A Mountain Bike Journey: From Race to Ride with Suzanne Leff

I won! This is when things got crazy. I had three and a half months to learn how to mountain bike and get my body in shape for one of the most grueling mountain bike races in the world. But, before we go there, let me explain.

On most warm days in 2020, in the height of the pandemic, I hopped on my road bike after business hours during the time I normally would have spent commuting to and from my Ken Caryl Ranch office. With two older kids taking classes remotely while I also worked from home, my time out of the house on my bike emerged as a welcome and necessary part of the day for all of us. My neighbor often joined me for 20 mile out and back rides from our North Denver neighborhood to Golden. As we got time in the saddle, my son and daughter would come out of their rooms, blast music, and generally dance around the house like the Winkies to “A Brand New Day” in one of my favorite scenes from The Wiz (at least that’s what I hoped they were doing during this otherwise cooped-up time). If I did not move toward my bike at the regularly scheduled time, I threw off any family balance we were managing to achieve.


These positive effects of cycling undoubtedly served as a catalyst for me embarking on what would turn into one of the most fun and inspirational personal challenges of my life to date.


First, I bought a mountain bike from a friend of a friend in August 2020—a full suspension, carbon frame 2017 Ghost SL AMR 6.0. Cycling obviously was not new to me. Long before my evening escape rides during the pandemic, I commuted to and from my office when I worked in downtown Denver, and I have participated as a member of Wheels of Justice, which began as a Colorado Bar Association bike team, in the annual Courage Classic bike ride most years since 2012 when my friend Alli Gerkman convinced me I could ride up and over mountain passes (and when I first met CWBA Board member, Emma Garrison, who was already a veteran Wheels of Justice rider). But I had not spent time riding on anything bumpy and rocky—and actively avoided those conditions with my skinny road bike tires—since I was a girl growing up in rural southern Indiana, where I rode everything from a bike with a banana seat to a ten-speed on the long, gravel lane at my grandparents’ farm and over and around the fields outside my backdoor.


Then, in February 2021, I saw an advertisement for a project called From the Ground Up. Two professional cyclists from Boulder, Colorado, decided to spend part of their pandemic time selecting and training three novice mountain bikers to ride in the infamous Leadville 100 MTB race set for August 14, 2021. I say “infamous,” though I was not familiar with the Leadville 100 MTB race beyond having heard mention of it. Nevertheless, my kids encouraged me to throw my helmet in the ring. My son actually created talking points for me to use as prompts for my video statement and assisted with recording the submission. The call for applicants to participate in From the Ground Up generated responses from over 1,400 people of which I was one.


Uncensored talking points from my son


By the time I applied to From the Ground Up, I had a few months of mountain biking under my belt. I was a solid green-blue rider, which means I could handle beginner and some intermediate trails. My favorite local singletrack consisted of the Mount Carbon loop at Bear Creek Lake Park and a six mile climb and switchback descent on Green Mountain that maxed out my abilities. My mountain biking skills came from following friends on trails, reading a book by Ned Overend, watching YouTube videos, and acquiring an NSFW vocabulary during bartending days of my youth.


As for the Leadville 100 MTB race, I did not at all understand the immense task of riding 100 miles on a mountain bike at altitudes ranging from 10,000 to over 12,000 feet above sea level, with more than 12,000 feet of elevation gain over the full course. I had never gone 100 miles on my road bike. I also did not understand racing as distinguished from riding. But that did not matter. I was not selected to participate in From the Ground Up. So I returned my focus to a three-day Canyonlands National Park White Rim mountain bike tour in October that I had previously booked as my big goal for the year. That was the end of my short-lived Leadville aspirations.


Except it wasn’t. Even though I missed out on the formal From the Ground Up opportunity, I joined an online group with the three individuals selected to participate and many of those who applied but were not chosen. The support, encouragement, and sharing of resources flourished from the outset with this group of people from around the country. Many members of the group shared links to other events where people could meet and ride together. A few opportunities to win an entry into Leadville appeared in the feed as well. One of those chances for a Leadville entry involved typing an email address into a box on the screen and hitting “Enter.” I took this simple step.


And I won! (This is where we could have a tangential conversation about what “winning” means.) This was April 22, 2021. I immediately sought recommendations for a coach to assist with my training. I hired a former member of the Cutters racing team from Indiana University a few days later.


Suddenly this idea of doing something outside of my comfort zone and beyond my abilities was creating possibilities and expectations that did not exist just a few weeks prior. I announced my plans on social media, heard from colleagues and friends who had experience with Leadville and other endurance events, and received consistent cheers and check-ins from people near and far throughout my training process. These connections, feeling inspired, and offering some inspiration to others made the whole experience worth it.


Starting line of the 2021 Leadville 100 MTB Race. Photo by CWBA member Kristi Disney Bruckner


The race itself wasn’t so bad either. I did not actually finish the Leadville 100. I got to the mile 40 aid station and was met by two friends who were my support crew for the day. They offered me a beer. I said, “I can’t. I’m riding!” They then delivered the news that I had missed the timed cutoff by about a half hour. (These friends later revealed that they had discussed whether to offer a beer first or tell me about the cutoff. They chose well.) I felt both disappointed and relieved. I soon learned that From the Ground Up participants were cut off at the same place as me. We met and hugged, having taken this wild ride together.


The end of my Leadville ride - photo by CWBA member Kristi Disney Bruckner


Leadville mile 40 and that beer - photo by CWBA member Kristi Disney Bruckner


Before my race abruptly ended, I had climbed over 3,500 feet at almost two miles above sea level. I tackled the ascent to St. Kevin Mine amidst a large pack of riders in my first mountain bike race ever. I rode up Sugarloaf Mountain clean and descended Powerline, which, with its 45% grade at places and loose, rocky, rutted terrain, proved more technical than anything I had experienced up to that point. After that intense downhill, I enjoyed my time riding through sagebrush fields so much that I commented to friends about the relaxing effect of the scent. That got some laughs.


Ultimately, my Leadville experience taught me many things about mountain biking and myself while fostering connections and gratitude that will carry forward into future adventures. My training, while not enough to get me across the finish line at Leadville, more than prepared me for the 80-mile White Rim tour that I completed a couple of months later. I am convinced I would not have succeeded riding along the White Rim without the efforts directed at Leadville. Plus, I am now on track to continue developing as a mountain biker and finding new places to explore with friends new and old—hopefully with plenty of time to smell the sagebrush along the way.


Day 2 of the White Rim tour


End of White Rim tour (fourth from right)

 

Suzanne Leff is a partner at Winzenburg, Leff, Purvis & Payne, LLP, in Littleton, Colorado. She provides counsel to community associations and focuses on general business representation, document drafting and interpretation, contract review, covenant enforcement, and governance practices for HOAs throughout Colorado. She is a past Chair of the Colorado Bar Association’s Real Estate Section, a 2017 graduate of COBALT, and has worked extensively on legislative matters through the Community Associations Institute’s Colorado Legislative Action Committee. Outside of her law practice, Suzanne has devoted volunteer time to public education and initiatives to support and strengthen schools in North Denver. Suzanne received her law degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Law. She earned her B.A. in English and professional writing, with distinction, from Purdue University.

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