Racing on cycling’s frontier

Alex Howes and Lachlan Morton are home in Colorado to take on Leadville, SBT GRVL, and the Breck Epic

August 11, 2022

If bike racing ever gets stuck in the mud, Coloradans will plough through it.

Races like this weekend’s Leadville 100 and SBT GRVL or next week’s Breck Epic are the latest in a series of events that have pushed the sport’s frontiers. Lachlan Morton and Alex Howes are as excited to race them as Europe’s cycling stars were when they first arrived in Colorado to race the Red Zinger and Coors Classic back in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Those races—Coors took over sponsorship from Red Zinger in 1980—fostered a culture that inspires American cycling to this day. Without an established tradition of professional bike racing, Coloradans could put on a show that would appeal to modern fans. Bolder, louder, with criteriums and huge mountain stages built into what became a two-week race across the USA, the Red Zinger and Coors Classic were the first races to be shown live on American TV. There was a women’s race with prize money equal to the men’s. The winners earned massive purses for the time. The best bike racers in the world came and were cheered by enormous crowds. For over a decade, America’s stage race competed with Europe’s grand tours.

“The race always gave people a spectacle, whether it was an evening criterium or the race the next day,” says EF Education-EasyPost founder Jonathan Vaughters. "That drove the buzz in western towns and cities across Colorado and the USA. My first experience with bike racing was the Red Zinger Mini Classic for juniors. The junior women's field was just as large as the junior men’s field. The women winning the women’s pro race were just as popular as the men winning the men’s pro race. That was just standard stuff. For cycling to be popular in the United States in the '70s and '80s, you had to think outside of the European box, but I don’t think any of us realised how cutting edge that would have been seen in the more traditional European cycling arena.”

Unfortunately, the Coors Classic folded in 1989, as its costs rose and it failed to secure new sponsorship. Its progressive ethos lives on.

The Rockies are wilder than the urbane peaks of cycling’s European heartlands. That breeds a trailblazing spirit in the people who live amongst them.

“The Rocky Mountain West has a pioneering culture,” Vaughters says. “It is a very new culture that sort of had to invent itself from nothing. Bike racing here is a part of that. When bike racing was invented in Colorado, there wasn’t a template. Nobody was saying you have to do this, and you can’t do that. It was just, well, let’s do it this way, for no other reason than we’re inventing it, so we will do it however the hell we want. That is the core of the Western American spirit.”

It is one that Alex and Lachlan have embraced. Alex was born in Colorado. Lachlan first moved to the state when he was an espoir to race for our development team. They have both travelled the world to race bikes, but keep returning to the big, open skies and rough-tracked mountain ranges that they call home. There might not be cafés on top of Colorado’s cols. In the Rockies, Alex and Lachlan are more likely to encounter logging trucks and gravel, or mountain lions or bears, than pelotons of club riders in matching kit or perfect pavement, but that opens up a whole world of possibilities. Alex and Lachlan never want to just do things the way they have always been done. They would rather go out and explore what bike racing could be, pushing themselves forward, and inspiring people.

“I like the high-altitude and the wide-open spaces in Colorado,” Alex says. “It’s still pretty wild in a lot of ways. It’s still pretty rugged. It’s a big state, and there is still quite a bit of room out here. It is super freeing, because you can do these big rides where you don’t see anybody, but at the same time it can be pretty rowdy. Having to be prepared and self-reliant adds an extra element of adventure to everything."

That’s what Lachlan loves about his adopted home too.

“The road cycling is great here, the gravel riding is great, but if you really want to see Colorado, you really need to get on a mountain bike and get up into the mountains and get into some more remote places,” Lachlan says. "That’s where Colorado is at its best. That is what drew me into mountain-bike racing. The backcountry is very beautiful. It’s very savage. You need to know how to handle yourself a bit.”

Lachlan’s first real mountain-bike race, the one that sparked his love for off-road racing and showed him that he could be competitive, was Leadville back in 2019.

The Leadville 100 is a 100-mile (160-kilometre) mountain-bike marathon that starts higher than the highest paved road in Europe and climbs to a high point of 3,815 metres. There are over 4000 metres of climbing on the course, which crosses forestry roads and high-alpine two-track, as it rises into the thinning air. Racers often have to plunge down rocky sections of trail that are hardly wider than a tyre. Thousands of riders sign up for the race, hoping that they have the willpower and strength to make it to the finish and earn what has become one of the most wanted prizes in American cycling: a Leadville belt buckle.

