Mountain bike racing means many things to many people. Yet nearly every rider — downhill bros, cross-country dorks, short-track speedsters, dual slalom gate-bangers, proponents of the enduro lifestyle — should see something familiar in the Breck Epic.
Although racing disciplines have become as scattered and varied as a rocky talus field, the Breck Epic, August 5-10, in Breckenridge, Colorado, focuses on the fundamentals of mountain biking, as it has for the last nine editions. It is all about long rides into the woods and mountains on singletrack trails that challenge, entertain, and transform riders.
No matter what type of racing you prefer, hopefully, you’ve experienced a ride like the Breck Epic at least once in your life.
About 425 riders will set out on Sunday for stage 1 up Pennsylvania Gulch. This classic climb is a central part of the Firecracker 50 race held annually on July 4. With 35 miles and 6,000 feet of climbing, it is a tough start to the week with a number of rocky, technical sections.
“The first day is one of my favorites,” says Fernando Riveros (Construction Zone) who was ninth on this stage in 2017. Riveros admits that coming from sea level, the first few stages are quite difficult due to the high altitude.
Speaking of that, stage 2 has two climbs that go above 10,000 feet. However, three-time race winner Jeremiah Bishop (Canyon-Topeak) says it’s worth it for the Colorado Trail singletrack.
“Colorado trail has the 31 flavors of singletrack; that’s why I like it,” he says about the 43-mile route that climbs 7,200 feet. “You get to ride hand-built trail, machine-built trail. You get to ride the classic Colorado trail itself, you get to bomb down a couple sections of ATV trail. It doesn’t have high alpine but it has the most singletrack.”
Amy Beisel (Orange Seal) who was fourth overall agrees with Bishop that stage 2 is her favorite.
“It was just so dang fun,” she says. “I remember hootin’ and hollerin’ with other riders down the Colorado Trail, ripping the corners, and just going as fast as we could — It was a blast!”
If stage 2 might be short on aesthetic above-treeline riding, stage 3 makes up for it in spades.
Considered the race’s queen stage, the 41-mile loop circles Mount Guyot, climbing 8,100 feet along the way and topping out above 12,000 feet. There’s typically a snowfield on the backside of the Continental Divide, which riders must cross twice, and most of the trail is particularly remote.
The Mount Guyot stage is race director Mike McCormack’s favorite for those reasons as well as the unpredictable character of the Colorado Trail descent off the top of Georgia Pass.
“It has bipolar disorder. The nature of the course changes so much from segment to segment with the Colorado Trail coming down from Georgia pass — it’s like Kim Bassinger from ‘Blind Date,’” he says referencing the 1987 romantic comedy in which Bassinger gets progressively more drunk and unpredictable as her date with Bruce Willis progresses.
“It’s insanely good riding and then it’s like the trail has had one drink too many and it turns into rocky chunder at the end and it just eats peoples’ souls. … It turns into a bad trip at the bottom.”
Hopefully, that bad trip will wear off by Wednesday when the race takes on its longest stage, the Aqueduct route on stage 4. Although it is 44 miles long, the route climbs just 6,300 feet, most of that on a nine-mile climb at the halfway point. Riveros says he always likes this route for its steady, extended climb.
“The one that I always like is the Aqueduct because it’s a fun trail and you get to do a long climb. I think that’ll be one of them that I’ll be looking at,” says Riveros.
After the race’s longest stage, Breck Epic moves on to one of its shortest stages, but don’t be fooled by the Wheeler Pass route’s distance. Stage 5 is infamous for its extended hike-a-bike section above treeline as it tops out over 12,000 feet twice, climbing 4,900 feet in total.
Vince Anderson is one rider who isn’t bothered by the altitude.
He’s won the singlespeed division three times, including in 2017. Anderson is also a mountain guide who has summited the 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat, the ninth-highest mountain in the world.
“My favorite stage is the Wheeler stage because of the scenery,” he says. “I do the worst on that stage because of my poor descending skills, so maybe that’s my favorite, if I had to pick one to go ride for fun. I like being above treeline.”
Finally, the race wraps up with the Gold Dust stage, a 30-mile route that climbs 4,800 feet. Last year, Howard Grotts (Specialized) won the overall with an attack on the final day.
He won’t be back to defend his title this season, which leaves Bishop as the top favorite in the men’s race. Beisel looks to be the rider to beat among the pro women. Although the 2018 pro field is not as strong as it was last year, McCormack says he has plans to attract more top names in 2019 with a prize purse. For this year, no money is on the line in the pro races.
“The pro field is a work in progress,” he told VeloNews. “You really have to honor the fact that they have to make a living. I think it’s a fair exchange to pay them to bring their talents for the week, so we’re working our butts off to make that happen. We’re well down that road in setting that up for 2019.”
No matter whether a rider lines up in Breckenridge on Sunday with full factory support or a camper van with some canned food and a couple spare tubes, they’re all at Breck Epic for the same reason: high-mountain singletrack riding, and lots of it.