Primary photos by Ashley and Jered Gruber with supporting images by Rodeo.
The Leadville 100 MTB race almost needs no introduction, suffice to say that the legendary event slays both bike and rider with it’s enormous length, the course altitude, and the difficult Colorado terrain which it traverses.
It will never be said that the Traildonkey is the best bike to do the Leadville 100 upon. It could be said though that Rodeo is not a team or a company in search of the “Best” of anything. We’re in search of more ethereal things such as fun, the unknown, personal challenges, and trying things on the bleeding edge of insane. The world runs on good ideas, but bad ideas make life interesting.
Jered Gruber is a renown cycling photographer. Jered is also a really really good bike rider. Jered is also insane. So when Jered announced that he would be entering LT100 on behalf of World Bicycle Relief I told him he’d have a blast, that I wanted to try it on a Traildonkey some day – just for fun, and because it is a bad idea. He immediately responded that if I was crazy enough to do something like that then he wanted to try it too. Of course I hadn’t yet done it so I had no idea what the outcome would be. It would likely be very difficult and he’d likely be miserable at least part of the day. Maybe all of it. Maybe for a week after it? As much as Rodeo loves a good bad idea we don’t ACTUALLY want anyone to be intentionally miserable on purpose on behalf of us. We want people to be miserable on accident. (Kidding!)
What is the best bike for Leadville anyway? I’m not exactly sure. You should probably ask Todd Wells that since he won the 2016 race in epic fashion. I’d guess that the average rider should probably tackle it on a featherweight dual suspension 29er, but each rider reaches their own conclusion to that question – that is what keeps life diverse and interesting. It also keeps Darwin’s name in the headlines.
Jered decided to ride around on the Donkey for a week or two before Leadville in order to decide if he wanted to attempt the the race on it. While he was deciding we threw a kitchen sink of rides at him in order to shake him up and slap some sense into him. We showed him our favorite trails on the Front Range. We tackled some fairly ridiculous rides (and hikes!) up and over Mosquito and Argentine passes. He got the snot pounded out of him for sure, but he kept smiling. “That wasn’t so bad” he’d say. “I think I can do Leadville on this thing!”
I repeat: Jered Gruber is insane.
That said, Jered is also rad!
I love it when someone throws conventional wisdom out the window and goes with their heart. That’s a pretty Rodeo thing to do. In the end Jered could not be deterred from Donkeying Leadville (yes Donkeying is now a verb around here). Deep down the whole thing was incredibly exciting. Leadville! Bright lights! Stardom! Fame! Infamy! Tears! Disaster! w00ts!
On race day everything started out very pro: Jered didn’t know where to line up. Jered was cold. We were late to the start. Nobody knew what to wear. AC / DC Thunderstruck sounded out over the loudspeakers.
As we stood there waiting for the actual very real gun to go off I wondered to myself if I was being a bad friend by letting Jered go for it on the Traildonkey. Was this whole thing a selfish, exploitative stunt where he’d get pounded then we’d hashtag the the day into oblivion and declare our bike 40% more efficient and 92% more #gravelepicradduro? That certainly wouldn’t be right. I wanted Jered to have fun. It isn’t every day that someone gets to do Leadville. It is a very difficult race to even get in to. It’s a bucket list sort of thing. When you roll across the finish line you should be happy, content, and satisfied, not full of regret and wondering why you just did that. When the gun went off it would be Jered who had to steer, pedal, and endure the day, but it would be my bike that I created standing between him and the elements, ferrying him to a belt buckle or a possible heaping of pain embarrassment.
I knew we’d done our homework. I knew we’d made a good bike. I knew that it was at least partially outclassed by the terrain. I knew Jered was a great rider. There wasn’t much left that I could do but watch and cheer.
The gun went off. The crowd surged forward. The race had begun! Jered was gone and Donkey with him.
Natalie and I raced to the car and rallied over to Powerline climb where the riders would re-appear on the technical, super fast descent. The leaders passed, chase groups passed. I strained for a flash of color signifying the appearance of our man. When he finally appeared Jered was on a surprisingly good pace. Obviously not with the leaders, but hanging with some pretty quick peers! As he wipped by I thought I heard him say “heyyyyyyy!”. Or maybe it was “I haaaattteeee youuuu!”. I honestly couldn’t tell. He either had a simile or a grimace. Results were inconclusive. What was conclusive was that he’d made it up and over a couple of big climbs and big descents and he was still fine. I felt relieved. What lay ahead of him was the 25 miles of gravel roads and rolling trails between Powerline and the Columbine climb. If there was any part of the course that was made for the Donkey this was it. I knew he’d be OK for a while as long as his equipment was holding up OK.
We made our way back to the car and headed over to the base of Columbine. We waited for a long time. Hours even. I became very worried. I wasn’t sure what had happened but Jered had dropped off of the pace of his Powerline peers. Had he flatted? Had he broken something? I had no idea. I felt sick. My fears were in all likelihood playing out but they were happening not to me but to a friend. Guilt crept in with every minute that passed.
And then Jered did appear, and he was smiling when he did. I didn’t understand what was going on. How could he be smiling? He had fallen off of pace and lost a bunch of time! That isn’t something to smile about.
What I didn’t know was that Jered had offered to be a pace rider for a friend, Katie, as she worked towards her own personal Leadville goal while also representing World Bicycle Relief. Jered wasn’t in Leadville to get the big buckle. As much as he was riding a Rodeo bike because he was my friend he was also pacing Katie because he was her friend. Jered wasn’t being a bike racer at Leadville, he was being a friend; a rolling ball of smiles and human goodwill. He was setting aside personal comfort, speed, and time goals and shining his spotlight on Katie, World Bicycle Relief, and even Rodeo. The realization struck me dead center. I didn’t know how to process it. You know that feeling when someone does something awesome and meaningful for you but you don’t know how to pay them back, and you can’t pay them back? That’s what I felt. Sometimes you just have to accept a gift and say thank you.
The rest of the day I was less stressed out. If I couldn’t find Jered I’d call his wife Ashley who was also out on the course cheering and taking photos. I’d find out if she’d seen him. The report was always the same: Jered was fine. He was smiling. He was riding with Katie and striking up conversations for other racers. He was also inevitably taking photos.
Throughout the day one thing Traildonkey did better than any other bike was start conversations. People would be riding with him and then notice the bike and “OH MY GOD WHAT ARE YOUR RIDING!”
The whole thing made me smile and even laugh a little. Donkeys are a little bit ridiculous. You can’t help but laugh sometimes.
Eventually Jered made it out and back from Columbine, crushed the Powerline climb, got rattled like crazy descending down the backside, and headed back over the final St. Kevin’s climb. He appeared to be smiling the whole time too.
Natalie and I caught a few more glimpses of Jered and Katie on the course before they finally crested the final hill leading into the finish. Seeing Jered and Katie appear over the summit was pretty special to me. They had made it, they were happy. Donkey survived, nobody was pounded into oblivion. Nothing broke. All was well and would be OK.
Through the finishing chute they went. I was reminded of my single Leadville finish a few years prior. Finishing Leadville is an incredibly joyful experience. The crowd roars for everyone, the announcer calls your name. You feel a huge rush of relief and euphoria, and your are forever among the list of finishers.
I’m so glad that Jered and Katie could experience that and I’m grateful that we, Rodeo could go along for the ride in a small way as well.
Leadville really is a beautiful day. It is amazing to participate in but experiencing it as a spectator is equally special. Here are a selection of images we shot of the day and of other friends seen along the way: