By Dave Wiens
You’re committed. There is no going back. You are in the game and now is the time to get your proverbial ducks in a row. Epic bike races like the Leadville Trail 100 MTB can be distilled down to three primary elements: training, fueling and hydration, and bike setup.
Here, we will focus on element number three: your ride, a.k.a., your bicycle, the machine your body will power in an effort to meet your goals, whether those goals are cutoff times, a finish in under 12 hours, the big buckle or winning the whole dang race.
I’m a firm believer that there is no one true path to success, no yellow brick road to follow. Every rider has different goals and the bike you choose will be a reflection of those goals or in some instances, your personality. If you are going to choose to ride what I call a “passion bike,” I can’t help you. Your mind is already made up. The most common passion bike is a singlespeed, but this category also includes fixies, ‘cross bikes, town bikes, fat bikes, etc. Riding bikes like these at Leadville is very cool, but we’re going to focus on more common bike choices and bike fit.
We’ll cover as much as we can in the confines of this relatively short article, but the information contained here is hardly all-inclusive. Take my advice as a jumping off point, and don’t forget to enjoy the ride!
Hardtail or full suspension? 29er, 26er or 650B? 2X10 or 1X11? Every year it seems there are more options to consider when selecting a bike. We used to just talk about hardtail vs. full-suspension bikes, but with the evolution of suspension technology, three different wheel sizes, and a variety of gear ratios, our choices continue to multiply.
When you think about bike choice, ask yourself the following questions: How much bike do you want to power (or push) up the hills, across the flats, and up and down the undulations that are all represented on the course at Leadville? How important to you is having full suspension? How will your body feel after 100+ miles on a hardtail?
In my experience, I’m always going to be faster on this course on a lightweight hardtail. There is a lot of pavement. There is a lot of moderate climbing. There are lots of smooth, fast flats. There are a number of short poppers that add up in the end. These sections are where you’re going to spend the majority of the day, turning the pedals over (and over, and over!). If you pull out all of the stops in your bike build, a hardtail will always come in lighter than a fully. Always. And in my opinion, that little bit of weight compounded over 100 miles is going to mean something.
I have never raced anything other than 26” wheels, so I cannot really comment on the merits of larger wheels for this course. But I feel confident that if you have prepared well, and if your bike fits you correctly and you’re used to it (don’t decide to ride a new bike the day before the race unless you’re forced to), and all other things are equal, you won’t have a substantially different time on comparable bikes. Very fast times have been put down on both 26- and 29-inch wheels, and on both hardtails and fullys. Keep in mind that these have been on top-shelf, lightweight race bikes – not trail bikes. If you choose a much heavier trail bike, you may be hooting and hollering on some of the descents, but you’ll be slower overall. A lot slower.
I rode a Maverick M7 in 2005 (yeah, I know, it’s an antique now) and it was awesome on the descents and the rear tire really stuck to the ground on the steep, loose, rocky stuff. But it was also one of my slowest Leadvilles ever and as the race wore on, I was less than keen about pushing it up the hills and would have gladly traded it for a svelte hardtail.
You’ll also need to put some thought into your gearing for the course at Leadville, and this goes hand in hand with wheel size. These days, with the choice of one, two or three front chainrings, it can be confusing. First, take a look at what gearing you will have at each extreme. What will be your lowest climbing gear? What will be your fastest gear? It’s a bummer to not have a low enough gear for the steep climbs, with upper Columbine and lower Powerline sharing the distinction of being the two nastiest (even with the lowest gear in town, most riders will end up pushing their bikes somewhere along the LT100 course). In 2010, I sacrificed my climbing gear for a faster tall gear. That was my first year using 2X10 and I had to choose between the 39-26 or a 42-28 front chainring set. I wanted to run the 39-26 because I feel like I can stay on top of both a 26 and a 39 a little better. But because I was afraid of getting dropped on the flat sections in the event of a strong tailwind (often the case), I chose the 42-28. I was still riding 26-inch wheels then, and most of the guys I was racing had switched to 29ers. These days, I’m a huge fan of the SRAM 2X10 and can’t wait to try the 1X11. Whatever you choose, the key is that you’re comfortable with your lowest and highest gears, because in this race, you’ll encounter both steep climbs and fast descents. My advice to the average Leadville rider? Make sure you’re geared low enough.
Once you’ve selected your bike, wheel size and gearing, it’s time to get down to the details of the setup.
Points of Contact: Dialing in Your Setup
Unless you’re very knowledgeable, I suggest getting a professional mountain bike fit as far out in front of the event as possible. Very important here is that you find a reputable, experienced mountain bike fitter. A guru road bike fitter won’t know the nuances of setting up your mountain bike. A pro mountain bike fitter will be able to dial you in on everything that I discuss below and will reduce it all to measurements so that, with some work, you can replicate your fit on a different bike.
