I race gravel, enjoy XC, and miss the roads (maybe)

Lake City Alpine 50 MTB (August 26, 2023)

Lake City holds a special place in my heart. I did this race last year, and it was the first mountain bike race in my life. That in itself would’ve been enough for the warmest feelings, and it is. But with only a few dozen racers gathering in a small town (with a population of slightly over 400 people), it has the vibe of a family gathering. And I’m warning you: after you do it once – you will feel guilty if you don’t come back next year.

The race itself didn’t go very well for me in 2022 (not bad, but below my expectations). There was a perfect storm of mistakes that I made that day, and I’m not going into the details on that. What’s important is that I’ve got the experience that I could use this year to do better, and time to beat.

Goals and plans

At the beginning of the year, when I was signing up for LCA50, I didn't expect much from myself, given that it was only two weeks apart from my take on Leadville 100. But then I felt great going into the race and confident that the following should be achievable:

That’s it. And here’s how it was supposed to be done.

Fueling

The race is all about climbing. You begin ascending straight from the starting line, and with my target finishing time of 5 hours I would be climbing 4 of them. Almost non-stop. Normally on a climb, you do not want to carry any extra weight on you. Hence, going all in on bottles with one perfectly positioned aid-station made a lot of sense. But I decided to carry a 2L hydration pack on my back (in addition to 2 bottles on a frame), thinking that extra weight is not as important as to stay fully self-sufficient for the entire race, and simply take the aid station out of the equation. One less thing to worry about. And I did not regret it.

Another perk of wearing a hydration pack is that you can’t lose it. Flashback to 2022 when I was sticking to my bottles. I stopped at the aid station to refill one of them (the second one was half full at that point), and then two minutes later I dropped it on a harsh descent. When the loss was noticed it was already too late. Mountains are miraculous, they can empower you or kill you viciously. The black magic, sleeping deep in the abandoned mines of the area, suddenly came out and transmogrified the only bottle I had left from a half-full into a half-empty one. Game over.

I did get myself much better cages right after that happened, but I’m not taking my chances against the San Juan mountains ever again.

Pacing

I split the course into 4 major parts, and I had my head unit set up to show them as live segments so that I know in real-time how am I doing compared to last year. The segments were (with rough time estimates based on a 5-hour finish):

  1. [1 hour] From the start to County Road 35. It’s a mellow rolling gravel road with consistent elevation gain, where it makes sense to stay with a group and work together. Speeds here are still high enough to benefit from drafting.

  2. [2 hours] Cinnamon Pass climb. That’s where it gets steep and rough, and you start working solo.

  3. [1 hour] Engineer Pass climb. Shorter than the Cinnamon Pass, but even steeper. That’s where I bonked last year, and walked the most of it. The Goal C (”no hiking”) was all about this.

  4. [1 hour] Descent back to town.

The plan was pretty simple – stay at last year’s pace for the first two, then do better (much better) on Engineer Pass, and the descent is a descent. Sweet. Let’s do this.

Getting there

It’s only 4 hours 40 minutes drive from my house. I took a day off on Friday, did my openers workout at 7 am, got pancakes for breakfast, made some coffee, and headed out to Gunnison first, where I was planning to stop for lunch at a wonderful Nepalese restaurant. Two servings of rice, some curry, and a garlic naan set me up for the success.

Got to the town around 5 pm, got my number, and checked into the cabin just in time before the rain went off. There’s not much to do in Lake City on Friday night anyways, less so when it rains. So, no reason to deviate from the plan – movies and pasta all night long. Yay!

Actually, there’s something you might wanna check out, especially if you come with the rest of your family. Last year we attended the Friday night Ghost Tour organized by Lake City Museum. It was fun! Perhaps not everything about the ghosts of the town was exactly true, but it definitely adds to the charming atmosphere of the place.

Night

I woke up in my cozy shack in the middle of the night, thinking that someone’s wasted and trying to get into the wrong cabin. Well, it’s locked, so nothing to worry about. I looked at my watch – it was 3 o’clock. But then I thought: if that would be a drunk person trying to open a door to what he thinks is his cabin, he would most likely say something about it. I would be cursing like a sailor, that’s for sure. So, is that even a person hitting on my door? Guess not.

“Damn bear, leave me alone!”, – or something like that I said through the window, turned on the lights, and the fluffy creature bustled off.

When I got back into my bed I obviously did not fall back to sleep immediately, and the whirlwind in my head was slowly coming to order. I didn’t even check that the door was locked (he was banging on an outer anti-mosquito frame, and fortunately didn’t make it any further). Even if it was latched, those locks are only a matter of motivation for a hungry, 300 kg Winnie the Pooh. Moving a dining table towards the door would be a smart move, but that didn’t come to mind either.

Race day

Thanks to the kind host at Wildflower Cabins for letting me to leave my car at their premises beyond the checkout time. Now, instead of driving, I can ride to downtown where the race starts, and use it as a quick warmup.

