Inside one of the most grueling feats in cycling with two newly-hardened former roadies
Kiel Reijnen and Ruth Winder carved out long, steady careers as pro road racers. They’ve proven their toughness multiple times over. They’ve ridden hours on end in the wind to protect teammates, and utterly exhausted themselves in the spirit of racing more times than they can count.
But all their years spent battling in pro pelotons couldn’t fully prepare them for LeadBoat.
“Two hundred and fifty miles of offroad racing in one weekend is a lot, no matter how you slice it,” Reijnen said. “This isn’t road racing. The miles are slow and grueling. Add to that, the thin mountain air, extreme grades, rough singletrack, monstrous elevation gain, and the result is a challenge that lives up to the hype.”
“LeadBoat” refers to two different races in Colorado that take place during the same weekend — the Stages Cycling Leadville Trail 100 MTB, a 106-mile mountain bike race, and SBT GRVL Black, a 144-mile gravel race. The two races take place less than 24 hours apart, the former in Leadville, at more than 10,000 feet above sea level, and the latter two-and-a-half hours away in Steamboat Springs.
Completing one of those rides by itself is a major undertaking for any rider. Doing both back-to-back, like Reijnen and Winder did, is mind-boggling. Nevermind taking on both rides competitively. Reijnen finished 24th in the LeadBoat series men’s standings with a total time of 15:38:09.0 across both races, while Winder finished second (!) in the women’s standings with a time of 15:20:15.0.
“It is a different physical feat than I have ever done before,” Winder said. “And they are two really big races in Colorado, and considering I live in Colorado, that’s pretty cool. I don’t think I really even considered what it meant to do both races until the weekend before, when someone said to me, ‘Oh, you’re gonna race 15 hours in two days.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s more than I ride in a week a lot of the time.'”
For as well as they did, it should be noted that neither Reijnen nor Winder thought much about where they would finish as they were riding. Traversing 250 miles of gnarly terrain at high altitude is about survival, foremost, and the story of their weekends is a lesson in perseverance, community and collaboration. To complete LeadBoat, both Reijnen and Winder needed the help of others at key moments, and forced themselves to push through intense low points to find their grooves.
Even for two riders who have experienced nearly every racing scenario imaginable, LeadBoat weekend was unlike anything they had ever experienced.
“It may have only been two long days of riding, but completing the LeadBoat challenge provided a deep sense of satisfaction, one that I can only recall feeling at the end of a Grand Tour,” Reijnen said. “It was an incredibly challenging weekend in more ways than I anticipated. The physical effort required is significant but don’t discount all the other ways in which the weekend will test you.”
Leadville - Broken wheels, unbroken spirits
Reijnen was up well before his 4:30 a.m. alarm on the morning of Leadville, shoveling pancakes into his mouth in anticipation of a big effort. Race day nerves often kick him out of bed earlier than he wants. Perhaps his body foresaw the chaos ahead. Reijnen recalls shivering on the start line — even during the summer months, mornings are cold high up in the Rocky Mountains — then a surge of adrenaline after a shotgun blasted to signal the start of the race. Then crashes.
“A crash on the left side sent a rider to the hospital less than a minute into the race,” Reijnen said. “It was chaotic, but that is what racing can be like.”
The race eventually settled down, but the road became littered with riders who had suffered mechanical problems. Soon, both Winder and Reijnen were dealing with near simultaneous wheel issues. Just over 20 miles in, Reijnen heard the sound of rubber on carbon and quickly assessed that he had a broken rim. With the help of some zip ties, extra spoke tension and a tube, he was able to repair the rim well enough to alternately pedal and walk his way roughly eight miles to the first rest station at Mile 30, where he received a replacement wheel. “I knew my ‘race’ was over,” Reijnen said, “but my ‘adventure’ was just beginning.”
Before the first rest stop, Winder noticed her tire was leaking air due to a wheel issue of her own. Unlike Reijnen’s wheel, Winder’s was somewhat rideable, provided she stop periodically to pump air into her tire. She would have taken a new wheel at Mile 30, too, but there was just one set of replacement wheels for the two riders at the stop.
“I’d seen Kiel on the side of the road and Kiel had really destroyed his wheel, so I knew I couldn’t get the first set of wheels,” Winder said. The next rest station was at Mile 40, and Winder toughed out her leaky tire until then. “I told Kiel after the race, ‘I saw you and I just knew you would have been devastated if I took that first set of wheels.'”
Reijnen was grateful for the assistance. He told his daughter that he wanted to get her the belt buckle prize that goes to all sub-nine hour Leadville finishers, and with a fresh wheel and some smart pacing, that goal was still well within reach.
Reijnen had no more mechanical setbacks, but just a few miles from the finish, he overheard a younger rider lamenting the fact that he was going to just miss his goal of beating the course in under 8.5 hours. Reijnen decided right then to make that rider’s mission his own.
