Go tubeless.  I saw so many people with flat tires.  Even at the very end, when people were pushing the cut-off times I saw poor people with flats.  Go tubeless, but bring an extra tube plus the stuff you need to fix a flat, a broken chain or other minor repairs.  The peace of mind is worth the added weight.
  • Don’t bring a belt for your buckle.  Buy it after you earn your buckle… just to be sure.
  • Speaking of don’ts… on a personal level I plead with you to please leave the compression socks for after the race, and under your pants. I mean it.
  • Try to do one of the Leadville Race Series qualifying events from Lifetime Fitness.  It might be your best bet to get in to the race.  My prediction is that this race series will continue to grow.  It is to mountain biking what the Hawaii Ironman is to triathlon, so your best chance to get in will be from one of the qualifying events.  That or move to a foreign country.
  • Look around while you’re racing.  It’s easy to get caught up in the other racers, or in your own suffering.  Pick up your head now and then, look around and be thankful.

Photo courtesy of Zazoosh

Ride Like a Pro Sweepstakes Winners

Last month during the Tour de France, we celebrated the nine teams riding bikes equipped with SRAM Red components with our Performance Bicycle Ride Like A Pro Sweepstakes. After sharing their favorite Tour de France moment, past or present, in 140 characters or less, 3 lucky winners were chosen to win a complete SRAM Red, Force or Rival component group!

Here are the three lucky winners (and their favorite Tour moments, all Lance-related) who will be riding SRAM like the pro riders from AG2R La Mondiale, Team Katusha, Liquigas-Cannondale, Pro Team Astana, Team Saxo Bank Sungard, Team Garmin-Cervelo, Team Radioshack, Saur Sojasun and Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team.

Steven Austin – SRAM Red Limited Tour Edition component group

Every time I ride with my buddies & we begin the hill climbs…I stare at them & “beat them down” with my eyes as Lance did a few years ago.

A very happy Steve Austin

Troy Long – SRAM Force component group

2003 TDF Lance Armstrong climb of Luz Ardiden…crash 1.5 times then win the stage. Plus the helmet pass off at the bottom of last climb!

Michael Lauziere – SRAM Rival component group

Armstrong says it was one of his weakest races but 03 Stage 9 Lance was forced off road and showed the world how amazing of a rider he is.

Since we got so many great entries, we thought we’d share more of our favorites (with a few links thrown in to illustrate the stories) :

This years crash involving a car and a rider going through the barbed wire fence. That had to hurt. Hats off to him for finishing the stage.

the crazy mountain stages.

My favorite moment was just a couple years ago when a big Texan came back from retirement and rode to an incredible Podium finish! Go Lance!

1995 TdF: Team Motorola “wins” a stage together to honor fallen team member Fabio Casartelli who died the day before in a crash.

Thomas Voeckler showing tremendous heart chasing down attack after attack on days where he was “supposed” to relinquish his jersey.

Watching the favorites battle each other up the Plateau de Beille in stage 14. And hoping there is more battles like this in the Alps!

The Look. Nuff said.

watching these teams just grind it out. these guys are machines watching them makes me want to train harder!

Lance Armstrong cutting through the cornfield after Joseba Beloki crashed. It showed exactly why he is a true champion.

Just started biking so all of it so far.

Seeing Hoogerland finish stage 9 and receive his King of the Mountain jersey after that horrific crash. What an inspiration!

Watching Tyler Farrar get his first Stage win on the 4th especially after losing his friend. What a great guy and an inspiration

Thor Hushovd taking off his shoe during a race so the mechanics in the team car could fix his cleat and then putting the shoe back at 38mph

Favorite Tour de France moment would have to have been Thor Hushovd defending his jersey like the giant that he is.

7/24/04-Stage 19: TT @ Besancon. @ the finish 100s of Germans booing Lance. 100s of Americans cheering. Lance wins. Crowd erupts: USA USA

My moment would have to be watching Lance Armstrong win for the first time after beating cancer. I was only 10 or so & it was mind-blowing.

Eddy Merckx soldiering on after having been attacked by a spectator

Watching Greg LeMond overcome a 50-second deficit on the final day of the 1989 Tour to beat Laurent Fignon by eight seconds.

My favorite part of the tour was just watching the progression of Lance Armstrong as he overcame hardships and became the best!

2007 when Marcus Burghardt hit the yellow lab (both were okay) and how all of the cyclists after that only asked if the dog was okay!

Levi Leipheimer winning the ITT in the 2007 Tour de France. Spectacular.

Greg LeMond getting Bernard Hinault back by beating him a year after team orders stopped him from winning

It was a pleasure to see the true workhorse George Hincapie win a TDF stage a couple of years ago, after working his heart out for others!

Stage 16 1995 Armstrong raised both index fingers upward acknowledging Casartelli as team finished together to acknowledge teammates death

High school (early 80’s): I was inspired to ride by “The Badger” Bernard Hinault. Seeing him climb TT & sprint – he is one of the greats!

Eddy Merckx winning all four jerseys in his first tour in 1969

ALL OF IT!!!

Thanks to everyone who entered our Ride Like a Pro sweepstakes, and congratulations to our winners! You can find all of our past contest winners here.

David’s Tour du Jour – Individual Time Trial and Tour Wrap-Up

The last day of my Europeds Tour de France adventure was a great one.  The weather was fine, and we were only a few miles from the finish line of Stage 19, the individual time trial that would determine the outcome of the 2010 Tour.  Everyone was excited to see the last day for the yellow jersey contenders (since the final stage into Paris is just for the sprinters), so we were up early to grab our petit dejeuner on the back porch of our hotel, the elegant Chateau Pomys (although calling it a back porch doesn’t quite do it justice, does it):

Before watching the excitement that was sure to come at the time trial finish in Pauillac, most folks broke up into groups to cruise the French countryside for one last ride.  I headed out into the vineyards with TJ, and we were amazed that the roads were so free of any traffic while the pandemonium of a Tour de France stage finish was only a few miles away.

Did I mention that there are a few chateaux in this part of France?

After a nice 30 mile jaunt, we headed to the coast of the Gironde, where it was a straight shot down to Pauillac and the finish line village.  While riding along the water, we got a little taste of the breeze that would devastate the Tour riders during the time trial itself.

When we arrived in Pauillac, the excitement level and crowds were already building.  While not overwhelming at all, the crowd was definitely in full effect near the finish line (along with the press booths that are erected overnight for every stage).  It’s pretty amazing how quickly this infrastructure is put up and taken down every day–just the night before none of these structures or signs were in place on this final stretch.

And soon after I arrived, I saw my first rider of the day (someone from the Cervelo Test Team).  After a while watching the time trial, you kind of found a rhythm for watching the race, as riders came by every 1 minute (and later every 2 minutes).  You could hang out and talk to people, and then, when you saw the lead motorcycles and officials’ cars zoom by, rush to the fence to see the next rider (or 2, if someone got passed on the road).

Here is Tony Martin, from Team HTC-Columbia, powering his way to nearly the fastest time of the day.  The riders who went out early definitely had the advantage of not facing as bad a headwind as started blowing later in the afternoon.

But the man that almost everyone picked to win didn’t disappoint; reigning World Time Trial Champion Fabian Cancellara, of Team Saxo Bank,  blistered the 52km time trial course in a time of  1 hour 56 seconds (that’s an average pace of 32 miles an hour, for those who didn’t do the conversion–insane!)

The setting for the last kilometer of the course was quite pretty, as it ran down a waterfront promenade, with shops and restaurants along one side and a stately line of trees along the other.  Here’s a rider from Team Milram cruising by the marina on his Focus bike:

Some fans found a higher vantage point to watch the race, and the nationalities were pretty mixed judging by the flags on display.

But there’s no missing who this next rider is, with his Captain America attire.  It’s none other than Dave Zabriskie, the American Time Trial Champion of Team Garmin-Transitions, who did the Stars and Stripes proud with a 5th place finish on the day.

