Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Breck Epic 2023: The Pre-Amble and First Stages

The Breck Epic has became one of the ultimate Pittsburgh singlespeed traditions. For years now - dating back to 2010 with Montana - singlespeeders from the 'Burgh have been pilgrimaging out to Breckenridge to suffer for six days of epic racing. I first went out in 2021, but a big crash on stage three forced me to pull out of the race with a DNF. It was one of my biggest regrets - especially since the crash was extremely stupid - so going back this year was particularly meaningful to me. As always, we had a fantastic group of people going out and staying in our AirBNB. I really mean that,  I look forward to hanging out with everyone just as much as I do racing.

Before I get started with Breck, I do want to briefly talk about the week leading up to the race. I know, I know, I tricked you with the title, but you're going to have to deal with a few paragraphs of general road-trip stuff before you get to the Breck stuff. Or you can just scroll down, it's all the same to me.

Race photo!

After leaving Durango on Sunday, I had a few days to myself to relax in Colorado. Since I was only doing easy rides to prepare for the Breck Epic, I had a lot of time to unwind at camp and check out cool towns. Very different from how I usually travel, but it was actually very fun for a change.

First up after leaving Durango was Silverton. I found a free campsite just north of Silverton and got my camp all set up by noon, which left me with the rest of the day to just do nothing. Bueno. I set up my hammock and maximized relaxation. It was a pleasant campsite, even if the temperatures did get down into the low 30s. The next morning, my car battery was dead, but luckily a fellow camper nearby let me use his portable car jump-starter, and I was on my way.

After Silverton, I drove further north to Ouray, along the Million Dollar Highway. The views were incredible, and I'd recommend that drive to anyone.

Downtown Silverton, Downtown Ouray, cactus on the trails near Ridgway

After Ouray, I continued driving north to Montrose, and then Ridgway, where I went out for an easy ride on some desert trails. There wasn't much to note about the ride (except for the awesome views of course, but those are par for the course) until I saw a completely naked runner coming right at me. Luckily, he covered up his privates and seemed a little embarrassed, but it was a strange sight nonetheless. To make it even more weird, those trails seemed very popular: not the place to go running in the nude.

Camping in Crested Butte; riding in Twin Lakes; camping in Twin Lakes

After the ride, I continued driving east on US Highway 50 toward Gunnison. There was major construction on the highway, but after almost an hour of standstill traffic, I started moving again toward Gunnison. Before long I was in Gunnison, and then I turned north toward Crested Butte. I found a free campsite in Crested Butte  - along a super rutted and rocky dirt road - and set up camp.

The next day I drove to Twin Lakes, just south of Leadville, to do a ride. On the way, I got a speeding ticket, my first ever, going down Cottonwood Pass. I won't lie, I was speeding - 57 in a 35 - but it was at the very bottom of the pass on a straightaway right as it flattened out. It was the ideal speed trap location.

Riding in Twin Lakes is what I imagine the 1/2 mile of singletrack in the Leadville 100 to be like. Of course, that makes sense, because it's only like 10 miles south of the town of Leadville. After the ride, I found another free campsite off a forest road, and settled down for the evening.

A fellow camping near me came up to me to tell me a black bear had been rummaging through peoples' camps recently. As luck would have it, I was planning to sleep in my hammock that night instead of my tent, which meant I was extra exposed to Mr. Black Bear. I thought about it for a second, and decided I was fine with being in my hammock, what are the odds of a bear coming up to me? I was right, no bears got me in the night.

Pre-riding with Chris and Dan

The next day, Wednesday, I drove through Leadville on my way to Breckenridge. Leadville is a small town that isn't nearly as fancy as other mountain towns, and aside from being home of the Leadville 100, it probably isn't as touristy as other places. I arrived in Breckenridge in the late morning, just in time to go out for a ride with Pittsburgh friends Chris and Dan.

I always love meeting up with people from Pittsburgh across the country, and riding with Chris and Dan was no exception. I got dinner with them that evening and spent some time chatting back at their AirBNB. It really was a great time, and to cap it off, I found a sweet campsite to sleep at off Boreas Pass Road. It was a clear night, and it was some of the best stargazing of my life.

The next day, I did another great ride with Chris and Dan, pre-riding the starts of stages two and four. We stopped at a dredge off of French Gulch Road, the first dredge I've seen (or at least remember seeing), and got some pictures. It's pretty crazy how much the dredges changed the landscape of the area, and seeing it still standing 100 years after it was built is pretty neat. The whole valley is filled with massive piles of rocks, dumped there by the dredge as it moved along the creek and searched for gold.

After another great night of camping on Boreas Pass Road, the rest of the Pittsburgh crew was only hours away. I did some writing in the morning, a little sightseeing, and then went to the AirBNB to meet up with Rob, Chrissy, Montana, and Colleen.

The five of us headed out for a ride that afternoon, going up Boreas Pass Road to Baker's Tank and taking singletrack back down to the ice rink. I don't know all the trail names, but Aspen Alley is always a fun descent.

