Culture

Carl Decker Journal: Of belt buckles and bar ends

Decker reflects on the differences between the Breck Epic and a stage race from mountain biking's heyday, the Mercury Tour.

This is an excerpt of a story from Carl Decker’s blog, the Lemming Line.

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 race 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.

This year I came out swinging: third place overall and first 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 — began to crack me. It’s even slightly embarrassing to mention them 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 singletrack. I had managed to finish fifth overall, 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 four-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 two laps, thus answering the question: How much do racers slow down over the course of a week of MTB racing?

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.

Of course, there are differences between that and Breck Epic, events separated by a two-hour drive and 16 years. For starters, the Mercury Tour was the richest race in America at the time. 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 singletrack experience, the Mercury Tour was four days of contrived and formulaic stages: an XC, a hill climb, a point-to-point XC, and a short track, The five-minute prologue at Howelsen hill was perhaps the most memorable. The loop started with a gravel climb, a little singletrack descent, and finished going backward 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 four feet to flat ground off the backward jumps. Bold on a modern bike, this was preposterous on the era’s bar-end clad hardtails. The good riders pre-jumped. The lucky ones rode death-cheating endos. The unlucky ones all seemed to be Columbian.

Another vivid recollection comes from the Rabbit Ears stage. Lance Armstrong, fresh off his first Tour 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 five or six guys. They were out of sight, but the TV helicopter was tracking them less than a minute up the trail, and we were trying to bridge the gap across a flat piece of the Continental Divide trail that had several soggy holes at the bottom of three-foot 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 over 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 at 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 the EPO era. 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. Jerome won the world championships in 1996 and later, in retiring, gave his gold medal to runner-up Thomas Frischknecht, admitting that he’d doped to do it. A filthy cheat? Yes. The least-cowardly doper that has ever clipped into a pedal? Maybe. That year he made $12,000 in Steamboat.

On the long drive home to Oregon, I had 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 was no big check in my wallet. But I left with a greater knowledge of myself, my equipment, a few fellow riders, and a particularly rugged and lovely part of Colorado. I was also 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.

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