LEADVILLE – Everyone expected either two-time defending champion Howard Grotts or one of the veteran WorldTour pro road cyclists to win the 2019 Leadville Trail 100 MTB. Nobody expected the third person on the podium with Grotts or Education First pro cycling star Lachlan Morton, though.
Durango’s Quinn Simmons, an 18-year-old, stunned the world with a second-place finish Saturday at the 104-mile mountain bike race high in the Rocky Mountains of Leadville. A rookie to the event, Simmons sprinted past WorldTour road pros Peter Stetina and Morton to finish in 6 hours, 22 minutes, 24 seconds. That was only 3:06 behind the winning time of Grotts.
“Holy moly, that’s so impressive,” said Grotts, 26. “To be that young and have that kind of strength, it’s cool to watch his career developing like this.”
Simmons wasn’t always in the hunt. It was the way he placed second that made it all the more impressive. He took the lead going into the Powerline decent roughly 20 miles into the race, as he was neck-and-neck in the lead selection of 10 riders. He wanted to take the front on the decent because he has not raced on a mountain bike since the junior national championships in July 2018. He has switched to racing full time on the road with impressive performances, including this year’s Junior Gent-Wevelgem in Belgium. He was the first American junior to ever win that race.
Uncomfortable racing the mountain bike, he wanted to be in the front and set the pace. That’s when he ran over a pile of tacks on the road and suffered a flat tire.
“I ended up plugging the tire twice, putting in two tubes and then riding the rim all the way to the second pit zone,” Simmons said. “Before the Twin Lakes feed zone where I had a Specialized tent, I heard that by the time I was out of there I was down 10:45 to the leaders. I rode it back to about seven minutes by the base of Columbine (Mile 40), and I was around five at the top of Columbine. The whole time I was alone and didn’t get any help.
“To be honest, down at Columbine when I was about 10 minutes behind, I was about to pull out and call it a day.”
But Simmons persevered. He was down a couple of minutes to the main chase group and more than five minutes to the leaders at the bottom of Columbine with 40 miles left in the race. He charged from there, started picking off riders and somehow ended up in a three-man sprint for second that he won.
“To see I could climb with the smaller guys and then get to do my thing at the finish, that’s pretty cool,” he said. “Howard is the best climber in the country and arguably one of the best in the world. And those other two guys are the best WorldTour climbers in the U.S. To be able to hang and catch them, it’s cool. To think I lost 10 minutes and rode all the way back to second feels almost as good as winning would have. Not quite, but almost.”
To ride alone for nearly five hours impressed everyone in the field, including Payson McElveen, who finished 12th. It was McElveen’s White Rim fastest-known-time record in Moab that Simmons spoiled earlier this spring.
“For Quinn to take second, that’s incredible,” McElveen said. “He punctured, and then to ride solo, it’s an incredible effort. Massive hats off to him for that ride.”
Morton, too, was blown away to be beat by a rider he was previously unaware of.
“A sprint after six hours is quite hard. I had never sprinted on a mountain bike before. I was like, ‘Where do I hold the handlebars?’ That was fun,” Morton said. “I just heard that (Simmons) is 18. That’s wild. I’m blown away. Especially at this sort of event. It’s one thing to put some results together in your age category or shorter stuff. But, normally, longer stuff like this takes time to build tolerance for. He has a huge engine. He really came out of nowhere. Who is this kid?”
That kid just beat five WorldTour professionals in a 100-mile race, and he believes it will be the first of several big moments for him against that level of competition in the coming years.
“One of my big goals next year is to be racing with the pro guys,” said Simmons, who has won junior road national championships in road racing, criterium and time trial. “I think I just proved I belong there.”