Ironman Lake Placid Bike Course: What to Expect

By Raymond Britt

The Ironman Lake Placid Bike course is one of the most beautiful, but also one of the toughest 112-mile Ironman rides you’ll ever experience. While the course features exceptional scenery and some very generous downhill sections, the course can demoralize and defeat riders on the last 10 miles of each lap. [see how IM LP bike splits compare: Ironman Bike Course Split Comparisons]

In short, you can have a great ride on the first three sections, but you’ll give it all back on your way past Whiteface Mountain to transition. So pay attention -- this is what a 5:36:12 Ironman Lake Placid bike split looks like:

Lap 1  Distance Split Time/mile mph
Keene  14.0 0:34:30 0:02:28  24.3
Hasleton  15.0 0:44:00 0:02:56  20.5
Out/back  14.0 0:38:30 0:02:45  21.8
T2  13.0 0:47:00 0:03:37  16.6
 56.0 2:44:00 0:02:56  20.5
Lap 2  Distance Split Time/mile mph
Keene  14.0 0:36:14 0:02:35  23.2
Hasleton  15.0 0:45:09 0:03:01  19.9
Out/back  14.0 0:41:29 0:02:58  20.2
T2  13.0 0:49:21 0:03:48  15.8
 56.0 2:52:12 0:03:05  19.5
Total  112.0 5:36:12 0:03:00  20.0

With a carefully constructed riding strategy, you can ride with strength through the roughest sections, complete the course with a solid bike split, and be ready to begin your marathon with energy to spare.  

That’s what’s presented here, in the form of a 5:36:12 bike split I rode in one of my six races at Ironman Lake Placid. I’ll break the course down into sections, describe what you can expect in each one, and provide actual splits to help guide your riding strategy.

So let’s get down to business.  Here’s everything you need to know about the Ironman Lake Placid Bike course. [For reference: Ironman Lake Placid Bike Course Map]

For starters, the key thing is to break the course down into manageable sections. In each lap, there are four clearly defined segments to consider (distances are approximate):

1.     From T1 to Keene: 14 miles
2.     From Keene to Jay to Wilmington: 15 miles
3.     The Haselton Road out-and-back: 14 miles
4.     Whiteface Mountain climb to transition: 13 miles

As we go through these segments, it’s important to consider the parameters: my complete split was 5:36:12, or about 20 miles per hour overall.  I covered the first 56-mile lap in 2:44:00, or 20.5 mph. I slowed on the second lap to 2:52:12, or 19.5 mph. 

The data examples, e.g., noting that it takes 20 minutes to climb from miles 3 to 8, are in this context. These are my actual times; yours may well vary. So view my data as a relative benchmark. If you hope to ride a 6-hour split, for example, adjust my data to meet your expectations.

Segment 1: Transition to Keene – 14 miles

This first segment on the bike course is a mixed bag of uphills and downhills, with an emphasis on the downhill: a screaming descent to Keene.  This segment is best seen as an additional four sections.

Miles 1 to 2 -- T1 to Ski Jumps. Walk your bike through the transition area and do not mount it until you cross the official line in the parking lot on the south side of Lake Placid High School.

Once you clip into the pedals, you’ll immediately roll down a steep decline from School St. to Colden Ave. You’ll be excited to start, but be very careful here. There’s a sharp left turn at the base of Colden, taking you onto Route 73. Go too fast at the start, and you’ll wind up crashing into hay bales before you’ve gone 200 meters.

As you get going on Route 73, take some time to make sure you’re set on the bike. Nutrition in place, pull up arm warmers if you’ve got them, straighten the sunglasses, just settle in. Without trying to, you’ll ride fast.

It’s less than six minutes out of town, at 21.8 mph, and then you reach the ski jumps. 

Miles 3 to 7– High Peaks These miles are a series of steady, manageable ascents of 150 meters or so,  overall. Don’t push the pace here. Find a steady rhythm in a good gear, and plan on riding for 18 minutes or so.  This climb is actually a good thing to settle all riders down. Few feel like passing, and you shouldn’t  either.

You’ll know this section is almost over when you see a sign for the Mt. Van Hovenberg Recreation Area on your right. Just ahead will be one gentler incline. Consider this segment of 5 miles as a warm-up. And not a fast one -- I finish it at an average speed of 15mph.

Miles 8 to 10 – Cascade Lakes. At about the 8-mile point, you’ll enter a two-mile section of slight rollers that pass the scenic Upper Cascade Lakes on your right. 

