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

Silver Rush 50 MTB (July 9, 2023)

I decided to do this race as a part of my preparation for Leadville Trail 100 and did that for several reasons. First, because your finish time in SR50 helps to improve your starting position in LT100. It’s extremely important if you’re aiming at a sub-9 hours finish or faster. But even with more modest goals, getting out of the white corral makes your day in Leadville a lot more enjoyable than it would be otherwise. Second, because it gives you a sense of how your body performs at high altitudes. And lastly because among all of the LT100 qualifiers, this one is the closest to where I live, just a 3-hour drive. And given that the race starts late in the morning, I don’t even need to stay there the night before. All are extremely practical.

But all that doesn’t do justice to the event. If you ever decide to go and do it — don’t be such a dork :–) Explore the town, spend time with good people, enjoy the ride (for the most part), and keep it fun. I was lucky to correct my course of action and had a lot of joy on that day, but I get no credit for that. Even for the race-related part of fun, I should “thank” the circumstances. That’s how it happened…

Best things happen at the top of the mountain

Well, you can hardly call Lincoln Mtn a “mountain”, but hey, can’t argue with the US Board for Geographic Names or their local subsidiaries. I’m pretty sure it was Thursday, and we had our usual group ride in Lincoln Mtn Open Space, just northeast of Colorado Springs. We are chatting with my friend Rae at the top of that hill, and she casually drops that she’ll be doing a race next weekend. Obviously, I wouldn’t be mentioning all of this if we were not going to do the same race. And on top of that — she and her friends Jackie, Alex, Amanda, and Weston have an entire house rented for the weekend. For a fraction of a price of one-night accommodation in Leadville, they let me stay with them, and I did not think twice, maybe not even once.

Saturday

Races usually take place on Saturdays, but Silver Rush 50, just like everything about Leadville, is a little bit special. It’s a weekend of racing. On Saturday there’s a 50-mile running craziness, followed by an MTB contest on Sunday using the exact same course. Hats off to those who run it, even more so to rare super-humans who would do both back to back.

But for us, lazy pedalers, Saturday is the day to wake up late, pack, drive, and enjoy the town while stuffing our faces with the shit-load of pasta, noodles, rice, and onions. Onions?!

There was one thing I never did before — the openers. Mostly because I didn’t race much in the past. The workout that’s supposed to be done 24 hours before the start, and is meant to warm you up for the race. The best way to describe it is that “you’re supposed to feel better after this workout than you were before it”. The one that TrainerRoad prescribed me (called “Laurel”) did not become my favorite, it was a little bit more intense than I wanted it to be. But firing up the muscles certainly felt good. With that item off my list, I put my bike on the roof rack and headed to Leadville.

First thing first, ordered a two-meal lunch (pasta and Pad Thai) in Golden Burro, a vegan restaurant in downtown Leadville. Finding plant-based food can be a challenge sometimes, so having a place like this is a true blessing.

Once the stomach is full there’s no better way to spend your afternoon than hanging with new people and getting to know each other. That’s what most of us did, except for a few who opted for a quick nap. Wish I could do both! 😆

For dinner, we decided to go to the Mexican place, which, as Amanda rightfully pointed out, is hardly a good choice for a pre-race meal. But hey, we can’t do EVERYTHING right, can we? Maybe tomorrow some of us will need a legit excuse for their poor performance. An option to dispraise a burrito loaded with onions and only onions was a trump I’d been dealt that night, and luckily I didn’t need it at the end.

Sunday

To the start

We woke up around 7, had a quick breakfast, and headed to the starting line which was only 5 min from the house. At 7 a.m. it was still a little bit chilly, especially because you’re going down there fast and you didn’t warm up yet. But by the time Ken shot his double barrel up into the air, the jackets were off.

Into the clouds (but not the fluffy ones yet)

Bang! And we pedal away!.. Haha, no, we don’t. We run. It’s Leadville, it has to be different. I don’t know if it’s possible to ride up the Dutch Henry Hill (I bet it’s not), but if it is — it’s definitely not worth it. Running is faster. Some will carry their bikes, most will push them. But all the same — get up there on your feet, and then hop on your bike. For how long — that depends.

