Haley Smith heads into the fourth stop of the Life Time Grand Prix off-road series tied for second place in the overall standings for women with Sarah Sturm, both just eight points back of leader Sofia Gomez Villafane. The same trio took top honours at last year’s Grand Prix, Smith winning the inaugural title.
The task at hand Saturday is to compete and complete Stages Cycling Leadville Trail 100 MTB in Colorado, where the start line begins at 10,000 feet above sea level. This year Smith’s preparation for another podium in Leadville took a huge turn, a 7,000-kilometre cross-Atlantic excursion to Scotland to compete at the UCI Cycling World Championships. She finished 15th on the 100km, muddy, mixed-surface Marathon Mountain Bike course last weekend.
“Representing Canada at my first Marathon Champs was very cool. I’ve worn the maple leaf at 10 XCO World Championships, and they’re some of my favourite memories on the bike. I didn’t have the performance I wanted this year, but the experience was invaluable and a huge honour,” Smith told Cyclingnews on Wednesday on a layover in Toronto en route to Colorado.
This time last year, the Canadian mountain bike specialist grabbed the lead for good in the Life Time series with a third-place finish in Leadville, Sturm in fourth and Villafane suffering with a DNF on her first try at the high-altitude race. But it’s a new year with lots of questions.
“I came into Leadville with much better prep last year, so I can very honestly say that I’m quite nervous for the challenge this year. I’ll never count myself out – because you never know, do you? I came in without a pre-Leadville altitude camp last year, and it worked out okay, so I’m hoping that my simulated altitude prep (via sauna and heat training) will have done the trick this year.”
In past years a Leadville Trail 100 MTB-SBT GRVL doubleheader, known as Leadboat, was the milestone endurance achievement for elite riders. With the two events now spaced out by eight days rather than a weekend pairing, a few ambitious athletes are attempting a World Championships-Leadville double, made all the more menacing with the air travel distance of more than 7,221 kilometres (4,487 miles) separating the off-road races.
A few male athletes who completed UCI Marathon World Championships in Scotland on Sunday and will be on the start line in Leadville are South Africa’s Matthew Beers, who finished 20th, Andrew L’Esperance of Canada, 34th, USA’s Alex Wild, 37th. Smith is the only female confirmed for the double.
“Can I shake jet lag in a week? Certainly not, especially because it’s actually only 3 days,” Smith joked. “But, I don’t actually need to shake jet lag: the race starts in Leadville is 6:30 am, which is a 3:30 am wake up. Being on Europe time will actually be a positive. However, the other things that come with transatlantic travel (inflammation, dehydration, etc) are another story. I’ll do my best to shed those things as quickly as possible.”
Villafane is the pre-race favourite for women, having swept the first three Grand Prix events – Sea Otter Classic – Fuego XL, Unbound Gravel 200 and Crusher in the Tushar. She even travelled to the Colorado Rockies early to compete and won the Leadville Stage Race, which she described as “the Leadville course broken up into three days”. Other contenders have also been training at altitude in Colorado, preparing for Leadville, including new Grand Prix contender Lauren DeCrescenzo.
“I honestly can’t comment on whether it’s an advantage or a disadvantage for others to have been in Leadville in advance. For me, living in Leadville for a few weeks would be a massive mistake, 3,000m above sea level is simply too high to train properly and recover well. Living up there (unless it’s for an exceptionally extended period) will just make you tired, not adapted. My two cents,” Smith assessed.
“However, doing a pre-Leadville camp at a slightly more modest altitude (the 1600-2300m range) would be a massive advantage that I simply didn’t have the scheduling room to slot in.”
She’s ready to give it a go in Leadville, with a repeat podium spot being a big goal but not a high expectation. She admitted a mountain bike endurance test like this had so many variables that it was unrealistic to make a solid prediction.
“Honestly, I’ve been wrestling with my body for the last couple of months and am struggling to absorb the training and racing demands I’ve put myself through. – but it would take a lot to move up from third to first. I am not really an altitude wizard, and this is exceptionally high altitude,” she said.
“So, I know that to get the best out of myself will require me to be smooth, measured, and mature. I will need to race steady and with optimism. It’s the only way I will get through this event. If it yields a good result, fantastic, but if it doesn’t, I’ll know that I did all I could do.”