While hanging out in a starting corridor it was easy to spot Dean and his buddy Bryant, even though we never met in real life before. I knew he would be riding a gravel bike that day, and not many people are that adventurous. Nice to have a little chat, adds up to the friends & family atmosphere of the event. And if you wanna know how that went for him, I encourage you to go check out his “I brought the wrong bike“ video blog.

1. The Gravel Part

From the start, I was trying to stick with a group of strong riders in the front and stayed with them for about 15 minutes. Somewhere around the lake, I decided that this pace wasn’t quite sustainable for me and backed off a little. No, I wasn’t dropped (yes, I was). The biggest factor that led to that decision was last year’s experience, where one of the mistakes was to go too fast too early, which contributed to bonking later in the race. So, I settled into a more comfortable pace and kept grinding on my own.

At some point, Dean and other riders caught me up and passed. I sat on their wheel for a while, and then let them go too, but I wasn’t worried about that too much. I knew very well what was coming up ahead. And at the end of the day the cold-minded pacing paid off. Once we hit the next part of the course, it was only me passing other people, and never the other way around.

2. Cinnamon Pass

Another tweak I made to my bike (besides better bottle cages) was swapping a 34-tooth chainring for a 30-tooth one. Mostly with a C-goal (no hiking!) in mind. Makes your life easier on the steepest climbs, but it’s a double-edged sword as it also gives your brain and body room for slacking. Which I couldn’t resist in that moment. I ended up losing 90 seconds (over a 1-hour stretch) to my last year’s self. Did it make me faster overall on that day? Possibly.

Oh, right, the views. Hey, I’m just not that kind of a rider. I’m a nerd when it comes to pedaling my bike. I like doing that, I love the process, which usually consumes all my focus. Breath-taking views from the mountain pass, or hours all alone through the prairie – it’s all the same. Pedal, eat, drink. So, if you want an objective opinion on the beauty of alpine meadows, with visual proof, once again, go check out that video I mentioned above.

You can enjoy this one as an appetizer. I took it while riding the same course with my family on an ATV.

2½. Intermezzo

A quick 6-minute long descent (if you do it faster, don’t blame luck for a pinch flat or a slashed sidewall), a little break between the climbs. The only meaning that can be applied to the word “break” here, is that it can wreak havoc on you, on your bike, or both.

This time I knew exactly what was coming, and I was ready. But I still vividly remember how it felt the first time. You’re climbing for hours, and you’re naively (spoiler!) looking forward to any amount of descent you can get to catch a breath, stretch your body, and cool down. Finally, you start going down that road on the other side of the mountain. And instantly you wish you could rather just keep climbing. Earlier only your legs were hurting. Now the whole body does. Legs don’t get a chance to relax because they work as a suspension, your fork doesn’t save the upper body from all the abuse, and your mind needs to stay focused on your lines to keep you alive. There’s an ER crew on duty at the bottom!

I know it sounds dramatic, and one can say it’s an exaggeration. Well, some of it comes from the fact that I never rode such a harsh terrain ever before (as I said, my first attempt at LCA50 was the first mountain bike race in my life). But that’s my sincere perception from a year ago. Certainly, it didn’t feel nearly as bad this time. However… I did Silver Rush 50 MTB in Leadville earlier this year, which is well known for its steep roads, often rutted and full of loose rocks. And I can confidently say that Cinnamon Pass descent kicks ass of any part of SR50 downhills. It’s a legit torture, even though it doesn’t last that long.

3. Engineer Pass

Now the real business begins. In a sense, this was the easiest chunk of the race for me. Because all the necessary decisions were made ahead of time, and a race-dumb brain simply had no vote in that moment. Preceding parts of the race were also perfectly executed, so there was no room for excuses either. Just pedal, there’s no Merilee around to tell you to stop (IYKYK).

17 minutes faster than last year, and with some energy in the legs to spare. Final push, here I come.

4. Weeee

The final descent was 52 minutes long for me, but it can be virtually split into two major parts.

Right from the top it’s somewhat technical. Nothing crazy, but you want to stay alert with the line choices, breaking, and all that to keep the rubber side down and avoid flats or worse.

After that part is done, you get to the smooth gravel road that leads you all the way to the park where hot food and cold refreshments are already waiting. I glanced at my computer and sub 5 hours result seemed to be hard to lose. Nothing is impossible though, so just to be safe on that front — head down, flat out.

Thankfully there was no finish sprint. The second year in a row I took the wrong way 10 meters before the final turn into the finish corridor.

So, how was it?

It’s been a blast! As you might’ve sensed, I love this event in itself from the bottom of my heart, disregarding how it goes for me personally on a particular day. But the little teenage overachiever inside me can’t stay hyped on that alone year after year. It needs a sense of accomplishment to stay satisfied. And now when I think about it, the biggest personal success on this day wasn’t even ticking all the boxes for the goals I’ve set, but the impeccable combo of goal setting, planning, and execution on my side. I mean, it’s a lot of hard work in training, sure, but also the newly gained ability to put those fitness gains into play. Something that I wasn’t really capable of only three months ago.

Even though my plan from now on (for the next season at least) is to focus more on gravel races, this event most likely stay in my calendar.