“You can’t really compare Leadville to any race in Europe or in the world. It is just a unique race,” Lachlan says. “Once you get over 3500 metres, you’re just trying to get your body to function the best. There are no frills, no bullshit. Just turn up, and there are a bunch of other bike riders there to race and just have a challenge. The atmosphere is surprisingly intense and everyone is fired up.”

That’s for the frontrunners. Most people racing Leadville race against themselves.

“The front of the race is really just a small part of the whole event,” Alex says. “There will be thousands of people out there on bikes having a good time, trying to see whether they can survive 100 miles of Leadville. It will be interesting to see what kind of crazy people that draws in. I haven’t found another race where you get the same sort of big, open vistas. The mountains around Leadville just swallow you up."

In Leadville, and other like-minded Coloradan races, such as SBT GRVL and the Breck Epic, Vaughters sees the inventive spirit that made the Coors Classic and Red Zinger so successful. Those early races folded due to the rising price of closing major roads and securing police escorts without public help.

“The challenge in America is that government isn’t going to help you out. You’ve got to figure it out on your own two feet, and that is hard for race promoters to do," he says. "In the US, it costs, at a minimum triple, and at a maximum almost five times as much per day of racing on the road as it does in Europe. And that is how cycling has reinvented itself in the United States. It’s said, okay, we can’t spend two million dollars per day to produce road races like we did back in the Coors Classic. That’s no longer feasible. So, what are we going to do? Well, let’s race off road. Let’s race on gravel roads. It is a very innovative approach, a very fundamentally Western American approach.”

It has breathed new life into American bike racing.

After finishing third at Leadville in 2019 and second last year, Lachlan hopes that Rocky Mountain vistas will be all he has ahead of him by the end of Saturday’s race. That will be harder than ever.

“The fields you’re going to get this weekend are going to be the best that have ever turned up, which is exciting for racing in the US, because it’s been struggling,” Lachlan says. “It is going to be tough.”

Alex has been riding his mountain-bike a lot, and might just give Lachlan a run for his money, but he wants to save some strength for Sunday.

He is racing Leadboat. Less than 24 hours after he finishes Leadville, Alex will swap his mountain-bike for a gravel bike and set out to defend his title in SBT GRVL. The 229-km race, which he won last year, covers over 160 kilometres of unpaved roads in the rolling woods and prairie land around Steamboat Springs.

"Steamboat is cool because it is more tactical. In a lot of these gravel races, the strongest person just rides everybody off their wheel at some point and that is the race. At Steamboat, you can play the game a little more, which plays into my favour. What is it going to take? Just playing my cards right on the day. There are some big names out there, but at the end of the day, they are all names on paper. Everybody has still got to handle the elements, figure out the altitude and play their cards right too. I think I have a decent chance. Monday is going to be rough."

Lachlan won’t have any longer to recover. He starts the Breck Epic on Sunday. The mountain-bike stage race follows a cloverleaf format, with six big backcountry courses looping out from the centre of Breckenridge into the high alpine.

“Breck Epic is my favourite race of the year."

- Lachlan Morton

“Breck Epic is my favourite race of the year,” Lachlan says. “The stages are all three to four hours at the front and you can race really hard in the morning and then enjoy summertime in the mountains in the afternoon. The stages are really technical. You’re up above 3000 metres, above the treeline. I am really excited to go back to Breck and hammer around for six days.”

That, after all, is what bike racing is all about.

The organisers of the Breck Epic have chucked out the rulebook. Cycling should get back to basics, they think. Don’t be a d***. (Don’t dope). Stay safe. Don’t litter. Those are their only rules.

“Since we’re doing it, we can do it however we want, and you don’t really get a say. That’s how the Coors Classic was back then, and that’s exactly how they did it,” Vaughters says.

That’s how Leadville, SBT GRVL, and the Breck Epic are doing it.

It’s a free-spirited vision that appeals to the hundreds of racers who will spend the next week stoked on competition, adrenaline, and very little oxygen. It could be the inspiration for whatever bike racing becomes next, born in Colorado.

May the best racer win. And may everyone have a good time.

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