The Breck Epic consists of 6 big back country loops that all start and finish within a mile of the bustling ski town of Breckenridge. I’ve raced all over the World and hands down this race is one of the best all-round races out there. The days are big but not huge, and the courses are a good balance of singletrack, double track and gravel roads. Oh, and the fact you are racing in the middle of the Rocky Mountains is the icing on the cake! There’s only once catch, the courses start at an altitude of about 2800 meters above sea level and climb from there, all the way up to 3850 meters. This means that oxygen is a very limited and a valuable resource.
Coming off the WEMBO 24 Hour World Solo Championships in Brazil a couple weeks prior to the Breck Epic left me with a few question marks if I would be recovered in time for a shorter XC style stage race. Rocket legs or jello legs, to me, just getting a chance to race a bike for 6 days through Colorado’s backcountry was going to be a win! The chief organiser, Mike McCormack, is a great character and one of the fairest straight shooting organisers out there. His 3 rules are, 1. Don’t be a dick 2. Wear your helmet and 3. Don’t litter in our beautiful backcountry. Who can argue with any of those? I’ve been lucky to have raced three Breck Epics, the inaugural one 11 years ago, the Breck 3 day version in 2015 and now this years’. It is a race that has always been great and each year they’ve been making minor improvements which are slowly building it into one of the World’s premier stage races.
Staying with my buddy and 5 x Nepal National Champion, Ajay Pandit Chetri and his sponsor Penny, made for a great week as we would race our bikes hard in the morning, recover in the afternoons, and then eat large Nepali Dhal bhat meals for dinner to fuel up for the next day in the mountains. It was a good routine and made for a pretty chill week, outside of the racing of course.
The racing was interesting as some days were very fitness orientated and good for the big engines, while other days were pretty technical and better for the smooth riders. It definitely takes a good all round rider to do well at this race and this year the race was stacked with them given its UCI S1 status which meant there were loads of Olympic selection points on the line as well as $ 30 000 in cash!
Breck Epic Stage 1: Pennsylvania Creek, 58.6 km, 1737m
The Breck Epic started with some large black clouds in the background which had us all a little nervous at the start line as we headed into the Colorado backcountry. The racing was fast with much of the course on double track quad trails with some fast flowy singletrack mixed in. It was a bit of a gongshow at the start as we all tried to figure out our race paces at elevation. A lot of us went out a tad too fast which left us gasping for air and in the hurt locker! Eventually we all found our place in the race, mine was in around 12th out of the 490 starters, right with Canadian mountain bike legend Geoff Kabush who was slowed down a bit by the lack of oxygen as he has had a busy season racing mostly down at sea level. A couple hours into the stage the skies opened up with a heavy rainstorm hitting us riders and the temperature plummeting to around 7-8 degrees celsius. All of a sudden the trails started to look more like creek beds as the storm left its mark on the day. Rolling across the line my eyes were full of mud and the core temperature was dipping low so it was straight back to the hotel to jump in a hot shower fully clothed. By the time Ajay and I were both cleaned up our hotel bathroom looked like a bomb had gone off in there!
Breck Epic Stage 2: Colorado Trail, 66.6 km, 2001 m
Day 2 was a highlight as we raced on a part of the 567 mile long Colorado Trail, probably the most scenic trail in the lower 48 American states as it traverses across the Rockies at an average elevation of 10 300 ft from Denver to Durango. The day was dominated by sweet flowy singletrack which was in all time condition after the rainstorm the day before leaving it feeling like velcro to our tyres. I’m sure most of the Strava KOM downhill segments were broken this day as America’s top racers, along with a few of us Canadians and a Colombian blew through the scenic alpine terrain. There was one epic descent which felt like it went on forever, eventually ending in a fast slightly downhill finish through an alpine meadow. I was leading a group of 3 flying through the willows when I came around a corner to greet a 30 ft murky waterhole in which we couldn’t see the bottom. It was sketchy flying in there full speed but thankfully we made it out the other side without getting thrown from our bikes by any ghost logs or rocks! Towards the end of the stage the legs were finding an extra gear which pushed me within sight of the top 10. Closing in on a couple riders with just a couple km to go my day turned sideways as my pedal clipped a hidden log sending me supermanning over the bars into a rocky landing only softened by a small willow bush.
Bloodied and with a bent handlebar I finished off the day to come in 12th again. At the finish there were a couple of other riders which had similar stories of crashing hard just before the finish which made me think that hidden stick was the culprit for more then just one crash.
