2017 Breck Epic Race Report
Ladies and Gents:
Sit down, grab your favorite cup of coffee or tea, this is going to be a long one! For the past six days I’ve been racing my mountain bike over some of the most beautiful trails in Breckenridge. If I remember correctly during one of the nightly race meetings one of the directors of the race said during this event we are only covering approximately 15% of the trails offered in Breckenridge and the surrounding areas. That’s crazy to comprehend considering I covered (approx) 200 miles with 40,000ft of climbing.
However to get things started I’m going to do a race report within a race report. On July 29th I raced the Breck 32 MTB race. The baby sister of the Breck 100. Last year this was my first mountain bike race and I took third in my age group. This was also my last tune up race before the Breck Epic so I wanted a good showing on many fronts. As I woke up here in Denver to a cool crisp morning I had a feeling it meant even cooler temps in Breckenridge. The drive up the canyon and into the high altitude town of Breck provided cloudy skies and rain. The temp in the car read 46 degrees. Obviously not ideal conditions for a big xc mtb race, especially on the trails of Summit County as they are rocky and have lots of roots. Sure some riders may love this situation as their downhill technical skills completely outweigh mine. However, I knew a climbs well which lay in front of me and I was going to take advantage of every opportunity.
At the starting line there were a good amount of riders lined up. I started to hear that many riders decided to move down from the 68 mile race to the 32 distance because of the tough conditions. I couldn’t even imagine how harsh of a race it would be for those crazy souls doing the full 100 mile race.
The course was the same as last year and it started out on Boreas Pass Rd (pavement) before turning onto Sally Barber Rd (gravel) and then finally onto dirt. We had a longer than normal neutral start but once we were able to race I didn’t hesitate for a moment. I went straight to the front and started drilling it. Rain was smacking me in the face, my hands and feet were started to go numb but I didn’t care. I wanted to gain as much time as I could climbing because I knew I would be apprehensive on the downhills given the wet conditions. I rode away from the field and was all alone the entire way up to the Sallie Barber Mine. Even on the downhill there wasn’t anyone behind me. Next we turned onto French Gulch Rd which is a dirt Fire-Road leading to the VERY tough Little French Trail. A 10–15 minute effort, its so steep that you have to pretty much ride it all out. On the fire-road my friend Nate caught up to me. He is a solid all around rider and I knew it would be nice to have him as company. As we started to climb I wanted a clear view of the trail because the rain made everything so slippery. Nate jumped on my wheel and we began to climb. With about 100 meters from the top my rear wheel slipped on a rock and I had to unclip. Nate went around me and I lost some ground. The next section of trail is carved out on the side of the mountain. I knew Nate would be gaining time here so I tried as hard as I could to limit my looses. Also, I got stuck behind some trail traffic from those who were riding the 68 mile distance. Once the trail opened up again I started to push really hard on the false flat terrain to try and make up any time lost. One thing mountain bike racing has taught me is to have more patiences. Getting stuck behind a rider isn’t the end of the world and, at the end of the day if you are strong enough you can make up the time somewhere else on the course. When I get stuck behind someone, I vocally let them know I’m behind them, and then I usually say something like “Whenever its safe to pass”. I’ve found this tends to be the best choice of words. Its not aggressive but also gives them a cue to look for the “best” place for me to get by. I noticed sometimes when a faster rider wants to get past me they will come up as close as possible to put some pressure on me to move over. This isn’t the best way as it creates added stress for both the person being passed as well as the person doing the passing.
On the next long climb (North Fork to West Ridge) 3.8 miles, 1,000ft of very, with a 5% gradient average, a few riders caught up to me and we started climbing together. About 5–10 minutes into the climb, I sensed they were going a little too slow for me. I made a quick move, passed them, and started to chase down Nate. I could see Nate way up the trail climbing because he was wearing a white rain jacket that stood out in the dense forest. I could also see he was climbing well and it would be quite difficult to catch him. As I crested the top of the climb Nate had too big of a gap and I knew the next section would be the hardest part of the race for me. It was fast flowing singletrack with fast downhill sections thrown in. On a dry day I would still be a bit apprehensive but on a wet, muddy day like today I was tensing up. The trail was so slippery. It felt as if I was trying to get across an ice skating rink with regular shoes on. Every rock, root, or switchback kicked my rear wheel out. I was sliding down the mountain and loosing time on Nate in front of me and could sense those riders who I dropped on the climb were catching me. The trail opened up out of the forest and continued downhill on a very narrow muddy trail. I was catching another 68 racer when I hit a crazy muddy section and my bike completely slid out from under me. Lucky for me the mud was so thick it cushioned my fall and I didn’t feel a thing. Except I was now completely covered in mud! Two riders passed me and I was now in 4th place.
The last 4–5 miles had a series short punchy climbs. Perfect for me but I was still nervous going downhill. Another rider caught me from behind and I knew he was going much faster than I was. I let him by and he flew down the singletrack at double the speed I was going. This rider would actually go on to win. Now in 5th place (overall) I tried to limit my loses so no one else would catch me. The last couple of miles spit you out to a dirt gravel road (French Gulch) which then turns into pavement. Right before we hit the fire-road another rider caught and passed me. Ugh! But, I knew I could make up some time on the downhill fire-road and pavement. Using my odd gearing rear cassette (46x9) I pushed as hard as I could in that 9 cog like a track sprinter and did a variation of the aero-tuck on a mountain bike. I was closing in on 5th place fast. Once the road hit pavement I caught him but didn’t want to ride with him at all. I turned the cranks until I was completely spun out and couldn’t pedal. This helped me get a quick jolt of speed. I knew he wasn’t going to catch me. Turning onto French Street which is a false flat, I put my head down and rode as hard as I could to the finish line. I crossed 5th overall or second in my age group. I was hoping to win my age group but the rider who took first also won the overall title. It was a fun muddy day in Breck!
