BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. (VN) — Look up.
They’re strung out there, the tiny riders just small pops of color on a green blanket stretched over the shoulders of the Colorado mountains. The riders are walking now, pushing their bikes up the nape of French Pass, at 12,000 feet above sea level.
A ribbon of riders there, too, pedaling, now unclipping. Funny to see from above how hard we press to go so slow.
The riders are all around me, and somehow I am alone. Alone, with plenty of company, droning upward. Less alone when a man hands me a warm can of Coors Original at the top, more alone when he takes it back. Alone again on a 30-minute descent from the lofty ribbon of the alpine trail to the valley below.
We’re racing here, among the scree and the pines, underneath the anvil-shaped clouds and over the cobwebs of roots. Some of us (with bachelor parties to attend) are at the Breck Epic for three days, some of us (the real crazies) for six days. But we’re not really racing, though the scorch and sear of muscle and lungs say different. Most of us are just trying to keep it all going uphill long enough to crest the pass and roll free down the other side. We’re in search of those moments of earned weightlessness and flow in a world of responsibilities and parking tickets.
If only for these precious and long Colorado days at the Breck Epic, we belong to the dirt. We belong to the time of the high blue sky and the clear creeks. We belong to the mud on our faces and the salt on our necks. Rise, race, rinse, repeat.
Each morning we start together, chasing the police car that means the taste of rusty nails for those long minutes before the road turns to dirt, turns to trail, turns to alone. The race is unapologetically difficult (more than 5,000 feet of climbing most days, plus miles and miles of Jedi-level trail) yet remains, decidedly, low-key.
There are but three rules:
1. “Don’t be a dick.”
2. “Wear your helmet.”
3. “Don’t litter in our beautiful backcountry. Seriously.”
Breck Epic belongs with several others, such as Leadville and BC Bike Race as bucket-list endeavors. The version of mountain biking here is immense. Fast, hard, fun. It’s sort of like riding before riding knew it was cool. When people were sporting anodized components the first time around because they came in Rasta colors.
Back in real life, a tempest of sweat storms off my helmet. Somewhere above the tree line I wonder what I’d be without mountain biking, this thing that’s kept my knuckles scrapped and my eyes looking for the cleanest line. What began as something to kill time in the ski-town off-seasons became the feeling I chased all year, and always when the snow was iffy. I first met Mike McCormack, the race director and founder of the Epic, in Telluride, Colorado, years ago when he was running the Mountain States Cup series. He called me a sandbagger.
Some things never change, I thought, now pushing my bike. I’d spent two days talking about how I shouldn’t be racing at all. Out of shape. Crashed. Whatever, whatever. McCormack had me pegged all those years ago. That day in the San Juans I raced a heavy, creaky Santa Cruz Blur LT. I looked down at the S-Works Epic I was pushing. Some things do change.
I forgot I was racing at all. Each bend of the trail was like one I’d ridden before, like something outside my old town. Old friends and enemies, those berms and rocks. Out here we aren’t all the same, but we’re pressing for the same things, I thought. A little better. A little faster. A little more alive.
Mountain biking can be a hopelessly fractured sport — do you even know about enduro? — but it can also stitch people together in ways other sports seldom seem to. Strangers become companions on a final climb. Aid station volunteers seem heroic and oddly nice. On the big mountain bike loops like this, there’s room to wander, inside and out. And for me, that’s always been the point of the dirt. The true brilliance of the race is that it pushes us just a bit further than we’d normally go, day after day. Out there, we find the things inside ourselves we didn’t know we had. Sometimes what I learn is big. Sometimes I think about Mexican food. I almost always think I need a new bike.
On my final race day, I crossed the finish line in a dirt lot. A friend from Telluride, who was racing the following day, had driven up to the finish that day early; he’d seen my name in the results the day prior, and hoped to see me come in. I smiled and he said he’d buy me a free Coke. Then I waited for a special someone to make her way in, soon after me. Fifty feet away, the same guy with the Coors Original from French Pass was there, too, with another sip of warm beer for me.
Sometimes, we call this racing. We call it riding other times. But it usually ends with bikes on their sides in a parking lot, as dusty and as tired as their riders. We talk it through and make swooping motions with our hands. We sit on coolers. We talk about next time.
I watched the race depart the next morning and caught a high-five from my friend as he rolled out.
And I thought about next time.