Breck EpicStage 3: Circumnavigation of Mt Guyout, 63 km, 2164 m
Stage 3 at the Breck Epic is a real backcountry experience as the course heads up and over the continental divide twice circumnavigating Mt Guyout. The trails were raw and rugged as the alpine terrain was littered with rocks. Going over French pass there was even a 300 ft snowfield still intact thanks to one of the snowiest winters in recent history. This provided good entertainment for the photographers as riders were going head over tea kettle all over the place. Once over French Pass the course climbs back up over the continental divide before hitting one of the rockiest and rowdiest descents of the week, dropping the riders back into the thick pine forests. My day started great sitting in the chase group (5-7th) before hitting the first rocky descent leading into the long climb up French Pass. At the bottom of the rough descent I could hear a hissing sound coming from the tires, it’s a dreaded sound for a mountain biker and soon enough I realised not 1 but both my tyres had side wall gashes. It was crisis management as I plugged the tires, trying to make do with the 2 plugs, 2 CO2ss and 1 tube I had as reinforcements. Too bad for me I ran out of resources to fix the two deflating tyres and was stranded. Luckily a couple of buddies passed by and handed off the supplies I needed to get rolling again. Back in the game I quickly realised that hundreds of racers had passed by and that it was going to be a long day trying to overtake anyone on the singletrack dominated course. It was a bad luck day which ended any GC hopes, but in the big picture I was still riding my bike through a beautiful part of the world on some amazing trails which kept a huge grin on my face! Towards the end of the stage we hit the Flume trail which traversed across a rugged mountainside, somehow getting us back to Breckenridge in what looked like some pretty un-traversable terrain. It is amazing the trail work which has gone into the Brekenridge forest over the years which has ultimately created one of the world’s great mountain bike heavens. This is in large part thanks to to the Breck Epic and all that they have put back into the riding community.
Breck Epic Stage 4: Aqueduct, 66.3 km, 1972 m
After the ruggedness of stage 3, stage 4 at the Breck Epic was back on the fast front country trails as we raced around a fitness heavy course. At this point most the riders were starting to feel the effects of racing at altitude for 3 days and the pace noticeably slowed down a notch. After a couple hard attacks by Colombian Luis Meija, the lead group mostly stuck together as a big group of 16 riders would snake its way through the Colorado hills. After feeling great on stage 3, the legs were a bit heavy this day as I dangled behind the lead group for the whole stage, managing to pick off a few blown up riders by the end to come in 13th. It seemed pretty common at altitude for riders to have a a good day, followed with a slower day, much of this due to the fact that recovery is tough to come by when you’re living and sleeping just under 3000 meters! Like every day, one of the highlights was the massive finish line buffet which was full of recovery drinks, fruits, cookies, chips and all sorts of different sources of great tasting calories. As much as we ride at the Breck Epic I suspect alot of us riders go home a bit heavier than when we came thanks to these finish line feeding frenzies!
Breck Epic Stage 5: Wheeler Pass, 38.6 km, 1593 m
Stage 5 was back into the rugged backcountry as the stage climbed straight out of the gate up towards Wheeler pass at 3850 Meters. It was an amazing climb as the trail wound up out of the forest and into the high alpine via a small goat like trail. Towards the top it was only rideable by a handful of the top riders as we engaged ourselves into a slow motion battle high up in the mountains. Geoff Kabush and I were both fired up for this day as we knew the backside descent was pretty rugged and we could likely land on the podium if we stayed somewhat close to the leaders up the climbs. I went over the top of the first rise in 6th place with Kabush 20 meters back as we sucked in as much oxygen deprived air as we could find, trying to stay close to the top 5. This chase would last for an hour across the high alpine which was highlighted by the smell of bacon on top Wheeler Pass. Some hardcore Breck Epic fans had set up a Bacon BBQ at the summit and were treating us riders to an early morning breakfast as we rode our bikes cross eyed from the exertion. As good as the bacon smelt, it was hard to chew but just the taste of having it in my mouth reminded me of Canada and helped keep the stoke high as we suffered through the stage. Eventually we hit the long and gnarly miners creek descent in which Kabush would pass me half way down as he tried to use his world class enduro skills to get him back into the top 5. He would fall just 20 seconds short of the stage and roll in 6th and I’d come in a couple minutes later in 7th. On Strava Kabush set the fastest downhill time down Miners creek while I came in 3rd, a small consolation prize for just narrowly missing the podium again!
Stage 6: Gold Dust, 47.2km, 1139 m
The final stage is one for the roadies as the course heads up and over Boreas Pass (3503 M) twice. The course is predominantly on fast fire roads and quad tracks with a bit of singletrack mixed in on the fast descent down the Gold dust trail. Some of this trail follows an old flume which makes for some sporadic riding as the riders try to hold their speed while bouncing off the banks of the twisting track. After 5 days of high altitude racing, I think this 6th day hits alot of the riders pretty hard as we try to convince the legs to giver for one more day. Thankfully it’s a rather short one, and the views from the top of Boreas pass were amazing! The best part about Day 6 is that it’s a doubleheader. The finish line is a great atmosphere with many of the riders sitting around in circles in the parking lot shot gunning beers, laughing and grinning as they reminiscent about the past week of amazing trails. The best part is that this is just the intermission before the legendary stage 7 which involves an awards banquet full of good food and stories from the week, followed up with some drinks out on the town. This is the longest stage for some riders as the night life in Breckenridge is on fire during the summer months.
For 2020 the dates are already set for August 16-21st. As far as stage races go this one is one of the best deals out there and right now the entries are cheap, first come first served!
Thanks Breck Epic for another amazing week of riding and hanging out, it was one of the highlights of the year!
Picture Credits: Liam Doran @liam_doran_outdoors