Retrospection by Andy Buckley
Nice, France – July 14th, 2016
As we sat on my lawn on a beautiful Thursday before our Tahoe Trail Race, enjoying a wonderful dinner with our likeminded friends, a maniac in France drove a truck through the crowded seafront of a Nice Bastille Day celebration.
The next day was our pre-race meeting, and though it had occurred to me, my friend Carlos prompted me to say something about the juxtaposition of such terrible acts as Nice versus our ability to race bikes in Tahoe. What I said typifies my rationale about what we do when we race each other on bikes. “What seems like pure self-indulgence, the essence of focusing on “ourselves”, is at the same time the expression of our culture of freedom that we hold so dear in the United States”. That these choices exist for us is to define life meaning for many of us.
It is with that thought that I rode the Tahoe Trail race, performing about the same as last year, but with greater joy. I had the knowledge that I had last year’s fitness, now I just needed to play it smart at Leadville proper.
Levi Leipheimer (of Tour De France, Vuelta a Espania, Tour Of California fame and 2010 Leadville Winner) joined for the first time and I think pushed Dave Wiens (six times Leadville and five times Tahoe Trail Champ) for the first time at Tahoe. Levi set a new course record with Dave close behind.
Leadville, Colorado–August 6th
After a two-day trek in the RV from Truckee and altitude adjustment via Basalt, camping below Mount Sopris, we (my nephew Olly, and I) arrived in Leadville to one heck of a lightning show in the sky and two inches of rain. Two miles closer to heaven seemed an appropriate description as the storm flash-banged for an hour.
The damp humid conditions continued for the next few days and on our ride with Josh Colley, Leadville Race Series- Race Director, exploring some epic single-track and it felt more like my UK homeland than Colorado, the air so thick and clammy that sweat lay heavy on your skin. Who knew that such a great web of riding existed just a mile from town? The cool dampness wasn’t building my “stoke” for the coming Saturday race, but when my new tire blew through its tread the color of the Leadville Family reminded me what things are about here. At 7:30 pm, Josh had me in his garage with new tires, Stans tire sealant and compressor, and together we re-tooled my Specialized Epic to handle real mountain bike racing. This is the princely behavior that I have come to know of the crew who run this race. The fire started to burn in my heart and soon would be burning in my legs…
I have written so much on the topic of this race and what it has meant to me over these last six years, how it has helped me to question and understand my own motivations, ego, and insecurities; so what else is there possibly to tell?
My fourth try at becoming a member of the sub-nine hour club was dashed by a couple of minutes last year (9:02:48) and this year I finally made it, with a sense of fulfillment that is the story to be told, I think. Not the actual achievement, as I make the reveal early, but the human stories surrounding it.
Race Briefing-Leadville Middle School- Friday, August 12th
It is one of the best product branding sessions you will attend, while simultaneously being captivated, as the Leadville leadership team capture the stories and the essence of why we are all here to ride this race. From being the fastest to just making it across that finish line, whether riding for oneself or in memory of another, the presenters get why we are all here. We heard inspiring talks by Dave Wiens. Josh spoke about Scott Ellis (who passed on course last year), and of course the finale by event founders Merilee Maupin and Ken Chlouber. Ken reminding us that he was not a motivational speaker, that “motivation is what got you here for that 6:30am start, but come 7 am and it starts to hurt, motivation will drop you like a high school girlfriend, so then what you need is commitment”-grit, guts and determination is commitment; commitment will get you to the finish line in the time you demand. Folks are affected differently by these moments it seems, with Scott Ellis’s friends and family, Josh, Ken and Merilee all on stage, my lower eye lids well with tears as these stories envelop me like a blanket. I seem to be emotionally-triggered more easily as I get older, but this is exactly what I need to stoke that final fire to build commitment and determination for the next day. Olly would tell me on the way out of the school: “I wish I was doing it now!”
I thought my bike was tuned to perfection, but after dealing with the drama that comes along with swapping out my fork late Friday afternoon (thanks to Josh again), I spun out my legs on the infamous finishing boulevard, by chance timing how long it might take to get up this last 2.5 miles, something that would be very useful the next day. 9 pm bedtime comes early the night before the race; sleep, however, is fitful for me with strange dreams about oversleeping or aid station mishaps. 4:30am comes quickly!
6th Street, Leadville – Saturday, August 13th
It wasn’t as cold as I thought it might be, and I was so close to the start line this year I could see the helmets of the pros. The national anthem triggered that eye welling again, and we were off!