Breck 32 Results: 2:57:46 2nd in AG, 5th overall, 33 miles, 4,500ft climbing,
I arrived two days before the Breck Epic so I could relax, go for some easy rides, adjust to the altitude, and ensure my bike was good to go. You know all the things to get ready for some crazy adventure. Maija was set to race her first trail marathon in Aspen on Saturday while my race was to start on Sunday. The weeks before I kept going back and forth in my head whether to go watch her or not. Breckenridge is about a two hour drive from Aspen so that would mean 4 hours of driving and approx two hours standing around waiting for her to finish. Although I told her I wasn’t going to come, the night before I decided to make the trip with the pups and surprise her at the finish. I took the scenic route to Aspen going over Independence Pass and boy was it worth it!
The road was super narrow with sections that had steep drop-offs with no guardrails. I arrived in Aspen with plenty of time to spare so I took the pups for a nice walk and found a spot close to the finish where Maija could see me. As she came around the turn and saw me she threw her hands up and said “What are you doing here?!”. Its was great to be a part of her trail marathon experience.
Checking the weather for Sunday it was going to be a cool in the morning with sunny skies. Great racing weather by my standards. My body was rested and I headed out to the starting line with good spirits. For some reason they decided to start day one with a mass start. I did not understand this logic and did not agree with their decision. I know the climb will sort itself out for everyone but I wanted to mark my competition from the beginning. Sure, if you are a pro its easier to see who you are up against but in the amateur ranks, unless you know riders personally, or they have their calves marked with their age and category its impossible to know. I like know who I’m going against at the beginning of every race. This mentality comes from road racing where the lines are clearly drawn in the sand. You always line up with your specific category on race day. Sometimes they will mix two categories with road racing but even still, there is never a mass start. I most likely need more time to change my mindset and stop worrying so much. I’m sure some “pure” mountain bikers out there are just saying “Chill bro!”.
I got in a solid warm up but as I came back to the starting area it was packed with 400–500 riders. I managed to squeeze into the back half of riders. I didn’t think this would be a big deal but when the gun went off the pace was very fast from the beginning. The first three miles were on paved and dirt roads which was great for me. However, starting this far back meant I had to weave in and out of people to get close to the front. Gaps were opening up between groups in the road and I found myself burning lots of matches early on just to get with a faster climbing group. I kept looking down and seeing my heart rate between 180–185BPM. Not good! I was frying myself and it was only 20 minutes into racing. As soon as we crested the climb, it hit singletrack right away. Now, I’m a pretty good climber, and a moderately good singletrack rider. But I was climbing with some elite amateurs and pro’s. This meant they were crazy fast when it came to singletrack. Unfortunately I hit the singletrack in the front of a group and could feel them breathing down my neck to go faster. I was at my limit. Not physically but technically speaking. The singletrack was hardpacked dirt which helped give me more confidence compared to my slow riding on loose dirt or rocks over loose dirt which completely slows my momentum. I was flowing nice and the riders behind me were giving me small words of encouragement on keeping a solid tempo and a smooth line. Great!
In mountain biking your luck can change in a split second. We hit a fast sweeping switchback and I missed the arrow and went off course. The entire group passed me and left me behind as I stopped, unclipped, turned the bike around, jumped back on, and began riding on the course. Darn! I had lost all of my forward momentum. I was pedaling so hard over the next climb that my heart rate shot into the 190’s. My legs were on fire and it felt like my lungs were going to blow out of my chest. I was less than an hour into a 3 1/2 hour race and I was blowing myself up in perfect newbie fashion. Every turn of the pedal felt worse than the last and riders continued passing me left and right. It was very demoralizing. I wasn’t having much fun. I had enough water, and nutrition so what was going on with my legs? I knew these trails well on Stage 1 as I had ridden them many times before while on vacation here.
This helped me get through my first day. The rest of the stage is a bit of a blur but I kept saying to myself, “5 more days of this and its going to be a long week.”
Stage 1 Results: 35 miles / 6,000ft Climbing / 3:33:19 / 1:53 Behind The Leader
*All climbing vert is an approximation due to GPS not being 100% accurate.
After the Stage 1 podium awards I now knew who my competition was. I was 1:53 behind the leader and about 5 minutes up on third place. I awoke the morning of Stage 2 with some serious altitude sickness. Well, what I had was a very bad case of nausea. I figured it was from the altitude because I didn’t have any other symptoms other than a mild headache and a sour stomach. I’ve had some altitude issues before but nothing like this. I sat around on the couch at 5:30AM forcing myself to eat some cereal and have a cup of coffee. This took about an hour eating very slowly, slipping my coffee, and praying not to throw it up. I’m not trying to get too graphic here but it was a horrible feeling to have during a stage race. Maija and I were staying in Frisco so I made the 10 mile drive every morning to the start of the race. I would park at the ice rink parking lot even though it was a couple miles away from the start because they had bathrooms and not many people were around so I could take my time getting ready without all the commotion. Once I arrived to the parking lot I started to feel better and the nausea would subside. Normally I would have eaten a larger breakfast but at that point I was just happy I wasn’t vomiting. It was a cold morning around 42 degrees but I love racing in cooler temps. I tend to overheat fast so I always welcome cooler weather. I warmed up a bit and headed over to the starting area. I quickly saw my race leader in his “race leader” jersey. The stage started in town (as it would for the next 3 days) and climbed up French Gulch which is a paved road and then turns to gravel.
Stage 2 then turned onto another double-track dirt road which continued to climb for a while. My legs felt much better than the day before and I wanted nothing more than to crush this stage and take the race lead. After the first climb I only had two riders with me. Both were doing the 3 day race and were quite motivated to share the pacemaking as we climbed “Heinous Hill” which was a 1 mile climb with an average gradient of 13%.
