Alaskan snow riders inspire Colorado winter bike-race series |

Alaskan snow riders inspire Colorado winter bike-race series

Dave Philipps
The (Colorado Springs) Gazette/AP
Aspen, CO Colorado
** ADVANCE FOR USE IN WEEKEND EDITIONS OF FEB. 16-17 **Ben Grass of Denver slides down snow-covered mine tailings during the East Side Epic on Sunday, Jan. 27, 2008 in Leadville, Colo. The race was the kickoff for the annual winter bike race series that has been held for the past decade. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Dave Phillips)

LEADVILLE, Colo. ” You’d think the snow, ice and subzero temperatures that cause many Colorado cyclists to hang up their wheels in winter might have some effect on riders in the highest, and one of the coldest, towns in the Rockies.

You’d be wrong.

On a recent morning, the temperature in Leadville, a former mining town perched at 10,200 feet, was 6 degrees. Icicles on the eaves of the Victorian houses stretched almost to the ground. Some cars, unable to start early in the winter, were mere moguls in the snow. Huskies pulled a dogsled on the edge of town.

But the cold didn’t deter 23 mountain bikers from showing up for the kickoff of the annual winter bike race series. The race has been held for 10 years, snow or shine (mostly snow). But 23 riders was the biggest turnout ever.

“We’ve raced with as few as three,” local rider Jim Barnes said, his breath steaming past a bushy beard showing the first signs of icicles.

“It’s not for everyone. We’ve been told we should be committed.”

The riders, some on special snow bikes with doublewide tires, adjusted gloves and face masks. Then, with a quick, informal “Go!” they spun off into the hills, flinging snow in their wake.

The bundled-up peloton shot off along a snowpacked road, then climbed a maze of snowmobile tracks in the patchwork of abandoned gold and silver mines between town and the Continental Divide for a total of 10 miles and 1,900 feet of elevation gain.

“This is definitely the hardest race of the series,” said Sterling Mudge, one of the race organizers. “Get off the trail an inch, and you’re going to sink up to your handlebars.”

Winter bike racing is not unique to Leadville. Small numbers of riders with metal-spiked tires race on frozen lakes in Minnesota. Vermont and Wyoming boast tours on snowmobile trails. And for almost 20 years, bikers have braved the arctic night in Alaska for the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational.

That’s where Leadville’s series got its start in 1998. A recently arrived rider from Alaska brought the winter racing tradition with him. In tiny Leadville, where outdoorsy locals bike year-round to commute, it was a natural fit.

“A lot of us do ride year-round anyway, so we’re used to it,” said Mudge. “The coldest I’ve ridden in so far this year was minus 18. You have to wear goggles in that to keep your eyeballs from freezing.”

The race also attracted a handful of sun-loving Front Range riders.

Chris Plesko drove up from Westminster for his first-ever snow race. He had a secret weapon ” a bike called a Surly Pugsley with 4-inch-wide balloon tires.

Plesko took an early lead, bumping over the crusty snowmobile track where other riders broke through and had to walk.

If the Leadville race is an indication, snowbiking isn’t pretty. Riders go over the handlebars at almost every turn.

“You fall a lot,” said Mark Wallace, a local who has ridden in the series since its beginning. “But it’s like falling when you’re skiing. Most of the time, it doesn’t hurt.”

Wallace rode on normal-size tires stretched onto wider-than-normal rims, giving him more rubber on the snow.

The thin, grippy tires helped him take the lead from Plesko when they hit a snowpacked road.

Wallace won, but longtime locals point out that he wins almost every time ” and no one seemed to care. Most riders looked relieved to cross the finish line. The average time for the 10-mile race was a staggeringly slow two hours.

The riders said it was less about competition and more about getting out and doing something fun.

“Racing in the snow is another flavor of a kick in the pants,” racer Tom Purvis of Salida wrote on his blog afterward. “This time of year, bikey people like me often can use this sort of kick.”

The next race in the series will be held Saturday, March 1, on the Mineral Belt Trail around Leadville.

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