Last year I had team-ridden with my coach Julie Young and good friend and riding partner Sian Turner-Crespo and we went faster for sure, but I am sure it was a strain for Julie to figure out how to balance our individual strengths. Without Julie along this year, Sian and I had agreed we would just ride out together as far as the second climb to Sugarloaf and then it would be game on for each of us.
The pace for the first segment is set by the group on race day. I am never out of gas, just going with the flow to avoid crashes and warm up as quickly as possible on the first climb. I somehow sense that Sian is not on my wheel and sure enough when I look back she is not there. Two more glances and I still don’t see her. As it turns out I won’t see her again until I am descending Columbine. I still had romantic visions that we would charge together; as it turns out Sian was on a rough day, but would tough it out for a longer than normal finish time. I rode on with the flow of the group and the dictated pace is a little off last year’s as my heart ticks easily well below threshold. Trying to pass other racers without incident is tricky with all those wheels and amid a sea of early event testosterone (it’s the guys who get agro). It’s not cool to screw up and knock someone off their bike this early in the race. We are quickly on to Carter Summit aid station, onto the asphalt, and we blast toward the western end of Turquoise Lake. The newest trend showing up is the “top tube tuck”, which seems to make guys go faster; I just tuck behind in the slipstream to avoid explaining to the doctor how a crazy accident happened.
Everything about the next summit to Sugarloaf feels steady; Strava tells me that I was a little off pace, but I made it up on a faster descent of Powerline than 2015. My downhill flow sure didn’t seem honed in, with lots of human stacking with few places to pass, I felt a little jerky. I saw at least five racers fixing flats on that descent, thank goodness for tubeless and my light touch on the dance floor.
On the flats I had trained so often with my friends at Paco’s Bike and Ski to find a group, get a good wheel, don’t work too much, pace-line it as much as possible. And I did on the way out to Twin Lakes, with warm legs the power starts to come and we seem to be flying in a strong moving group that only breaks as many riders stop at Pipeline Aid; I keep going. Groups are smaller now, but we work together to push on toward the single-track and the final piece of firm dirt road that leads us to the Twin Lakes Aid Station.
Looking at the time, it seemed like I was right on last year’s pace at Twin Lakes, seeing Olly, and my partner Scott was a mental lift; I dropped leg warmers, vest, and got a new light Camelback to take me up Columbine, no jacket - the weather looks great!
The good thing about multiple year rides on course is you know it like the back of your hand; the bad thing is the same, you know it so well that it is easy to dread the slow plod uphill that is Columbine Mine Climb.
After the roller humps to get to the start of Columbine, you settle in for a one-and-a-half-hour grind. At first I tend to get passed as my legs start to re-adjust to climbing, but after about mile a transition happens and I started to pass folks slowly on the road, just one here and there. My friend from Specialized, Paul Connelly, passed me close to the top of the road, offering his wheel as pace. I was on my limit and my pace felt good as I started the steep goat trail section of the ride. I pedaled until the rough quarry segment that is probably 40% of the way up, knowing that walking a bit won’t really hurt my time now. This short walk gave me time for thought as I pushed and dragged my bike over lumpy rocks- “what is this about again, this is so darned hard.” Paul was back behind me at this point struggling with some heavy duty cramping. I had offered the salt blocks in my jersey as I passed Paul, but I didn’t exactly offer to stop, he would have to dig for them himself from my pockets the way I was grinding past him; Paul would later pass me finishing sub nine hours on his first ever Leadville 100. On a pedal worthy section I saw Bobby Murphy heading downward and heard Bobby’s name called by the familiar voice from behind of my friend Jeff Klem, who seemed to be in great spirits compared to me-to be candid here I actually resent those descending as I climb (lucky bastards). Jeff soon clawed his way past me on this brutal altitude test, as I approached the peak point I had an altitude woozy moment that only 12,400 feet delivers when you have pushed into the heart rate red zone just a little too much. It feels like my lungs are being compressed as I try to get enough air. I slow down and it gradually passes and soon I have hit the midway circle and am heading back toward the descent, encouraged as I see Jeff to catch up to him on the downhill.