On the descent the two ‘3’ day riders opened up a gap on me. As we hit the next climb I only caught one of them who was a pro rider for Topeak-Ergon (Jeff Kerkove). He was great at riding a steady pace and didn’t mind me sitting behind him. I rode with him for probably close to 90 minutes and we continued to pass riders from the 8:30 start. (My start time was 8:50) The next climb was called North Fork to West Ridge. (3.8 miles long, 1K of climbing at 5%) this took approx 33 minutes for us to complete. It was kicking my butt and I was getting tired but holding Jeff’s wheel fine. He was a chatty one and kept giving me cues to what was coming up on the trail. It was welcoming and I didn’t mind the conversation too much. Normally during races I do not like to talk. This, again, is a roadie trait which I need to get rid of. But his conversation was fun and it took my mind off the pain and suffering my body was going through. He would say things such as “rooty section coming up” or “Oh nice we are on the Colorado trail now”. I could see why he was a pro at this. He was so smooth whether we were climbing, descending, or on flat / rolling terrain. Also, mountain bike pro’s are much nicer than pros from the road. I know that seems like I’m speaking in absolutes but hey its just my opinion! 99% of mountain bikers I come in contact with whether pro or not are super chill and laid back.
My new found trail friend had told me there was a very long descent after this climb so I tried to ready myself for it. I had not seen anyone behind me for a while except for people we were passing so I knew I had a good gap on my race leader.
If I could just hold this on the downhill…
The Colorado Trail descent section included tight downhill switchbacks, loose narrow sandy sections, or loose rock over loose dirt. Not my cup of tea. As the trail went downhill I started to tense up and I knew I was losing time. I just couldn’t find a smooth comfortable line and felt out of my element. I’ve made such strides to get better going downhill but I have a very long way to go. My goal is to stop losing time on the descents. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be one of those riders who makes up time going downhill but I’m getting sick of working my butt off climbing only to be passed by those crafty riders who have incredible skill. Everything in time I suppose. Almost at the bottom my race leader caught me and asked for a pass. I moved over and watch the green race leaders jersey move off in the distance until it was gone. The next climb ‘Ranch to Witch’ was a bit shorter, 1 mile long at 7%. I could see the leader crest the top when I was just starting to climb. I knew I probably wouldn’t catch him. Pessimistic thinking but I was trying to be realistic too.
The next section, mile 30 to the finish was so darn fun! Fast flowing shaded singletrack with not a care in the world. It didn’t even dawn on me I might be loosing time on the leader. I was having so much fun alone on the trail I started to smile and even laugh on how much fun this was. Today’s stage was a stark contrast to yesterday rock fest. Today was all about silky smooth serenity! Another hour of this fun and I crossed the line. Happy the day was done and looking forward to what tomorrow would bring.
Stage 2 Results: 42 miles / 6,000ft Climbing / 4:03:50 / 4:47 Behind the leader
The morning of Stage 3 I woke up almost as if I was in the movie Groundhog Day. But instead of waking up as a reporter in a small town I woke up to serious morning sickness (for a guy at least). I can now say I didn’t throw up at all during the entire six day event but each morning I was again, sick to my stomach. I tried eating some of Maija’s oatmeal instead of cereal but that didn’t help. I tried waiting a little longer before having my coffee but this didn’t seem to do anything. Three days in I, in some ways, accepted the fact that I would feel nauseas each morning. The one thing that did make my stomach feel a little better were the energy chews from Skratch Labs. I would eat a couple every 15–20 minutes just to have some calories in my stomach. Another cool morning awaited me so I warmed up a bit and headed to the start line. Being almost five minutes down on the leader he had a somewhat comfortable lead on me but in mountain biking, five minutes can be washed away in a sea of misery from a crash, technical issue, stomach problems, or just flat out bonking. Instead of trying to mark my race leader I kept an eye out for the fresh three day riders who would go to the front early on and drive the pace. I wanted to use them to my advantage to help pace me over the first initial climb(s). I most likely wouldn’t be able to stay with them for longer than that but I wanted every small bit of help I could find.
The course started out in familiar trail territory. I had ridden these trails while on vacation and some of them we had done in previous stages in the reverse direction. I was already ahead of my leader and closing in on some slower riders from the 8:30 start. As in past days, my experience passing riders was always positive. Slower riders moved over as fast as they could to allow me by and I appreciated their candor. Although they were going slower than me, I didn’t want to disrupt their experience more than I already was. I was alone at this point but I knew a fast rocky descent was coming up quickly. The route took us down the infamous Little French Gulch Trail which I had climbed up so many times at past races and on Stage 1 of the Epic. I threw my dropper post down, said a quick prayer to myself and tried to find the best line down this rocky trail. Man, it felt as hard as when I was going up on my body! At times it felt as if I was on a hardtail or fully rigid mountain bike. I would look down at my fork just to make sure it was moving up and down. By day three my body was taking a pounding when going downhill. I became numb to most of it but bear it mind, by this point I had never ridden my mountain bike this hard for three days in a row. Sure, I had done single day races which were quite difficult but the sub 24 hour recovery was taking its toll. I instead actually looked forward to climbing rather than the downhill “recovery” because I could, in a sense, dictate the pace while going upwards. At the bottom of the hill I hit the first aid station and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Maija’s parents yell out “Hey there goes Adam!”. I wanted to stop and chat but knew I had to keep pushing on. So I gave a quick wave, yelled hello, and went on my way. Seeing Maija’s parents meant I would soon see Maija somewhere up the road, and there she was standing, waiting with our pup Mickey to snap some photos of me. She is great!
After a short while the trail turned back to narrow singletrack. I could see for miles in front of me and what laid ahead. On Strava this climb is called French Pass Climb. 3 miles, 1446ft of climbing, at a 9% gradient! Riders were so far away but I could still make out the trail and where I was headed. Then the climb started and boy was it tough! The altitude was around 11,000+ft and I knew the top was over 12,000. At this point, I was still able to ride although the trail was getting harder and more rocky to stay upright. I continued passing riders on the grass next to the narrow singletrack trail but it was more difficult than it seemed. The grass was wet and muddy and I had to work double when passing. My heart rate was spiking into the 180’s. Finally, after what seemed like forever I got to the point where I couldn’t ride anymore and I started to hike-my-bike. Ugh! Pushing my 23lb mountain bike up a mountain at 11,500ft isn’t much fun! Lucky for me I had lots of company. There were dozens of people around me from the 8:30 start and I used them as motivation to walk my bike faster. “Okay I said, lets go past this group, and then this one.” I just tried to pass as many people as I could. I looked up at the trail ahead, “Oh man such a long way to go.” Then I would look at my bike, and then my feet. “Wow this is tough.” Many groups I would pass were having friendly conversations with each other as I gasped for air. Although we were doing the same event, they were part of it for a very different reason. I was fighting to finish ahead of my race leader while they just wanted to finish the day. I really didn’t want to look behind me, but I knew I had to so I could see if I still had a big lead over my GC guy. I turned around and about 100 meters back there he was, pushing his bike and looking down at the ground. “Darn! I said.” Now my goal was to make it to the top before him. All of a sudden I had this jolt of energy and I started running my bike. My calves were screaming for me to go at a slower pace but I didn’t listen. I wanted to make it up and over the top before him because I knew he was a better descender. When I made it to the top there was a small stereo playing some music and a random person handing out skittles. What a crazy sport!
