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Local Businessman Takes On Toughest Mountain Bike Race In The World

Founder and owner of the Van Michael Concept Salon in the Forum finishes strong, earning him bragging rights for Denver race.

Barely a week has passed since he took on the toughest single-day mountain bike race in the world. 

But area hair salon owner and Woodstock resident Van Council was back at it again this past Saturday in the north Georgia mountains racing the Fools Gold 50 miler out of Dahlonega's Montaluce Winery.  

Council, 54, founder and owner of the Van Michael Concept Salons in The Forum in Norcross, Miami, and Tokyo, finished the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race on August 13 with a fast enough time to earn him a coveted "Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race" belt buckle and bragging rights that come with the territory. 

"That's what it's all about, that belt buckle," Council said last week from his Buckhead salon. "And man it was a lot of people and a whole lot of climbing." 

Just finishing the timed and staged race is a feat unto itself. 

But finishing under the mandated 12-hour course cutoff is considered super human by many race observers.  

The approximate 100-mile out-and-back course at more than 12,000 feet above sea level has tested the mettle of even the most seasoned athletes, including Tour De France road racing legends Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, and Floyd Landis. 

And not only is altitude an issue, but attitude is just as crucial because faster racers will inevitably hammer past the slower ones in opposing directions as they head back toward the finish line.  

Seeing competitors vanish in the dust will crush your spirit, Council said. 

But that's the allure. 

And that's what's kept Leadville racers returning for 17 straight years - if not to compete tire to knobby tire against corrals of 1900 other world-class riders than against the clock itself. 

Set in a former gold, silver and mineral mining town about 100 miles southwest of Denver, the mountain bike race, part of the larger Leadville Race Series headlined by a trail run, was founded in 1994 to resuscitate a once vibrant mountain mining town teetering on the brink of oblivion. 

With mountain biking's popularity jumping in the early 90s and Leadville's surrounding San Isabel National Forest, Mount Massive Wilderness Area, and Turquoise Lake to the west and Twin Lakes to the south as visual selling points, the town's leaders set course to tap a new and renewable resource with endless potential - tourism. 

The race has since grown exponentially with corporate sponsorships; the entire series and marketing rights now are wholly owned by Lifetime Fitness. 

And a documentary about the 2009 race where Lance Armstrong not only won but broke a course record in dramatic fashion with a finish on a flat back tire catapulted the event to the mainstream in "Race Across The Sky". 

"Just the fact that you finish makes you feel lucky," said Monte Hewett, 50, of Atlanta, a Denver native and home builder by trade. 

Having first met on Council's 50th birthday at the mecca of all north Georgia mountain bike retreats, Mulberry Gap Mountain Bike Get-A-Way in Ellijay, both Council and Hewett have become fierce competitors on the southeast United States cycling circuit. 

And while they're often pitted against one another in their age category, the two maintain a close and supportive friendship on and off the trails. 

Council and Hewett train religiously and call the Cohutta and Chattahoochee wilderness their proving grounds, sometimes riding 50 miles a day in preparation for their next race, they said. 

Council, a married father of two boys, juggles family, work and training with predawn rides from his Woodstock home to the Blankets Creek trail system off Sixes Road. 

Once there, he'll pick up his salon's eponymous trail loop, the Van Michael Loop, Council financed and then donated to the Woodstock chapter of the Southern Off Road Bicycle Association; arguably the toughest of three interconnecting loops with quick, steep climbs along narrow trails, sheer cliffs, and rock outcrops that can easily tear the flesh off a sweaty forearm. 

Council's official finish time was 10 hours and 25 seconds, with Hewett coming in ahead of him at 9 hours and 53 seconds. 

To put it into perspective, the overall men's category winner (30-39 age class) was Todd Wells of Durango, Colo., at 6 hours, 23 minutes, with Ketchum Idaho's "Queen Of Pain" Rebecca Rusch, world-class champion mountain bike racer, taking the women's title at 7 hours and 31 seconds. 

But like in any friendly competition, Council just couldn't let Hewett's Leadville victory ride slide for too long. 

Enveloped by lush Georgia hardwoods in the heart of the Blue Ridge Wildlife Management Area, Council and Hewett were side by again. 

This time it was only for 50 miles and no belt buckles - perhaps though a cold, bottled micro brew when the dust settled. 

It was Council besting his buddy Hewett on this particular Saturday afternoon.

"I went a hell of a lot faster than I did last week, that's for sure," Council said Saturday night by phone with a second place finish in the men's 50 and older age group to Hewett's third. 

"We had a great time and he rode a great race" Hewett also said by phone, with a chuckle. 

"But just wait until the next one."  

For more information about the Leadville Race Series, log on tohttp://www.leadvilleraceseries.com

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