Strava now tells me that I was twelve seconds faster to Columbine than 2015, which is really remarkable that my pace would match year to year so closely. Ironically I am now one of the bastards heading down past the poor devils still climbing; I yell some encouragement where I can. The descent again got super stacked-up with slow and careful travelers and I needed to blast. It seems like fire road downhill is all I am still really good at now and the top was feeling too slow. Luckily I passed the slower guys on the road and the two segments balanced out on time as I headed to my crew for food.
At Twin Lakes return we had agreed on a much faster turn than prior year, new Camelback, food musette and away, but I had to drop my heavy undershirt which felt stifling in the sun. I made the quick change and was off and digging through my food bag: a hardboiled egg, a banana, and a peach was what I needed to settle that pitted feeling in my stomach that seems to come from lots of liquid and Shot Bloks. I ate as I rode up the paved road back to dirt and threw the bag to a nice guy offering beer - I wish!
The plan on the return was all about groups. Julie had insisted that I look for latching opportunities and don’t let go-thirty second power bursts if they start to drop me to stay attached. It was disconcerting to again find myself sans group as I hit dirt. In fact all the way to Pipeline all I had to work with were a couple of one-on-one trade-off sessions. As I passed Pipeline I could see three guys ahead and I made a Julie push to tag onto them. There we three grabbed another couple of guys and now we had a group for the windy pavement and the speed went up as the line started to move as one. Paco Lindsay had told me to avoid taking turns and I had mostly achieved that target until this point when I appeared at the front of this group to do my pull. As I dropped to the back after 45 seconds the elastic of the group stretched up a slight hill and I was off by two bike lengths, then three, and four, and it was done. Paco would be so disappointed! At the left turn to the fish hatchery the wind pushed me toward two new guys and we worked together until the base of Powerline, where I grabbed a bottle from Scott and Olly. (is this legal?) And behold there was Jeff right in front of me as we started to climb Powerline.
I actually don’t mind the Powerline climb; I have almost demystified it over the years by finding patience in its steady grinding path as it threads its way uphill over the false crests a number of times, though I remember that first time in 2011 when those humps brutalized my mind. I hear those similar grumblings from the first time folks asking “when is the top coming”. It is just a 45 minute climb that for me is the end of the leash that is the beginning of the end of the race. Midway I crept past Jeff and he offered a metaphoric verbal slap on the butt of encouragement as I headed slowly upward, Jeff would finish just behind me by fifteen minutes.
I rode Powerline a minute faster this year than last, setting me up perfectly for the last miles home to Leadville. The top was the tipping point for me- mentally I was prepared to go all out from there or at least with what I had in the tank. My full gas descent (three years ago I went just seconds slower than Mr. Todd Wells) was somewhat interrupted by another rider for several hundred yards, but my pavement ride back to Carter was a personal best and both were faster than 2015. The light was at the end of the tunnel and it seemed almost possible to hit my goal.
It is worth noting here that every time I have ridden this part of the finish, the pavement climb after May Queen, I have been convinced that I have given it my all, even back in 2011 when I was cracking. But what I continue to prove to myself is there is ‘no limit’. I have been able to tap into what I thought was the bottom of the tank each time, finding a deeper well each time. What does this teach us? As Merilee and Ken say, “You’re better than you think you are, you can do more than you think you can”. Though I am clearly at the outer boundaries of achievement for my genetic talent, for a guy who can ride 2500 miles in a season, and for a middle-aged man, I recognize that most of the limits have been set for me in my mind. As I extrapolate this argument, I feel I should be able to apply this learning to any emotional chalice; empathy, understanding, love as well as drive and determination. There are no limits.
At Carter I saw Scott and Olly for the drop of my Camelback and last bottle. Olly reassured me that “you got this, give it all you got now” and I was off toward the summit of St. Kevins. I really wasn’t sure I had it, but as soon as I hit the rolling uphill terrain I was passing folks, just like 2015, as I made the last grindy climb I passed two walkers. Now it was down, turning right, and flying like the wind with another best time.
As I got to the final lowlands of St. Kevins I could see dust in the air and knew that meant a rider that needed a buddy. I pushed to get to him and hitched on almost immediately saying “wanna work together?” He told me he had nothing left, but I swear he made two good pulls with me, bridging us to the next guy, so he had more than he thought.
Now I was on the next guy, “Bucky I love you”, his saddle bag tag said! And I asked the same question of him: “want to work together?” Bucky said a similar thing- “I don’t know how much I have left, but I’ll try”. Sure enough, Bucky had far more and we took turns pedaling and pushing the wind until we bridged up to three more riders just before we hit pavement. The five of us would ride together to the bottom of the Boulevard at a great pace and before we splintered Bucky leaned over to say –“thanks for that, you got me going again”. This year I was able to do for Bucky what Julie did for me in 2015!