First few miles we’re on a nice smooth double track in the woods, which has one big downside. If it’s dry — it’s dusty as hell. When you have a hundred riders in front of you, it’s hard to see through and breathe. And it’s also not easy to pass anyone here.

Hiking

Soon, the undulating forest expressway becomes a jeep road, gradually steepens up, and the challenge shifts from trying to go faster to doing your best to stay in the saddle. Eventually, though someone slips, and usually that would be enough to make everyone behind to dismount. Sometimes it’s you, sometimes it’s another rider up the road, but it’s all the same and everyone is in the same boat. Riding through the field is rarely an option.

It’s somewhat similar to Goat Trail in LT100. And the solution to the “problem” is also the same — be faster at the start, get there sooner, and leave the hikers behind. Easier said than done though.

Gravel

After the first long climb, we get to the long chunky gravel road that goes downhill for a few miles. And because it’s an out-and-back course, this descent will also be our last climb on the way back. My idea heading into the race was to take it easy for the most part, and hopefully be fresh enough to push it hard on the last long climb. I call it an idea and not really a plan because I’ve only seen the course profile on paper (okay, on a screen). Now, when I saw what the final climb would actually be like, the idea became a plan.

Mechanical problems

On one of the descents (it’s a double track, but leaders are already coming up on the left side of the road, so the space is limited) a few riders in front of me smashed their breaks and fully stopped in a not-so-technical spot. I did the same, but for some reason, I was still hoping that there’s no need to put a foot down and that we’d all start going now… and we didn’t, and I ended up falling down to the right. No injuries to the body, but the derailleur hanger was bent, and shifting was messed up. Fortunately enough we were very close to the turn-around point of the course where the aid station had a mechanic on duty. And it’s mostly all down the hill to get there.

The bike doctor put my bike on a stand, did something very quickly, and sent me off back on course. I was half mad, half bummed with what just happened, so I wasn’t really paying attention to what exactly he was doing. At first, it seemed like the shifting was back to normal, but not for long. Well, to be fair, without a treatment received I would probably DNF, that’s how bad it was in the first place. With the adjustments he made the chain didn’t want to sit in some of the gears and kept jumping back and forth, but it was rideable in many others. My choice was limited, but I wasn’t on a single-speed either. And even that would’ve been better than walking 25 miles back to the finish. So, don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful for the assistance.

Push it, baby

While battling the inconsistent shifting and getting used to what I can and what I can’t do now on a bike, I’ve made it to the last climb. For better or worse all that crap kept the brain busy. And maybe my problems actually helped me here in some sense, because for the last 7 miles or so I had to ride even more conservatively than I was willing to. And also because going only a little bit harder on this final climb was not something my bike would’ve allowed me to do. I had no choice but to settle into a pretty hard gear and grind it all the way up. The harder the merrier!

I passed quite a few other riders on that climb, and that gave me such an adrenaline boost that I couldn’t slow down. Not because it was all downhill from here to the finish line, but because I wanted revenge! On what, fate? Myself? My race-dumb brain wasn’t capable of asking reasonable questions, so I rode that downhill as if I was immortal. In hindsight, I think I was unnecessarily reckless at that moment, but I came back in one piece, and I had fun. A whole lot of fun to be honest. No regrets, but in truth this is the factor that makes me want to focus on racing gravel rather than mountain bikes. I’m too cocky to take it easy.

Unwind

My new friends were staying in Leadville for one more night, so I had a chance to go back to the house, take a shower, rest a little bit, and have a proper lunch before driving back home. That might have been even a bigger perk than sleeping there the night before 🙂

Final thoughts

SR50 has its pros and cons. Town community, and all the people who come to race and crew, are the biggest and the most important upside. So, if that’s your poison — you’ll find plenty. As for me, I love riding my bike. You can throw hail or snow at me, or send me into the desert. As long as it doesn’t kill me, I’ll persevere and have fun. But the key word here is riding. Hiking with a bike – not so much. This time it was unavoidable, and that’s okay. Can I fix that next time? I don’t know. I can accept that as a challenge, or I can pick something else. I’ll take my time to decide which way I wanna go.