Lakata, Rusch win Leadville 100 |

Lakata, Rusch win Leadville 100

Janice Kurbjun
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Daily | Erik Richard UngerJohn Saliamonas makes the last turn on the trail before reaching the first of four aid stations at Carter Summit early on in the Leadville 100 mountain-bike race Saturday. Saliamonas was among 1,700 riders who took to the trail at 6:30 a.m.

Alban Lakata lifted his mountain bike at the finish of the Leadville 100 race Saturday, crossing the finish line with a sweeping grin.

He’d beaten the reigning marathon world champion, Christoph Sauser in one of the “toughest mountain bike races on the face of the planet,” announcer Garrett Grossi said.

Lakata (Austria) finished in 6 hours, 32 minutes, 24 seconds with Sauser (Switzerland) just two minutes behind, at 6:34:51. Virginian Jeremiah Bishop finished third in 6:41:58.

The men rode neck-and-neck throughout the race, switching leaders at every check point. In the end, it was Lakata, hammering down on the final uphill, that separated the pack.

“It was Alban’s strong legs,” Bishop said.

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The renowned Leadville race is the original ultra-distance mountain bike event, running for 19 years and attracting world-class racers for its duration.

This year, the registered pool of 2,000 was whittled down to about 1,700 riders representing all 50 states and more than 30 different countries.

Athletes confirmed that the race is among the toughest.

“Leadville has all the pedaling and even more,” Bishop said. “They also have descending. It allows you to rest and change your speed. It’s like being on a trainer with sand and dirt. It’s a slow surface, at least today. You’re constantly pedaling; there’s not much coasting. It grinds your body down.”

For Sauser, it’s the biggest race in North America, and important to his race schedule as a Specialized rider.

It’s the only American race on the schedule for Lakata, who said he’s here to develop his skills – and to try to beat Levi Leipheimer’s course record of 6:16:37.

“Not this time, so I’ll have to come back again,” he said.

On the other hand, Rebecca Rusch did beat the course record – the one she set herself. When she rolled across the finish line in 7:28:06, she crushed her own best time on the course, 7:31:45. She’s the only woman in the Leadville Trail 100 MTB to win four times.

A course snafu sent Brit Sally Bigham off in the wrong direction for several miles, a problem the men also faced, as did third-place women’s finisher, Californian Pua Mata. Meanwhile, Rusch stayed on course.

“The flags were a little confusing,” said Mata, who finished in 7:38:04.

Bigham, in second place with 7:34:35, was clearly upset as she described the scenario of following the group in the wrong direction, and then seeing riders heading back toward her.

“I just lost all my motivation,” Bigham said, explaining that there was talk about ending the race. “Then I thought, ‘I’ve flown all the way here. I might as well finish. But it took a long time to get my motivation back. … I’m very frustrated. I’m very disappointed I lost so much time going off course.”

Rusch said she felt pressured by Bigham throughout the 100-mile course, despite finishing about six minutes ahead of her competitor.

“I knew these girls were chasing me and closing the gap. … I was running scared the whole day,” Rusch said. Which is perhaps how she beat her own record, surprising even herself.

All the top athletes said altitude played a big role in the difficulty of the race, as many came from sea level or significantly lower elevations than Leadville’s 10,200 feet – and the course’s more than 12,600 feet in elevation gain.

“I knew it would be hard; I never thought it would be that hard. It was a good learning curve for me,” Sauser said.

Though Bigham loves to climb, she was also battling the elevation – when she arrived two weeks ago, she suffered nosebleeds, loss of appetite, insomnia and headaches. She trains with a device that measures her pedal power – and it showed a tremendous drop in power compared to heart rate.

“For me, to even be sleeping at nearly 3,000 meters is quite unusual,” she said.

Bishop and Sauser chatted about Breckenridge’s trails, as Bishop became familiar with them when he competed in the Breck Epic, and Sauser used them to get acclimatized for the Leadville race.

Bishop doesn’t plan to race the Epic again this year, because it’s too short a rest period between the two events.

“I hope to make it back, but it’s been a big year trying to qualify for the Olympics and I gotta be a dad. … I can’t do it all,” he said, adding that he’d like to be able to stay and compete – and thinks it would be good for tourism if the events were better coordinated.

“We gotta get all the events off the same day, so people can do them,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for tourism to get people to stay here for two weeks instead of picking and only being here for a little bit.”

The weekend also tested the fortitude of the 84 athletes competing for the Leadman and Leadwoman title. To earn the title, athletes must complete five events in the Leadville Race Series, three of which are back-to-back: Saturday’s mountain bike race, the 10K, and the 100-mile trail run.

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