The downhill was complete chaos. The trail, well what looked like a trail carved out down the mountain was more like a moat, filled with water, mud, roots, big rocks, and high bushes on both sides so you had no peripheral vision. Beginner riders were flying off the trail, one guy was stuck in a bush, and the woman I was forced to follow was on her brakes so much I was doing a track stand behind her. Once I got a clear line I just went for it at full throttle. Luckily I kept the rubber side down and once I hit the dry trail section I was flying. With no one directly in front of me I kept picking up speed and started having fun again. The tight singletrack lead out to a gravel road and the next aid station.
Aid Station Note: These were some of the best, most organized aid stations I had ever encountered. When you picked up your race packet you were given three aid station bags. Most days had two aid stations but a few of the stages had three. You could pack whatever you’d like into these bags and the staff and volunteers would drive your stuff out to the specific aid station so you could have your gear with you incase something happened, bad weather, mechanicals, ETC. As you approached the aid station there was a spotter calling out your race number so they could anticipate grabbing your bag and minimizing your stopping time. Talk about having your #$%& together! Then there were other people getting drinks ready, passing out gels, and so on. These people were great and I’d like to personally thank everyone who gave their time to ensure everyone had the best experience. For me personally, I didn’t use any of the aid station bags during the entire six days. I have a bit of a complex when it comes to being self supported. I just carried everything I needed in my pockets and on my bike. I didn’t have any days over four and a half hours so there wasn’t a need to have extra items. The weather was mild and this probably also lead to not using the aid bags. I had a spot for two water bottles on my bike and except for one hot day, two bottles was all I needed. If I do it again however, I’ll definitely be using the aid bag system for some extra peace of mind.
Now out on the dirt fire road I knew a long climb was looming ahead. This was the Mt. Guyot climb or also known as Michigan Creek to Colorado Trail. The climb was approx 4.4 miles long, 1,100ft of climbing at a 5% gradient.
Another minute or two went by and my category leader caught up to me. We chatted for a bit and then started riding tempo together. Dirt fire road climbs are where I do best because its the closest thing to mimicking climbing on a road bike. My race leader definitely did not seem like the “roadie” type. He picked up the pace and I followed suit. Since this was an endurance event there were no “attacks”. Any matter of dropping someone else would come because of hard steady riding. After ten minutes or so his intensity dropped so I took over and pushed on hard. A small gap opened up but he closed it down. This went on and on for over a half hour. We both wanted to drop each other but it wasn’t working. We caught up with a pro from the Giant Factory Team and he rode with us for a bit. Once we increased the pace a bit more he was dropped. I wasn’t sure if he was doing the three or six day race but its always cool when you can ride next to some pros. This fire-road climb seemed to never end. The views were getting more expansive but the fatigue was also creeping in. With 2–3 more minutes of riding before hitting another section of downhill singletrack the race leader upped the pace. I’m not sure why I couldn’t follow. I wasn’t feeling terrible but maybe I was mentally taxed. He got a 5–10 second gap on me as we hit the trail and I didn’t see him again for the rest of the day. This was a major bummer. I figured I could follow his wheel going downhill and not loose too much time. Now I was on my own to navigate. The descent was beautiful as it was part of the Colorado trail that went through Georgia Pass. It was also one of the most challenging singletrack descents I had ever encountered. Five minutes went by and the Giant Factory Team pro rider was hot on my wheel asking for a pass. I moved over and he flew by me so fast I was in shock how good and confident he was handling his bike.
The descent was nuts! I wish I had a better way to describe it when using only one word. Picture steep drops with crazy rocks around you with very little room to move around. Even more crazy was the moist ground and all of the rocks you went over. I had to unclip several times to keep myself from falling over. When I did get a clean line the undulating rocks, roots, and loose dirt were shaking my body all over the place. It felt as if someone was taking a jackhammer to my back and arms. At one point I saw a woman wearing a Topeak-Ergon jacket taking videos of everyone coming by. Just my luck she was filming as I had to unclip! I believe this was Karen Jarchow but I’m not totally positive. “Enjoying yourself yet?” she said. “Absolutely!” I replied. “I’m on my bike!” “That’s the spirit she said to me.” and I went on my way.
I crossed the line another 45 minutes later tired and beat up. With three days to go I needed some rest but I knew I was over the hump and half way home.
Logistics Note: If you are planning on doing this event I would highly recommend staying as close to the downtown area of Breckenridge as possible. Maija and I decided to stay in Frisco and while it was only 10 miles away it restricted extra time from recovering each night. After the race would end each day (Approx 12:30–1:00PM) for me, I would do a 2–3 mile cool down to where I parked and then jump in my car and head to the Breck Epic HQ where they had a bike wash area behind the large meeting tent. I would rinse and wipe my bike down and then make the drive back to Frisco. By the time I got back to the condo it was around 2:00 PM. I would shower, eat some food, do a few social media posts, and then head back to Breckenridge for the 4:00PM mandatory meeting. They also had a meeting at 6PM but with awards at 5PM I figured it would be best to get the meeting over with, do the podium results, and then head back to Frisco for dinner as soon as possible. After dinner I was in my recovery boots (Thanks Normatec) and around 9:00 PM I was laying in bed trying to calm my body and mind down before falling into some odd sleeping pattern. The only reason I bring this up is because it would have been a bit easier to stay right in town from a logistical standpoint. I’m not complaining and I do not think it bothered my racing too much but it can obviously effect people differently.
