A belt buckle. That is the brass ring that ostensibly keeps people pushing and pedaling at the Breck Epic. A buckle has become the collectible of choice for long and arduous and borderline crazy bike events. Perhaps it was the Leadville event that set that standard–but the heavy, enameled Breck Epic buckle is a trinket for mountain bikers–not for people who have done a marathon and an Ironman and happen to own a mountain bike.
Despite usually wearing trousers that don’t even require a belt, last week I found myself in Colorado for my second Breck Epic. I’d struggled last year and was mildly bent on redemption, whatever form that might take. I would show up in Breckenridge with some consternation that there would be a repeat of last year when I was often breathing at twice my cadence (think about it) and hemorrhaging time every day to guys I’d thought were my equal. A small rib injury may have been partly to blame, but not much. The rigors of riding hard at 10,000-12,500′ day-after-day eventually introduced fear and loathing at record levels at that event. This year, I was scared, but I was healthy. I was excited to give the Epic another shot. Because the Breck Epic is awesome.
Just so we’re on the same page here, the word “Epic” makes my skin crawl–just a little. Mountain Bikers call wet dirt “epic”, they call the two course meal after their ride “epic” and then they post an “epic” shot of an “epic” sunset on Instagram. A sunset has never been epic, and neither was your 2 hour ride. The Breck Epic is epic. This statement doesn’t make me at all uncomfortable. It’s 6 days of riding and pushing your bike through the Colorado backcountry from a base of 10,000 feet. People from Denver get altitude sickness. It’s riding 7k’ of climbs and descents a day, while breathing through a straw.
Eventually–and hopefully quickly–you learn your limits. If you’re breathing through a straw, it’s best to begin the hyperventilating BEFORE you make a sharp effort. Or not to make the effort at all. Angles of incline are deceptive. A hill that you’d enjoy while standing up in the big ring at home turns into a whimpering, slobbering, exercise in breath control and patience. Balance becomes an issue. A bicycle isn’t stable at point four miles-per-hour. And at twelve thousand, five hundred feet of elevation, motor skills feel akin to a 3 beer buzz. Pedals become difficult to clip into. The trail gets narrower. Reflexes become laughable. And laughing interrupts your already unsustainable breathing rhythm.
This year I would come out swinging: 3rd place overall and 1st American on Day One. The stage was set for redemption. Then, a slippery slope of hits and misses. The Epic and the vagaries of its effects on my body–sour stomach, saddle sores, an angry lower back, and a growing sleep deficit–things not even worth mentioning at the the start line each morning due to their pervasiveness among the riders–began to crack me. It’s slightly embarrassing to mention them even here. Overcoming these obstacles is the challenge of every stage race–but especially this one. By the end of the week, I was spent. I was tired of incredibly scenic, unspoiled, dust-free, high-alpine single track. I had managed to finish 5th overall–a fairly respectable position. And I was ready to go home.
However! I was signed up to do the Steamboat Stinger 50 mile race the following day in Steamboat Springs. This hilly 4 hour race, renowned for its flowy trails and unbelievable feed zone bounty, felt like a walk in the park compared to Breck. Because there was no walking. And it was in a park, kinda. So less hard, but that’s relative–I was dropped immediately and with much vigor by a sizable group on the first of 2 laps–thus answering the question of how much racers slow down over the course of a week of MTB stages, if at all.
The answer: Quite a bit, then.
This trip to Steamboat Springs was my first since my last big Colorado MTB Stage Race, the Mercury Tour of 1999.
There are differences between these two similar events, separated merely by a 2 hour drive and 16 years. For starters, the Mercury tour was the richest race in America at the time, and racers fought for their share of a $100,000 cash purse instead of a Belt Buckle and the respect of a hardened and leathery peer group.
Instead of focusing on a single track experience, the Mercury tour was 4 days of contrived and formulaic stages: An XC, a hill climb, a point-to-point XC, and a Short Track, The 5 minute prologue at Howelsen hill was perhaps the most memorable. The loop started with a gravel climb, a little single track descent, and finished going BACKWARDS on the local BMX track. There would be blood.
The track was laced with large, lippy tabletops. The oblivious and delirious racers, seconds from the finish line, were dropping 4′ to flat ground off the backwards jumps. Bold on a modern bike, this was preposterous on period bar-end clad hard tails. The good riders pre-jumped. The lucky ones rode death-cheating endos. The unlucky ones all seemed to be Columbian. It was at that track, after my effort, and watching the rest of the field finish that I first made the generalization that “South Americans are poor bike handlers”. It’s an unfair assumption I still make to this day. I should apologize to my Columbian teammate, (and bike handling virtuoso) Marcelo Gutierrez for my largely baseless profiling. I can’t help it. I’m the son of a State Trooper.
Another vivid recollection comes from the Rabbit Ears stage. Lance Armstrong, fresh from his first TDF win, but not yet a rich man, was racing to make some bonus money from Trek. Half an hour into the stage, Lance and I had been dangled by the lead group of 5 or 6 guys. They were out of sight, but the TV helicopter was tracking them less than a minute up the trail and Armstrong and I were trying to bridge the gap across a flat piece of the Continental Divide trail that had several soggy holes at the bottom of 3′ deep perpendicular ruts. Lance passed me on a smooth bit and then stuck his wheel in a hole and went over the bars. I was a little taken aback, but wheelie-smashed across it and passed him back. Then he passed me again, stuffed it in another hole, and went OTB again, this time screaming expletives. I passed him again, giving him a wide berth, as he was spitting mad. The next time, he passed me with great fury, proceeded over the handlebars once more, picked his bike up over his head, and threw it into the woods while screaming obscenities. I couldn’t help but crack a nervous smile. And I didn’t even despise the guy yet. He quit the race on the spot and flew home that night.
The personalities and attitudes of the riders of that old event were a far cry from those of the hard, but laid-back and unassuming folks toeing the line in Breckenridge. The Mercury start list was loaded with top riders that were, well, loaded. This was the height of EPO use. There wasn’t yet a test for the drug. Riders used it with impunity. Jerome Chiotti won the overall that year, as he did every year prior. He, the only racer to my knowledge to ever come clean without being caught red-handed. Jerome won the World Champs in 1996 and later, in retiring, gave his gold medal to runner-up Thomas Frischknecht, admitting that he’d doped to do it. So perhaps Jerome should have the dubious distinction of the most brave and noble doper ever. A filthy cheat? Yes. The least cowardly doper that has ever clipped into a pedal? Maybe. That year he made $12,000 in Steamboat.
I left that year on the long drive home to Oregon with a smile on my face and an $800 check in my pocket. More money than I’d have made staying home and delivering Domino’s pizza. A personal victory big enough that I still remember the details some 16 years later.
Leaving Denver this year for the short flight home, there would be no big check in my wallet. But I would leave with a greater knowledge of myself, my equipment, a few fellow riders, and a particularly rugged and lovely part of Colorado. I’d also be coming home from Colorado skinnier than I’d arrived, and with a flashy new belt buckle to hold my pants up. To some bike racers, that’s as good as money in the bank.
Thanks for the ride,