“Even if I had missed out on my original goals for the day, he didn’t have to,” Reijnen said. “I picked up the pace and we motored towards the line. I checked over my shoulder and offered some words of encouragement. With more than five minutes remaining the line was in sight, we pushed all the way to finish and shared a high-five after we crossed the line.”
Winder earned a strong result at Leadville — a final time of 8:06:47.0, good for 16th fastest among women — especially considering how much ground she lost early to factors out of her control. But Leadville is designed to inflict pain upon all who dare attempt its route. Winder was absolutely gassed after her effort.
“I had a really not very good day at Leadville. I just felt terrible,” Winder said. “That feeling at above 10,000 feet is just a long day out there on your own, suffering.”
After all-out, all day efforts, both Reijnen and Winder wanted to do nothing more than collapse. Their reprieve would be short-lived, however. In just a few hours, they would be on a start line again, set for another bout of self-inflicted punishment.
Steamboat - Strength in numbers
Winder thought that she would be better suited for Steamboat, especially after coming down in altitude roughly 4,000 feet from the day before. But the race quickly picked up where Leadville left off.
“The first hour and a half of the race was just really, really hard,” Winder said. “It definitely showed that not training at that high intensity, I really suffered for it.”
At least she got some good rest ahead of the race. Reijnen brought his two children with him, and while he certainly cherishes the time he got to spend with them, they added their own challenges to the weekend.
“Unfortunately, altitude is hard on kids too, and we spent the entire drive from Leadville to Steamboat with my 1.5-year-old screaming, Disney tunes blasting and my five-year-old asking 20 questions a minute,” Reijnen said. “Dreading another 4:30 a.m. wake up call, I set about preparing my food, bottles and repair kits for the next day. Around 9:30 p.m. I finally collapsed into my bed, completely spent.”
Neither Reijnen nor Winder had ever raced two different bikes in the same weekend before. Reijnen had largely been training on his Supercaliber in preparation for Leadville, not anticipating how disoriented he would feel when he hopped back on his Checkpoint for Steamboat. The race didn’t give him much time to acclimatize. From the gun, riders attacked and jockeyed for position into tricky sectors, much like in a road peloton.
“Not exactly the best way to find the ‘feel’ of the bike again,” Reijnen said. “But it was enough to shake off the sluggishness from a short night of sleep.”
Then a funny thing happened after that frantic start: Winder and Reijnen started enjoying themselves. Reijnen found himself near the front of the field after the first technical section, and even started taking in the majesty of his surroundings, forgetting that he was in the midst of a fast moving peloton.
Winder called her last two hours racing Steamboat “probably the best I felt over 15 hours of riding.” She found a good group of riders to stick with, which allowed her time to recover and eat, and gradually shake off some of her cumulative fatigue.
“The Steamboat course was fun,” Winder said. “We had some singletrack parts, and some good up and down climbs. Cruising in a big bunch made the miles tick by.”
Reijnen was in the second group on the road, and gaining on the first group in the closing miles when, mercilessly, his legs finally succumbed to the hundreds of miles they’d accumulated. He slipped back at Mile 100 on a long uphill grind. To add insult to injury, he suffered a flat tire, and limped into the aid station at the top of the climb. He was rejuvenated by a smorgasbord of salty ships, peanut M&M’s, ice water and orange slices, but he would back onto the road by himself.
Fortunately, friends weren’t far behind. Winder caught up to Reijnen with roughly 10 miles to go.
“I saw Kiel up the road, and I was like, ‘Kiel! Kiel!’ And it made me so happy just to see him,” Winder said.
Winder knew she was on a good ride thanks to observers along the route who informed her that she was perhaps the fourth or fifth woman on the road. That information was a small comfort. Her legs were screaming.
“I was just like, ‘I don’t really care. I’m really just trying to make it to the finish line,'” Winder said. “The fatigue was pretty strong at that point. But then riding with Kiel was another little boost of energy, and just really fun.”
Winder would finish third among women on the day, behind winner Lauren De Crescenzo and second-place Whitney Allison. Winder was the only rider on the women’s Steamboat podium to also race Leadville the day before.
“I was super proud of that,” Winder said. “I think it made me feel a little bit better after feeling so terrible at Leadville that I could come back around.
“I found that group of people that was really fun to ride with, and just focused on getting to the finish line rather than the result itself. Getting third on the day was really cool, and I’m a competitive person, but it was the circumstances that made it a fun day for us.”
Reijnen came in less than a minute behind Winder, and finished 86th among all riders. He might have preferred a better placing, but racing gravel has always been about the experience for him. And in that regard, he won’t soon forget his low-sleep, wheel-fixing, belt buckle-winning, friendship-building battle through the Rocky Mountains. At least he beat the rain.
“I timed my arrival to the finish with perfection, an enormous thunderstorm unleashed itself on the town just moments after I crossed the line,” Reijnen said. “I couldn’t help but smile as I entered the finishing straight.”