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Breck Epic Basics: How to cope with high altitude

All six Breck Epic stages are above 9,000 feet. How do you cope with such high altitude racing?

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Photo: Liam Doran

Editor’s note: The 2018 Breck Epic mountain bike race is underway, running August 5-10, and we sent Spencer Powlison up to Breckenridge, Colorado, to cover the event from a rider’s eye view. In addition to daily updates from the race, this series of “Breck Epic Basics” will offer tips on how to handle the challenges of an event like Breck Epic — or any multi-day cycling trip or event you might plan to do.

The Colorado mountains cast a cruel spell on mountain bikers. When you think you can pedal faster, your lungs go haywire. When you try to sleep, your heart is pounding.

High altitude affects everyone in different ways, but once you are above 9,000 feet (and Breckenridge is), you have to be a specimen of freakish aerobic abilities to ignore the difference. The Breck Epic mountain bike race is six stages of riding all above 9,000 with some summits reaching past 12,000 feet. This is even hard for people accustomed to racing in thin air. So how do you cope with this invisible challenge?

We talked to three-time Breck Epic winner Jeremiah Bishop (Canyon-Topeak), Amy Beisel (Orange Seal), and Fernando Riveros (CZ Racing) to hear how they manage racing at altitude.

Jeremiah Bishop:

“Racing at high altitude gets easier the more you do it. I’ve written a training plan for Leadville on Training Peaks; four weeks out, if you have a chance, go to altitude for some training. If you live in Florida, Beech mountain is 5,000 feet — you still get some adaptation. I have a hypoxia trainer I can do some intermediate hypoxic training on. That’s really beneficial just to get the feel of it. You do get some minor adaptation from it.

“There’s a lot of theory on how your brain will protect you from cold, heat, lack of oxygen. A lot of things you get from short-term adaptation is a change in your central governor. If you are pretty used to pushing at high tempo or low threshold, doing a little hypoxic block can help.

“If you can get up there 10 days ahead of time that’s where you’re starting to get some real effects hematologically, but I think it’s even better to get a trip up to altitude a month ahead of time. It kind of hits you differently each time. But having experience of how to pace at altitude is really valuable.

“Usually, I increase the amount of carbs I take into about 75 percent. That’s really different from my usual diet and that really makes a big difference because your body prioritizes glycogen more. I also try to get more sleep. Hydration is big as well. Purely in-the-bottle nutrition. There’s a reason for that. At elevations that high, you’re looking at very low humidity and your lungs are getting incredible amounts of evaporation with that elevated breathing rate and it’s hard to chew when you can’t breathe!

“When you’re going up to altitude, there’s normal effect and some people get altitude shock. I’ve had it before, I used to suck at altitude. Advil can help with High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema. There’s some pretty good research on that, just the inflammation response. Lower O2 causes vasodilation. That’s one of those things that’s supposed to protect from acute mountain sickness. Blood volume changes, your ph changes. Your body is compensating for higher CO2 so you have more acidic blood. But you also have more hemoglobin, so your body is making all these changes and one of these changes is vasoconstriction. It can go a little haywire. And that’s when a lot of people get altitude sickness.”

Barry Wicks dropped in above the treeline on the Wheeler stage. Photo: Eddie Clark

Amy Beisel:

“I love racing at altitude. I don’t know what it is but I like the way it makes me feel for some reason. When you are racing at altitude, you’re just not going into that red zone for too long and just set a good pace that you know you can handle. Because it’s really hard to bounce back if you do bonk.

“I always try to stay super-hydrated especially three days before the race. I do it as it is now but definitely at least three to four days before. Try not to drink plain water. I’ll add maple and salt and a splash of lime to every water that I drink. It’s just a homemade sports drink; it’s really just cheaper to make and very clean, you know what you’re putting in it, so you’re really topped off before a six-day stage race.”

Fernando Riveros:

“The first days, they’re harder for me. Me and altitude don’t get along very well, even though I was born at 8,000 feet in Bogota. I was fine when I used to live in Colorado Springs, I was fine riding and racing there. But now I moved from Colorado it’s been a struggle for me to perform well in altitude.

“The point of me going to the Leadville Stage Race [July 27-29] was just to get used to it and tune up before Breck Epic. I’m trying to be more conservative in my efforts. Coming from sea level, you produce more power here than you produce there. I have to remember those kinds of things that I can’t put that power out at elevation. That’s the main thing, just being more cautious with my efforts, and hydration is the most important part.”

Breck Epic
Spencer Powlison rolled into the feed zone on Breck Epic stage 2. Photo: Linda Guerrette

Spencer’s take:

“I have had so many horrible mountain bike races at high altitude that I’m probably not the best person to ask. I will say that my best days have been when I’ve paced myself very conservatively — never attack, never go into the red, stay relaxed.”

Check out the Breck Epic website for more >>