LEADVILLE, Colo. (AP) - Levi Leipheimer didn't get the chance to race against defending champ Lance Armstrong in the Life Time Fitness Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race on Saturday. So, he did the next best thing - he broke Armstrong's record.
With his RadioShack teammate Armstrong sitting this one out because of a sore hip from his crash-filled Tour de France finale, Leipheimer won the nation's highest-altitude endurance test in a lung-searing six hours, 16 minutes, 37 seconds. Armstrong's old mark of 6:28:50 also was bested Saturday by runner-up Jeremy "JHK" Horgan-Kobelski, of Boulder, a 2008 Olympic mountain biker who finished in 6:25:21.
"This is ridiculously hard," Leipheimer, of Santa Rosa, Calif., said after crossing the finish line and getting a silver medal placed around his neck to go with the silver-and-gold belt buckle he'll receive Sunday.
There is no prize money here, just pride.
"It's hard to describe the pain and torture that you go through on a ride like that," Leipheimer said. "It's not what I'm used to. It's like a six-hour time trial. There's no sitting in. There's no draft. ... I just couldn't wait for it to be over." That's why the depleted Leiphemer was torn about wishing Armstrong had been here.
"It would have been great to have him here because he would have been in the mix," Leipheimer said. "It would have hurt that much more, though."
Armstrong spokesman Mark Higgins said Tuesday that the cyclist was skipping this year's "Race Across the Sky" because he's still feeling lingering effects of a hip injury suffered in a crash early in the Tour de France and wanted to spend time with his family before his children start school.
Armstrong also has been dealing with renewed questions about drug use during his career since ex-teammate Floyd Landis made allegations against him and other riders this spring. Federal investigators have been looking at lawsuits containing old accusations against Armstrong and have reached out to question his sponsors. Leipheimer, who is among at least 16 people besides Armstrong whom Landis has implicated in various doping acts, declined to discuss the investigation Saturday.
Armstrong encouraged Leipheimer to race Leadville while they were training together in Aspen more than a year ago. They went over Independence Pass one day and Armstrong pointed out the 12,500-foot Columbine Mine turnaround, the highest point on the Leadville 100. They had long razzed each other about which road racer would better conquer the mountain.
"We never thought we were any good but between us we had this rivalry about who was better," Leipheimer said. "So, I wanted to do it last year but I broke my wrist in the Tour and I couldn't. This year, he's got an injury. "So, maybe one year we'll do it together."
Neither Leipheimer nor Horgan-Kobelski, who ripped down Columbine so daringly fast that Leipheimer figured he might never catch up, realized they were on a record pace over the back 50.
"Honestly, I didn't care," Leipheimer said. "Like 20 miles to go I didn't care if we were an hour behind of if I was an hour ahead. I just wanted to get it done."
Leipheimer won despite crashing over the handle bars when he braked for a turn that wasn't there at the top of the Sugarloaf Pass just 17 miles into his first major mountain bike race. Todd Wells, of Durango, who finished third in 6:30:31, smacked into him and they both went tumbling.
"I haven't been hit that hard in a long time," Leipheimer said. "I was on the ground and that hurt, but fortunately it didn't do anything but just shake me up a little bit."
Leipheimer's bike was fine, but Wells' front tire was a mangled mess, so Specialized teammate Ned Overend gave him his tire. Leipheimer caught up with Horgan-Kobelski and they took turns in the lead until Leipheimer attacked on the Powerline climb and pulled away with 15 miles left.
"He was super strong and I was worried because I was suffering on Columbine," Leipheimer said. "I'm not used to the altitude and he was hanging tough. I guess the distance and the fitness from the Tour was enough. But that was just ridiculous. I don't know if I suffered that much ever before."
The race features mostly amateur cyclists - only 15 pros were among the 1,320 who started Saturday - and many of them struggle to finish in the 12-hour time limit. The race features climbs of 14,000 vertical feet at elevations ranging from 9,000 to 12,500 feet. It exploded in popularity when Armstrong first raced in 2008, finishing second to six-time champion Dave Wiens, of Gunnison, before dethroning him last year.
Wiens took fourth Saturday with a personal best time of 6:33:54 and crossed just three-tenths of a second ahead of American distance specialist Jeremiah Bishop, of Harrison, Va. Leipheimer said that when he speaks with Armstrong, who tweeted his congratulations shortly after the race, it sure won't be to thank him for introducing him to this brutal test.
"I think I might curse him, actually," Leipheimer said.
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