Mandatory Meetings: The meetings were really cool. I found them nice and informative. Michael the director would chat about the stage we just completed and go over a little history about Breckenridge and some of the trails we rode. He had a true affinity for Breckenridge, its history, and the trails. How cool! Plus his humor also put my mind at ease about the upcoming days suffering. He also had someone come up each night and go over in detail about the next days course. I knew most of these trails as I’ve ridden them many times but for someone coming from outside Colorado, this could be greatly beneficial.
Stage 3 Results: 43 miles / 8,000ft Climbing / 4:19:22 / 10:13 Behind the leader
By Stage 4 I was getting into a rhythm on recovery, nutrition, and race preparation. Unfortunately, I was still feeling sick to my stomach each morning. Looking back now, I can only wonder how much this may have effected my ability to outclimb my age category rival. I’ll never fully know, but what I do know is how much of a struggle it was to eat a simple breakfast every morning. Please understand I’m not trying to complain here, just setting the tone and getting you to understand what I went through and how I felt each day.
Stage 4 had a hard climb near the beginning and a long 1 hour fire road climb half way through. However, both climbs were not steep and not technical so in a sense the course had more of a cross-country style feel to it than a marathon / endurance outlook. I was excited and still motivated to take back time on my race leader rival.
The race started in downtown Breck and went up French Gulch Rd which turns into gravel. This was the same way we had climbed for Stages 2, and 3. The only difference today was at the start we began riding with those who were racing the last three stages 4,5,6. When signing up for the Breck Epic you had a few choices. 6 day solo, 6 day duo, 3 day epic curious. For the three day race you could choose to race Stages 1,2,3 or Stages 4,5,6. As we began to climb you could tell right away who had fresh legs and were only on their first day of racing. They had much more pep, and desire to climb fast from the beginning. For me I welcomed their company. More riders I could either follow up the climbs or pick off after settling into my own tempo. Although I’m a far cry from having the same downhill skills as them I found myself able to climb or out-climb many of them even on tired legs. They started out very fast but after a mile or so going uphill these fresh riders were coming back to me. The one thing above all that the Breck Epic taught me, was to conserve, ride hard when I needed, and be patient. I am usually the going crazy hard from the beginning of a race with the “follow me if you can mentality.” However, even though today provided a course more suited to my abilities, I wanted to ride hard and consistent as I knew dropping my race leader would take some creativity.
The first climb was over and we were about to hit single track. I was with three or four riders who were doing the three day race, plus my race leader. I was the first to hit the single track and the trail just seemed to flow so nicely it relaxed my downhill anxiety and I began to go faster and faster controlling my every movement better and with more confidence than ever before. It wasn’t a straight downhill section but more of a fast flowing semi-downhill / flat winding trail. I’m not sure what was going on behind me but I started to distance myself from those who were with me before the singletrack. I do not know what was different about this section of the trail. Maybe my mind decided to relax my body, or maybe I didn’t care what happened and this type of thinking relaxed me. I really can’t say for sure but man I was feeling good and stoked to be putting time on the leader!
“Keep going Adam.” I repeated to myself. I actually talk to myself a lot when mountain biking. I know its a little weird but I’ve been so used to being around others racing on the road, it helps motivate me when all alone on the trail and suffering. I’ll say silly little things to myself such as “Come on, you got this.” If anything it gives me a short mental break from the suffering taking place.
So far no one has seen me talk to myself so I guess it will just be our secret?
Next looming in the distance was a short but insanely steep climb called Vomit Hill. Man was this one tough! (1.3 miles @ 12%) I rode 95% of it and only had to unclip for less than 60 seconds to catch my breath and find a good spot to re-mount my bike.
I don’t remember much about the next section of the stage except that I was flying through the trail trying to gain as much time as I could. This part of the race was pretty flat. I really put the pressure on here, and probably rode harder than I should have considering the longest climb of the day was on the horizon. The trails were so much fun in this area. Short punchy climbs, and nice flowing singletrack was the name of the game. I then passed the Aqueduct area, hence the reason for the name of this stage. This opened up to a dirt fire-road and I knew this was the start of the long climb. At last nights meeting they had said the long climb was a gradual double-track fire-road. As I turned onto the road I saw Maija and her parents waiting for me. Its always a nice treat having family around when you are racing!
The climb was called the Keytone Gulch Rd Climb and was approx 5.1 miles long with an average gradient of 6%. As the climb began my energy felt low. I didn’t have a lot of power in my legs. It wasn’t a bonking feeling but a small amount of fatigue crept up on me and I was slowing down. Normally I tear apart dirt fire-roads like this one but the pushing of the pedals was working against my tired legs. I had gone too hard on the last section and was now paying the price.
What seemed like a short amount of time went past and I was caught by my race leader. We had a quick conversation and he told me he had wiped out and crashed on one of the wooden bridges during the section before the climb. He was a little beat up and bloody but looked to be okay. I thought we could ride together but he had other intentions and ramped up the pace. I let him go right away. I was tired and didn’t have the motivation to try and hang on. Looking back I regret this because I would loose more time today not trying to stay with him. The climb seemed to go on forever. Switchback after switchback of tough climbing. I continued catching riders from the 8:30 start wave which helped me stay positive and keep a somewhat realistic tempo. Riders would try and stay on my wheel for a couple of minutes and then drop off. I didn’t really pay attention to them as I wanted to just focus on the climb. Once the uphill sufferfest ended and the last section of singletrack was super fun and a nice reward after climbing for so long. But, the climbing wasn’t over yet! The last climb of the day was called Summit Gulch Rd. and although it was only 1.7 miles long it averaged 9%. After 3 1/2 hours on the bike my legs were not liking this one bit. It took me almost twenty minutes to get over this short climb. Its funny how things can change so much during the period of three hours of racing. At the start I was feeling great but then my legs went from tired and fatigued to “stop riding as soon as possible.” The last section was all downhill on one of my favorite downhill trails called Side Door. Its approx 3 miles downhill and the trail is fun, wide, fast, and plenty of room to take the apexes with great speed. Another stage down and two more to go! As an added bonus my parents drove up from Denver to greet me at the finish. It was great to see them after a long day on the saddle.
