The shortest and penultimate stage of the Breck Epic also has the most grisly and harrowing reputation. The Wheeler Pass trail takes riders where race director Mike McCormack says “few people on earth ever go.” The remoteness of the high alpine traverse trail is immediately apparent simply by looking at a map. The Breck Epic staff are only able to offer aid stations to racers at the 4 mile mark and again at the 20 mile mark. There is no vehicular access between the two as riders ascend the narrow singletrack above 12,500 Feet on the stage; twice. Narrow trail above tree line yields epic views and even more epic shortness of breath. A small cadre of dedicated fans always gather at the initial summit of Wheeler Pass offering Bacon and whiskey offerings to bring racers back to the land of the living. The hour or longer HC classified climb is like few others the world over.
Once riders summit the second peak they begin the descent back towards Breckenridge. Racers face possibly the most technical daescent of the week and one of the longest at a net loss of over 3000 feet. Many riders regularly leave skin, blood, and even teeth on the Miner’s Creek descent. An average 10% downhill gradient replete with ruts, rocks, roots, and the characteristic marble “kitty litter” dirt left behind by the same glaciers which carved the Rocky Mountains.
At the bottom of the Wheeler Pass descent riders then head back a gradual uphill towards the finish line at the Beaver Run resort.
Pro men eyed the Queen Stage as an opportunity to test for chinks in the Jeremiah Bishop’s lowlander armor. With two journeys above 12.5K feet all eyes were on the Canyon-Topeak factory rider; and his 36T XTR chainring, as the wave starts set off from the Beaver Run Resort in an immediate assault on Wheeler pass.
Racing across the front of “Peak 9” the lead group was immediately narrowed to just three riders. Race Leader Jeremiah Bishop (Canyon-Topeak Factory Racing), CZ Racing’s Nash Dory, and Orange Seal’s Levi Kurlander with the taste of a fresh victory on his lips. The two ascended as if the earth beneath them was burning, bringing KOMs down and singing each others legs with little alpine air to relive themselves. Nearly at the initial summit the small lead group could be seen by riders below pushing and huffing their bikes with every available ounce of oxygenated blood supply.
The lead group would continue to work their way across the exposed peaks before descending as a group and smashing back towards the finish. On the day it would again be Levi Kurlander in a time of 02:46. Nash Dory and a fully confident Jeremiah Bishop came in merely seconds later. Bishop relayed at the finish line that he admittedly wished for a return to the days of the triple chainring on the Wheeler Pass climb.
Women’s racing at the Breck Epic has become a less exciting affair with the absence of National Marathon champion Amy Biesel. However Carla Williams (Joe’s Bike Shop) has accepted the mantle of race leader with a commanding performance in her own right. The National Ultra Endurance series champion has leveraged her turbo diesel engine to a series of stage wins and the Wheeler Pass stage was no exception. Boulder Cycle Sports Katrina Engelsted has done her best to keep Williams honest while the 3-5th placed females mix and mash on the leaderboards. 3rd on the day would be Crosshairs Cycling’s Libby Sheldon.
Upon completing Wheeler Pass Breck Epic racers have more than crested into the finale to their week. With only 1 stage and 30 miles of relatively easy terrain standing between the survivors and their Epic belt buckles.