Breck Epic – More Than A Mountain Bike Race

Wheeler Pass
Stage 5 of the Breck Epic: Wheeler Pass

Photo By: Eddie Clark

This may sound horribly cliché, but racing the Breck Epic changes you. I identified more as a roadie than a mountain biker going into the race, but after 6 long, physically and mentally demanding days in the saddle, I shot out the other end a much better mountain biker with a huge appreciation for the trails of Breckenridge and a new pack of friends.

There’s a good reason why Breckenridge hosts one of the best mountain bike races in North America. Within a couple minutes riding from town, you have access to more than 50 miles of a sprawling trail network–a noteworthy section of this network is the famed Colorado Trail, Colorado’s premier long distance trail that stretches almost 500 miles from Denver to Durango, runs through Breckenridge and winds through the Swan River Valley.

Race director Mike McCormack and the Greenspeed Project team started the race in 2009 as a way to not only showcase all the great singletrack riding to be found in the area, but also to encourage mountain bikers to “fight for your right to access the backcountry.” Something that resonates strongly with me, as here in Marin, arguably the birthplace of mountain biking, we are largely confined to riding a limited number of fire roads that we share with hikers and equestrians.

Coming into the Breck Epic, I had four main goals:

  1. No injuries. I was already heading into the race with a broken thumb and a pulled groin muscle after a horrible crash in Park City the week before. I vowed not to add any more to that list.
  2. Take care of myself. This meant eating and drinking on the bike as well as a good recovery program when done. I knew that riding at altitude, I wouldn’t recover as quickly as I do at home if I didn’t look after myself each day.
  3. Have fun. When tested mentally or physically, I forced myself to take a moment and focus on the bigger picture–I was riding my bike in Colorado. As one of my fellow racers asked me when we were hike-a-biking up Wheeler, “What are your friends and colleagues doing right now?” I replied, “Most likely sitting at a desk. Inside.” We both smiled and laughed at our good fortune.
  4. Earn that belt buckle.

The Breck Epic is a 6-day mountain bike race held in and around the backcountry surrounding Breckenridge, CO (there are 3-day Epicurious options). Each stage begins and ends in town, allowing you to blissfully to stay in one place for the entire event. In general, the race is 240 miles long and ‘features’ roughly 40,000 feet of vertical gain (and loss!). In other words, it’s a beast.

Stage 4 Breck Epic
Sweet meadow singletrack during Stage 4.

Photo By: Devon Balet

Stage 1 (35 miles, 5000′): Sharp and pointy. As Mike warned us at the rider meeting the night before the race started, “This is not the day to run your light wheel setup.” Think rocks, rocks, and more rocks. This is why you want to run tubeless tires. More on gear setup tomorrow.

Stage 2 (37 miles, 5000′): Mile after mile of sweet, sweet singletrack including the Colorado Trail. Parts of the course reminded me of the 401 Trail and Doctor Park in Crested Butte.  

Stage 3 (37 miles, 6000′): Up and over the Continental Divide twice with Skittle handups on French Pass. The rowdy descent off Georgia Pass in the latter half of the day was what I consider classic East Coast riding–rooty drops and boulder sized rock gardens. Add in a nice layer of rain to make everything slippery and I found myself walking huge sections with rider after rider whizzing by. As my new Swedish friend, Anders, tried to explain to me at the finish, “This technical stuff is easy—just hang far back on your bike, point downhill, and go fast enough to bounce over the rocks.” Ummm, yeaahhhhh.

Stage 3
Kelly Boniface shredding Stage 3.

Photo By: Eddie Clark

Stage 4 (42 miles, 6000′): One of if not THE favorite stage of the race. Long climbs and really fast downhill singletrack. Beware the aqueduct and the aptly named Vomit Hill.

Stage 5 (25 miles, 5200′): The course changed a bit this year–you still climb straight up and over Wheeler but instead of descending all the way back into Breckenridge, you ride back up the Colorado Trail to the summit of Peak 5 and down Miner’s Creek, a trail that local rider Mike Zobbe referred to as one of the most sustained technical descents in the entire country. It almost broke me. I actually really enjoyed the climb and infamous hike-a-bike up Wheeler (that’s the mountaineer in me talking) and how can you complain about freshly-cooked bacon handups on the top of the pass?

But the rest of the course tested my limits. Huge sections of the descent down to Peaks Trail exceeded my skill level and I walked down almost as much as I had just walked up. Thankfully, the Peaks Trail riding after Aid 2 went much more smoothly. I was never so happy to be back riding again and not pushing my bike.

Stage 6 (30 miles, 3500′): Nothing but fun. Climbing up and over Boreas Pass twice. Smooth and steep singletrack climbing, long fire road climbing where you can tune out and just crank the pedals, some of the best machined swoopy trail in the country, and a fast descent into the finish. Did I mention the beer handups on Boreas?

Stage 6
Celebrating the finish of Stage 6 and the Breck Epic.

Photo By: Eddie Clark

At the rider meeting each night, we walked through the course for the next day, pointing out areas you might want to check your speed and generally what to expect from the Stage. Each day the course was impressively well marked. Bright yellow and black arrow signs told you when to turn and pink ribbon marked longer trails to put you at ease that you were still on track. Only once did I overshoot a turn simply because I was bombing down a fire road too fast.

After all the anxiety of preparing for Stage 1, you quickly fall into a routine the rest of the week. Wake up, make coffee, pack aid bags, drop off aid bags (or if you are lucky, a generous support crew drops off your bags for you), come back and eat breakfast, get your bike ready, kit up, head to the start line, ride for 4-7 hours a day, recovery routine, shower, go to the rider meeting, eat dinner, bed. It starts to feel incredibly normal and you are kind of at a loss as what to do each day when the week is over.

Throughout the race, you invariably end up settling in at a certain pace and ride with a bunch of the same people. By Stage 2 I had found my “pack”. We had fun each day, supporting and pushing each other, and cheering our little team on to the finish line. That’s my kind of bike race and true to the Breck Epic’s third rule of racing: “Don’t be a dick.”

Stage 5 Victim
If any photo sums up the Breck Epic, this is it.

Photo By: Liam Doran

Each day on the trail and at the rider meeting I loved to look around and chat with the different people racing–I was inspired by the plethora of riders in the 50+ category, including a 67-year-old who was an absolute crusher. I hope to be getting after it that hard well into my 60s. The last few days, Bob from Winnipeg, one of the 3 Day 50+ riders, joined our “pack.” He was so fun to ride with. As we lifted our bikes over our heads to hike up steep rocks on Peak 5, he mentioned to me that “each day I vacillate between wanting to buy the race director a whiskey or run him over with my bike. Right now it’s the latter.” When I rode with him for awhile again on Stage 6, I enquired about his current mood. “Whiskey all the way,” he replied. “That was some of the best machined trail I have ever ridden,” referring to the whoop inducing S-curves on the Gold Dust Trail.

For those looking to race the Breck Epic, here are some tips I jotted down during the event:

  1. Eat and drink. This is easier than it sounds on a mountain bike. My goal was to eat something substantial (200-300 calories) every hour–the course does not always lend itself to routine eating, however, so you have to grab the chance while you can, whether slowly climbing up a fire road, eating and refilling water at aid stations, or even pulling over to quickly shove some food down your throat. I never bonked and never had that “I want to eat ALL THE THINGS” feeling, as I think I did a pretty good job of refueling on the bike.
  2. You are given 3 aid bags with 2-3 aid stations set out on the course per day. As Mike told us, “Treat them like a flat rate postal box.” Put in anything and everything you think you might need out there on course. At a minimum, I had a tire, tube, CO2 cartridge, and tons of food in each bag, with a heavy duty rain coat in the last aid bag in preparation for the chance of afternoon thunderstorms.
  3. Throw a huge variety of food in your aid bags as you never know what you are going to feel like eating each day. I went from sandwiches and rice cakes at the beginning of the week to only being able to stomach chocolate and energy chomps by the end of the week. My secret weapon? In the last aid bag of the day I also stashed a Starbucks Double Espresso can marinating on ice to propel me to the finish line.
  4. Start the week, particularly the first day, a bit slower than normal–especially if you are a sea level rat like me. It’s high altitude racing (you are riding between 10,000 feet – 12,500 feet all week) and it’s a long week.
  5. Expect you are going to vacillate wildly between Type 1 fun and Type 3 fun. Don’t ever decide to quit at the end of a Stage. I was ready to throw in the towel after Stage 3 as I was so demotivated by having to walk down huge sections of the Colorado Trail while watching rider after rider bomb past me. But I pushed myself to the starting line of Stage 4 and had an absolutely great day on the bike (apart from augering in off a bridge–minor detail). I was ready for the physical endurance test of the race (I can suffer with the best of them) but not the adrenal fatigue of feeling like I might die at any moment on some of the descents. It is clear I need to work on my downhill game. Bonus? The race environment pushed me to ride stuff I never thought possible or would otherwise walk at home. As a fellow racer put it one night at dinner after our epic day on Wheeler, “I rode the entire descent because I just didn’t want to get off and push my bike anymore.”
  6. The Stage isn’t over until you cross the finish line. Many times you will get lured into the false sense of security that it is an easy downhill into the finish. Let me tell you there is always another climb or another technical singletrack section waiting for you just around the corner. You have to earn that finish. Accept it and just enjoy the ride.
Vomit Hill
Not many riders can take a donut handup at the top of Vomit Hill.

Photo By: Devon Balet

On my drive home from Colorado, I stopped in Tahoe to stretch my legs and ride one of my favorite trails. As I easily climbed up and over a rock garden that I would normally walk, all the pain of last week eroded away and a huge smile crossed my face–perhaps like the Breck Epic belt buckle states on the back, I was not only a rider and a finisher, but one step closer to being a bad motherf%&^er.

HUGE thanks go out to the Breck Epic team for putting on a first class event, the volunteers for standing around the aid tents all day waiting for riders to come through, and Jim and Mary for feeding icy cold Cokes and Big Johnson’s to weary riders for hours and hours on end as we came across the finish line each day. And thanks to Beaver Run Resort for hosting the race this year–this made it incredibly easy to drop off aid bags every morning and the ability to sit under a tent for the awards/rider meeting each night. You guys are all top notch.

If you are looking to test yourself in a world class mountain bike race next year, the Breck Epic is it. Sign up to earn your own bad motherf*&^*&^er belt buckle HERE. For fantastic video roundups of each Stage, head to the Breck Epic Facebook page.

Belt Buckle
I earned the belt buckle.

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