Now’s the time to hammer a little. Let gravity work for you -- pedal hard on the slight downhill grades and you can pick up speed and start passing riders. I cover this part in 5 minutes at 24.0mph.

When you reach Lower Cascade Lake, also to your right, you, yourself, are about to cascade downhill at a frightening rate.

Miles 10 to 14 – The Screaming Descent. These are the miles you’ve been hearing about and looking forward to: the screaming descent to Keene. It’s the fastest 6 minutes you’ll ever experience on an Ironman course, and that equates to 40mph.

And I ride this part cautiously. Riders will pass you going even faster.  I don’t see the risks of riding 50mph as worth saving a few seconds.

If the weather is wet and/or windy, be careful, stay under control. Accidents on this stretch could be very nasty, what with all the downward momentum.

Sometimes riders experience a shaking of the front wheel, at high speed, and it's hard to control. To avoid this, try to keep your bike stable by hugging the frame with your knees on the way down.

Be realistic in knowing that this descent will not make much of a difference in your overall bike split. If you ride it 80mph, you save only three minutes. So be safe, enjoy it, and it’s on to the next major segment.

Adding it up from the start, I cover these first 14 miles at 24.3 mph overall, without working too hard.

Segment 2: Keene to Wilmington – 15 miles

Segment 2 includes the relatively flat and fast 10 miles from Keene through Upper Jay to the adjacent town of Jay, followed by a generally uphill stretch of five miles from Jay to Wilmington.

Miles 15 to 24 --  Keene to Jay. This segment of eleven miles may be the longest, easiest stretch on the course , but you have to work a little. You can start riding at speed here, but, again, don’t hammer. We’re trying to be smart, and you need to keep yourself in check.

You’ll enjoy the scenery of rocky streams for much of your ride from Keene to the town of Jay, as the course meanders gently right and left, through dense wooded passages and wide open spaces.

Road signs will give you a sense of where you are: you’ll reach Upper Jay after about the 20 mile marker, and four more miles to Jay.

Ride these miles fast, feel free to push it a little. A little. Even while not hammering much, I ride these 10 miles to Jay at around 22 miles per hour.

Miles 25 to 29 -- Jay to Wilmington. When you enter Jay, you’ll take a hard right turn onto Route 86 toward Wilmington. From there it’s a 5 mile trip to Haselton Road. As you approach the turn, get into an easy gear, because you’ll need it for the 1-mile climb. Like the initial climb on the course, settle in here, and just spin.

Once over the top of this 1-mile climb, the next four miles are rolling and fun, but still challenging. On balance, you’ll be mostly climbing as Whiteface Mountain begins to come into view on the horizon, to your left.

I complete these 5 miles in 17 minutes, 17.6 mph.  It seems slow, but others will be riding slower. You can use these miles to your advantage.

Make sure to get the most of the declines. Begin to pedal hard as you crest the hills here, and hammer on the way down. You’ll pass many riders this way. They’ll coast; you’ll pass easily without working too much harder. Make the hills work for you.

And my totals for this second segment – Keene to Jay to Haselton Road -- 14 miles, 21.6mph. Remember: the overall speed on this segment could be slower, unless you take advantage of the declines on the last few miles.

Average speed from the start through 29 miles: about 22mph. Fast, but still in control.

Arriving in Wilmington, you’ll be zooming at a fast clip toward the hard right turn onto Haselton Road. You’ll have to be careful on the turn because you’ll only have one lane; the other lane is occupied by riders coming the other way. Accidents do happen at this turn. Sit up, apply the brakes, and be careful.

Segment 3: Haselton Road Out-and-Back  -- 14 miles

The next fourteen miles are, generally, a fast and fun ride. It’s also unique from the rest of the bike course, with nearly the entire distance under the share of tall trees. I remember this whole section as being the greenest part of the course. Really nice, visually.

Miles 30 to 36. This can be another fast segment. The miles are gently rolling, for the most part. Again, get the most out of the rollers by pedaling over the top and hammering down the other side.

Make gravity work for you. That’s how you’ll continue to ride faster here, and elsewhere on the course. Take the forward momentum, lock into a big gear and go.  This tactic may make the difference between getting a Kona slot or not. Seriously.

The course elevation map says otherwise, but I always feel the outbound portion declines overall.  At least it seems to favor speed most of the time. But things to change in the last mile before the turnaround, when you do climb about 150 meters.

You’ll know you’re approaching the turnaround as the volume of riders heading the other way will grow. It may seem like hundreds pass you on their way back, and it may feel very frustrating. Don’t let it get to you.

If you’re riding smart, you’ll probably pass one or two hundred on the second lap. Seriously. Let them crush the first lap; many of them will suffer for it on the next 56 miles. You won’t.

