Local mountain bike cyclist Marc Rioux recently returned from a trek to Colorado sporting a brand new belt buckle - and he couldn't be more proud.
Just weeks before celebrating his 44th birthday, Rioux joined fellow WMBC (Walden Mountain Bike Club) Wolfpak racers Paul Guenette and North Bay native Ian Sagle, participants in the 2018 CenturyLink Leadville Trail 100 MTB.
Now in its 25th year of existence, the event that is dubbed the "toughest mountain bike race" in North America has developed quite the storied tradition when it comes to the awarding of commemorative belt buckles to reward certain time-specific accomplishments.
"My goal was to get the "big belt buckle", completing the race in under nine hours," explained Rioux. "I squeaked it in (8:51:21), which was good, because I was kind of sick. It was the experience of a lifetime. My boys (Noah and Josh) ran across the finish line with me, which was great."
The end result was just the latest notch on the athletic resumé of the long-time Sudbury native, who transitioned from a youthful involvement in both soccer and hockey, over to a winter passion with alpine skiing and snow-boarding, before finally taking the mountain bike leap when he was still in his late teens.
"When I was in Ottawa, I went to a local sports store, bought a mountain bike and never looked back." Originally, the past-time had far more to do with a simple enjoyment of the great outdoors, the opportunity to get away from it all, much moreso than any concerns with actual racing competitions.
"Once we (Marc and wife Anastasia) got settled down more and moved to Parry Sound, I took it up again to keep me occupied," said Rioux. "I started enjoying it more and more, started doing Ontario Cup races." It was 2006/2007, a time which pre-dated the creation of the WMBC.
"The only thing we had, back then, that was kind of formal was the Bush Pig rides every Wednesday. There were a few of us that knew each other through mountain biking and started doing the racing. The first couple of races, we did as team events."
"As we started doing more and more of them, I started thinking that it was time to do them as solo races." Still, it was a while before Leadville would find itself on the radar. "Going back to 2006 or 2007, one of my friends who is a racer mentioned the Leadville race," said Rioux.
"I was in Colorado in 2011, for some work-related training, and I also went snow-boarding while I was there too. When I was in the mountains, near Copper Mountain, I saw a sign that pointed towards Leadville. I thought about going, but then I said to myself that I would go there someday, to race."
"Paul (Guenette) and I race quite a bit together, and we travel together, and we share a lot of knowledge and stories," recalled Rioux. "Last year, he convinced me to travel to Lake Placid for the Wilmington qualifier. I went there, had a good race, got a qualifying chip and called my wife from there to ask her if I could accept the chip."
The date confirmed, it was time to focus on the specific challenges of Leadville, a venue that obviously bears very little resemblance to the Cambrian Shield. "It's not a crazy technical course, but with the elevation, starting at 10000 feet, with oxygen deprivation, you're climbing to about 13000, it's tough," said Rioux.
The Sudbury basin might not offer the well above sea-level equivalent of the Rockies, but with the rolling hills, notably back of Long Lake, with access to Wolf Lake Mountain (elevation of 1500-2000 feet), and some interval work on the Adanac hills, Rioux prepped for Leadville.
"We arrived in Colorado on the Sunday and the race is the following Saturday," he said. "The campgrounds we were sleeping at were about 8000 feet, so we were up there." With a total distance of 104 miles, the Leadville 100 does not present the pure total mileage impact that some of the other 24-hour races might pose.
"It's a different type of event," acknowleded Rioux. "It's not what we would call single-track cycling. There's some fire roads, paved sections that you have to hammer it." If working together as a team is a constant in the sport of cycling, the local man would not be above tapping into the knowledge of Guenette and Sagle, both of whom raced Leadville in 2017.
"It was good that Paul and Ian went the year before, they figured a few things out," said Rioux. "We knew how to set up the aid stations a little better." Throw in near ideal conditions, or as "near ideal" as it gets in these parts, and the northern Ontario trio were off to the races.
"We were lucky, because usually the weather is more variable, with a chance of cold and rain," he noted. "At the start of the race, at 6:30 in the morning, it was one degree, but it quickly warmed up to about 26, 27 mid day."
Even out on the course, there is a camaraderie between riders, a product of the shared challenge they all want to tackle. "There's a bit of interaction (with other cyclists) and you need that," said Rioux. "On the climbs, you really don't need anybody, but once you get on the road sections or the flatter sections, you need that road peloton so you can work with the guys, not killing yourself."
With Leadville off the "to do" list - Rioux insists he does not expect to make a return visit - the summer of 2019 offers some interesting possibilities. Crank the Shield was staged in Sault Ste Marie, and appears to be headed there for two more years. "And Paul and I would like to do the Québec single track challenge (Québec Singletrack Expérience), a five day event, and there's the B.C. bike race."
Neither may offer a belt buckle on the line, but there is plenty of attraction for the likes of Rioux, Guenette, Sagle and the remainder of the long distance mountain bike racers.
Ian Sagle (age 32) finished 59th of the 1396 male entries, completing Leadville in 8:04:16, while Paul Guenette (age 27) was 86th in the category in a time of 8:16:14.