Tomorrow I’ll be racing the 2023 Breck Epic in one of the USA’s highest towns, Breckenridge, in central Colorado. Racing above 3,000m elevation for six days is a challenge I’ve been so hungry to try – but for the first time since my very first international XCM stage race ten years ago, I have no idea how my body’s going to handle it, or what it’s going to feel like… or even, sometimes, whether I can get to the finish…
The journey so far
I arrived in USA about four weeks ago, jumped in a hire car, and took off for Canada. I could have booked a connecting flight up across the border, but wanted to see America… and the only way to see this country is on the road. Up in Canada I took part in Singletrack 6, a fun and technical stage race taking in some of the most beautiful riding towns in both British Columbia and Alberta, culminating in a very cool race finale in Canmore, near Banff, right at the very origin of the Rocky Mountains.
My journey since has followed the Rockies, taking me to Montana, where I (just barely) completed (survived) the Butte 100, the ‘Hardest Race in America’ (it was) and headed down via Yellowstone National Park to Park City Utah, one of the best trail towns I’ve ever visited, and America’s only IMBA Gold rated town for the quality and variety of trails.
Riding a bike around Yellowstone was cool, even if cars dominate the place
By that time I’d been at 2,000m or above for about a week, so I kept going, heading west across the country to Breckenridge, where, for the first time in my sea-level life, I’ve been staying at 3,000m elevation. Central Colorado is a massive, high altitude plateau, known for ski resorts like Aspen and Vail, as well as for attracting cyclists and runners looking to boost their haematocrit and enjoy training in some of the most gorgeous natural surrounds the world has to offer. If you’ve ever visited European towns like St Moritz or Livigno to do a training block, this is like those towns on steroids. The sheer variety and accessibility of trails, the elevation, the singletrack on offer, and the glorious weather make it a perfect training base… and an even better place to stage a race.
Breckenridge is next door to towns like Steamboat and Leadville, famous for dishing the pain to gravel and MTBers for decades now in their eponymous MTB and gravel events, and the Breck Epic holds at least as special a place. It’s tough, high, fun, and just a little bit whacky (we’re all hypoxic after all), and it’s the most notorious XCM stage race in the USA.
I’ve learnt that the best thing about life at 3,000m is that it takes next to no time to make a cup of tea. Everything else is, well, harder than at sea level, or even 2,000m, which seems luxuriously oxygen-rich to me all of a sudden.
I guess it’s also very pretty up here
I’ve been lucky with the high altitude side-effects. Just headspins, nose bleeds, a really dry mouth, headaches, nausea, muscle aches, loss of appetite, panic attacks and a great deal of trouble getting out of bed in the mornings. But that’s all normal and very much par for the course at these heights. This is all great context though, for the race itself.
Breck by the numbers
The Breck Epic, on paper, doesn’t look like an intimidating event when you compare the numbers other XCM stage races. But let’s dig a little deeper…
First of all, it’s six days, compared to Transalp’s seven, or the Cape Epic’s eight. The Croc Trophy when I did it was nine! Then, the stages are only 55-70km long, compared to a typical XCM stage race, which will usually hit you with around 80-110+km a day.
Ok, there’s more than 10,000m of climbing, which sounds like a lot, but compare that to Transalp’s 18000m in seven days, or the Cape Epic’s 16000m in eight, and even the Swiss Epic’s 12,000 in five days, and it’s not looking too crazy.
In the Swiss Epic, you average 32m of climbing per kilometre. At the Cape Epic, it’s 22m per km. At Breck, we’re doing 27m per km. Right in the middle. Having raced the Swiss Epic twice though, I know that means long, long climbs of around 1000m elevation gain. Over here, there’s not really that far to go before you’d float off into the stratosphere. So the climbs aren’t all that long. Nope. They’re steep.
Now the altitude.
And this is massive. Where in the past, the toughest days of XCM stage races I’ve done had taken me over passes topping out at 2,500m, with much of the time spent between 100m and 1,500m above sea level, this event starts at 2,900m and Just. Goes. Up. reaching a frankly ridiculous 3,820m as we trudge through the Wheeler Pass on stage 5. Pretty intimidating for someone who lives at 120m elevation and comes from a country where the tallest mountain is just 2,224m (as someone once said to me ‘you can push a pram up Kosciusko’ – and you can).
