A double-barrel shotgun blast shatters the cold Colorado morning at 10,000 feet. It clangs off the old brick buildings as shivering racers clip in and roll toward the Sawatch Range in the distance.
Will Sladek is there, racing and frantically trying to move up. In his head, Sladek was back in Spain. He was a young road racer on his elite amateur Spanish team where, when the gun went off, everything went nuts. Colorado, Spain, office-park criteriums, trails… when a start gun sounds or a flag drops, it’s all the same.
He came to Leadville, along with some 1,500 others, with a goal. For some it’s to finish, plain and simple. Others look to earn the big belt buckle for going under nine hours. Sladek harbored the hope of of breaking the eight-hour mark. That’s a stiff order, no matter one’s pedigree, though for what it’s worth, Sladek has it in spades. He grew up in central Texas watching his father race, and later put in the hard yards himself as a collegiate racer. He moved to Spain to have a crack at turning professional and got a stark lesson: at his absolute best there was a slim chance he could have been a “terrible” professional, in his words. A few stops, years, and bikes later, he’s now the GM at Backcountry.com.
But the need to compete and to strive is a constant tug. It’s what makes him ride long all summer, with Leadville as a carrot. It’s what compels him and the rest of us to write goals down in training logs, to willfully pay money for a bad time. To dig. To prepare.
“I love that the time means something. I can compare to other people. I can compare to myself. It’s rare in mountain biking — it’s like a marathon,” Sladek says. While maligned by some for its lack of trail, Leadville makes up for it with a dose of truth. It’s a benchmark event; the course is always the same, but the rider coming to the start is new each time. It’s just plain hard.
Sladek studied math at Caltech and at work spends his days in a cloud of calculation. At his level, numbers are a nuanced language. Leadville, though, is a special physical calculus: It demands an analytical approach for pacing, nutrition and gear, but absolutely nothing happens in theory once that shotgun announces the day’s intent.
“Everything about [Leadville] is tangible,” Sladek says. “It’s a hard, wind-against-your-cheek dose of reality. I like the level of thinking that goes into it. It’s a brutally concrete counterpoint to the abstract world I usually spend time in… it’s the experience of the landscape in a different way. I’m guaranteed to forget about everything and I’m instantly engaged with the place I’m at. You get an experience everywhere you go when mountain biking.”
At Leadville, that experience swings wildly.
While fitness is the most important piece in most any race, equipment choices can be make or break. Sladek chose a lean Santa Cruz Blur as his ride — light enough to climb, but soft enough to bevel the long, rocky descents. He sized up in tires (2.35 Maxxis Ikons) after previous efforts yielded ripped sidewalls. Sladek chose Etxeondo bibs, tried-and-true Sidi Dragon kicks and POC’s new Ventral aero helmet (a good amount of Leadville comes on fast roads, both dirt and paved).
Nutrition is also paramount in an eight-hour race. Sladek packed a combination of Skratch Labs mix, Honey Stinger waffles, and SiS gels. Due to the race’s distance and nutritional demands, riders often have outside support, known as a “crew.” In Sladek’s case, that support came from his wife, Ruby. She was able to hand off bottles and food, as well as offer encouraging shouts in several places along the route. The two treat the race as an excuse to hit the road in the waning days of summer to camp and ride, and load up their dog, Bowdrie, as well.
For days Sladek had been tinkering with the bike, sitting in their van sorting out the last-minute details with his watchful dog as company. And then it was race day.
“My wife notices I’m not talking, I’m not joking. I’m getting the bike ready. I’m excited to transition from having trained for the last three months to how it’s going to work out,” he says. “I love that Leadville merits focus all day.”
That old saying, though… “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth?” Always true. Theory merges with harsh reality in the cold, blue morning, and the honest numbers of an electronic clock tick by. Sladek hoped to break the 8-hour mark, and to do it he’d need everything to click.
He went fast up the first two climbs, then worked hard on the long drag toward the race’s highest point, the Columbine climb. With a 12,424-foot summit, it’s an absolute monster. He had to back off as he began to cramp. Time slipped away. He donned a Nathan running vest for the last 50 miles, hoping to combat the dehydration that drained and cramped his legs.
If it sounds like a load of suffering… it is. But out there along the rugged mining roads, racers unearth new pieces of themselves. Sladek can’t remember thinking about much outside of the next mile or feed. He walked the steep parts of the Powerline climb out of fear of not finishing due to the frigid grip of cramps. “I spent the second half of the race being passed back and forth by Chase Edwards, the woman who was in third place,” he recalls. He was faster on the flats and the downhills; she was the stronger climber.
“I couldn’t care less about the placing. It’s similar to the good parts of road racing, where it’s good to work together,” Sladek says. “This gets back to the kind of riding I’d do with my dad growing up. We weren’t racing but we cared about the effort. On our local group rides — it was a respectable thing to go to the front and just crush yourself. And that mattered more than crossing the line first. Leadville kind of feels like that.”
He’s back at his day job now, running the numbers, reasoning, solving abstract problems. Perhaps there’s another number on his mind, though. Maybe it’s 7:59. Just maybe.