Joe Dombrowski finds himself in Vail, eating a steak. Killing time. The Leadville 100 is two days away at this point. He’s between the Tour of Utah (finishing in 8th place) and the Vuelta a España. Inside this little window, Joe has added Leadville. The 100-miler is raced above 10,000 feet, climbs more than 10,000 feet, and awards shiny belt buckles to finishers. “Leadville” is all one needs to say about it to most competitive cyclists.
What gear ratio will work best? What tires work best? Questions every mountain biker has asked before a big race on an unfamiliar course. And exactly the sort of things that occupied Joe’s mind leading up to the race. Here’s an email he sent to his Cannondale-Drapac team manager, the former road legend, Jonathan Vaughters.
“Ok. Well on the high end the difference I see between a 36/26 2x and a 32 single ring when in the 11 is basically 24.2 mph at 90 rpm for the 2x versus 21.5 mph with a 1x set up in the 11 on the cassette at 90 rpms. At 100 rpm you get up to 29.6 mph on the 2x setup which seems like it would plenty, even for the fastest bits of the course. On the low end with a 26x42 double setup I could ride at 3.1 mph at 60 rpm versus needing to move at 3.8 mph with a single 32x46 gear to maintain 60 rpms. I think this could be significant also in ability to remain seated and keep traction the rear wheel during steep, loose climbs, and additionally we can keep the torque lower which is always good for me. Obviously there is the additional weight of a shifter and derailleur and a slightly higher risk for chain issues on a 2x, but it seems the way to go, right? The guys I‘ve spoken to who have done the race before seem to think that‘s best.”Just a few days before the race, Joe needed to do a six-hour training ride. Pro life.
Two days out from the race, Joe surfed singletrack in Vail and showed locals that he still had the magic touch on dirt.
On Friday, Joe headed up to Leadville to pick up packets, race numbers, and attend the racer meeting, held in the high school gym. At a big road race, all these things are done for him, but not here. Joe needed to do a training ride after packet pickup, so he wore his kit down to the meeting.
Joe’s teammate Alex Howes made the call to jump into Leadville, too, and showed up in town ready to race without the fanfare and support that riders get at the World Tour level. Joe slept the night before the race in a twin bed in a little red house on the start line, rented from a friend of a friend of a friend named Sam. Vaughters, would drive over on race day to handle the feed zone musettes and hand ups while other friends would hand up bottles at mile 73. The support team and riders studied Strava segments in advance of the race to get a sense of how long the climbs would take. Race morning rolled around. The alarms went off at 4 a.m. Go time.
“I hope I don‘t get fired for wearing this flannel shirt over my team gear… No, actually I don’t care. If I take this shirt off I will freeze to death. I want coffee. Also, I‘m hungry.”
—Alex Howes, on what was running through his head at the start.
Goes the shotgun blast to signal the start of the race. Or, BOOM, more accurately. A host of current and former pro roadies lined up in Leadville alongside Joe and Howes. Laurens Ten Dam drove out from California. Lachlan Morton, fresh off his Tour of Utah win, showed up in a cut-off T-shirt. Former professionals Ted King, Craig Lewis and Timmy Duggan joined the party, too. Jeremiah Bishop attacked pretty much in the neutral zone.
As a former pro, Jonathan Vaughters has grabbed musettes at speed in the world’s greatest races. On race day, he played the role of helper for the first time in a long time, giving hand-ups to his riders. “Leadville is Colorado bike racing at its best. It’s high, it’s tough, it’s beautiful,” said Vaughters. “Of course I was nervous to send them. They might have crashed, been eaten by a mountain lion… lots of stuff. But then, at least they won’t be run over by a team car. On the whole, it’s less risky than road racing.”
Most of the riders on the line that morning would have agreed that Joe was among the best, if not the best, climber in the entire field. He put that skill to work to push for the win and let it rip on the Powerline climb, where he drove a wedge into the race. But it was Todd Wells who rode solo into Leadville, triumphant. And then that little green dot emerges again, making its way up toward the finish. Six hours, twenty-two minutes and forty seconds after he left the start line, Joe takes second place in his first crack at the Race Across the Sky. “I had a gap on the [Powerline] climb, but then bobbled and was running with the bike and [Wells] came back,” said Joe. “Then we were together over the top of Powerline and he attacked me on the descent. I just made a mistake on the descent, went off the trail, and he had a gap. Then it was basically a time trial.”
Some days you just get beat. Some days, you just think about how soon you can come back. It’s the same for pros and for amateurs. You win, or you get ‘em next year.
Heavy hitters come out for Leadville every year. But 2016 marked the highest participation of current of World Tour pros ever. Joe came with a good shot at winning. Others came for adventure. And they all left with great memories and experiences they’ll remember forever. For his part, Laurens Ten Dam said he’d never done such a hard race. Alex Howes said the effort left him a bit thirsty. “I want one gallon of water and every beer in Leadville. Now.”
Follow all the pros mentioned in this Story on Strava: