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By Fred Dreier
Gasps for air and the occasional clank of mountain bikes were the only sounds heard during the 45-minute hike-a-bike up the final pitch of the Wheeler Loop to the top of Breckenridge ski area.
The steep section of the Colorado Trail, which on Thursday hosted the fifth stage of the inaugural Breck Epic stage race, soared from tree line to 12,400 feet. The trail was too narrow and steep for most riders to pedal, so they queued up to push their bikes.
And in the thin Colorado air, deep breathing quickly turned to gasps.
“I wouldn’t say I enjoyed that section,” said Dave Wilson, a singlespeed rider from El Paso. “I don’t mind suffering through stuff like that.”
Mike McCormack, the Breck Epic’s managing director and developer, admitted the hike-a-bike was not the most enjoyable section of trail at this race, which began Sunday, July 5 and finishes Friday.
“Everyone in town knows the Wheeler loop. It’s that ride that people ride once a year if they’re looking to suffer,” McCormack said. “It’s a classic Summit County ride, and it will probably always have a spot at this race. Even though people roll their eyes when they hear about it.”
Riders hit the base of the grinding ascent an hour into the stage. The day began with the race’s 145-strong field rolling out from downtown Breckenridge and onto a switchback singletrack climb across the ski area’s main face. The course dropped down a series of fire roads before putting riders on a punishing, rocky jeep road climb to the day’s first aid station. Then riders hit the base of the Colorado Trail for the push to the summit.
Men’s solo leader Jeremiah Bishop (Monavie-Cannondale), who came into the stage having won all four previous stages, entered the base of the singletrack climb alongside Travis Brown, with Colby Pearce (Michelob Ultra) riding a few steps in arrears. Bishop and Brown rode together up the steep pitch until the Monavie rider was able to ride a section that Brown had to hike.
Bishop said the move wasn’t easy. The Virginian admitted the pass was the highest altitude he had ever been to.
“I really suffered at the top. The wind was blowing, and you just feel mentally stupid at that altitude,” Bishop said. “You look at the trail and know you can ride it, but for some reason you can’t. It’s frustrating.”
Bishop held a tenuous gap on Brown at the summit, but stretched his lead out on the ensuing descent. He eventually crossed the finish line in 3:35:53, two minutes up on Brown.
After the hike-a-bike the trail plummeted down the other side of the Ten Mile Range toward the Copper Mountain ski area, then linked up with a paved bike path for a quick ride into Frisco.
The day finished off with a grueling slog back to Breckenridge on the Peaks trail.
“I suffered worst on the (Peaks) trail. It was really long and rocky,” said 2001 world champ Alison Dunlap (Luna). Dunlap competed in the mixed category with her husband, Greg Frozley.
A large portion of the field finished in the four to five-hour range, making the stage the longest, most punishing found at this year’s Breck Epic. McCormack said so far the field was finishing the stages quicker than he and his staff anticipated.
“On every stage except (stage 5), people have been finishing faster,” McCormack said. “I think today we gave them a serious challenge.”
At a post-race awards ceremony McCormack announced that the Breck Epic was shifting its dates for 2010, moving from July 5-10 until August 22-28. McCormack said the switch was due to a request by the National Forest Service.