Aspen skimo star John Gaston claims second Leadville Trail 100 MTB podium
The 2022 runner-up was six minutes faster than last year but took bronze after being out-sprinted by Alexey Vermeulen
LEADVILLE — Aspen ski mountaineering star John Gaston thought the pace at last year’s Leadville Trail 100 MTB was hard.
“I just had to keep telling myself, ‘Just wait. People are going to start dropping off,'” he said after finishing third on Saturday, his second-straight podium in the iconic mountain bike event. “Like, there’s no way everyone can hold this pace. If you’re absolutely dying and want to quit, you know almost everyone else — except for that guy, Keegan — is as well.”
Keegan Swenson may have obliterated the course record in a three-peat victory, but Gaston (6:08:05) got a personal best, too. The 36-year-old improved his time from last year’s surprise silver medal finish by six minutes but lost narrowly to former road rider Alexey Vermeulen (6:08:01) in a mad dash to the finish.
“The guy is so strong,” Vermeulen said of Gaston, more well-known for being a U.S. skimo team member and for winning events like Aspen’s Power of Four or the Grand Traverse, which goes from Crested Butte to Aspen.
“We were both, I think, pretty stoked that no matter what, we’re going to be on the podium — makes it easier,” Vermeulen continued in describing the final dual down Sixth Street. “And (we) just kind of decided to ride together until the alliance ended, and we could see the finish line.”
Ironically, much of the 2023 race played out similarly to 2022: Swenson bolted off the front one-third up the Columbine climb, riding 50-plus solo miles to a win, while Howard Grotts, Vermeulen, and Gaston were the major players fighting to round out the podium.
“It was almost déjà vu,” said Vermeulen, who finished fourth last year. In that race, Vermeulen attacked on the Powerline climb with 30 miles to go but paid the price as Gaston made a sneak attack going over the top.
“That’s how I got that second place,” he recalled.
This time, it was Grotts who made the major move up the grueling ascent.
“I mean Howie almost ripped all our legs off going up. I think this race does give to the people who save some bullets,” said Vermeulen, who was the aggressor on the descent down Hagerman Road. “That’s where last year I got popped off, and I just wasn’t going to have it happen this year.”
“He was on a mission. He was descending so well today,” added Gaston, who said his legs were fried before the 50-mile mark. “I did not think I had it today. My legs were so smoked by the time we hit Columbine.”
The shock of sticking with and surviving the elite cycling world yet again evident in his excited, albeit exhausted, posture.
“These guys go so hard. Every little climb, they just hit it, even though it’s a six-hour race. It just drives me nuts!” he exclaimed. “Kind of the opposite of skimo. And I thought I worked on that but again, I was just way out of my league and those accelerations in the first few hours — I don’t handle those very well.”
Gaston said he dropped all skimo workouts in June and July to focus on Leadville, describing his training as “a lot of volume, a lot at sweet spot, a lot at threshold — at altitude.”
Given his aerobic engine, his plan was to make a late move around Hagerman Road, similar to last year.
“I’m not stronger than those guys, and I can’t get on the podium if they all go to the line, so I had to try something, and I can’t believe …,” he said before hugs from his two young sons in the finish-line corral interrupted his train of thought.
“Hey, do you know how many times I wanted to quit today?” he asked his boys. “And I just knew you were watching me, and you’d be so upset if I quit after mommy drove you all the way here.”
It was a good thing he didn’t.
“Alexey and I were cruising the last 10 miles together, and we just couldn’t believe it,” Gaston said, summarizing his finish. “We’re like, ‘I don’t care what place we get, this is amazing … back-to-back podiums, sub 6:10’. I’m pretty ecstatic with that.”