Stage 4 Results: 44 miles / 6,300ft Climbing / 4:01:25 / 13:39 Behind the leader.
Although I’ve rode a good amount of trails in Breckenridge I only had the pleasure of experiencing Wheeler Pass once before. Last year on September 11th I asked Maija to come up with me in the mountains to get as far away from everyone as possible. Each year 9/11 weighs on my heart and mind deeply. Some years are easier than others but last year I simply needed to get away. We threw a bunch of gear in the car, including a heavy pack to carry my nice camera, food, and enough water for Maija, Mickey (our dog), and I. We parked on the dirt 4-wheeling road near the Burrow Trail and started to make our way up to the Wheeler Trail. This was before I had my Full Suspension. I was riding an old Hardtail. Plus my experience with technical trails was at a minimum. In any case, I road ahead of Maija and Mickey as they ran together and I spent the next half hour trying to navigate the rocky hike-a-bike section. This was even before the steep hike-a-bike potion. I never made it to the top of Wheeler Pass but I was able to experience what was to come for the Breck Epic. Oh, and I got to snap some awesome photos of my beautiful wife!
Fast forward to the present and I was ready to tackle Stage 5 of the Breck Epic. Today’s start would be bit different than the past four days of racing. We would be starting in time trial waves of 10 riders which would be going off in one minute intervals. I LIKED this MUCH better! First, they were doing it in GC order which put me in the top 50 riders so I would be riding with those more closer to my ability, but it also allowed the trail to be more open and less congested. Why not do this everyday? I know…As you are reading this you are probably running through the lists of reasons in your head they can’t do a GC Time Trial start everyday but man it was nice.
The first 10 riders were set to go off at 8:30. I was in the 5th wave at 8:35 or riders 50–59. I looked around and noticed pro female rider Katerina Nash in my group. Since this is my first full year of racing mountain bikes I’m still getting used to who the pros are. I know some of the male pros but not many females. She looked so clam and relaxed it quickly helped put myself at ease. I couldn’t believe her chill, laid back approach to one of the hardest stages of the week. She turned to me and asked me if my wheels were 26" or 27.5". “27.5!” I replied with some surprise in my voice. I then asked her why she was riding 29" wheels considering her small size. She said it helps he gets over rocks, ETC. That was the extent of the conversation with her but it was nice to just chat with someone and not worry so much about the race start.
As my group of ten riders went off, I was taken back how hard they were starting. We began climbing almost immediately and I was in no rush today to go to the front. I wanted to start off conservative and just focus on getting myself over this pass. I went to the back of the ten riders and settled into my own tempo. Within 5–10 minutes of climbing I was already passing a couple of riders. I caught up to two riders racing in the duo category. I believe they were from The Adrenalin Project. They had their race leader jerseys on and I could tell they meant business. Heads down focusing on their pace. I caught up to them and sat behind them for the next fifteen minutes of the climb. At this point we began to catch riders who I assumed started a minute ahead of us. I was already feeling the altitude. By mile 4 you were at 11,000ft. The next two miles were probably be the slowest two miles I’ve ever done on my mountain bike. Well, I shouldn’t say on my mountain bike because I spent most of that time pushing it up a crazy hard steep mountain. Once we couldn’t ride anymore everyone around me dismounted and we began the long hike-a-bike. It was so brutal for me. The altitude was really bothering me, my legs especially my calves were burning and screaming out in pain, and my upper body was getting sore from holding my handlebars up. I definitely wasn’t prepared for this type of physical anguish. I simply stopped being in race mode and quickly went into survival mode. I didn’t care where my race leader was. All I was focusing on was putting one foot in front of the other. After what seemed like an eternity it was time to ride again, sort of. The next section was carved out on the side of the mountain and it was a mix of mounting the bike, dismounting, trying to navigate through deep muddy slop, all at 12,000+ feet. I didn’t get mad or frustrated. I simply accepted my current situation and tried to make the most of it. I knew somewhere soon I would be seeing my wife Maija, my pup Mickey, and Maija’s brother Paul. They had started hiking up the trail earlier in the morning to watch me come by and snap some photos. I tried to put on the best smile I could but I was really hurting.
I had done the descent off Wheeler Pass before but instead of heading straight down the mountain we jumped onto the Colorado Trail for another 1.9 miles uphill. This climb was no better! More steep pitches and lots of hike-a-bike sections. I’m sure some strong nutty riders could get over it without unclipping but those around me were walking too which made me feel a little better. The climb didn’t last long and then we were at another high point which included tough rock sections and more hike-a-bike. At times I didn’t even know exactly where the trail was but I saw these long wooden posts sticking out of the ground so I just followed them along the top. Finally the descent was upon us. There were some spectators and photographers on the downhill section which made it more appealing to try and ride. I was pretty much recovered at this point from walking my bike and was actually looking forward to the downhill. Even though its probably one of the hardest downhill sections I’ve ever been on.
I suppose there is a reason someone named this 5.7 mile downhill section on Strava:
“Breck Epic Stage 5 DH Jelly Arms.”
I was in a group of about 4–5 riders going downhill. We mainly stayed together because it was tight downhill rocky singletrack and impossible to pass anyone. Soon thereafter the trail opened up a bit and there were plenty of lines to take going downhill. I knew this descent well as I had gone up this way (but not to the top of Wheeler) in a past adventure. I slammed the dropper post down and hoped for the best! Next, I’m not sure what came over me but man I was flying! I passed everyone I was with. Some of them had to unclip, some of them flew off the trail and crashed. I didn’t look back. I just looked forward and tried to keep my body, especially my arms as loose as possible. I really didn’t know what I was doing or which line was the best to take. For the most part, I just tried to avoid any big rocks, gaps, or roots that looked like my wheel would get caught. There were some mountain bikers and hikers going uphill who all cheered me on which was nice. It felt like I was in a downhill mountain bike race! (Even though I have never competed in one) I just kept moving, faster than I ever had downhill with this type of technical terrain. I knew I was behind my leader but again, I didn’t care at this point. I was just focused on myself and doing the best I could in the given situation. Once the rock gardens were over the last mile or so was on a bumping lumpy double track dirt road. I was still going really fast so I kept the dropper down the whole time. At the bottom I hit the second aid station.