As the afternoon wore on, I started to wander down the course a ways just for a change of pace.  Here I am passing the flamme rouge, or the 1km to go banner, as a Team Katusha rider blurs past.

And here’s a rider from Team Astana, Bejamin Noval Gonzalez, barrelling around a corner, not even getting out of his aero tuck:

If you walked far enough along the race route, you reached the vineyards and open fields where the wind was blowing right into the riders’ faces.  The only thing blocking the wind were the hundreds of camper vans parked along the side of the road, like this cluster shielding a BMC Racing Team rider:

I’m not sure what the theory was with the outfit, but this guy said he was a Contador fan (and he did match his dog, which was a nice touch):

Back in town, the fans were getting fired up for the final riders to appear on the home stretch:

One of the best places to get a better look at the riders (since they were moving so fast out on the road) was the stretch of road after the finish line and before the team buses.  Here’s American Road Race Champion George Hincapie rolling along after finishing up the time trial (too bad he wasn’t wearing that cowboy hat, though, as that would have been a great picture).

And in case you didn’t think that this time trial was a totally draining experience, just look at the glazed expression on World Road Racing Champion Cadel Evans’ face as he was ushered back to the comfort of the team bus:

Lance Armstrong didn’t waste any time when he finished up  his ride, slicing through the crowd to find the safety of a camper van, setting off a chase by fans and reporters alike:

Finally we were getting close to the big finale, as everything would be settled by the last few riders.  The announcer was calling out updated split times all day long, so we definitely knew where things stood as the time trial was winding down.  The energy in the crowd was building to a fever pitch as the last riders hurtled down the final hundred meters.  Fans would start cheering and slapping the barricade signs as riders approached, like here with Robert Gesink of Team Rabobank:

By far the most impressive ride of the afternoon was thrown down by Denis Menchov, whose time of 1 hour 4 minutes 47 seconds was a good 3-4 minutes faster than the average time for the later finishers, and was easily enough to vault him into 3rd place overall.

But the duel that everyone was waiting for didn’t disappoint, as Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador battled back and forth all day long, just as they had for the rest of the race.  As the split times rolled in, Schleck seemed to be closing in on Contador’s overall lead, at one point cutting the “on the road” gap down to 2 seconds.  Alas, it was not to be (much to the dismay of most of the fans), as Schleck faded just a bit down the final few kilometers, and couldn’t close out those last 8 seconds, even though he turned in a fantastic time trial.

Then there was only one man left on the course, and, in a blaze of yellow (and the roar of the crowd plus a few helicopters), Contador went flying past. He finished in a time of 1 hour 6 minutes 39 seconds–31 seconds better than Schleck’s time, assuring him another Tour de France victory.

I hustled over to the awards’ podium to catch the winners’ presentation, braving the crush of fans who squeezed in with me.  First up was Cancellera, who was awarded the stage winner’s bouquet by the PowerBar girls:

Then, without any preamble, it was time for the yellow jersey presentation.  Contador was hamming it up a bit much, but it was undoubtedly a long 3 weeks of racing as the favorite, so the relief he felt after this stage was evident:

And what Contador victory would be complete without his “pistolero” salute (sorry, I only caught the recoil):

Next up was Alessandro Petacchi in his recently re-acquired Green Sprinters’ Jersey (which he held on to during the final stage in Paris):

Then Anthony Chartreau of French Team Bbox Bouygues Telecom did the host nation proud by donning the final polka-dot Climbers’ Jersey (and you’ve got to love those wacky umbrella dresses worn by the podium girls):

The final jersey awarded was the White Jersey for Best Young Rider, which of course went to Andy Schleck, who was oh-so-close to winning it all for the second year in a row (and quite possibly would have won if not for that untimely mechanical on Stage 15 when he was in the yellow jersey).  But there’s little doubt that we’ll see a lot more of this duel in the next few years, as both Schleck and Contador are just hitting their prime years for racing!

With all the jerseys handed out, there was nothing to do but clean up and clear out.  The Tour is always moving, and as soon as a stage is done, the barricades and temporary structures are disassembled and the thousands of fans start streaming home (luckily for me, this meant only a short ride through the vineyards back to my chateau!)

