Riders ready for ‘Race Across the Sky’ | AspenTimes.com

Riders ready for ‘Race Across the Sky’

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Todd Wells of Durango, CO. controls the down hill by powerline trail and leads the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race on Saturday. Over 2,000 cyclist joined the race. Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post

LEADVILLE, Colo. – About three weeks ago, Aspen’s Chris Klug and a group of friends ventured to Columbine Mine, the halfway point of the famed Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race.

They gathered at the top to spread the ashes of friend and longtime Aspenite Gary Albert, who died of a heart attack while riding earlier this year.

They gathered to say one final goodbye.

“He loved this place, and he loved the Leadville 100,” Klug said Thursday. “It was a very special moment. Hopefully, I’ll have a little angel on my shoulder come Saturday.”

Saturday, Klug will take part in his third consecutive “Race Across the Sky,” a popular and grueling test in the Colorado high country.

The 39-year-old former snowboarder, who won bronze at the 2002 Winter Games, will be riding to honor his friend and riding to spread the word about organ donation. July 28 marked the 12th anniversary of Klug’s life-saving liver transplant.

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“I love riding my bike and love challenging myself, and this is also a unique way for us to raise some funds for the foundation and continue our outreach and educational work,” he said.

“It’s a cool, tough race. You know me – I trained for the last 20 years to go fast for 45 seconds to a minute. Now, I’m training to go fast for eight hours. It’s very different than what I’m used to, but it’s going to be a fun challenge.”

Fun might not quite enter the equation. After all, this race, arguably the toughest of its kind, stretches about 103 miles and covers 12,600 vertical feet. During one section, between mile 40 and 50, competitors confront a 3,000-plus-foot vertical push up to Columbine Mine, topping out at 12,424 feet.

Upon crossing the finish line in a record time of 6 hours, 16 minutes, 37 seconds in 2010, famed U.S. cycler Levi Leipheimer told The Associated Press, “This is ridiculously hard.

“It’s hard to describe the pain and torture that you go through on a ride like that,” added Leipheimer, who shattered the previous course record, which Lance Armstrong set in 2009. “It’s not what I’m used to. It’s like a six-hour time trial. There’s no sitting in. There’s no draft. … I just couldn’t wait for it to be over.”

Klug can relate. He was climbing through St. Kevin’s Gulch last year when unrelenting cramps nearly stopped him in his tracks.

“I went from competing for the first three quarters of the race to just surviving,” Klug recalled. “It’s easy to get a little aggressive in the first half and pay the price big time. … My legs were literally deformed with cramps. It was a virtual meltdown; I came unraveled at the eleventh hour.”

Woody Creek native and professional cyclist Alex Hagman encountered problems much earlier in 2011 in his Leadville Trail 100 debut. He flatted after just 20 miles, and the tools he carried were not sufficient to fix the problem.

Consequently, the 28-year-old pushed on for about 45 minutes before he could borrow the necessary supplies.

“In retrospect, that might have helped me even though I lost a ton of time,” said Hagman, who regrouped to finish 24th in about 71⁄2 hours. “It forced me to be conservative at the beginning and really jam it all the way home. I was going past guys I know went out hard and faded.

“Leadville provides a lot of unique challenges. It’s a road biker’s dream for a mountain bike race – wide-open roads, a lot of fast sections and not necessarily technical – but it takes some time to hit the mountain bike and get those skills back under me. Riding on dirt and cornering are a little different. Generally, when riding road bikes, you can assume the corners have a certain degree of curvature – cars have to make it. It’s a lot more predictable. On a mountain bike, you’re bombing down a fire road, and you have to turn sharply because there’s a cliff or something – you have to be on your toes a lot more. Still, you’ve got to pedal fast to go fast.”

Last year, Hagman used the Leadville Trail 100 as a tune-up for the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge. His Jelly Belly p/b Kenda squad was not invited to the Challenge this time around, so Hagman said his primary objective is to enjoy himself and the welcome break from road biking.

That might be easier said than done, however.

“I know I’ll get that competitive itch. I know when I’m out there, the adrenaline is going to jump, I’m going to freak out a little and want to ride my bike hard,” Hagman said. “If I can do around 6:45, I think that’s a realistic time if the conditions stay the way they are.

“Based on last year, that would be in the top 10. My time last year, two or three years ago, that would’ve been in the top three. … The depth of the field is getting better, and people are riding harder, faster and pushing the limit. Maybe a record will be set. You don’t have to be a skilled mountain biker to shred this course apart. You just have to have big lungs and strong legs.”

Last year, Durango rider Todd Wells sped to the finish in 6:23:38, finishing ahead of 1,899 riders and producing the second-fastest time in race history. Idaho’s Rebecca Rusch captured the women’s title in 7:31:45.

While Wells is not on the 2012 start list, last updated Aug. 7, Rusch, a three-time world champion mountain biker, is slated to return.

“Everybody here has a story. Everybody is here because they are putting it on the line,” Rusch told The Denver Post last year. “Everyone here wants to achieve something.”

For Klug, this race is about much more than cracking eight hours.

“I want to show the transplant community what’s possible,” he said.

jmaletz@aspentimes.com

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