John Henry 2009

I wrote this sometime in late 2009, after Lance Armstrong won the Leadville 100 on his second attempt. I thought in light of his recent fall from grace (and what a fall it was) that the piece can be read perhaps in a new light. There are many in the Leadville 100 community who say that Lance should be stripped of that title and it should be given to the second-place finisher, Leadville legend Dave Wiens. But Leadville is an unsanctioned race, with no prize money at stake (although I do wonder what the “arrangement” was for him to participate), and I’m guessing nothing will be done.

All the pictures were taken by me.

John Henry 2009

As I positioned myself for the best possible picture on a section of single track at about the 65-mile mark of the 2009 Leadville 100 mountain bike race, I had already heard the scuttlebutt: Lance Armstrong had pulled away from Dave Wiens at the 50-mile turnaround point on Columbine Pass above Twin Lakes. The rumor was that he had about a ten-minute lead over Dave, our 44-year-old never-aging “wunderkind” and father of three from nearby Gunnison who had won the last six 100s, including victories over Floyd Landis two years before and then 2008’s 6 hour 45 minute record-breaking victory over Lance, who was making his first appearance that year.

Leadville, recovering nicely from its annual Boom Days celebration the week before, was abuzz over what was being called the “Lance Effect”- businesses reporting five times their revenue over previous 100s, and so on. The 100-mile mountain ultra bike and running races were instituted by Leadville’s State Rep. Ken Chlouber about fifteen years ago, as Leadville was sinking into a deep depression, emotional and economic, after the closing of the Climax Molybdenum mine, just up the road. The idea was that maybe extreme athletes would want to compete at extreme events starting in the highest incorporated city in America. A crazy idea, maybe, but anything to get some people into town. And now, it seemed, gold had been struck.

Climax was Leadville’s last significant major mine of any sort, and Leadville, from its beginnings, was a mining town. And not just any mining town. More silver and gold was pulled out of the earth around Leadville, primarily from California and Evans Gulches, than any other similar square mileage on earth. That was the 1880s, of course, but American skyscrapers and bridges needed stronger steel, and World Wars I and II required the molybdenum that turned steel into armor, and that’s what Climax was all about. But Vietnam was apparently the last war that needed quantities of moly, and Climax finally shut down in 1989.

The main attraction at Boom Days is the competitive mining events, where manly men wearing really dirty t-shirts (or no t-shirts at all) shovel muck into ore cars, drive steel bits into a block of granite, and hammer nails into faux mine shaft “beams”. The highlight for me is the double-jacking event on Sunday, when they operate in teams of two, one man holding the steel while the other drives it deep into the granite with a sledge-hammer. John Henry always comes to mind.

Singles hand-steeling

Singles hand-steeling

Conversely, the event that holds the least interest for me is the steam drill event. Not that it’s easy to manhandle a 300-pound drill and it’s 8-foot bit to collar a hole in a block of granite, but it’s just not the same as watching men wield the traditional tools of the trade using only their own power. There’s a real sense of history as you watch these events, and they are particularly poignant in light of Leadville’s recent decline. In 2008, however, the Mining Events official t-shirt proudly boasted “Celebrating the Rebirth of Moly”. A Chinese company had bought the rights to Climax and was readying it for its grand re-opening in 2009. Over 400 locals had already been hired in the lead-up, and it was a very good summer for Leadville. Lance only helped make it a better one. The really big news in Leadville in 2008 was Climax, not Lance.

But as we all know, some little thing happened with the economy that year, and by December, the announcement came: the mine would in fact not re-open. It was singularly cruel for Leadville: most people in town wished their hopes had never been raised in the first place. A lot of folks had the attitude, “Just our luck. Seems like nothing ever goes our way anymore.” Leadville trudged through the long winter, a saddened place. The 2009 t-shirt made no boasts as there were none to make.