Trail Note: There were some riders who went off course during this descent and cut off 5 miles off the race. I can’t speak for them but I didn’t have any issues following the arrows. They all seemed to be in the correct spot so I didn’t have to hesitate to decide which way to go. I also knew this descent well and it may have helped my navigation during this particular situation. In any case, I feel bad for those who went off course and I know the race staff did everything they could with the results to make it fair for most.
Once at the bottom I was in familiar territory. This was the start of the Peaks Trail which went from Frisco to the ski resorts at Breckenridge. In total the trail section was approx 7 miles in length. I started out conservative but after a while my legs felt good and powerful and I started to ramp up the pace. I didn’t really “race” much today since I was either hiking my bike up a mountain or going downhill so there wasn’t much pedaling going on. Sure, my body was beat up, but when it came time to do some cross country riding I had the energy. I began passing rider after rider which felt really good. I hammered the rest of the way to the finish line and couldn’t believe I had already completed 5 stages of the Breck Epic. At this point, I didn’t even care how tired I was. Mentally I knew I only had one more day to get through and I was going to make the most of it.
Stage 5 Results: 24 miles / 5,500ft Climbing / 3:39:42 / 26:35 Behind the leader.
Well, here we are. Five days down and one to go. I actually woke up not feeling too sick for a change. I didn’t do anything different the night before so maybe my body was finally getting used to racing at altitude. Today’s race was definitely icing on the cake. Not only was it the last day of racing but it was also an XC (cross country) style course which I love and I seem to be pretty good at. These XC races are less in distance than the other stages, have short punchy climbs, or longish fire-road dirt climbs. Since I wasn’t leading GC in my category I also had nothing to loose so I decided the night before that I would GO-FOR-BROKE. I was going to leave everything out there from mile 1 to the finish. It would be hard for me to really blow up my legs and body since the race would most likely last less than two and a half hours. Funny to think after so much long riding that 2 1/2 hours on the saddle is “short”.
Today I would be starting at 8:36. 6 minutes behind the leaders of the entire race and two minutes behind my GC leader who would be starting at 8:34. Again, I knew these trails well and it started off on two of my favorite climbs; Illinois Creek which went straight into Aspen Alley. In the fall the Aspen Alley trail can be seen from the roads. Its this small section in the green forest which turns bright yellow because of the high density of Aspens. I highly recommend riding it sometime in late September or October to see what I’m talking about. Its truly stunning. My group of ten riders had again, Katerina Nash and a few other pros I didn’t know. I assumed they were pro’s because everything they owned was clean and matching. Okay, and they just looked pro to me! A few of the teams I recognized like Giant Factory Racing, Kona, and others helped give away their status. As we began climbing I was filled with energy and boldness. I wanted to get out on the trail. Only problem was there weren’t many places to pass. I didn’t hesitate taking every opportunity to make passes when I could, even if a few of them were closer than I wanted. I simply needed to get out and climb on my own. I was feeling really good and they weren’t riding at the crazy hard tempo I wanted to pump out. Also, I wanted to get ahead of them so they wouldn’t end up passing me on the short downhill sections. Once clear of the ten riders I started with I began closing in on the next ten riders who started at 8:35. I began passing a bunch of them and even though my heart rate was in the 180’s I didn’t care. I was out to push my body as hard as could today and worry about the outcome later. I soon caught two pro women Erin Huck (who would go onto to win overall) and Evelyn Dong. They were climbing well but I wanted to get past them as soon as possible. I passed the two of them and caught another couple of riders up the trail a few minutes later but they were more aggressive and riding at a hard steady tempo which I liked. I settled behind them and we rode together until the singletrack opened up to a long false flat dirt road.
There were a group of about five together. We were sort of sharing the work but not really. Some of them would pull through for too long, others too short, some wouldn’t pull through at all, and some would pull too hard. I felt like I was in a breakaway in a CAT5 road race. Don’t get me wrong these riders were strong as heck but I could sense many of them didn’t understand how to work together like roadies in a break. About a mile from the next singletrack section one of the taller riders who had a road “classics” look to him (Think Paris Roubaix Winner Matthew Hayman) attacked the group and I went with him. I sat on his wheel until we got to the singletrack and he flew away from me. Still, I was moving fast down the Gold Dust trail which was so much fun! Very rocky but I felt I had things under control (thank you dropper post). Half way down I could sense my race leader had caught up to me (I had passed him on the dirt road). But I wasn’t about to let him past this time. Today, it was all or nothing. Either I’d hold him off to the finish or I would go out in a blazing heap of glory flying off the trail or not being able to pedal anymore. He stayed behind me the whole way down Gold Dust. After a winding flat section through some soft woody area we opened up to the last and final climb of the day. Boreas Pass in this direction was 6.4 miles with an average gradient of 4%. Not the most difficult climb. A couple of riders caught us from behind and we caught two riders in front. The pace was steady but I wanted to go faster. I wanted to make my race leader work as hard as possible. About two miles into the climb my wish came true. Two VERY fast riders maybe pro I couldn’t tell came flying up the side of us and the entire group latched on. These two riders did the majority of the work. I could tell they didn’t care about any of us and they were trying to drop each other. Perfect. Two guys on a suicide mission to crush each other and a headwind was the best scenario I could ask for. The road was bumpy but I locked out both my front and rear shocks. I wanted to “feel” the road and get every ounce of energy back into the bike that I could. Now I’m not actually sure if locking out my suspension helped me but it sure felt like I was going faster.
