Leadville 100: Choosing The Right Bike

Asking a group of mountain bike racers what's the right bike for the Leadville 100 is like asking a kitchen full of master chefs what's the best thing they ever ate. A wide variety of answers is guaranteed – and there is likely merit to all of them.

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Asking a group of mountain bike racers what’s the right bike for the Leadville 100 is like asking a kitchen full of master chefs what’s the best thing they ever ate. A wide variety of answers is guaranteed – and there is likely merit to all of them.

This much we do know: Don’t bring your big hit downhill bike, and leave the cyclocross steed in the garage, too. But beyond that, if 2010 is any indication, there remains a distinct lack of bike-choice consensus.

Among the top five men’s finishers at last year’s race, four MTB frame categories were represented. Levi Leipheimer won the race aboard a full-suspension 26-inch Trek Top Fuel. Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski slotted second, riding a hardtail Gary Fisher 29er. Todd Wells was third, piloting a Specialized FS 29er. Dave Wiens took fourth aboard a Rotwild 26er hardtail, and Jeremiah Bishop duplicated JHK, choosing a Cannondale 29er hardtail.

So what is the right bike for Leadville?

“I think it’s probably the 29er hardtail,” said Wiens, a six-time champion who’s taking this year off from racing Leadville. “I’ve actually never tried it, but from everything I hear and see, it seems like the course trends to that bike. Leadville is what I like to call a rolling thunder course where you keep your speed up most of the time. Plus the descents really aren’t all that crazy, so it’s not like you’re going to make up a bunch of time because you are on a full-suspension bike. At the same time, I had my best race ever last year on a 26-inch hardtail.”

Wells, the reigning U.S. national cross-country champion and arguably the 2011 race favorite, echoes Wiens. After choosing a full-suspension 29er a year ago and finishing third, he’s switching over to a hardtail 29er this year.

“I got popped on the Columbine climb last year, so this year I’m trying to be as light as possible,” said the Specialized rider, who will pilot a carbon hardtail S-Works Stumpjumper this go round. “Last year I was new to the race and I figured a 100-mile mountain bike race would lend itself to a full-suspension bike. But since it’s essentially a road race without many rough sections, the hardtail makes more sense.”

Bishop, who rode a Cannondale Flash 29er hardtail in 2010, says this year he’s vacillating between that same bike and a full-suspension 29er Scalpel.

“It’s kind of a tough call, but I really think the 29er full suspension will be good for the dirt road descents, and if I do go that direction, I’ll have a very firm set-up so it’ll be almost as efficient as the hardtail,” explained Bishop. “Last year proved that the Flash 29er is also a great bike for this course. Maybe I gave up a tiny bit on the descents but on the flats and rollers having the hardtail was fast.”

While this might sound like a trend toward a hardtail 29er consensus, there are still plenty of riders who believe in full suspension and 26 inches.

“I’ve been riding a full-suspension Specialized S-Works Epic the last few years and it’s worked great for me,” said Team Herbalife’s Nate Whitman, who was 13th overall a year ago, and this year will be seeking his 10th Leadville 100 finish. “For me the 26-inch frame is light and snappy. If all goes according to plan, it’ll be right around 20 pounds on race day. Having that little bit of suspension really saves your body over the course of the race.”

The full-suspension 26er certainly worked for last year’s overall winner. Not only did Leipheimer win going away, he smashed the course record set the previous year by teammate Lance Armstrong, who was also aboard a dualie 26er.

“I’d never ridden a 29er so I was worried about the fit,” said Leipheimer after last year’s race. “And there was no way I was riding a hardtail. I would have been shelled. I don’t have the skills to do that.”

So there you have it. The right bike for Leadville is … the bike you’re most comfortable with.

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