But the finish of this stage also meant that my adventure in France was at an end.  It was an amzing experience, both watching the spectacle that is the Tour and riding the same roads and mountain passes as the racers, sometime just hours before the race passed by!  It gave me a whole new level of respect for what these pro riders are capable of, plus it was a total blast to test myself on these famous and jaw-dropping roads.  The experience was made even better by the camaraderie of everyone on my Europeds tour group, including my fellow riders and of course our guides David, Chris and Charly.  I would be happy to go riding at any time with any of the people I met on this tour (or at least enjoy another fantastic meal).

It’s a bit of a shock to return back to your home roads after a trip like this (there are far fewer chateaux in North Carolina, for example), but I’ll never forget my week chasing the Tour through the Pyrenees.  If you get the opportunity, this trip is definitely one you won’t regret if you are a true cycling fan (and having great guides doesn’t hurt).  The other fans, the roads, the atmosphere… just being there is a magical experience.  I hope you got a little sense of what it was like through my daily updates, and maybe next year we’ll see you on the roads in France!

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David’s Tour du Jour – Stage 16 of the Tour from the Col du Soulor

Another day, another beautiful morning here in south-central France. I’ve been lucky with the weather so far during my time here—the skies have been clear, the temperature warm but not unbearably hot, and sometimes even a bit of breeze to freshen things up.

Our plan for the day was to rocket straight out of Argeles-Gazost and head right up the Col du Soulor, the precursor to (and a much harder climb than) the more famous Col d’Aubisque. No, it’s seriously one bear of a climb—just check out the elevation profile.  There were definitely sections that were way steeper than what’s on this graphic:

The plan was to camp out at the top somewhere (for about 5 hours) and then watch the shattered remnants of the Tour roll by. This being probably the hardest stage of the 2010 Tour, we were excited to head up the final climb of Stage 16, just hours before the Tour riders would come charging through (of course, they would have already ridden up and over 3 categorized climbs by that point!)

Now if you don’t feel like reading on today, you can just check out the video I made of my day watching Stage 16 from the top of the Soulor:

But for those who want to read on, here’s a GPS plot of our route for the day:

A cool part about the start to our morning was the chance to chat with Ed Hood from Pez Cycling News, a great photographer and cycling journalist who knows everything about pro cycling (and just happened to be staying in our hotel). As an aside, Ed was not worked up over the whole Andy Schleck vs. Alberto Contador dropped chain controversy—to Ed, those were the breaks in sports, and you just have to deal with these things and move on. By the way, if you haven’t checked out Ed’s Tour de Pez write-ups for each stage of the Tour, definitely give them a look.

Ah, but the ride. The rode tilted skyward right outside of town, a rude awakening for slightly tender legs (but things would only get harder). After some relatively flat kilometers and a few twists and turns through tiny little villages, we finally turned onto the Col du Soulor, along with just about every other rider within 100 kilometers. The road was jam-packed with riders of every size, shape and ability, plus those walking up to the summit (since the road was closed to cars, with the exception of the odd VIP tour bus or police car). In addition, every available spot on the side of the road was lined with tents and camper vans, and everyone was out and about, getting ready for the Tour. And I can’t forget to mention that I saw the Nike Chalkbot yet again, and this time I got a picture:

A cool thing about Dave and Europeds is that he lets everyone find their own pace on our rides. You can go as hard or as slow as you want, and he and his crew will support you in whatever you need. In my case, that was a pretty slow ascent of the Soulor! Like I said, this climb is really steep, averaging 8% for the last 8 kilometers (there are handy road signs that remind you of the grade and distance left), but there a sections that felt like you are climbing up a wall. Luckily I had a ready-made cheering section, since the folks that were camped on the side of the road would shout words of encouragement for the struggling rider.

