The Breck Epic is one of the North American classic stage races right up there with Singletrack 6 (aka TransRockies) and the BC Bike Race. The 6 day event takes part in the Rocky Mountain town of Breckenridge, Colorado with a base elevation of 9 500 feet and goes up from there, a couple stages touching 12 000 feet! It’s a humdinger to deal with the altitude but the race more then makes up for it with its easy logistics, being based out of the same town all week and the 100% pure mountain biking with a perfect mix of flowing alpine single track, quad trails and some forestry roads mixed in. The days are a bit longer then its Canadian cousins with the leaders coming in around 2.5- 3 hours which seems like a nice balance which keeps everyone content.
In 2009 I lucked out and raced in the inaugural Breck Epic, showing up solo and camping in a ball diamond all week. Returning this year was a real treat as Kona booked us a nice palace with my teammates Kris Sneddon and Barry Wicks along for the journey. They were both racing the full 6 day version while I was doing the 3 day as a warmup to the Leadville 100 mile race on the following Saturday.
Getting to Breck from Canada was easy, one flight from Vancouver-Denver, then a 1.5 hr shuttle ride up to the mountain retreat. Getting there Thursday a couple nights ahead of my teammates I had no accommodation figured out so headed to the forest. A friend (Zeke) of a friend (Dax Massey), picked me up from the bus terminal and dropped me at the edge of town where a little hike into the woods later I found a rad little fort to spend the night in. The sleep in the forest was awesome so I kept this as a little hideaway for the rest of the week and would use it as a recovery hut. Once my teammates arrived Saturday the real fun started and we prepped for the week ahead!
Stage 1 of any stage race is a bit nerve wracking as we all test our legs and figure out if it’s going to be a week of kicking ass or one of dragging ass. With World Marathon Champion Alban Lakata, Czech champion Kristian Hynek, and there Topeak Ergon teammate, american stage race legend Jeremiah Bishop all racing the 3 day version we were in for a rough ride. From the gun the 3 Topeak Ergon boys went to the front and set a tempo around 400 watts. Feeling fast after taking out the Singletrack 6 race a week before I fought for their wheels and had to elbow one roadie out of the way to keep position before the road climb dumped us into the first single track.
Bishop and Hynek went off the front, Lakata and Belgium’s Marathon Champ, Franz Claes, stuck to my wheel and 20 minutes later we hit the next big climb where these two European climbing fanatics blasted away. Racing at altitude is a tricky game, if you over do it you explode into a pile of ashes and end up in never never land. I was on the edge of this but managed to govern the legs just in time and held onto 5th for the day as we raced up and down a number of small climbs mixed in with some mid alpine single track. The final flow trail into the finish put a smile on everyones face. Barry had a nice ride testing out the new Kona carbon Honzo, while multi time BC Bike race and TransRockies champ Kris took one for the team and soaked up the bad luck with 2 flat tires.
Stage 2 started with Bishop going off the front just before the first fire road climb. Not having anything to lose sitting 4th overall I threw all my cards at the Topeak Ergon boys and went off the front, hoping to at least hurt Bishop a little. Lakata and Hynek sat on for the next 15 minutes, breathing through there noises, while Bishop seemed to be hurting a little so I kept up the momentum. Starting to hurt myself we crested the hill and had a long flat section in which I was crossing my fingers for a singletrack downhill to appear to save the day.
Unfortunately we came around a corner to a wall of a climb where the 3 Terminators left me in the dust and pretty soon Franz Claes also cruised by as I gasped for air trying to avoid going to never never land.. The rest of the day was a challenge trying to bounce back but luckily the course kept my mind off my physical state as we cruised parts of the legendary Colorado trail through some Mongolian like meadows. It was a perfect day of high alpine riding and definitely one of the coolest rides I’ve had all year. Barry had a killer ride highlighted by a 15 minute switch back descent leaving everyone in the dust and was sitting 6th overall for a bit of the stage. Kris also rebounded after the rough luck on day 1 and had a lot of riders talking about his straightening descending style in which he bulldozes everything and anything in his way.
