The Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race, currently known as the Stages Cycling Leadville Trail 100 MTB, covers 100 miles in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado on a mix of alpine trail, dirt road, and pavement. Created by Leadville resident Ken Chlouber in 1994 as an outgrowth of the Leadville Trail 100 Run, the race was part of Chlouber’s effort to kickstart Leadville’s economy after a local mine shut down and left many residents out of work. Today the Leadville Trail 100 MTB is held in mid-August as one of eight local races in the Leadville Race Series, which is owned by upscale gym company Life Time.
The sharp decline of the Climax Mine starting in 1982 devastated Leadville, which soon lost roughly one-third of its population. In an attempt to save the small town’s economy, Chlouber organized the first Leadville Trail 100 Run in 1983. Attendance was modest at first, attracting only a few dozen runners, but the race quickly proved popular in the ultrarunning community. The race grew and began to attract athletes from across the country to the town at 10,000 feet above sea level.
Not until 1994 did Chlouber add a mountain bike event to the original run. Like the footrace, the Leadville Trail 100 MTB was intended to help boost the town’s economy. Also like the footrace, it started small, with only 145 competitors taking to the course in the first year, and quickly grew as it gained popularity.
The Leadville Trail 100 MTB course mirrors the original running course, but with several changes to account for the difference between running and mountain biking. From its inception, the course was unique in the mountain-biking world because of its extremely high altitude and its out-and-back style. The course dips down to 9,200 feet at its lowest point, but the vast majority of the racing is done above 10,000 feet.
Riders start in downtown Leadville and roll on paved streets with a police escort to the dirt. Competitors continue around Turquoise Lake and south through the San Isabel National Forest to Columbine Mine, which is the midpoint of the race and also the highest point on the course at roughly 12,500 feet. The difficult Columbine climb is often the decisive moment of the race, but before competitors even reach that point, they must tackle several other hard climbs, including the Sugarloaf climb that tops out at more than 11,000 feet less than twenty miles into the race.
The notorious Powerline climb can also prove decisive. This deeply rutted jeep road, which runs beneath power lines and the towers that hold them up, is the penultimate climb in the race at about the eighty-mile mark. At that point, tired riders confronting Powerline’s steep grades, unforgiving terrain, and never-ending length (3.4 miles) often are reduced to walking major portions of the climb. The sun can also play a factor on hot days, as most of the climb is completely exposed. With Powerline conquered, riders return around Turquoise Lake to downtown Leadville to complete the race.
Notable Participants and Winners
Any finisher who completes the course in less than twelve hours—the race cutoff—receives a silver belt buckle. It has become a badge of honor and a status symbol among racers. The real prize for serious competitors, however, is the big belt buckle that comes with finishing in less than nine hours.
Belt buckles and timing aside, the elite racers are vying for a place on the podium, and the Leadville Trail 100 MTB has garnered attention over its history from several notable pros and high-profile names.
Easily the most famous rider to have toed the line at the Leadville Trail MTB 100 is Lance Armstrong. The former pro road cyclist was a household name when he entered the race in 2008, after having already won seven straight Tour de France titles. At Leadville he lost to Dave Wiens, then returned in 2009 for a rematch with the six-time Leadville winner. The film Race Across the Sky chronicled the duel, which Armstrong won in record time. Now the race itself is often nicknamed the Race Across the Sky as a result of the film. After Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles in 2012 for doping violations, Chlouber stated that Armstrong would keep his Leadville title; the race is not bound by US Anti-Doping Agency or International Cycling Union decisions.
Other pro cyclists who have participated in the Leadville Trail 100 MTB include Levi Leipheimer (who set a course record when he won in 2010), Floyd Landis, Dave Zabriskie, Lachlan Morton, Alex Howes, Taylor Phinney, and Joe Dombrowski. Former professional mountain bikers Todd Wells and Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski have also competed in the race. Wells has won three times. Most recently, Howard Grotts has won the race three times in a row, from 2017 to 2019.
On the women’s side, Rebecca Rusch has won the Leadville Trail 100 MTB four times. Colorado’s Laurie Brandt has also won the race four times. Sally Bigham has been crowned champion three times. Rose Grant of Montana won the race in 2019.
After Lance Armstrong’s victory at the Leadville Trail 100 MTB in 2009 and the publication the same year of Christopher McDougall’s bestseller Born to Run, which prominently featured the Leadville Trail 100 Run, the Leadville races surged in popularity. A year later, fitness company Life Time acquired the races and used them as the cornerstone for a Leadville Race Series that now includes several other running and cycling events throughout the summer, drawing thousands of competitors to town.
Even as the Leadville Trail 100 MTB has grown in capacity—the 2019 starting line was packed with 1,400 competitors—it has been far outpaced by incredibly high demand for entries. There is a lottery to get into the race, or competitors can qualify with a top finish at other Life Time mountain-bike races in Leadville and around the country.
The race’s continued popularity has achieved what its founders set out to do—provide a new revenue stream to help support the community. In 2012 a Colorado Mountain College survey determined that the Leadville Race Series added more than $15 million annually to the Lake County economy.