In 2008, Lance was virtually a last-minute entry in the 100 (was he REALLY going to show?) and the crowds weren’t as big as they could have been. But the close finish (Lance and Dave were neck-and- until the 90th mile) set the stage for this year’s drama. Apparently, Lance had just run out of gas after Mile 90. In perhaps a historic first, he told Dave the race was his, he was done, but Dave was looking over his shoulder all the way to the finish line. Lance doesn’t like to lose, they said. He’ll be back with a vengeance, they said.

So driving through town on the early August Friday evening before race day 2009 there was a palpable aura: something big was about to happen. It was like the Old West, the whole town waiting for the shootout at high noon the next day. While stopped at the light at 6th and Harrison, I watched them installing the gates around the finish line. The next day, some kind of history would be made right there on that little patch of blacktop with the red carpet spread for 20 feet in front of the finish line. Could Wiens do it again?

But the next day, as I stood among the tumbleweeds on the single-track at Mile 65 waiting to catch my perfect picture, I was disquieted. Something was bothering me.

And then… a lone cyclist crested the hill to the south and came barreling down the road. It was definitely Lance, with no sign of Dave for the half-mile we could see beyond.

Mile 65

Mile 65

I got my perfect pictures from point-blank range as Lance blew past, churning up the 7% grade at about 15 mph. He was on a mission. Sixty-five miles into a race that had started at 6:30 a.m., at 41 degrees fahrenheit, in a bitterly cold rain for the first hour, then heavy sleet two hours later at 12,500 ft. Columbine Pass, Lance looked, well, like Lance always looks. Same composed expression, same determined look, same set of the mouth. I assumed that under his helmet there wasn’t a hair out of place. He was about the furthest thing possible from the name on the nifty black jersey he sported for this ride, Mellow Johnny’s. Maybe Focused Johnny’s or Dead-Serious Johnnys, or Machine-like Johnny’s. But Mellow? Lance? No.

A machine

A machine

Machine-like. As I watched Lance pedal on up a mile of switch-backs at a pace that never varied, I had time to think while I waited for Dave.

Up the single-track, 15 minutes ahead of Dave

Up the single-track, 15 minutes ahead of Dave

Machine-like. And then I knew what was bothering me. I was watching the steam drill beat John Henry. I’m not saying Lance isn’t human. It’s just that he’s, well, not human. The Denver Post announced that Lance would be riding a “tricked-out new mountain bike he believes could be capable of finishing the ultra in less than six hours, with a team effort”. (emphasis mine). So Lance was bringing a team of riders with him? As it turns out, yes. I stood next to the mother of one of these riders, Matt Shriver, who told me that Matt’s job was to get Lance to the 50-mile turn-around, at which point Lance would take it on his own.

Our John Henry didn’t stand a chance against the new improved steam drill (and his team). Lance won going away, set a new course record, finishing in 6 hours, 28 minutes. Dave crossed the line in second almost thirty minutes later.

But that’s not how the legend is supposed to end, right? Dave should have been able to dig deep those last forty miles and say to himself, “A man ain’t nothin’ but a man, and before I let Lance beat me, I’ll DIE with these Ergon grips in my hands, I’ll DIE with these Ergon grips in my hands”. Or something like that.

I drove to the hill before the finish line to watch the inevitable. Lance rode the final 10 miles or so on a flat tire. If he noticed, it didn’t show. He seemed to be riding at the same speed I saw at the 60-mile mark.

That back tire is flatted!

That back tire is flatted!

1/2 mile from the finish line

1/2 mile from the finish line

Machine-like (although he was sweating!!). The crowd was flat when he crossed the finish line. Some blamed the P.A. announcer who did little to whip them up. People cheered, yes. I mean, come on, he’s the world’s greatest cycling champ. Ever. But how do you cheer for a machine? Lance said a few perfunctorily nice words to the press, and quickly disappeared, assumedly back to his new home in Aspen, 50 miles and a world away from Leadville.

But nobody else left the finish line. When Dave finally hove into sight almost thirty minutes later, the roof lifted off the place. A champion was being hailed. He stepped from his bike with a genuine smile, hugged his boys and his mother, grabbed a crate, turned it upside down and sat, talking with anybody and everybody who had a question. A human being.

