Benefield: Santa Rosa woman wins prestigious Leadville 100 bike race

One really never knows when a slice of pizza will give you a needed boost.

Mountain bike racer Larissa Connors, who graduated from Montgomery High in 2004 when she was still Larissa Fitchett, was grinding up the Pipeline climb on mile 75 of the grueling Leadville 100 race 10 days ago watching the racer in front of her get a prolonged push on the backside up the mountain by a spectator. In this race, that kind of assistance is OK because fans can help everyone, and also because that climb is friggin’ steep.

“He was pushing the guy in front of me for so long. I was working so hard to turn the pedals over, I was like, ‘What about me?’?” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘You are going to run out of energy and you are not going to be able to push me.’?”

Finally, painfully close to the top, the spectator went to give Connors, 31, a boost.

At that point, he went from No. 1 villain to savior. It probably helped his cause that he was dressed up.

“He was dressed like a piece of pizza,” she said.

A slice of pizza giving a needed boost during a bike race, who knew?

Truth be told, or if finish times show us anything, Connors did not need a boost on the Pipeline climb. She beat more than 150 other women in the renowned race - handily.

Connors finished the 103-mile course up and down the Rocky Mountain peaks in Colorado in seven hours, 31 minutes. Second place crossed the line in 7:58.

She’s the first California woman to win in the race’s 24-year history.

And the course is no cupcake.

The out and back route starts in downtown Leadville at 10,000 feet above sea level, hits a halfway point at 12,400-feet at the Columbine mine before sending them back to town. All told, riders have to climb 14,000 feet before they finish.

For perspective, that’s like climbing Mount Whitney.

And for her efforts, Connors got a belt buckle and trophy featuring an ore cart full of fool’s gold.

But the race has a definite cache among riders. It draws a world class lineup of athletes. Lance Armstrong has won it. Levi Leipheimer has won it.

“It’s not the most singletrack or the most difficult, but it’s definitely the most notable,” she said. “In terms of notability, it’s the one that everyone wants to do and win.”

Speaking of notable, Connors only lined up for her first 100-miler in June. Yes, she had a good couple of years on the professional cross country circuit, but pedaling a bike over 100 miles all well above a mile high is a different kettle of fish.

“People always told me I’d do well in this kind of racing,” she said.

And she has. Before Leadville, she won the 100-kilometer Tahoe Trail Mountain Bike Race July 15. For good, local measure, Santa Rosan Peter Stetina won the men’s 100K race the same day.

Connors comes across as kind of surprised by her success.

She ran cross country at Slater Middle School and although she calls herself a competitive person, she shied away from running at Montgomery. She ran marathons on her own and she tinkered on bikes.

Her house backed up to Trione-Annadel State Park. Connors and her sister would ride up Spring Creek Trail on what Connors described as “some commuter hybrid thing. Definitely not mountain bikes.”

She promised herself a legitimate bike only when she should clear the rocky, steep climb that ends at Lake Ilsanjo aboard the rambler in the garage.

Needless to say, she cleared it.

“I rode Annadel all through high school,” she said.

When she left Santa Rosa Junior College for UC Davis to study math, she left her trusty rig at home. Still, she joined the Aggies’ road bike team, a squad that won the team national championship in 2010.

When she and her husband, Brendan Connors, a fellow bike racer and now an engineer for Felt Bicycles, moved to southern California, Connors switched to mountain biking. And killed it.

Connors remembers her husband getting frustrated when she didn’t jump up from the sport category to riding against the pros.

“He said if winning was all I cared about, he would go and buy me trophies from the store,” she said. “He basically shamed me into upgrading.”

So Connors, by then a high school math teacher, rode against the big kids with minimal success that first year, a little more the second and then, in the opening race of her third season in the pro category, had a breakout performance.

“I accidentally got on the podium,” she said.

A full-time contract with Ridebiker Alliance followed. She quit her teaching job and started riding full time.

“It was a pretty hard decision,” she said. “I thought, I can’t go back and do this when I’m 50.”

So she spent two years with her whole life focused on races, training, recovery and travel.

She had a fair share of wins and earned top 10 finishes at a handful of U.S. Cup races. She finished fourth at the 2015 U.S. Cross Country Championships and she represented the United States at the Mountain Bike World Championship in the Czech Republic last summer.

“Wearing the Team USA kit in Europe? Surreal,” she said. “It was something that I dreamed about but never in a million years thought would happen.”

Despite that success, Connors said something kept pulling her thoughts back to the classroom.

“Bike riding is really selfish,” she said. “It’s ‘How much do I need to eat? How much do I need to sleep? How much do I need to train?’?”

Connors decided to return the classroom.

She took over a class partway through last school year and this year will teach full time at Laguna Hills High School.

When I caught her, fresh off her Leadville win, she was standing in an empty classroom.

“I have a lot of room decoration I need to do,” she said.

Did her win at Leadville give her that taste of victory that might make her regret her decision to stop riding full time?

“I’m in this place where I love teaching and I feel like I have this commitment,” she said. “I like the balance of teaching and racing.”

Connors makes her home in Silverado on the western edge of the Santa Ana Mountains. She rides her bike the 40-mile round trip to work. Some days she shows up cut and scabby from her weekend rides in the mountains.

“My arms and legs are covered in scars,” she said.

Her students, apparently not understanding with whom they are dealing, figure the scabs are the signs of an amateur.

“The kids say ‘You need to find a job you are better at, Mrs. Connors.’?”

For now, Mrs. Connors has found a job she is better at. She said she loves being in the classroom. That this, not racing bikes, is what she was born to do.

“This is what I really wanted to do with my life - teach math,” she said. “All of this has kind of taken me by surprise in the last three or four years.”

So even buoyed by the Leadville win, Connors said her weekends will still be spent riding and racing, but she’s still OK with her Monday through Friday’s being in a classroom, tricking dubious teens into thinking math is fun.

“It’s kind of rad that I have the opportunity to do two things that I love at the same time,” she said.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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