These two riders were relentless. They were grinding out a really hard fast tempo and I was loving every minute of it. I even started to pull through with them and they welcomed the extra wheel. By this time all the other riders had dropped except myself and my race leader. I looked back and could see my race leader was in trouble. His face and body looked more tired than in the past. “Great.” I was thinking. You really get to know someone when you race with them day in and day out for five days straight. Its much harder to fake your emotions on the bike. As soon as I saw him hurting I went to the front of the group and put in a very hard pull. It wasn’t one of those lead out pulls where I went until I popped but just under that intensity. I was going to ride the front until he popped. A couple minutes later I looked back again and saw he was losing the wheel in front of him and slipping back. I turned my head to the front and drilled it some more. After what felt like an eternity (probably only 3 minutes) the two fast riders came around me to keep the speed / tempo just as high. Man I was feeling good. I looked down and my heart rate was in the high 160’s. Nice!
The downhill started on the road you see in the above photo but it was much more bumpy than going up. My bike was moving all over the place trying to stay with the other two riders. Right away I could tell these two knew what they were doing when the road went downhill. The dirt road then transitioned into very fast downhill double track with large rocks everywhere and loose smaller rocks underneath. My bike and I were flying all over the place. I was praying I didn’t loose control and become a flying projectile straight into a tree. We then hit a small river / creek we had to ride straight through. My tire slipped on a wet rock and I went straight over into the river. I was completely soaked from head to toe! The water temp had to have been in the 50’s because a quick bust of adrenaline went straight to my heart and I gasped for air. I quickly remounted my bike and soon after the dirt road shot out to a paved road in the middle of some mountain neighborhood. Totally random I thought. I had one other rider with me who was fast on my heels. He tried to make a move and get away from me on the paved section. “No way thats going to happen.” The road is one place I’m used to so I knew exactly what his tactics were. He wanted to pull away from me on the road and gain more distance when we hit the dirt again.
Now back onto the last singletrack section before the finish I was trying my best to go as fast as possible but the narrow twisting trail was getting the better of me. I could feel myself slowing down. Not because I was tired but because I didn’t have the skillset others had to progress in a faster manner. I felt a rider coming up fast on my left. He came by me so fast I didn’t have time to move out of the way. He just found a hole and went through. He had on a Giant Factory Team kit so I figured I would jump on his wheel for as long as I could. We hit a steep small hill and I was already gaining on him. I made a move to pass and he said “Go ahead.” As I made the move to pass I noticed the trail was about to go downhill again. This rider had to have been minutes behind me on the Boreas Pass Climb. When I was at the top of the climb I looked behind and didn’t see anyone. This meant he had made up several minutes in a short period of time on the downhill to me. Very impressive. This thought went through my brain in about half a second and I then said to him “No you go ahead, thanks anyway.” I wasn’t about to slow him down and make him pass me again. It just didn’t make sense. Now, if it was my race leader it might have been a different story. But this was a pro and I wasn’t about to get in his way. Maybe a couple of years from now when I have some more experience I’ll take the chance of holding him off but I felt like it was the right decision.
I know some of you might be saying, this is a race and I shouldn’t let anyone pass without a fight, but in my mind there are times when you have to bite your tongue. I found out later this Giant Factory pro rider was Carl Decker who is a multi time US National Champ. So my instinct was right to let him go in front of me.
The last section was a familiar sight as it was the same trail we started out on two hours before. I crossed the line and was elated that I had finally beaten my race leader to win the stage. It took five stages but one win under my belt was super satisfying. Then it struck me, I had just finished the Breck Epic! I couldn’t believe it was over. There were so many highs and so many lows. I rode around the parking lot for a little, got changed, and went into downtown Breck with Maija and her family for a tasty Crepe from Crepes A La Cart which have gluten free options!
*This was by far my best day racing during the Breck Epic. Stage win in my category, and I would have been third on the stage in the 30+ CAT1’s (based on results). Also checking out Strava, my Stage 6 time is the 26th fastest. Of course thats not including all those not on Strava but hey it still feels pretty cool for my first full year of racing mountain bikes!
Stage 6 Results: 30 miles / 3,300ft Climbing / 2:22:12 / 22:21 Behind the leader.
Breck Epic Total Time: 21:59:53
- This was by far the hardest endurance event I have ever taken on. It challenged my physical and mental abilities to new highs. Sure, my training went well going into this and I had rode back to back days on the mountain bike. However, I had never raced my mountain bike more than one day in a row let alone at high 9,500+ altitude everyday. Pretty cool!
- I brought my old Ti Hardtail bike up with me. I made sure it was completely ready to go if something was to happen during the stage and I couldn’t ride my race rig.
- I never needed to use them but there was Sram neutral support at the HQ area who were willing to help anyone fix their bike. I personally like to work on my own bikes and each night I would spend 15–20 minutes making sure it was ready for the morning. The last thing I wanted to do was work on my bike each evening when I could been laying on the couch but it gave me the piece of mind knowing everything was ready for the morning.
- If you are considering this race in the years to come I would highly recommend it. If you are coming from much lower elevation than Denver or sea level, I would suggest doing a long training week somewhere at high altitude to see how your body responds when training at a hard intensity. I’ve lived in Denver for almost 7 years now and have done many training rides and races at high altitude with no issues. However, racing multiple days changed how my body was recovering and I was sick to my stomach each morning. This is something I did not plan on and wasn’t ready to deal with.
- Try and travel to the race with some friends or family who can help support your undertaking. Sure you can do it yourself but it was nice to have some familiar faces to chat with each night and help prepare my dinners. But, most people are friendly and you will probably find yourself meeting new people. I met some nice people along the way on my adventure.
- Did I mention this race has their #$&* together? They do and they rock! The staff were there to help you along the way and there was always someone to chat with. I found time to personally thank the director for putting on such a bad ass event. Also, they are sympathetic when something goes wrong. Lets say you woke up too sick to ride, or you crashed hard and needed a day to recover. They would let you start the day after and put you into what they called a “Grand Fondo” category. In the end they want you out on the trails enjoying your experience as best as possible.
- No I don’t work for the Breck Epic. Just wanted to share my positive thoughts because not all races I’ve experienced are put on so well.
- You get one of the coolest belt buckles afterwards!