Before you even get fitted, there are some key setup details to consider. These include product choices and setup for the five contact points you have with your bike: your shoes, cleats and pedals; the saddle; and your grips. These are your only connection with your ride and the earth, so don’t be frivolous with your choices for these important components.
Shoes need to be comfortable and many riders prefer custom footbeds or orthotics. You can get custom footbeds from your local bike shop or specialty sporting goods store. They are made by a number of brands and they are reasonably priced. Or head to a podiatrist for orthotics, which is more expensive. Cleat position is critical: they should be consistent with one another and properly placed, not only fore and aft but also directionally. Shoddy cleat placement has contributed to countless injuries and low efficiency in cyclists, so be sure to take some time with this. I use Northwave shoes, Shimano pedals and custom footbeds.
Next is your saddle. Everybody’s butt is different and people sit on the bike in different ways and react differently to bike saddles. Some people can’t get comfortable on anything; others can ride forever on a piece of driftwood. I’m currently riding (and loving) the Ergon SM3 Pro Carbon saddle. Aside from choosing the saddle itself, saddle height and its fore and aft position, as well as the tilt (a bit of a misnomer because most riders strive for a level saddle) are all key. Additionally, crank length is an important factor here.
Get your saddle positioned before embarking on setting up your “cockpit” – essentially your handlebars, the contact points for your hands and the precise locations of your brake levers and shifters. This begins with handlebar choice, riser or flat (and infinite options herein), stem length and rise, as well as (and possibly in combination with) spacers under your stem. These all work together with your saddle placement and you’re looking carefully at the difference in the height of your saddle and the top of your grips. This measurement can be all over the map depending on personal preference and your body configuration.
I also like to pull measurements from the tip of my saddle to a specific point on my grips. Remember, this measurement can change based on bar width, sweep and rise and how they are rotated in your stem. As for grips, I’m a huge fan of the Ergon GS2 with carbon bar ends. Unless I’m riding in a super tight jungle, I’ll have bar ends on my bike. Not having bar ends reminds me of riding a road bike but not being able to ride on the hoods, only being able to use the middle hand position. I think bar ends make you more efficient as you don’t have to hold the bars as tight while climbing and on steep grades, it’s easier to get over that front wheel. Relaxed climbing equals fast efficient climbing!
Let’s move on to an oft-overlooked aspect of bike setup, the positions of your brake levers, shifters and ancillary levers (usually suspension lockouts.) Believe it or not, not all of these things are designed to work well with each other, especially if you are mixing brands, and just getting them on the bar in an order that works can be a small victory. The sequence needs to be correct: sometimes it goes grips, shifters, brakes; and sometimes it’s grips, brakes, shifters. It depends on the brand and the type and your preference. If you get it wrong, you won’t be getting the most out of your cockpit and your riding will suffer all around.
This can be a frustrating aspect of bike setup and I know I’ve monkeyed around with this and muttered some choice words when I’ve gotten it wrong. Positioning the lockout lever seems to create a challenge so keep that in mind. Once you place the various pieces in the right order it’s just a matter of a little bit of side-to-side adjustment, as well as getting the correct downward angle. For all of these adjustments, be sure your hands are at the very end of your bars or, if you use bar ends, right up against them. You don’t want to leave any unused real estate out there on the ends of your handlebars.
If your brake levers are too far to the outside, you won’t have the leverage for the one-finger braking power that makes today’s disc brakes absolutely amazing. Too far in and you’ll have to reach way inside for them. You typically will brake with just your index fingers and you want them to extend directly forward and be comfortable on the very end of your brake levers for maximum leverage. Most levers have a little sweet spot out there on the end for just such a setup. You’ll feel it when you get it right!
Now we need to address the all-important downward tilt of the brake levers. Depending on preference, I suggest between 20 and 45 degrees of downward tilt. Finally, riders with smaller hands may want to adjust their levers to come in closer to the bars so it’s not too much of a reach for the lever.
Now with your brakes set, find the ideal spot for your shifters and hope that there’s a nice spot left for your suspension lockout(s). If your shifters are too far outside, shifting is awkward and inadvertent shifting is more frequent; too far inside and it’s also hard to shift as your reaching way to the inside for them.
All of these elements need to work together and if you’re doing your own setup, you’ll need to use some trial and error to get it just right (sometimes you cannot get to the adjustment bolt of one of the components due to the position of one of the adjacent ones. Fun!). You could use a ride to dial in your setup, although your friends might not be stoked about you stopping all the time and getting your tool out. Instead, consider using a trailhead area or someplace near home or your car where you can ride a little, adjust, ride a little more, adjust. Repeat, repeat, repeat, until you get it dialed. Of course, if you paid for a professional bike fit, you should be able to ride directly to the trails from the fit studio!