Written by Warren Gerow Tuesday, 26 September 2017 18:55
Going into Breck Epic I didn't have any expectations. I was mostly wondering how much of a beating I was going to take. Coming off a tough day at Leadville a few days prior, the confidence was low. I knew my fitness was respectable, but I clearly need time to adjust when racing at 10k feet. I thought taking a few days off after Leadville and doing the Breck 3-day a few days later sounded like a reasonable idea. Sunday after Leadville I was mostly licking my wounds and being a tourist. Monday I decided to scope out the start of my first Breck stage (Stage 4), which is easier said than done since the course wasn't marked. As I expected, it started off uphill, followed by more uphill. The good news was I felt better. Mostly just okay, but definitely better.
The daily racer meetings are very informative, and if you haven't raced the track before or aren't local, it's pretty much the only way to get the low-down on the next day's stage. Each day at the meeting they provided maps with valuable elevation profiles. For my first stage, which is officially stage 4, I knew it started with four "ups" and four "downs". One of the ups was affectionately called Vomit Hill. The second half of the stage included a 6-7 mile climb to 11K+ feet, followed by a descent and another moderate up and then a legit descent to the finish.
My only plan was to hope I had the lungs to pin it on the starting climb, and cross my fingers on the miles leading to the big climb of the day, and hope I didn't go backwards too fast on the big climb. The stage starts with two waves, 3-day folks are in the second wave, but there are 6-day riders of different categories in there as well, including some pros racing in the duo categories. My point is; you don't really have any idea who is who. The start was pretty uneventful. I was on the tail end of the first selection rolling up the road. As we entered the woods things pitched upwards fast and twisted up the hillside. Things got blown apart quickly, but I wasn't getting passed. I rode pretty well staying with a few guys up and down the first few climbs along the first 20 or so miles. There were some awesome single-track descents; we were mountain biking!!! I had the mileages for the aid stations on my top tube. Aid 2 was a couple miles deeper than advertised, or so I thought. The mind games started. Was the big summit going to be two miles further? Was the climb 2 miles longer? Was the aid station mileage incorrect? Eventually I caught a guy and asked him about mileage. I wasn't going crazy. Aid 2 mileage was off, and the climb wasn't going to be 2 more miles than advertised. No big deal. Back to climbing. The climbing went on and on, never really steep, but never ending. Finally reaching the summit we were again awarded with a great many miles of single-track descending. We rolled across the valley floor for a mile or so before starting the last climb of the day. It was a double-step climb. The first section was soul sucking. It was hard, I was feeling it. Eventually I started catching a few guys, which is good for the motivation. After this climb we were awarded with a 3 mile descent of nearly all great single track down through an old mining area. I thought the finish was at the skating arena in town. Mileages and times weren't adding up and the mind games started again. Next thing I knew there were spectators along the trail and the finish line wasn't where I thought. Rookie error. The finish line support was killer. I pounded a couple "Breck" finish-line sandwiches of mayo, pickles, bacon and a fist full of crushed chips. Perfect. And they had various hard liquors available along with your standard post race fare. Cool.
Stage 5 is the infamous Wheeler pass. This stage is known for requiring quite a bit of hike-a-bike. I had some new found confidence as I had won the Stage 4 40-49 Open-1-2-3 category. I had met the second place guy Harold at the awards ceremony after Stage 4. In a nut shell he was from Costa Rica, could climb like a mountain goat but got freaked out on the descents and technical sections. Stage 5 and 6 start as 10 person waves one minute apart, based on overall GC finish times of the day before. I knew Harold was starting four minutes behind me. The Wheeler stage starts with a 6 mile climb up to 12k+ feet. First aid station is mile 4; kinda early but the remainder of the stage to mile 17 is very remote. Aid stations at Breck are the best I have ever seen. It's all about the drop bags, of which they give you 3. They see you rolling into an aid and they have your bag ready. At this aid the gal ran along side me, handing bottles and telling me to just drop my empties and trash. This was awesome. As I am rolling through Harold passes me. This is not awesome. In 4 miles he has put 4 minutes into me. Damage control was my only hope, and maybe I could catch him on the big descent later in the day. As the climbing continued on we broke above treeline, and eventually transitioned on to some hiking trails that were pretty nasty. It was beautiful, epic, and wide open alpine which meant I could see Harold way off in the distance. For the next many miles we crisscrossed the continental divide, hiked, descended, tried to ride, tried to hike fast, hoped the tires didn't puncture, sucked wind, and hoped the big descent to Frisco was around the next pile of rocks. Eventually the descent happened. Last time I saw Harold he was a speck in the distance. But lucky for me, the descent started with several treacherous switch-backs, and not far down was my guy. I am a mediocre descender, but I tried to go right at my limit. I got passed by one other rider, and shortly after I went over the bars into the rocks. No major damage to bike or body. Back on the horse pushing my limits all the way down to the aid station outside of Frisco. Next was a long grindy climb back up to Breck resort. I was terrified Harold would put his climbing talent to work, and I was half cracked. A lot of guys seemed pretty smashed, but we were able to group up and keep some momentum going. I made it to the barn ahead of Harold, which I was pretty sure meant a stage win and successful defense of the GC.
The last stage is supposed to be "easier" or the cream-puff stage. It was plenty demanding out of the gate, again starting in 10 person waves. The stage essentially starts out with several miles of excellent 1-track climbing, which is probably an awesome climb if you aren't trying to go at vomit-pace. Other than being painful, the climb was uneventful. It eventually bumps out on to a dirt road before climbing up and over the continental divide at Boreas Pass. Just over the pass the course entered the woods for several miles of 1-track descending, which was part of an old mining flume. The stage is somewhat of a figure-8, which meant climbing back up to Boreas Pass. The climb is mostly on very good dirt road and is not steep. There is one catch; a head wind. I was certainly grinding a bit, and did get passed by a couple racers. I thought I was about a mile from the summit when a group of four rode up behind me. On the front was a dude and in second was a chick, both wearing leaders jerseys. I jumped on the wheel of the last rider and tried to hang on. I wasn't sure if they were sharing the work or not. I was pretty sure I would blow up if I had to ride this pace on the front into a headwind. As it turns out the leader jersey on the front pulled all the way across the summit, and it was 1.5 miles. I was psyched to summit with these folks, and even more psyched to see PBR hand-ups on top of the pass!! In true Breck Epic style the aid station folks ran along side you and picked up your empty. Nothing left but downhill to the finish. The leader jersey folks ended up being on a co-ed team. The other two riders stopped or fell off once we started the descent. The ride to the finish was fast and furious with some great double track, stream crossings, a short section of pavement and a final couple of miles on the 1-track we had started the day on. This stage was definitely shorter; but I am not sure I would call it "easy".
All said and done I won the GC for 40-49 age group for the 3-day, which was pretty cool after a tough start to the week. The Breck Epic is a true mountain bike race. Race Director Mike Mac knows knows how to plan and execute a bike race. He knows the industry, and he knows trail advocacy. His experience and personality really make this a great race, I would highly recommend the experience to anyone. I rode my Kona Hei Hei Race Supreme, with the fork bumped out to 120mm by the guys at the shop. The bike was flawless all week. It handled the descents really well, and the only limit on the climbing was me. Having not ridden in CO before, I wasn't sure what to run for tires. I went with my old standby of Racing Ralphs with snakeskin protection. They were great at both races, no issues on any of the terrain all week. Big thanks for Schwalbe for their support.
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