It’s the penultimate climb on Stage 4 of the Breck Epic mountain bike stage race. Otherwise known as the Aqueduct stage, it totals 41 miles and nearly 7,000 feet of elevation gain at altitudes ranging from 9,600′ to 11,200′. The route goes from Breckenridge to Keystone Resort and back. I’m at mile 34 — about four hours into the race — and I’ve just caught one of my closest competitors.
Until today, I didn’t know who I was racing against. With 600 total competitors and a mass start format, it’s difficult to know who’s in your category. After a few stages, though, the names and bib numbers of those in the overall standings become familiar. I’m currently in fourth place among the 40 – 49 Cat 2/3 riders, and I’ve just caught number 175, who’s just behind me in fifth by a small margin. Can I beat him to the finish? Can I increase my lead? That’s what I ask myself as I follow his wheel onto the climb.
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One of the indispensable tools for the Breck Epic is the Garmin Edge 820 bike computer. With the stage routes loaded onto it, I can track the elevation profile — the climbs and descents — of each race in fine detail. In other words, despite never riding the Breckenridge area, I can know just how long and steep each climb will be while I’m on it. Specifically, I know when I’m approaching the summit and, therefore, when to boost the pace.
As soon as I can see the summit on the elevation profile, I attack. I’m out of the saddle, charging up the final climb. As I pass number 175, he says something to the effect of, “Nice work.” Because, while this is technically a race, it’s also just a bunch of passionate mountain bikers doing six epic rides in the Colorado backcountry…together. At our level, camaraderie often trumps competition.
The final descent is down Sidedoor, which is flow trail with burms and jumps. It’s actually the second time we’re coming down this in the past two days, so it’s more familiar and faster. I keep the hammer down and cross the finish line in fourth with a time of four hours and 24 minutes. While it’s five minutes off of third place, my attack gains another five minutes on number 175. This is after four days and more than 17 hours of racing. There’s only two more stages left.
Why Breck Epic?
This is the eleventh year for the Breck Epic, which takes place in mid-August, and for the first time it’s a UCI Class 1 event with a $30,000 pro purse. Indeed, the current US XC national champion, Keegan Swenson, is competing for the win and to earn points toward an Olympic birth in 2020. The field of 600 “competitors” represents a massive cross-section of the mountain biking universe with riders from 40 states and 20 countries, according to race organizers. In my category alone, the third-place rider is from Belgium; the second-place rider is Colombian; and fifth-place-rider 175 is a Breck local. While we’re being competitive at the top of the general classification (GC), many riders simply have a goal of finishing the event and earning the coveted Breck Epic cowboy belt buckle — proof that you rode the equivalent of a marathon for six days in a row at 10,000 feet.
What makes the Breck Epic so attractive as an event are four things: the incredible terrain and Rocky Mountain scenery; the challenge of riding more than 220 miles of dirt with 40,000 feet of elevation gain (and loss) at high altitude; the fact that every stage starts and ends in downtown Breckenridge; and its one-of-a-kind vibe.
Race organizer Mike McCormack is an old-school, fat-tire guy from the early ’90s — the true heyday of mountain biking — and the Epic is a living tribute to that golden era. It’s like an old NORBA National race, the original 24 Hours of Moab, and the Crested Butte Fat Tire Festival rolled into one. And yet it’s entirely unique because you don’t just compete or ride in the Breck Epic. You enter an alternate reality for six days, where your existence is reduced to riding and recovering. The outside world doesn’t exist. All that matters is the stretch of trail in front of you or else preparing your body, bike and mind for the next stage. You can’t help but to be fully present in every moment, which is so rare in this age of perpetual distraction. The Breck Epic is truly all consuming.
The Epic Family Vacation
Breckenridge, Colorado, is a premier summer destination in and of itself. So rather than go to the race alone, I choose to make the Epic part of a family road trip through Colorado.
We start with a few days in Aspen, which is a six-and-a-half-hour drive from our home in Park City, UT. This takes us from 7,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level to start my acclimation for Breck at 9,600 feet. While in Aspen, I spend a couple days riding the Snowmass Bike Park, both with the family and a local friend. After one lift-serviced run down the beginner flow trail (Verde) with the family, I proceed to do hot laps with my buddy, Dr. Josh, on the intermediate and advanced downhill trails: Viking, French Press and Valhalla. This is part of my pre-race recovery plan i.e. working the descending skills while minimizing cardiovascular load.
Conclusion: the Snowmass Bike Park is legit. With more than 2,000 feet of vertical, six downhill-only trails and 20 cross-country trails, there’s plenty of terrain for several days of riding. Plus, the resort plans to open four more trails before the end of the 2019 season.
The Snowmass Lost Forest, on the other hand, is a mountain playground for all ages with a climbing wall, zip line, ropes course, mountain coaster and more. This is where my family spends time while I’m “recovering” in the bike park. Plus, the Elk Camp restaurant is located at the center of the action at the top of the Elk Camp gondola, so lunch and snacks are never far from the activities.