Stage 3 was the final day for us riders preparing for Leadville and it was a glorious one. Again it started on a nice climb to sort out the 400 + riders. The Terminators did a team time trial off the front not even breaking a sweat while I dangled at 15-20 seconds trying to keep from being sucked up into the atmosphere. Just before the first feed zone we hit a rough rocky descent in which I let go of the brakes and rode my Hei Hei to its limits bouncing off sharp stones and back onto the back of the Termo Train as they exited the feed zone. From here Lakata sat on the front like a robot, Hynek glued to his wheel, Bishop dangling, and myself dangling a bit further back as we headed up the infamous French Pass. It’s amusing as you can see riders just up ahead climbing up the steep alpine ascent over 12 000 feet, but with the altitude it takes forever to get anywhere and even riders you could throw a rock to are likely over a minute ahead.
This climb was a bastard, we all had to hike the bottom section then Lakata set the standard on the second pitch riding over the top so we all followed suit trying not to barf our breakfasts up. In 2009 I believe only Bishop made it up this climb but this year I heard over a dozen guys did which says a lot about the speed of racers these days. The back side descent was fast as the singletrack laced between willow bushes before dropping into the tree line and hitting a rougher descent all the way down tot he 2nd feed. Riding though I grabbed 3 gels from the feed station and dropped them all as my hands were still numb from the long descent. The feed zone guys laughed, and then one guy picked up a gel and sprinted up to me. This saved the day as I cracked the gel and used the energy to bridge up to Bishop. Lakata and Hynek put it into overdrive and were no where to be seen.
Riding to the finish with Bishop was a good battle. He would eventually gap me by 5 seconds over a 17 minute climb and then used his stealthy arrow position going over the false flat descent to extend his lead to 20-30 seconds which he’d hold to the finish. I had a chance to take his 3rd spot on the podium this day but he knew the course and made sure to lead the long rough singletrack descent off French pass so he could block me as I was riding a bit better downhill than him on my duallie. Live and learn, there’s a reason Bishop has won nearly every USA stage race in the past decade. Next time I’ll make sure to lead the descent!
Stage 4 was a weird day watching my teammates lineup for the race while I tried to recover for Leadville. Watching races is tough as its way more fun to be out there suffering! This was the sufferriest day of the Breck Epic with the infamous Vomit hill mixed into the long 44 mile stage which balanced itself between awesome trails and some steep mother of climbs. I think every stage race needs a day like this which hits the riders in the head with an iron frying pan. After all if we wanted things easy we could just stay home on our couches with a bowl of ice cream.
Stage 5 was just 28 miles long but from listening to the stories it was not only the highlight of the week but also one of the rowdiest days. It started out with a long climb on a goat trail into the alpine area before cruising across the lush alpine meadows and onto a small path over Wheelers pass. It was a hike a bike for the majority of the riders but being the rad race that Breck Epic is, they had bacon and beer feeds going over the high point. It’s things like this which add a festival like atmosphere to what is already a great event. The views from up at 12 000 feet were out of this world before the riders hit a gnarly descent back into tree line.
From this point my teammate Barry took control of the day on his Honzo hardtail with 2.3 inch Maxis Ikon tires and annihilated the bouldery rough descent to take a commanding stage win! I can’t wait to get on one of these bikes for next year! The day took its toll on a lot of riders and again Kris soaked up all of the bad luck for the team, breaking off his derailleur hanger just miles into the race. Being a true Canadian hardman he ran his bike for the rest of the day finishing in nearly 5.5 hours, a very long run for a runner, let alone a bush man in non flexible biking shoes!
Stage 6 started a half hour before the actual start as Barry built up a 2016 prototype Kona Hei Hei DL in exactly 21 minutes. It was impressive, after the bike building portion of the day, Kris and Barry tackled the final 30 miles of the Breck Epic on a fast rolling course up into the Boreas Pass alpine a couple times before landing back in town to cap off a stellar week on the bikes. Barry would cap the week finishing 4th overall while Kris has his eyes set on coming back with a bit better luck next time as he had more bad luck this race then most of us have in a whole season.
While these guys were finishing off the Breck, I was headed to Leadville for registration, a pre-race meeting and the final preps for America’s biggest single day marathon the next morning. It was a busy week for the Kona Endurance team as we put our sea level bodies through the ringers up at 1.5 to 2 miles high in the atmosphere. The Breck Epic is a race we’ll hopefully get back to in the near future as the fun laid back atmosphere which organizer Mike Mcormick puts into the race is what this sport is all about and the riding is just awesome!