So far, the Breck Epic has delivered on lots of great riding and racing days. The trails take you up, over and around the valley, although you usually don’t notice due to either the hard climbing or stunning singletrack descents.
Stage 5 took a slightly different approach, as it went straight up and over Wheeler Pass. Wheeler Pass is big, and my Garmin ended up topping out around 3760m. The stage start was from a base ski station, and went into singletrack pretty quickly. So we had staggered starts according to your race category. This changes the dynamic of the race a little – as typically you end up racing with people who are your physiological partners. They probably aren’t in your category. But their strength, cardiovascular fitness, and bike handling are pretty similar to yours. So with the start today, there were some slightly different faces around.
Heading up the valley, and then above treeline, today was the most Transalp like day that we have had. Except that we were walking a long hike-a-bike section. But this route went up and over a big pass, down a long rocking descent, into a flat out shallow valley descent. And this was on a bike path! That made it even more reminiscent of a Transalp stage.
The starting climb was reasonably steady, and before too long I was passed by the first two people from the second wave. Macky Franklin (leading the Singlspeed race) who was right on Brady Kappius’ wheel as they tore up the singeltrack. The single speed race here is deep, as it’s the unofficial Singlespeed Stage Race World Champs after all. With more altitude asthma (not a true medical condition) I felt like I was riding in slow motion up the climb, and made time for photos.
But the climb… Wheeler Pass had us all off and walking pretty soon, a lot sooner than many of us expected. The views to our left were amazing, across to a huge ridge line. But it was a string of riders ahead that we needed to follow. We crested, then followed a swoopy trail that was bench cut into the hill to the next high point. I was dizzy, as were others. Part way along I spotted Garth Prosser, a well known face in the US Stage Race and Marathon scene. We had raced together in 2008 at the Shenandoah 100. I was happy to stop and talk.
Onwards and upwards to the second highpoint, and some super fans were up top cooking strips of bacon. After ignoring the donuts on offer yesterday at the top of a climb, I took a strip of crispy bacon for the descent.
And what a descent. This downhill has shaped the race in previous years. It’s long, steep, and pretty tech up the top. Still dizzy with altitude, and swearing I must be in Switzerland due to the views on offer, I was pretty heavily focused on staying upright through the ruts and then the rocks below. I’ve done some long descents, and some pretty technical descents in Marathon and Stage Races around the world. The last descent at Cristalp off the Pass de Lona is big, and can be hard. The Sudety challenge throws up some pretty sketchy descents, but they’re not overly long. Marathon Worlds in Graz had some pretty tech trail for a European Marathon.
The descent off Wheeler had both difficulty and length, and it had them in spades. It also had a massive fun factor. After the top half the fear of high siding or low siding on the narrow and fast trail had abated, and it was just a case of railing it. Somehow, no one passed me, but I caught no one either.
The last length of single track from Frisco to Breckenridge needed to be given respect. With lots of punchy climbs, roots, rocks, bridges and tight corners, you had to be on it. I wasn’t, but bumbled in eventually, with the 40+ category leader. But the next few minutes saw a steady flow of racers coming in, wondering what their gaps were. Some had blood on limbs, others huge grins, or both.
Yesterday’s winner Matthys Beukes took his second stage win today, and Amanda Carey extended her lead in the women’s race. Singlespeeders Macky Franklin and Brady Kappius crossed the line closely, but Kappius made no real gains on the time lost to Macky yesterday. Although Franklin made a gap on the climb, Kappius brought it back on the descent.
Even though I struggled to breathe and focus up high, I really enjoyed today. The whole feeling of actually going somewhere is why I love mountain biking, and doing big marathons or stage races. The route chosen for Stage 5 over the Wheeler Pass is a truly epic route. The climb demanded a lot from all who went over, and the descent was quick to punish you if you faltered. The last stage is tomorrow, and I’m certain it won’t be a parade lap!