Columbine mine. 12,400'
Any mountain bike racer knows what you are talking about when you say "Columbine". This is the climb to the sky in The race across the sky. The climb that takes you above where it is warm enough, moist enough, or the air dense enough for trees to grow. Above the clouds, and potentially, beyond your limits. This is not the same as the Alpe d'Huez, or the Galibier, Col de la Croix Fer, or Stilvio. It is not Hautacam or even Ventoux. Those incredible cols and passes have featured epic battles for position, classic duels between cycling's great heroes. Columbine only has survival. All of those famous European mountains peak 2000 ft or more below Columbine. They are all paved. They all have one way traffic. You can slow down and recover on Alpe d'Huez. On Columbine, the air is too thin to provide enough oxygen for recovery. Slowing down just prolongs the pain. When Lance Armstrong raced Leadville, he lost time on Columbine. To a guy who uses love and sugar for a performance enhancer. Columbine is 10 miles up, and 10 miles down. It is the heart of Leadville.
What makes it so special (beyond the fact you might just get AMS as you turn around) is that this 20 miles is where the ENTIRE field comes together again. Being an out-and-back course, the leaders are flying down the mountain as the rest of us slog our way up. It's a chance to see the world champ ride in 3rd place, hanging onto the wheel of the American champion. It's a place to cheer your favorite pros, and hear them cheer for you. The road is only about 12 feet wide, so you are sometimes mere inches from these guys as they scream down the mountain. The family of Leadville is very apparent here. Everyone is pulling for each other. Bottles are shared, gels passed back and forth, and always the encouragement to dig deep.
I started my climb after about a 10 minute stop at Twin Lakes. Farooq was my human bike stand, Mom had the fluids and calories, Priya bike gear and clothing. Layla was allll over the cowbell. A better crew was not to be had! Just before I returned to the trail, the lead moto came through. I wanted to be on the slopes of Columbine before the leaders had finished descending. Looked like their insanely fast pace would prevent that.
The climb starts with a little hop over 2 ridges. Both are still decent efforts, but just appetizers for the big pain feast to come. On the first ridge I came up on the only other dark skinned racer I had seen all day. He was in full lifetime athletic kit, and astride a *very* expensive bike. This could only be one person. Bahram Akradi. CEO of lifetime fitness. My gym, and employer of my trainer, Jamie Meng. As I passed Bahram, I complimented him on his clubs, an the quality of his trainers. I also smiled real big. It's his job to work out every day, and those sculpted quads and pecs were moving his bike pretty slow up this relatively small hill. For the first time all day, I put the hammer down. Bahram yelled at me to keep my knees in. I kept climbing.
As I dropped over the ridge and was about to begin the next little climb, the race leaders came through. Alban Lakata, Todd Wells, and Christoph Sauser going fast fast fast. I yelled out "albanator! Yo T Wells! sausi sausi sausi!!" They kept riding. Up and over the ridge, a quick jaunt across some ranch land, and I was in the 3rd of 3 crew areas around twin lakes. There was 6 time champ Dave Wiens ringing a cowbell and cheering us on. I rode by called out "thanks Dave!" He returned "go speedy go speedy!" I passed the hula girls, and started up the climb in earnest. It was only here, nearly 10 minutes after seeing the lead group, that I saw the next leader coming down the hill. I was now firmly on the slopes of Columbine, and felt that I had indeed made my goal of being up Columbine before the leaders came down.
As I climbed, the crowd formed again. We were mostly a tight double-file packed on the right side of the road, leaving more than 1/2 the road for the descenders. Very uncomfortable. I could not climb at my pace, and I was starting to lose 100% control of my arms, making accurate close quarters steering very hard. This was stressful mentally as well as physically. For the first time in the race, I was working really hard, and not going very fast at all. This is where the race magic took over. The really fast guys coming down started cheering for us more frequently, and us climbers cheered back to the descenders. I was looking for my favorite racers and Leadville celebrities, and a few friends from Scottsdale I knew in the race.
About 1/2 way up I heard a 4-wheeler behind us that for some reason freaked me out. As it went by, I lost concentration, touched wheels with the rider in front of me, and went down, fairly hard. I was not hurt bad, as my first thought was to jump up, get out of the line, and keep moving. I got myself sorted, remounted, and started climbing again. I kept my eyes up...I wanted to do some stargazing. The pros coming down looked and sounded so fast, it was incredible. 2 women passed by, no Rebecca Rusch. She's the queen of Leadville, and there was some chatter amongst us climbers that she was not where we expected. Soon enough, the Red Bull helmet with Specialized kit came bombing around the corner ... Standing in the pedals, hammering "go reeeeeba!'" I yelled as she went by. Lots of us cheering for Rebecca... Then it was Elden "fatty" Nelson "go fatty!!" Ricky MacDonald, a few Bicycle Ranch riders...
About 1 mile left in the climb, the road got even steeper and very rocky. Ahead of me was a long line of dismounted riders, walking. I had no choice but to walk also, as the road had narrowed, and there was no passing uphill safely with everyone descending at breakneck pace. Then, as if an altitude hallucination, I saw the yellow 4 wheeler that had caused my fall. Turns out it was Ken Chlouber. There he was 11800' in the sky, cheering us on. For the one or two on their bikes, he gave them an epic push. For the rest of us, some encouragement and the exultation, "DO NOT QUIT"!
As I got onto the "goat trail" section of the climb in Jeff and Jessica Westcott on their tandem "go westies!" And passed another Bicycle Ranch rider who I had dinner with on Thursday. I was passing people as I was walking...lots of burnt souls up here, but I kept moving fast as I could. Finally, I could remount and turn the cranks again it was a relief to get back on the bike.
The top of Columbine has some rolling hills to the aid station. I filled the camelback, grabbed some gels and some potato chips and headed back...up!?! Yes, the aid station/turn around sits below the course high point, so you need to climb back out before you get to descend the 3800' to Twin Lakes. I got back up and over the course high point and picked my way down the goat trail. Along the way I saw Laurel Darren, spinning instructor from Lifetime, Bahram again, and the bride and groom. Turned back onto the road signaling the really fast part of the downhill, and let my bike fly.
I called out encouragement to a whole bunch of folks who had no hope of making the Twin Lakes return cut off, but I was hoping for them anyway. Ken Chlouber was still there, cheering on the last of the racers. I yelled a thank you to him as I descended at what was probably just the wrong side of safe. About 2/3 of the way down, my brakes started to fade from the friction heat, and I started to get a funny wobble out of my rear wheel. I look this as a queue to let the bike run...and the Tallboy is made to fly on fire roads. As I rolled back to my awesome crew at Twin Lakes, I knew my brakes needed adjustment. I was starting to feel tired 60 miles in, and I had to pee. Mostly I knew I was pretty much on schedule being back at Twin Lakes about 2:40 after starting to climb.
I knew I had spent too much time at the mountain top aid station, but no matter. I found my crew ready to go. My human bike stand was awesome, my mom-soigneur had all my nutrition, and my sister-wrench had the gear ready to go. In fueled up, refilled bottles (mixed up carbs and electrolytes, but sorted it out) messed with my brake, and was ready to roll. 40 to go. Now more like a 10:45 pace. My brake was definitely having issues, and I was worried about it. My trusty cowbell ringer was napping, so I would have to simply roll on... I had conquered Columbine. I was tired, but not wasted. All I had left was 40 miles, and 3 more climbs. all in 6 hours to get a buckle...