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Road Culture

Groad Trip: LeadBoat, and the privateer’s struggle

I’m not sure if inaugural LeadBoat title is the badass or dumbass award, but I am very proud of the title and of each one of the 100 or so other racers who did it with me.

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The road trip part of this Groad Trip didn’t go well. In fact it still isn’t.

While in Iceland, I had my big dumb van in the dealership for over a week. “I’ll be on the road all through the Rocky Mountains for 6 weeks. Make sure it’s dialed.” I’d instructed. Well, two days into the trip and one week before the highly anticipated LeadBoat challenge, the check engine light came on.

In the WorldTour, the team’s bus driver’s sole job is to shuttle us to and from the races and make our home on wheels a convenience. In this privateer’s hustle of mine, no such job exists and the buck stops with me. I’m fully reliant on getting myself to the start line, hell or high water.

So it was, one week out, I found myself in such waters, headed into a weekend and unable to find a single sympathetic Sprinter Van Mechanic in the entire front range of Colorado. Instead of training I found myself visiting auto parts stores, running code readers, and calling anyone I could asking if I would be able to finish the trip or if the rig would give out on me. The week before, when I’d have liked to have been resting and mentally preparing for the ultimate 2-day feat, turned into an anxiety and stress filled panic.

Luckily the cycling community again reminded me that we’re a big family and the outpouring of offers of a lift up the mountain made me realize missing out wasn’t an option. Even if I had to shuttle up and find a friend’s tent or last minute hotel, I’d be on the start line.

Big Tall Wayne takes immaculate care of my bikes. Unfortunately, I’m on my own for my van… Photo: Wil Matthews

In the end all worked out as Alex Howes and I played mechanic in his driveway and fixed what could be the simplest problem the code provided. It wasn’t simple, by the way. The van is moving but the light remains, and all I got from the Colorado Mercedes dealership was “We won’t even diagnose it, don’t show up here. Drive it, and if it blows up, a tow and major repairs will be covered.” That’s some customer service for you.

I’ve been on a purple patch of form lately, having had perhaps the most successful summer of my career. The podium at Unbound was followed by four straight wins in Oregon Trail, Crusher in the Tushar, BWR, and Iceland Rift. This had been planned since the beginning of 2021. With the spring cancellations due to COVID uncertainties, I’d bet on a busy summer and planned to peak for it. I’d been holding a peak fitness for the better part of 8 weeks, which shouldn’t be possible.

In the weeks leading into LeadBoat, I’d felt the crest of the wave pass and my training was more focused on plugging holes in a sinking ship rather than sharpening. I told myself I could always pull a good one out of the depths for one more big weekend. “Just keep it together” had become my mantra.

Leadville 100 MTB

Photo: Wil Matthews

Thus it was, limping into Leadville both physically (in the van) and metaphorically (form-wise), pessimism was a pervading feeling. But once entering the festival and aura that only Leadville 100 exudes, that was quickly forgotten as the pre-race hype crescendoed.

My race on Saturday was far from perfect. I proved that even experienced pros can pull rookie mistakes. I tried a new fueling strategy that was supposed to be the bees-knees. Remember when I’ve actually said in previous Groad Trips that race days isn’t the time to test new fueling strategies? Yeah, I did that, and I cramped, hard and early. I’d pushed the pace on Columbine Mine and it was just Keegan Swenson, Howard Grotts and myself, and suddenly I locked. It was so far from the finish I had to ease off until I could rehydrate properly.

A resurgent Payson McElveen and Russell Finsterwald caught me and we found ourselves in the LeadBoat battle as the first three up the trail weren’t competing in SBT GRVL on Sunday. I recovered a bit but was generally fighting inner demons all day. Payson and I sprinted for 4th and 5th respectively in an ugly, crampy-legged, slow-motion sprint that should never be seen at the end of 100 miles off-road. Keegan was on an absolute tear and in all honestly no one ever really put him under pressure. He was primed and ready for the Leadville 100 and was the utmost deserving winner.


Photo: Wil Matthews

In the WorldTour, the race to transfer to the next stage is real. The sooner you get to your lodging, the longer you have to relax and recover. I like to think I won the transfer as Big Tall Wayne and I made a quick getaway and I was relaxing in Steamboat well before dinnertime.

I’d taken an hour to emotionally lick my wounds and had resolved to go back to the fueling that brought me success for the majority of my career. No more new tricks for this old dog. Payson and I were tied on time for the LeadBoat title and it was going to come down to whomever finished in front at SBT on Sunday. Finsty couldn’t be forgotten though as he lurked just 3 minutes behind us. We traded some friendly messages and were keen for the battle to come.

SBT kicked off with a boatload of fresh-legged folks who’d only focused on Sunday. It was fast and nervous, like a road race, and I felt full of lactic acid for the first three hours and had to utilize every trick I knew to conserve energy while still riding with some semblance of honor in the spirit of gravel. The fresh legs of Ted King and Colin Strickland made things brutal. I think they’d planned to put LeadBoaters on the back foot early. But I survived the early blows and eventually came good.

I’m still not sure whether they got more tired and stooped to my level or I actually recovered a bit but I was able to help force the selection on the big climb with Ian Boswell late in the day. Payson unfortunately suffered a mechanical and our duel never got to materialize.

Finsty put me to the sword a few times though and looked for every opportunity if I showed a slow corner or a sluggish reaction. I faked it enough to neutralize his blows and on the final rough downhill of Cow Creek, with 6 of us leading, I attacked. Upon exiting to pavement and 7 miles remaining, Alex Howes and Ian Boswell bridged up to me. I was happy to see two of my closest friends on the circuit and we quickly collaborated, knowing the podium would be a surreal treat for us three.

I present your top LeadBoaters: Howes, Finnsty, me, and Payton. Photo: Wil Matthews

Alex is by far the fastest sprinter in our group and I knew deep down the top step was unlikely, especially given my focus on the LeadBoat title over the previous 36 hours. Alex took a much deserved win, with Ian second and myself third.

I’m overjoyed, honestly. The Inaugural LeadBoat title is something unique. I’m not sure if it’s more prestigious than winning either of the two single days but I cannot deny it’s something I truly care about and got motivated for. I’m not sure if this accolade is the badass or dumbass award; it likely lands somewhere in the middle.

My body and mind are now very tired from a busy summer. I’m taking a week to drive through the National Parks with my wife and reset, en route to the TransRockies Gravel Royale. Fingers crossed the van makes it and we don’t need to fly home. I’d like to give a special callout to the ~100 souls who took on the LeadBoat challenge. For pros like myself that’s one thing, but for those do don’t earn a living pushing day in and day out, completing this test is especially epic and I commend you!

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.