Coloradan Wells wins Leadville 100 bike race
Updated: August 13, 2011, 17:07
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LEADVILLE, Colo. (AP) The Leadville 100 MTB lacked the star power of years past. There was no shortage of spunk.
Todd Wells, the national cross-country mountain bike champion, won the nation's highest-altitude endurance test with the second-fastest time in the race's history Saturday.
Wells, from Durango, traversed the grueling, 100-mile course in a lung-searing 6 hours, 23 minutes, 38 seconds. That was about seven minutes slower than Levi Leipheimer's record-setting time of a year ago but well ahead of everyone else.
Austrian Alban Lakata was second in 6:27:57 after a flat tire early on, and Alex Grant of Salt Lake City finished third in 6:35:32.
The Leadville 100 features no prize money, just pride and climbs of 14,000 vertical feet at elevations ranging from 9,000 to 12,500 feet.
Like 2009 champion Lance Armstrong, Leipheimer skipped this year's "Race Across the Sky.'' Leipheimer is competing in the Tour of Utah in preparation for the USA Pro Cycling Challenge next week in Colorado.
Armstrong gave fans a glimmer of hope by showing up two minutes before the start of a qualifier last month in Crested Butte. But there was no similar sprint to the start line Saturday for the seven-time Tour de France winner.
Also sitting this one out was six-time champion Dave Wiens, of Gunnison, who finished second and fourth the last two years as the race exploded in popularity and drew world-class competition, and Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, last year's runner-up.
"It doesn't matter,'' said Wells, who bested his mark of 6:30:31 last year when he took third. "I wanted to win regardless of who was going to come.''
Wells was on pace to challenge Leipheimer's record time of 6:16:37 until a spoiled stomach that bothered him much of the race took its toll at the end.
"It started to get cramping and knot up a little bit,'' he said. "It's hard. You've got to eat a lot (gels, power bars) out there. It's a long race. But then you're going so hard, too, it's hard to digest everything.''
Wells said he didn't want to burn himself out trying to beat Leipheimer's splits on the way back.
"Here, it's so high and it's such a longer race than I'm used to that I can't up my tempo at all,'' Wells said. "I've got one speed out there. With those guys racing the Tour de France and everything that goes into that, I feel like I can't compete against that type of time.''
So, he said he was shooting for JHK's time of 6:25:21 last year "because we race similar events, do similar training.''
Plus, the breakaway group hadn't gone out as fast and as furious as last year's field that set such a torrid pace.
"Alban was super strong and if he didn't flat and was in the group (going out) I'm sure we would have rolled it even faster, so the time probably would have been quicker,'' Wells said. "But you never know. It's a long race and if you give a lot at the beginning, sometimes you pay for it at the end.''
Lakata hit a rock that cut his back tire 10 miles into the race, his first in Leadville, and had to go in search of a tire pump from a first-aid station because his wasn't working in the cold. It took him about five minutes and then he raced alone up to the Columbine mine above Twin Lakes, where he caught Wells.
"I thought I was flying up Columbine and then all of a sudden I hear, 'Go guys!' Plural,'' Wells said. "And I look back and he's right there. I thought, 'I'm done.' This guy just bridged this huge gap.'''
But Lakata had expended too much energy.
"He paid for his effort,'' Wells said. "I couldn't let up at all, though, the whole time. After seeing how quickly he closed that five-minute gap on me, I decided just to keep it steady.''
Lakata became dehydrated and had to stop twice for cold swigs of water as Wells pulled away.
"I really struggled in the end. I was just happy to finish,'' Lakata said. "Next year I will do better.''
Grant said he'll return, too. He took fourth in 2009 and eighth last year.
"I hadn't beaten seven hours and I took a fair chuck off that,'' he said. "So, I'm pretty psyched.''
Rebecca Rusch, of Ketchum, Idaho, won the women's race for the third straight year. She shaved more than 15 minutes off the record she set last year by finishing in 7:31:46. Gretchen Reeves of Avon finished in 7:35:38 and Pua Mata, of Anaheim Hills, Calif., took third in 7:37:50.
Connect with AP Sports Writer Arnie Stapleton at http://twittere.com/arniestapleton