Yer can’t push a pram up this. Little shot of the easiest part of stage 5, the Wheeler Pass stage, which climbs above 3,800m.
At sea level, the effective oxygen level is 20.9%. At Breckenridge, it’s about 14.5%. Oxygen is essential for converting carb and fat into fuel your muscles can use, which is why a high VO2 max usually means better performance. At Breck Epic height, you’re looking at a 25%-35% plus reduction in VO2 max (and probably your overall race pace).
So what does that look like? After a week of riding some bits of the course, it means not being able to ride climbs you could normally ride. It means walking. A lot. It means pushing watts around the top of Zone 2 power and nearly maxing out. It means that those 65 kilometre stages are going to take five hours, maybe more. Similar to days on the world’s toughest XCM stage races, no doubt about it.
Everywhere in Breck are ads and products designed to help people deal with the altitude, and I do wonder if racers ever take advantage. There’s an oxygen bar right in town where you can get hooked up to a bespoke IV and suck down a can of oxygen while you drink a hot chocolate and they service your bike in the shop next door. Every store and supermarket sells cans of oxygen, and I imagine myself sticking a few in my jersey pockets then whipping them out in preparation for another steep pinch. You can rent an oxygen concentrator and nasal canula to run every night for a week for $280USD plus tax (they deliver to your condo!), and today I actually passed a lady hooked up to a portable oxygen device, complete with nasal tube, on the trail. Incredible. Tempting. (Not really.)
I’m pretty sure I could get like five of these in my Camelbak. Shot from Breckenridge’s main supermarket today. I was just there for rice crackers.
To be serious, though, Riding in Breck has been an exercise in patience. I could tell you that everything feels harder, but that’s not quite true. It’s not hard. You breathe a lot, really huff and puff all the time, but you can’t go hard – I’ve found my body gives me a firm ‘no’ when I try to push. So riding at high elevation is a mental trick as much as it is a physical one. Frustration, impatience, and overdoing it are all pitfalls of riding high. And when you’re hypoxic, you’re also easily confused, uncoordinated, and make poor decisions.
Speaking of poor decisions, I entered the pro women category. Back home we don’t even have a pro category, we call it ‘elite’, which feels a bit more open to interlopers like me. The standard here is insanely high and includes some inspiring women – some of them mothers – at the top of their game. These are people I’ve read about and followed from afar during World Cups and Olympic selection trials. They are way, way out of the league of a chronically tired, heavy-breathing tourist born in the very early 1980s. It’s scary to be racing in a field where you really want to push to the maximum and save a bit of face – but that’s just not possible here.
What you came for
As I’ve settled into riding about town, fallen in with a couple of mates, and met more and more racers offering more and more kind words of advice, I’ve realised that the trick and challenge of the Breck Epic is acceptance and patience. All-out climbing might happen at around 185 watts for me, – and that has to be ok. I might get dropped immediately – and that’s fine. I might not recover at all, and that’s okay as well. It has to be. It’s the only way to finish. Finishing marathon stage races is hard. It requires good sense and good luck. I want to finish this one. It’s special.
Already, the Breck Epic is one of the zaniest, most fun, and most generous events I’ve ever attended in ten solid years of XCM stage racing. And it hasn’t even started yet. I can do sea-level races anywhere else in the world, but there’s only one Breck. It’s an event that’s part of XCM mythology.
A huge bonus this year is the addition of the Women’s MTB Summit, run by a hero of mine, Sonya Looney. And in fact, I’ve been reflecting a lot on a mantra Sonya shared on social media, one that’s got me through some gruelling races and one I’m going to use every day this week. When I’m suffering and struggling and going really slow, I’m going to remind myself ‘this is what you came for’.
Racing starts tomorrow with a 58 kilometre loop around Pennsylvania Creek with 1800m of repeated climbs around Boreas Pass, just above 3,400m. It’s what we came for!