The bottom rocky section of the Boulevard was loose and I knew it from Friday, it is just a short pitch, but it feels so steep when you have been spinning along at 24 mph. A few hundred yards of that and you are on the Boulevard true. I looked at my clock and I had twenty minutes to the nine hour mark and based on Friday I thought I needed about eighteen to get to the line. In that moment I knew I could make it, I had to pedal as hard as I could, but I could make it. Being “expert” is an annoying trait that I possess I guess (well it doesn’t really annoy me), but I was about to be an expert. When my new friend Tracy Paradise asked “can we make it”, I confidently replied “yes we can, we just need to pedal together”. I would tell her three times as we made our way to town, “we’re going to make it” and she finally believed me once we crested the top pavement. Before on the dirt to pavement transition, Olly was waiting to yell at me and one quick push, then as I hit pavement there was Scott yelling my name too. It was all kind of slow motion as I saw his emotional joy on full display. I can’t remember exactly what he said to me, but it was heartfelt and prideful I know. See you at the finish Scott.
Scott has tolerated or supported, depending on the day, my early morning to late evening training, dietary constraints and eating patterns, traveling race schedules and opting not to ask “how much did that bike cost”. He has been a trooper through my bike obsessed summers and to have seen him so prideful fills my heart with joy!
Tracy and I would cross the finish line within seconds and a fist bump on the way, me at 8:58:32- right down to the wire, Tracy earning a podium spot in her age group.
As I crossed that line I actually pumped my fist, and I didn’t remember doing it until I saw the photos. And what did that say? That I was just four minutes faster clearly wasn’t earth shattering, however the struggle for five years with persistence and stubbornness that finally paid off tasted so sweet in that moment and I deserved a pump. All for a big buckle!
What amazes me is that when you cross the line there is nothing but caring and love, for you and your achievement. Dave grabbed my bike and then me, and then Josh was there in a second yelling, “you did it” and I was yelling back “I did it”. For those ten seconds of hugs and emotional wash, life had absolute crystal clarity and it was captured in that moment that we all shared.
I started the walk uphill and there was Merilee to hug me and say the same thing, “You did it, I’m so proud of you” and she kissed a sweaty older bike racer.
Then I saw my longtime friend Zander from Aspen and the emotive cracking started, then Bobby from Vail, and then Olly was on me and grabbing me saying “we did it, we fucking did it” and I said “Yes, WE did”. Olly guided me to the street where I sat on the ground to drink water and then Scott arrived to my emotional unwind. Scott was busily texting Julie, my parents, my great riding buddy Andy Tuthill, and they were all online and actually knew before him that I was across the line.
When you have been so on the limit for the whole day and perhaps with buildup the whole season, letting go feels very welcome and natural. You see lots of people in their tearful moments so having a cry on the sidewalk in Leadville felt quite okay especially coupled with a good hug.
So what can I take away from the experience?
What struck me when I shared this photo is how many of my friends, family and work colleagues were truly rooting for me and I felt so honored to be surrounded by so many amazing people who care enough to engage with my little endeavor. I realize that their joy defines caring and connection and I am a lucky man to have all these people in my life.
I have struggled in my life to find “enough” in terms of fulfillment. I have often, or perhaps more honestly, always started to re-think how everything could have gone better. It has been hard for me to not judge myself harshly for my quotients of talent, training, commitment or just add any personal trait here… On this Saturday this was enough, finishing 287th was enough and in fact the struggle to achieve has been the gift that is the journey of my American Dream in these last years on the bike.
Will I be back, well why not, what else would I do in August? I at least need to crew for Andy, Josh and Olly.
Thank you so much to Scott for his unending patience with my training schedule and keeping me as fat as possible, to Julie, Russell Hanby, Paco and all the shop guys for all the guidance on training and equipment, to Specialized for my amazing bike, to Olly for reminding me I am younger than my age, to Josh and Heidi for their incredible kindness and friendship, to Abby for her general awesomeness on last minute requests, to Andy for telling me that I am strong even as he drops me, to Zander for five years of support and to all my friends for tolerating my self-indulgence and the constant stories about bikes. Finally, thanks to my parents, David and Gillian, for raising me stubborn and encouraging every life adventure since 1977