LEADVILLE — It was an unusual experience for Lance Armstrong before Saturday’s Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race. And it had nothing to do with the bike he sat atop — after all, he’s done plenty of fat tire races. The 6:30 a.m. start wasn’t strange for him, neither was the bitter cold of a Cloud City morning.
No, the unusual experience for Armstrong was that he was nervous.
“I was more nervous before this race than I was before the Tour,” he said after finishing. “I don’t know why.”
Well, if Saturday’s start was unusual, the finish was anything but, as Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France champion and superstar of cycling, did exactly what he was expected to do — win.
Despite pulling up to the finish at Sixth and Harrison in downtown Leadville on a flat back tire and with a exhausted expression, Armstrong set a new course record in the Race Across the Sky with a time of six hours, 28 minutes and 51 seconds, winning by nearly 30 minutes.
“I was really glad to be finished,” Armstrong said with a laugh. “I was dead out there.”
In his second time competing in Leadville, Armstrong said he felt much better physically than August of last year when he lost by two minutes to six-time Leadville 100 champ Dave Wiens.
The race took competitors on a 100-mile jaunt around the trails and roads of the area, beginning in downtown at 10,200 feet of elevation and turning around at the Columbine Mine which sits 12,600 feet above sea level.
Even being gassed at the finish, Armstrong couldn’t help but appreciate the race.
“This is a special race,” he said. “The dynamic of going out and back, you see everyone else in the race. I saw everyone from Dave (Wiens) or the guy in last place, who’s not going to make it. Everyone you see and encounter is supportive and gives you a cheer. It’s just pretty cool.”
Not only does Armstrong get to add the Leadville 100 belt buckle to his trophy shelf, Armstrong also gained the distinction of being the only rider ever to beat Wiens in this race.
Wiens had won the race every year since he started competing in Leadville in 2003. The 44-year-old Gunnison resident broke seven hours Saturday but wasn’t within 10 minutes of Armstrong for the last 40 miles.
“If I would have won this race, that means that something would have happened to Lance, whether it was mechanical or a bad crash,” Wiens said. “I rode a great race, even though I was 30 minutes behind him.”
Armstrong pulled away from a small pack of front runners as they climbed to the Columbine Mine. After coming down the steep slope, Armstrong wasn’t sure if he wanted to try to ride the last 50 miles without anyone around him.
“I had to decide what to do,” he said. “Do I wait for other guys, or just race by myself? It’s a little risky to do that … I rolled the dice a little bit, and besides, I was freezing.”
Armstrong, though seemingly immune to fatigue, wasn’t any different than any of the other 1,400 riders in getting cold when rain poured down on them at the beginning of the race. Later, the clouds gave way to clear skies, and the racers had near perfect conditions.
Everything went relatively smooth for Armstrong, until his tire went flat with about 10 miles to go.
“I knew I had a descent gap, so I decided to ride it,” he said. “ … I’m not really good when it comes to changing a flat.”
“Normally I don’t change flats,” he joked. “I usually call the car, and they come give me a new bike. That’s how it goes in road racing.”
Armstrong did pump a little more air into it, and he said he was able to make it almost to town before it went completely flat on him again.
“Dave road in with a flat last year too,” Armstrong pointed out. “Maybe it’s just a part of the race.”
Losing had never been a part of any of Wiens’ Leadville races until Saturday. Surprisingly, as the hall of famer stood with his three sons after the race, he wasn’t upset in the least.
“I was glad these guys saw me get beat, actually,” he said, pointing to his kids. “A win against Lance, I wouldn’t have just straight up beat the guy.”
Armstrong all but confirmed a third straight appearance in the race in 2010, but Wiens was a little reluctant to discuss the possibility of a rematch.
“Not unless Lance wants to play hockey,” Wiens joked.
Armstrong said his next scheduled race will be the Tour of Ireland, though he’d “have to check his calendar” for some more mountain bike races. Even at 37, the Tour champ certainly has no thoughts of slowing down.
“If you’ve got two wheels, a race number, a starting line and a finish, I’ll pretty much always be there,” he said.