Howard Grotts became the sixth man to win consecutive Leadville Trail 100 MTB titles Saturday.
The 25-year-old professional mountain biker from Durango claimed his first Leadville 100 win in 2017 and made it back-to-back championships when he finished the 103.5-mile race that features roughly 11,000 feet of climbing in 6 hours, 18 minutes, 8 seconds on Saturday. The time was 3:08 behind his winning time a year ago – which was the third-fastest winning time in race history – but it was still 3:04 ahead of second-place finisher Kristian Hynek, a 38-year-old from the Czech Republic who is a two-time bronze medalist at the marathon mountain bike world championships.
Durango’s Payson McEleveen, the 25-year-old two-time defending marathon mountain bike national champion, was third for the second consecutive year. He had nearly nine minutes of improvement from his 2017 time and finished Saturday in 6:27:17. Three-time Leadville 100 winner Alban Lakata, a 39-year-old from of Austria, was fourth in 6:27:56.
“This year was one of the hardest fields we’ve seen,” Grotts said of the competition. “I think 2015 was the most competitive it’s been. Alban and Kristian both showed up this year, and that definitely raised the level even though the pace wasn’t incredibly high. There were super-talented riders. To race against them and come out with a win is great.”
Grotts rode at or near the front the entire race. He climbed Columbine, a 3,000-foot climb between Miles 40 and 50 of the route, and reached the halfway point in first place in 3:22:55 elapsed. McElveen climbed with Grotts up Columbine.
Grotts and Hynek separated from McElveen on the Powerline climb at Mile 80. That section gains nearly 2,000 feet in a 25-minute effort. Grotts pulled away from Hynek before reaching the top of Powerline and maintained his separation until he hit the finish line in Leadville at 10,200 feet of elevation.
“Columbine is not really the place to get away since we have so much flat terrain before Powerline,” Grotts said. “I was able to separate from Kristian the second half of Powerline to the finish.”
Grotts planned on riding a hardtail bike without a rear suspension as late as Friday. But, after he suffered a tire puncture in a pre-ride Friday, he opted to ride a full-suspension bike for a bit smoother ride on the descents. McElveen was the first finisher to the line on a hardtail.
“I decided it wasn’t worth it to ride the hardtail even though less weight would help on the climbs,” Grotts said. “I was happy to ride the full suspension.”
The riders at the front of the men’s race rode together as long as possible after some early flat tires.
“Unfortunately this year, it seemed like someone threw some tacks down on the course early on,” McElveen said. “We all stopped at one point to hit our tires with CO2. It was a much more civil pace in general. We kind of had gentleman’s agreements.”
McElveen was able to turn in a faster time this year despite the tame pace through more than half of the race.
“I definitely felt a lot fitter this year than last year,” he said. “I haven’t actually looked at segment times, but I went faster in elapsed time. With a really mellow first half of the race, in general I felt better than last year. And it helped not to puncture.”
The women’s race was won by Larissa Connors of California. She also won for a second year in a row to claim her second career Leadville 100 win. She became the fifth woman to earn consecutive wins at the race. The 32-year-old crossed the finish line in 7:40:13, nearly nine minutes behind her winning time a year ago. Arizona’s Chase Edwards, 33, was the second professional woman to the line in 8:09:48.
Durango’s Scott Simmons, the 46-year-old father of junior mountain bike and road race national champion Quinn Simmons, turned in a strong performance. He finished 25th overall in 7:24:03 and placed sixth in his men’s age 40-49 division.
The race began at 6:30 a.m. Saturday. The temperature was 36 degrees when more than 1,500 riders departed the start line. The temperature warmed to a high of 76 degrees by the afternoon.
“It was pretty darn cold this morning,” Grotts said. “As soon as we got in the sun, it was fine. We all shed long sleeves, and from probably 8 a.m. on it was perfect racing conditions.”
Grotts will return to Durango for a week to prepare for the World Cup Finals to be held Aug. 24-26 in France. He then will compete in the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Switzerland in early September and then the UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships Sept. 15 in Italy.
McElveen likely will turn down a nomination to marathon worlds for a second consecutive year. He will target Rebecca’s Private Idaho, a gravel stage race Aug. 30 through Sept. 3. He also has plans for his Red Bull sponsor, including a street hill climb event in San Francisco as well as an attempt at the White Rim Trail speed record in Moab in November. He is excited to compete at the singlespeed mountain bike world championship to be held Oct. 20 in Bend, Oregon.
After the big effort or training for and competing in Leadville, the elite mountain bikers who call Durango home are closing in on the end of the competitive season but still have plenty of big races ahead.