Miles 37 to 43. When you get to the turnaround, load up on nutrition and liquids.  While heading back on the return 7 miles, you want to be fueling and preparing for the last 10 miles of the first lap. 

Also, soon after you pass the 40-mile marker, you’ll have a very taxing climb, perhaps the steepest on the course. When you get there, you’ll know it. Don’t panic. Get in your easiest gear, and just pedal smoothly and consistently.

I ride the 14 mile out-and-back on Haselton Road in 38 minutes, an average speed of 22mph. I’m usually pretty consistent: 19 minutes out, 19 minutes back.  Again, the difference is how I work the descents. A little extra effort pays dividends with a lot of speed.

At this point on the course, roughly 43 miles have gone by in about 2 hours, at an average speed of 21.8mph.

What was I saying earlier about Lake Placid being the toughest course? Seems pretty easy through 43 miles.  That’s because . . .

Segment 4: to Whiteface Mountain and T2 – 13 miles

The large orange ‘Road Closed’ sign is marks the beginning of the end. Everything changes when you pass the orange sign. Buckle up, time to face the beast.

Mile 44. Mercifully, the first mile or so is relatively flat, giving you time to hydrate, relax, and get ready to climb.

If there’s any good news to share, it’s that the 300 meter overall elevation gain is spread out over the next 10 miles, and therefore doesn’t slam you too hard at any one place.

You will work your way upwards, but it’ll have a sort of switchback feel, without switching back. It’s more like a ½ mile incline, ¼ slight descent, and the like.  Over and over. 

You will see your average speed plunge. It just will. You’ll have to be mentally ready to give back a lot of the speed you had through 43 miles. But so will everyone else. And those who ride these final miles strategically will be that much closer to a great bike split.

Miles 45 to 48. You may be hardest hit in the beginning. I ride miles 45 to 48 at an average of 15mph. You just don’t want to fight it too much. It’s too early. Sit up in the saddle, get out of the aero bars, try to relax and just spin as consistently as you can.

Miles 49 to 52. Things should get better for you here. You’re still working hard, but you’ll have gotten used to the grind. I gain speed here, riding it a couple notches better, at 17mph.

Miles 53 to 56. You’ve heard about the Bears, no doubt. Baby, Mama and Papa Bear. These are the names given the final, challenging climbs to face before the lap is over. Unless time has worn away the paint, you’ll spot the name of the next Bear before you get there. You will see it because you will be looking down much of the time, at that point. You’ll be digging for everything you’ve got as you slowly spin toward the finish.

The lesson you’ve hopefully learned by now is that going uphill offers a significant opportunity to gain speed and pass people on the other side. The Bears each make you work long and hard, but when you crest the top, each time, pedal hard and hammer down the other side.

Everyone else will be gliding. You’ll want to glide. Don’t. This is easy speed, easy chances to move yourself higher in the race standings.

Still, you will be gasping for air one way or the other when you make what will be an extremely slow right turn from Route 86 onto Northwood Rd. You’ve made it at that point, really. The next mile back into town is a fast one as the adrenaline kicks in.

I ride miles 53 to 56 at an average of about 18 miles per hour. These miles are perhaps the most daunting in terms of work as well as how late in the race they hit you.  But you can hit back, and you can ride well. Getting to 18.5 proves it.  That’s the difference a well-constructed riding strategy can make.

You’ll know you’ve made it through one of the toughest Ironman Bike courses in the world. You’ll hear the cheer of the crowd as you near the transition area, and it will bring a smile.

Except for one thing: you’ve got to do it again.

At the end of lap 1, with 56 miles complete, I was at 2:44:00, an average of 20.5mph.  A good start, but I’ve never found it easy to repeat it.

Twice the Fun: Lap 2

Lap 2 for me was twelve minutes longer, 2:56:12, averaging 19.5 mph. Shoot for that. Map a strategy for lap 2 that has you riding about 5% slower. Total for 112 miles: 5:36:12, just about 20mph.

The second lap feels relentless, especially the final 13 miles. It’s these last 13 miles that makes Ironman Lake Placid one of the toughest out there. 

When you’re at 100 miles complete, and you’re climbing, you’ll know what it’s like in the Tour de France: not the least bit easy, but worth it in the end.

It’s a fantastic feeling to finish 112 miles in Lake Placid, and you’ll feel the rush of excitement as you head into T2 to drop off your bike.

If you’ve ridden well, according to your race strategy, you’ll have plenty left over to run a sub-4 marathon. Yes, you will.