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We sat around a small Airbnb living room in well-loved recliners, eating ice cream out of handmade mugs and talking about anything but the upcoming race. The conversation meandered from grad school, to fungi, salt baths, hammock naps, gas station snacks, and recent books, without much care for where it would end up. Sitting between Sarah Sturm and Howard Grotts, I stayed mostly silent, listening to two old friends banter back and forth as if they were on a casual group ride.
This wasn’t terribly surprising– Sturm and Grotts have known each other for over a decade and have developed a close friendship. They both went to college at Fort Lewis in Durango, Colorado, are nearly the same age, and peaked on similar success curves. And they both ride professionally for Specialized and excel at long distances. Yet, if I didn’t know better, I would never have guessed they were just 30 hours away from the biggest race of the year.
For the duration of the evening, neither cared to talk about what Saturday morning would hold. Instead, they took turns sharing stories of recent bikepacking trips, offering podcast recommendations, and laughing about peculiarities of Sturm’s dog, Norm. Not long into the conversation I had the silent revelation that I should throw out my mental image of a world-class mountain bike racer. These two are a far cry from the type-A, win-at-all-costs caricature.
Sturm and Grotts each carry a warm demeanor and refreshingly modest approach to bike racing. To them, bike racing is about having fun. Sturm’s laugh is loud and her energy fills a room. Grotts is calm, always smiling, and listens more than he talks. Sturm is the living, breathing definition of an extrovert, while Grotts is probably closer to an introvert. For both, Leadville holds a special place in their hearts.
“Honestly, I never expected it to be this meaningful, but that changed quickly in 2019 when I took 2nd. It wasn’t just making the podium, it was the fact that this is the most mentally and physically draining race I’ve ever done,” said Sturm on a Zoom call a week earlier. “The altitude takes a ton out of you. You fight a million battles out there just to get to the finish. I’m really excited to be back.”
Grotts, the three-time defending champion, feels different this year. “Unlike the past, I don’t feel much pressure. I think a few other guys have a bigger target on their back, to be honest,” said Grotts on a phone call last week. “This season has been different for me, training wise. I’m going to grad school in Missoula and being a full-time student has limited my time on the bike, so I’m being realistic with my expectations.”
Both know the course well and consider this an advantage come Saturday. In separate conversations, Sturm and Grotts both used the word grueling to depict race day. “You have so many chances to throw in the towel,” said Sturm, continuing “your mind plays tricks on you when you’re at your Vo2 max at 13,000 feet. You just have to keep pushing and know you’ll swing back to feeling good eventually.”
Despite the agreement on the intensity of the race, their two strategies are polar opposites. “It’s a long, tactical race. My plan is to conserve energy, get back to Powerline and just see what happens,” said Grotts, who says patience has helped him break away from the lead pack each of the last three years.
On the contrary, Sturm may push the tempo from the line. “I know I shouldn’t say this, but I always start pretty hard. Yeah, sure, I go in with a strategy of when I should attack, but as they say, the best laid plans never work out,” said Sturm, laughing at herself. “Does everyone else have a set plan? I just wing it.”
Sturm has had a busy season, donning a bib almost every weekend the last two months. “My philosophy right now is that ‘the hay is in the barn’ and the biggest improvements I can make are done in my head,” said Sturm, admitting that she frequently deals with self-doubt. “On the start line I often want to pass out or throw up. Nerves affect me physically, but I’ve learned to calm them by reminding myself that all I can do is ride my own race. Ultimately it’s just you and a bicycle out in the mountains all day.”
On the other hand, Grotts returns to Leadville with much less racing under his belt and arguably less stress, too. “Mentally, this season has been great. It’s like a big vacation compared to past summers with races all the time,” said Grotts, who admits grad school is his priority. “Fitness-wise, it’s hard living at a lower elevation and trying to stay in my best shape, but I’ve stacked on more workouts to get there. I’d rather just go ride than force myself to do hard workouts, but that’s minor. I’ve mixed in bikepacking to keep my training fun, too.”
Both the men’s and women’s fields are deep, with at least a dozen riders on both sides that could potentially podium. Sturm tries to avoid the media chatter and rarely checks the race sign up list, because it makes her nervous. “I try to not listen to things that are out of my control, but of course I know all these women well so I know who’s going to be here. There’s a deep, competitive field and I’m excited about that. I appreciate all these badass women toeing the line together. I’m always in awe of what they can do, but I still stay away from all the social media noise,” said Sturm.
In contrast, Grotts follows his list of competitors closely. “I think this is the strongest field I’ve ever raced against here. It’s incredibly deep,” said Grotts. “I’d be happy with a top 3 finish. I know that I have to race more tactically and save energy where I can. With a six hour race so many factors go into it. Leadville is a lower aerobic race–you’re never going full gas like an XC race–and it usually plays out in slow motion. You feel good then bad then good, all within an hour or two.”
Both believe making the podium will come down to a mental edge. “I race from the heart. I dive really, really deep into the pain cave, regardless of physical fitness,” said Sturm, who believes nearly everyone is in peak form. “I know how to be comfortable with discomfort. I also feel some levity right now, knowing that this race isn’t the end of the world. My life isn’t linked to the outcome of this race. It’s pretty easy to get swept along in that circus.”
Photos: Andy Cochrane