At a glance, it’s Lance.
For his epic rematch of last year’s stirring mano-a-mano Leadville 100, Lance Armstrong appears loaded for bear. A full season of racing under his belt, including the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France (a twofer he’s never done before). Pretty much full recovery from his broken collarbone. A year of incentivization, having admitted defeat to Wiens personally at last year’s race.
And this time, the eyes of the nation if not the world upon him. Come Aug. 15, we can expect unprecedented coverage of the Leadville 100, which always has an avid following among endurance sports cognoscenti but has never made it to the national consciousness.
So yeah, you’d think all the ducks lined up for Lance, right? Despite Dave Wiens having won the Leadville 100 six consecutive times, Wiens is the underdog, right?
Not so fast.
As the only observer to call Lance’s chances correctly in both the Giro and the Tour — to wit, null, void, zip, nada — at a time when major media were saying “Lance can win!” and “Why you can never count Lance out!” Bike Intelligencer feels a certainly burden of prophecy looking to the Leadville 100. Can we maintain our contrarian stance v. Lance? Or is it time to face reality and acknowledge he’s just too primed for Wiens this time around?
First, we have to admit something: Whereas we were 100 percent sure with the Giro and Tour, we’re on shakier ground for Leadville. We feel a bit like Lance going into the Tour, where he noted he lacked the confidence of a win compared to previous Tours. (We kind of chuckled at that one, believing that even a stage win was beyond Lance’s reach, another prediction that came true, albeit barely.)
Few competitors have a sense of moment like Lance, and even fewer can dig down deep the way he does when the cards are down. Whereas last year he was in good shape, this time around he’s in world-class shape. And while his opponent, a former World Cup racer himself and Mountain Bike Hall of Famer, is not to be underestimated, he’s also not named Alberto Contador.
That said, we see a lot to like for Wiens. For one thing, while Lance was ripping up Ventoux, Dave was not exactly sitting at home with his legs propped up, watching it on TV. Wiens too was in the Alps, riding the TransAlp Challenge, the world’s toughest mountain bike race and a multi-stage epic in its own right (Wiens’ team finished 7th overall). It’s not like he needed the training — Wiens knows how to prepare for Leadville better than anyone — but for those paying attention, he was sending a message.
Then there’s the whole mtb thing. Riding a mountain bike is so unlike a road rig that they’re almost two different sports. (Credentials: For two decades I was a roadie, doing double centuries, triathlons and other endurance events; then in 1991 I switched to mountain.) Here’s just a few things to consider:
Road riding is based on extended rhythm, or cadence. You get into a zone and build from there. Whether in a time trial, on the flats or a climb, you’re doing the same thing for a long time. The only time you really sprint is at the finish or (if you care) for points. It doesn’t happen that much.
Mountain biking is far less static. It involves constant shifts in tempo, body position, aerobics and strength output. The surface is hardly ever smooth. Cadence doesn’t enter the picture. You pedal downhill. You bust your gut on riser after riser, switchbacks here, rock gardens there.
Your riding position is completely different; in fact, with mountain biking, riding position is always changing depending on terrain. You’re much more upright than the tucked road position. Your musculature is stressed accordingly.
There’s no drafting in mountain biking.
Upper-body strength, and strength-to-weight ratio, matter much more in mountain biking. You have to pull on the bars on climbs, guide the bike carefully on technical sections. You’re always leaning and weighting different parts of the bike. That takes shoulder, arm, chest and back strength, not just leg action.
Mountain biking is bursty. You go anaerobic far more often as you negotiate tricky terrain. A climb on a mountain bike is 100 times harder than on a road bike because your whole body is involved, the grade usually is steeper (you get 15 to 20 percent risers all the time), and you have far less traction. It can be just as fast to get off the bike and push — how often can you say that about road riding?
The point here is, Lance’s season so far has been great for conditioning and endurance, as long as he’s riding a road bike. For a mountain bike, not so much. There’s a reason why cycling success translates from mountain biking to road racing — Cadel Evans, Floyd Landis, Michael Rasmussen, Ryder Hesjedal — far more prevalently than the opposite direction.
Other variables to keep in mind:
Lance knows how to set up a road bike, whether it be TT, flats or climbs, perfectly for himself. A mountain bike? Hmmm. He hasn’t had enough experience riding mtb, especially recently, to have command of the technology and personal variables. Someone else can set it up for him, and he can consult with lots of experts. But at the end of the day, only he can make certain calls, and he just doesn’t have the data.
Wiens on the other hand rides mountain every day. He’s got it completely dialed. If there’s such a thing as equipment edge, Wiens will have it.
The other thing: Wiens is a local (Gunnison, but close enough). In mountain biking, that counts for far more than road racing. You see locals win or excel at downhill and slalom and even cross-country (albeit to a lesser extent) races in their own back yard where they’re also-rans everywhere else. Home court is an advantage. So is being the underdog.
Wiens also has an experience edge on Lance when it comes to the Leadville race itself. He knows the race’s profile and his own body’s rhythms.
Finally, whereas we know Lance tapped out last year, we do not know Wiens’ real potential at Leadville. We don’t know if Lance ever really pushed Wiens, or whether Wiens was just marking Lance till he needed to go into overdrive.
All of the above, even giving Lance points for a phenomenal comeback season, says Wiens is going to win this thing again. There are always x-factors in mountain biking, particularly equipment failure and crashes, but all things being equal we give the edge to the local.
To repeat, though, unlike the Giro and Tour, we’re not so sure. The race looks to be close for much of the duration. But when it comes time to dig deep, the moment of truth that Lance has made a career out of taking, Wiens will have more in the tank.
If we were taking it to Vegas, we’d go with 3-to-2 odds in favor of Wiens.
And if we panned out, we’d make money. Because to the casual observer, this thing looks like the biggest blowout since Ali v. Buster Mathis. Let’s hope they’re wrong and that Leadville 2009 becomes a memorable duel for the ages.
Update: Chris Carmichael on why I might be wrong.