Fresh off his age-group win at the USA Cycling Mountain Bike Nationals held last month in Winter Park, Carbondale cyclist Kevin Willson took first place in his age group at the Leadville 100 on Saturday.
Willson — who co-owns the Woody Creek Tavern with his wife, Laura Wren — placed first in the 60-69 age group, and 75th overall in the race that’s officially known as Leadville Trail 100 MTB. His time of seven hours, 54 minutes beat his goal of eight hours, and he believes it marked the first time a rider at the age of 60 or older finished the race in less than eight hours.
The Leadville 100 is a bike race “for only the most determined athletes,” according to its website. The 100-mile course starts at an elevation of 10,152 feet and climbs to 12,424 feet. This year, there were 1,644 entries.
After Willson placed first overall at the Leadville 100 in 2000 at the age of 41, he had people asking him if he wanted to compete in the Tour de France. He laughed at the suggestion.
“I said no, because I was 41 years of age,” he said. “That’s crazy, why bother?”
Willson started cycling late in life and didn’t ride competitively until 1996, when he was in his late 30s, which is considered old for the sport.
“I remember I was about the age of 28, and like an idiot I thought I was fit,” Wilson said. “So I decided to go running around my mum and dad’s block, and when I came back I was as red as a tomato. I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not fit.’ So I took up running. And I took up swimming, which I love. And then, after a while, I had to take up biking because all of my friends wanted to do triathlons.”
At the time, Willson liked running best and competed in a couple of marathons, as well as 10K and 5K runs.
“I really liked half-marathons (approximately 13 miles). That’s my best distance,” Willson said. “Even though I grew up in London, I always liked running off the pavement on dirt roads, cross-country running, which I was fortunate to have where I lived.”
In his late 20s, Willson took up motorcycle street racing semi-professionally and won a national championship, but since most riders start out between 12 and 16 years old, instead of 26 like Willson was when he started racing motorcycles, he felt he was too old to compete for any length of time.
So, Willson moved to Aspen and took up skiing, a pastime he loved in Europe.
“Skiing brought me to Aspen,” he said. “And then I started running in the mountains and I thought, ‘Wow, I have to get a bike.’”
He got a bike in his late 30s, and he’s still riding at 60.
To train for the USA Bike Nationals in Winter Park last month and the Leadville 100 last week, Willson averaged 20-24 hours of riding each week, at an average of 18-20 mph for a total of 350-400 miles.
The Leadville 100 course is “basically a 50-mile Jeep road out and a 50-mile Jeep road back, with a little bit of single track and a little bit of black top,” he said.
“The course is not a technical course,” he explained. “The hard bit is the elevation. You climb a total of about 14,000 feet in two climbs out and two climbs back.”
The 1,600-plus competitors are started about every three minutes in groups of about 50. Because of his past win at Leadville, Willson started with the pro riders in one of the first groupings.
Now, Willson is training for the UCI Mountain Bike Masters World Championships set for Aug. 20-26 at Mont Sainte-Anne, Québec, Canada.
He competed on the course before, about 15 years ago, and had a bad race — crashing and not finishing.
Unlike the Leadville 100, the world championships will be held on a highly technical course, and it will be much shorter than Leadville.
“It’s a very rough, rocky technical course with a lot of rock gardens that they send you down,” he said. “This race is only about an hour, an hour and 10 minutes. So I am doing two hours at a high pace, then intervals with rest in between. It’s kind of like wind sprints.”
Until the championships later this month, Willson said he hopes to continue to compete in the Aspen Cycling Club’s local races.
“I love to go because it one of the best race series in the country with 10 mountain-bike and 10 road-bike races,” he said. “But Wednesday at 6 p.m. is not the best time for me. The competitors are world-class, no doubt about it. The guys that win, I don’t think they know how good they are or how good they could be.”
At 60, is Willson thinking about retiring from bike racing anytime soon?
He shrugged. “Good question. I don’t know. Racing is in your blood.”