This year’s Leadville 100 MTB was full of ups and downs (literally and figuratively!) for Swiftwick athlete and professional cyclist Melissa Ross- otherwise known as the Cowgirl Cyclist.
“This year’s Leadville Trail 100 race was epic to say the least. It started off with breaking my bike two weeks prior and needing to find a loaner for the race.
I had posted a message on Facebook about my demise and a wonderful person named Laurel Darren Simmons had responded that I could borrow her bike. It was such a kind thing for her to do, as it was her race bike for her upcoming Barnburner race.
A week before Leadville, my friend Debra called me to check in. When I told her the story about my broken bike, she was aghast. “You need a really fast race bike, Melissa!” she said, “This is such a big race and you trained so hard.” “I know Debra, but I am fine. I have a great bike that I am borrowing.”
After we hung up, her husband Jeff called and had the same reaction about my bike and was trying hard to figure out how I could borrow his bike that he used for Cape Epic, which is a huge upgrade from my own bike! I told him I was already headed to Colorado and didn’t know anyone going to Crested Butte to deliver it to me. I would to at least train on it during the week – so I didn’t think there was a way to get his bike and I would be just fine.
Throughout the drive up to Crested Butte, we texted on and off and finally Debra sent me a text that said, “Jeff said he will fly his bike to you.” I was speechless. I did not know what to say and a tear did rolled down my cheek. It was above and beyond what I expected.
“Okay,” I said, “if he really wants to.” And just like that, Jeff flew in the next day on his plane with his friend/co pilot Shawn, and they delivered this beautiful orange Specialized Epic with every bell and whistle you can imagine. He showed me how to take off the wheel, adjust the shocks, and other things about the bike, and then he turned around and flew right back to Phoenix! Just like that. It was like Bike Superman had flown into help me with my race.
Last year, Leadville was a very emotional race for me as it was a way for me to grieve and connect with my friend Gianna, who had passed away from cancer. Leadville was her favorite race, and it was her last race before her second cancer diagnosis.
They say in this race that you will have to dig deep, deep into a well inside of yourself, and when that well seems dry, you will have to dig further and deeper to make it through the race. This type of perseverance is not even close to what people have to deal with when they have hardships in life such as cancer. So, I stuck her sticker that was a “G” with wings on top of my bike stem so anytime I would complain to myself on how hard it was or lose focus of why I was there, I would be reminded of her and dig deeper.
I knew going into Leadville that my fitness was rock solid since I had rode Cape Epic this year. I thought a good goal for me would be to do the race in 8 hours and 30 minutes, win my age group, and finish in the top 10 women overall. I didn’t quite make that, but you have to set high goals for yourself. That is the motto I have as a coach and a human: if you strive for something high, you will at least reach something exceptional, even if you don’t hit your goal.
The race started off awesome. I was in the gold corral because of my professional status, and it was really cool standing next to some of the top pros in the world. I did not put my bike at the very front of the start line like last year as I wanted to make sure I did not go out too hard and try to keep up with people like Todd Wells.
Last year, I got to the first climb and felt like I was hyperventilating. This time, I was so much more relaxed as I had worn my buff from Cape Epic to keep the dust out of my nose and lungs. I had put a tiny amount of peppermint oil on it too, as the smell of peppermint was calming to me. It also seemed to remind me of the smell of being in Africa.
I moved along for the first big climb and didn’t seem to get passed by many people, whereas last year it seemed like everybody was passing me. This time I felt in control and my legs were strong, and of course I was riding a really great climbing bike!
We reach the top of Powerline and were headed down when I knew I was really close to not hitting my time split for this 8:30 finish. I had to stay focused, and I knew it was going to be hard. I made sure to drink my bottle and eat something before we headed through the feed zone.
I felt pretty good through the next section as I headed to Twin Lakes and grabbed onto a few trains of people to draft and even set the pace at the front a few times. The next section would be the challenge as we were climbing Columbine, over 12,000 feet high!
On the way up Columbine, a woman caught up with me and asked if I had some water to give her as she had no bottles on her bike. I assumed she probably lost her bottle. I gave her one of my bottles because I had two full bottles.
Part of the fun of climbing Columbine is watching the pros come down. They fly! This time there was a big gap between groups of guys and within the first 10 people was a chic named Annika Langvad who happened was the women’s winner of the Cape Epic this year. She was incredible and just glorious! Annika ended up setting a course record of 6:58!
“You’re embarrassing the boys!”
Once we got past the treeline, Leadville founder, Ken Clover was cheering as we climbed through the rocky loose gravel. This is where people usually start walking as it’s loose and steep, and you can barely breathe being above 11,000 feet. This time I was able to ride almost everything to the top, having to stop just once for a short steep section and being caught behind a few walkers. Ken yelled at me, “You’re embarrassing the boys!”
When I finally got to the top of Columbine, 12,400ft, I for some reason was an emotional wreck. I felt kind of nauseous, felt like crying, and just needed something so I stopped at the feed zone to fill my bottle. None other than Laurel Darren Simmons (the woman who loaned me her bike initially) was there! She gave me a hug, filled my bottle, got me some watermelon and cheered me on my way. I really just needed the hug at that moment.
Coming down was great, as you know you are over halfway there, so it kind of feels like the home stretch in a weird way. I saw a lot of people I knew who were climbing up and tried to cheer for them, however I didn’t have much energy for talking at the time.
As I was flying down the road, a few riders walked into the road, waving us to slow down as a rider had crashed and was lying on the side of the road. I looked over and it happened to be the lady I had given my water bottle to. She had help already so I did not stop, but I felt a lot of empathy for her knowing that it was her first time doing Leadville, and it did appear she probably broke something. At that moment I recalled an email someone had sent to me that said, “Good luck, but be safe.”
For a while I rode with Richard la China who is also a coach from San Diego. Richard helped keep me motivated by telling me to “focus on the prize”. We knew we were so close to the sub 9 split so we had to stay as consistent as possible.By the time I reached Powerline climb, I suddenly had a second wind and began climbing like no one’s business. This climb is known for people walking a lot as it is so steep and there’s lots of ruts and your legs are really tired because you are at 75 miles.
I barely beat my time from last year by only 1 second (9:11:58) but I was happy to just be done with the race and get off my bike. I took third in my category however I was okay with it because this year there was a lot of fast women who showed up and I was pretty happy the more women were representing. If you would have asked me immediately after the race if I wanted to do it again, I would rolled my eyes and said no! But if you ask me now, I would say yes – because I know I can get that sub 9! I know I can get a sub 8:30! AND I realize that sometimes it takes longer than we expect to reach these goals but with time it can happen.