Up and up I climbed, along with the rest of the throngs, heading up the mountainside. You could tell when you were approaching the summit of the Soulor because the density of campers and spectators increased dramatically (along with the odd horse or 2):

Finally I wrestled my bike up to the little plateau that is the Col du Soulor, to be greeted by an amazing mountain vista all around. Here I am posing for a shot with the altitude marker (sadly with my jersey unzipped, a rookie mistake):

And here are some shots of the view, and the people, that you could see on the top of the Soulor:

And then we waited. We had a few hours until the Tour caravan arrived (the flotilla of advertising vehicles that precedes the Tour riders on every stage). Luckily there was plenty of entertaining people-watching to be had, along with an array of shops and cafes to frequent:

By the way, did I mention that the setting was absolutely spectacular?

Most of our group decided to stay here at the Soulor instead of pushing on the Col d’Aubisque proper, but a few folks carried on to that more famous Col. We definitely weren’t alone in making the call to stay at the Soulor, however, as you could see from the fleets of bikes stacked haphazardly against anything and everything on the summit:

But finally our long wait was over, and the publicity caravan arrived. Celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, the caravan is a parade of funny advertising vehicles that blare music and fling little trinkets into the crowd as a warmup act for the Tour riders. It’s a pretty remarkable sight to see grown men and women fighting over keychains or really ugly hats, but you learn quickly to stay out of people’s way if they really want that freebie! The caravan vehicles came in all shapes and sizes:

But all I could manage to snag, of the flung freebies, was this goofy foam hand:

Once the caravan finishes passing by, the tension in the crowd mounts, as there is only another 45 minutes or so until the first riders will pass by. The sure sign that lead group is approaching is the sound of helicopters overhead. When you hear the impressive din of 4 or 5 choppers close by, you know that the Tour is finally here! First we saw the relay choppers high in the sky, and then the camera chopper came into view around the shoulder of the mountain! You could feel the excitement ratchet up as the camera chopper finally came level to where we were standing. Up the road roared the lead official’s car, the camera and gendarme motorcycles, and finally, the first riders! And wouldn’t you know it, Lance was in the first group, much to the delight of the crowd, who let out a roar as he passed by (only a few feet from where I stood):

Next up were the requisite support vehicles:

And then a gap, with a few riders strung out in between, before the main peleton rolled in a few minutes later, led by Schleck and Contador side-by-side:

The rest of the peleton was strung out over about an hour, as the day’s hard summits had shattered the main bunch, and left many riders just struggling to make the time cutoff for the day. The final grupetto was mostly made up of sprinters, including Cavendish and Petachhi, who wanted nothing more than for this stage to finally be over:

Once the last riders were finally through, it was time to clear out and head home, but not before getting a snapshot with my buddie James, a young rider from Guernsey who I hung out with as we waited for the riders to finally arrive:

Finally the gendarmes gave the all clear and it was time to hit the roads for the harrowing descent back into town (made infinitely more so because you had to pick your way through tens of thousands of cars, riders and people, all of whom were going at a different speed)!

But I made it home safe and sound, and even had time to watch Lance lose out in his bid for a final stage victory. Tomorrow is a rest day for the Tour, but for me it will be the hardest day of riding during my week in France (assuming the weather cooperates), for we are off to tackle the Tourmalet!

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Flashback Friday – Cover Model Lance

Way back in 1992, before the big comeback with Team Radioshack, before the 7 Tour de France titles, before the comeback from cancer, even before turning pro and winning the World Road Championships in 1993, Lance Armstrong was a Performance Bicycle cover model for our Summer catalog!

This catalog cover dates to a time way before Lance was a global icon and standard fare on many a magazine cover, although he was already a highly successful amateur bike racer in his own right.  As you may have guessed from the Skittles USA team jersey, this catalog came out during the lead up to the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, where Lance would go on to finish 14th in the Road Race (the top American).  Performance was the official bike supplier of the US Cycling Team for the Summer Games, so we took the opportunity to give a young up-and-comer some exposure on our catalog cover, oddly enough modeling our Synapse mountain bike!

But this wasn’t the only time we put Lance on the cover in 1992, as we also used this group shot of Lance and 3 other riders from Team USA (cropped from what was actually a promotional photo for Descente clothing).  Can you name the other 3 riders in the photo (the answer is below the photo)?

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