John Henry being hailed by the crowd at the finish line

John Henry being hailed by the crowd at the finish line (that’s his mother to his left and his two sons in the foreground)

Three hours later, twenty members of his extended family had dinner together along with a dining room full of hungry locals at arguably Leadville’s, if not the world’s, best Mexican restaurant, The Grill.

Dave, at far right, eating dinner with his family

Dave, at far right, eating dinner with his family

His demeanor was not of a man who had just lost the biggest race of his career. He was a man who clearly had his greatest treasure around him in the restaurant, and who will go back to work Monday in Gunnison. The patrons in the restaurant gave him a rousing three cheers.

Dave chatting with my friends at the Grill

Dave chatting with my friends at the Grill (Where was Lance eating tonight?)

So like the steam drill, Lance won but didn’t. Of course, nobody drives steel by hand anymore, except in mining competitons, so like the steam drill perhaps it will be the Lances of this world who dominate the Leadville 100 from this time forward. In any event, an era ended in 2009, and another was begun. Like Leadville the town, the 100, for better or worse, isn’t the same. It’s even acquired a fancy new corporate “owner”, Lifetime Fitness. Race co-founders Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin  sold the race to them for a purported $3 million and they seem to be making all kinds of “corporate” changes.

By the way, when Climax does open, if it ever does, you won’t see steel-drivin’ men crawling around the pile with sledge hammers and steel bits, chanting rhythmically as they whop that steel on down. Huge machines run by computers will claw open and finish removing an entire mountain, extracting the precious moly and sending a slushy slag through enormous pipelines to fill up the valley on the other side of the road, a Mordor-esque scenario. But Leadville will be a happy place. It will be doing once again what it was made to do: dig ore out of the earth.

Oh, and Lance will be back one of these days. His new opponent isn’t human:

He didn’t break six hours.

Bob Graham is a retired teacher and sometime writer living in Twin Lakes. After being inspired by the athletes of all stripes in previous 100s, the 2011 Leadville 100 was his first. He’s going back in 2013 to do it again.

2013 postscript

Well, Lance hasn’t been back to Leadville and most likely never will, although he did deliver a rousing pep talk at the pre-race meeting in August, 2012, just weeks before his highly-publicized outing as a crappy human being.

Re: Lifetime Fitness, the Leadville 100 mountain bike race has now been folded into a larger series of races, all of which are called the “Lifetime Race Series”. It’s now a faux pas to refer to the “Leadville 100 mountain bike race”, and no one affiliated with the race does so. Because of the Lance Effect, and two movies that were made about the race, the registration numbers are so high and the chances for entry so slim that Lifetime has started a series of qualifying races at various times and places across the country, where for a significant fee one has the chance of meeting a qualifying time in order to gain entry to the race in that manner. This means that the number of highly-competitive mountain bikers in the race will continue to increase, and the number of average joes like me will decrease. (One can also gain entry by paying $2000 to attend a special summer Leadville Race Series training camp during the summer. Who leads this camp? None other than John Henry himself, Dave Wiens.)

And speaking of Dave Wiens, 2010 was his last Leadville 100. He finished in 4th place with his best time ever, but I believe he saw the handwriting on the wall in terms of the future. The day of the steam drill had arrived.

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About robertwallacegraham

Retired high school teacher, curmudgeon, soccer coach, bicyclist, etc. etc.
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One Response to John Henry 2009

  1. cornerstonemasonry says:

    Bob, it is hard to rank your stories, and of course, you’ve never asked me to do that for you. So far this is my favorite. The composition of this is perfect. Period.

    >________________________________ > From: Scraps From My Autobiography >To: s.rostron@yahoo.com >Sent: Tuesday, April 30, 2013 11:49 PM >Subject: [New post] John Henry 2009 > > > > WordPress.com >robertwallacegraham posted: “I wrote this sometime in late 2009, after Lance Armstrong won the Leadville 100 on his second attempt. I thought in light of his recent fall from grace (and what a fall it was) that the piece can be read perhaps in a new light. There are many in the Leadv” >

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