Moose and troll, both at the ice rink in Breckenridge

When we got back to the AirBNB, Dahn Pahrs was waiting for us. He had a lot shorter drive than the rest of us, coming from Park City, but a late-night flight home the night before meant he wasn't able to get to Breck until later in the day. It started raining shortly after he got there, so I guess he made the right decision not going out for a ride.

Scenes from the AirBNB (Dahn struggling with his back)

The AirBNB always provides lots of funny memories. Of course, Dahn's back pain isn't necessarily funny (especially since my back was giving me some trouble during the week as well), but seeing him rolling around on the floor is pretty funny. Jenga is also pretty funny. The not-so-funny thing was that Dahn was sick, but luckily (spoiler alert) none of us got sick during the race. Of course, I'm sick now as I'm writing this, but it's all good.

Pre-ride with the full crew

On Saturday the full-full crew got out for a ride. Even a couple of Dahn's friends from Utah who were doing the race joined us. Montana led the way, and we did a great sampling of trails. We rode the last few miles of stage one, including the not-so-fun switchback climb and the very-fun downhill to Carter Park. It was bueno.

There was the racer meeting Saturday evening, followed by last-minute preparations back at the AirBNB. I was feeling pretty ready to race, but definitely just a little bit nervous. I think mainly because I DNF'ed last time, I was feeling the pressure to get the belt buckle this year.

At last, Sunday morning came around and it was time for stage one. Rather than blowing myself up on the first climb like in 2021, I started off more conservatively. Justin got a gap on me on the opening climb, but I decided not to try and chase him down. It was a long week, I told myself, and I wanted to stay fresh.

My plan of conservative pacing seemed to work. I felt really good the whole day, and never once felt like I was on the verge of bonking. I was able to hit all the climbs hard, conserve energy on the flats, and rip the downhills fairly quickly. When I got to the last climb that I had pre-rode the day before, I still had a lot left in the tank and I was able to pass a few people. Crossing the finish line in Carter Park, I was tired but not destroyed. I finished in about the same time as I did in 2021, but I felt a million times fresher. That gave me hope for the days ahead. 

The only downside was that Justin finished nine minutes ahead of me, but even so, I think it was worth it to not blow-up on day one.

Day two podium!

I felt extremely good going into day two, and I was hoping I could keep the gap to Justin from growing any more. The starts are pretty chaotic, especially since Justin started way at the front with the pros/race leaders. I started at the front of the main peloton, but still, by the time I tried to work my way up to Justin at the front, he was already too far ahead for me to catch before the opening climb narrowed and I got pinched off.

That's just the nature of racing, and there's nothing I can do, but it is a little disheartening to start behind the person you're trying to catch. Of course, there's no denying that Justin was stronger than me, and he would've for sure beat me no matter where I started, but I do wish I was at least able to ride with him up the opening climb. If I really put in a big effort, I probably could've caught him, but to me, I thought it was more important to save energy at the start, because trying to catch Justin would've meant spending way more energy than Justin was spending. Just to emphasize again so it doesn't seem like I'm complaining: Justin was stronger than me, plain and simple. No excuses for losing, and that's final.

Anyways, the actual race on stage two went very well for me. I felt incredibly strong, and when we started up the biggest climb for the day - the Colorado Trail - I got an extra surge of energy. Last time, I walked a ton of the climb, but this year, I cleaned the entire thing except for a small pitch at the very bottom. 

Toward the top of the climb, I saw Justin ahead of me walking with his bike. I yelled out to him and he looked back at me, before hopping back on his bike. By the top of the the climb, I had caught him and we rode together into the descent.

Justin is a really fast descender, but luckily, I'm not too much of a slouch myself, so we stayed together for the whole downhill on the Colorado Trail. We took risks, we railed the turns, and we passed a few people on the way down. It was incredibly fun! Justin was the first person in the race who I didn't have to pass on a descent, which was extra exciting. Just to note, though, that plenty of the racers at the front of the race would obliterate me on the downhills. It's just that compared to the people typically around me - a degenerate singlespeeder - I can hold my own on my descents.

We stayed together for the next climb after the big descent, and even though I was suffering, I had enough to stay with him. My luck ran out, however, by the following climb. We got to a steep punch on a gravel road, and I didn't have the strength to stay on my bike. Justin kept riding while I got off and walked, and I never saw him again.

I kept on the gas as best I could for the rest of the day, but I was definitely feeling my efforts earlier in the stage. To my surprise, I ended up finishing only 20 seconds behind him. Even though I got dropped,  I finished the day about as well as I could've hoped, and I was totally satisfied. To make things even better, I was about 14 minutes faster than my time in 2021, even with a new singletrack addition to the stage. I think my plan of being conservative on day one was pretty smart. I was able to get a big gap on 3rd place, Josh, for the day, which meant I was now fairly comfortably in 2nd place.

Well, I think that's enough for this one. Next post I'll do the rest of the stages, plus the party stage, and maybe throw in some extra deep thoughts. Stay fresh.

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