From Aspen, we drive over Independence Pass at over 12,000 feet and head to Breckenridge by way of Leadville, Colorado, where the iconic Leadville 100 mountain bike endurance race is taking place. The Breck Epic starts the next day.
Another quality of this event is that each stage ends uphill from Breckenridge. Which means that if you stay in town, each stage can be followed by an easy cool-down spin right to your front door. The best location and property I found is Mountain Thunder Lodge. Not only is it walking distance to Main Street, where most of the restaurants are centered, it also offers a free, on-call shuttle. This is especially convenient for getting to and from the daily rider meeting at Beaver Run Resort without having to deal with parking (or driving).
Mountain Thunder Lodge accommodations range from studio condos to full town homes with a garage, kitchen and washer/dryer. We opted for a two-bedroom town home given that this would be our family’s home base. Also, I chose to bring a bike stand and maintenance kit to take care of my bike in between stages. So the garage became my shop, complete with a spigot and hose, which was kindly provided by the maintenance crew. The easier option is to purchase a Breck Epic service package for $350, wherein your bike is cleaned and dialed — with new parts, if needed, for additional charge — each day during the 5pm rider meeting. With this option, you’ll save on both headache and calories.
While I’m racing for the first three days, my family embarks on local adventures including a rafting trip on the Arkansas River with Performance Tours and mountain bike tour with Colorado Adventure Guides. The rafting becomes the highlight of the trip, as my wife and kids tackle their first Class 3 rapids under the leadership of Haley, who was “the best guide ever,” according to my kids. As a result, we’re now planning a multi-day rafting trip.
The Breck Epic Stages
The first four stages of Breck Epic are fairly similar and equally brutal. For the uninitiated, the stage names have zero meaning. If you’ve raced these routes, though, the terms Pennsylvania Creek (stage 1), Colorado Trail (stage 2), Mt. Guyot (stage 3) and Aqueduct (stage 4) will all gain profound meaning.
These first four stages average more than 40 miles with more than 6,000 vertical feet of climbing. The terrain is tough, as the routes connect dirt roads, jeep trails and singletrack. Very little of it was built for mountain biking, so the grades can be punishing. Hike-a-bike sections are a constant, and many of the descents could be enduro stages. Each race takes four to five hours for a fit rider. Six to seven hours is not uncommon. And then you get up and do it again the next day.
The Pennsylvania Creek stage, however, was unique this year in that it started raining about half-way through. This turned already wet trails into flowing rivers of muddy water. Puddles on the road sections were axle deep and unavoidable, while the temperature dropped into the low 40s. McCormack later said that it was the toughest stage in the race’s 11-year history and that he would have cut it short if the pros hadn’t already passed the second aid station when the rain started. That would have been the only place to reasonably make that call. Otherwise, each of the next five stages saw ideal race conditions with sunny weather in the 70s.
After four stages of racing, I’m running fourth in my GC. What I don’t realize, however, is that Wheeler is up next. Stage 5 is not proper mountain biking. McCormack says Wheeler is what makes the Breck Epic “epic”, but I disagree. The majority of its 24 miles is hiking up and over two alpine passes at 12,000 feet. In other words, you’re hypoxic and pushing your bike for miles on a trail that’s barely wide enough for a person. Then there’s the wind trying to blow you off the mountain and exposure as you descend deliriously on an equally steep hiking trail back to the valley. The Strava elevation profile below illustrates this absurdity.
The final nine miles, following the second aid station, are proper mountain biking trails. This is where I make up some time. Nevertheless, number 175 finishes second to my fifth place (at four hours, seven minutes), which claws back about 16 minutes on my lead. I still have a 20-minute buffer going into the final stage.
If there’s one reason not to do the Breck Epic, it’s Wheeler. On the other hand, if there’s one reason to get to the end, it’s Gold Dust aka Stage 6.
Unlike all previous stages, Gold Dust is fast. There are no hike-a-bikes, and the singletrack descent on the eponymous Gold Dust trail is worth the entire week’s suffering. This is a top-tier singletrack that starts with 1.7 miles and 664 vertical feet of descent. It empties onto a false-flat “luge” section (just a 2% downhill grade), where you’re pedaling full gas through a singletrack channel for almost three miles. On either side of these singletrack sections are two long dirt road climbs at modest 4% grades that cross the Continental Divide at over 11,000 feet. At the top of the second one, which is a Category 2 climb, there’s Pabst Blue Ribbon handoffs, and it’s all downhill to the final finish line of the Breck Epic.
The Gold Dust starting format is staggered into waves of 10 riders based on one’s Wheeler finishing time. Which means I start in a wave behind both my third- and fifth-place competitors. In order to podium on the stage, I need to catch both of them. In order to secure my fourth place overall, I need to finish within 20 minutes of number 175. Alas, I’m able to pass 175 and distance myself by another three minutes. My chase for third, however, comes up short by a minute. After 24 hours and 10 minutes of racing over six days, I finish fourth in Gold Dust and secure fourth overall in my category…missing the podium by one place for the fourth and fifth time this week.
Regardless, it’s a great personal victory and the culmination of eight months of training and planning. Though I still can’t help but to long for the days of NORBA and the five-person podium.