Simply Epic: Austin Takes on Breck Epic
Obed ambassador Austin Sullivan was with our team in Steamboat, Colorado for SBT GRVL. Immediately after that, he skittered across the sky from Steamboat over to another bucolic ski destination: Breckenridge, Colorado. There, he saddled up for yet another bucket list race: The iconic Breck Epic.
The 2022 version six-day mountain bike stage race (or three-day shortie) is as known for its beauty (you pass twice over the Continental Divide on one stage, sweep and swoop through twisting channels on Gold Dust stage, and enjoy a conga line hike to the top of Wheeler Pass to an aid station with bacon, Skittles and bourbon shots (just what you need heading into a gnarly long descent). It also accrues around 220 miles and around 40,000ft of vertical gain over its six days.
We hand over the keys to Austin to regale his wild week traversing the backcountry of Breckenridge, Colo. with a few of his highlights.
Stage 3: Guyot Pass
A mass start rolled out from downtown Breckenridge. A little bit of dodging and dogging for position, but overall people were orderly. Once out of town and on a low-grade gravel climb, one racer started barking out orders to begin drafting. “Don’t lose the wheel in front of you” he yelled, saying we could work together to catch back up to the pack ahead of us. It’s interesting how our cycling backgrounds and proclivities can shine so quickly in an event. Obviously, he had a good point; we would be faster if we worked together. Yet at the same time, we were two miles into a four-plus hour day and already dropped by Lachlan Morton and company.
The high point of the day was Georgia Pass, which lies on the Colorado Trail around 11,500 feet. Having ridden the Colorado Trail countless times, I was excited. It makes for a great out ‘n back ride from Kenosha Pass, and if paced correctly, the entire climb is rideable. We approached the pass from a different side and once we crested the top, the real fun began. Colorado alpine descents are often just loose rocks interspersed with some dark soil. The first half of the descent was steep, fast, and fun. The lower slopes descended into the tree line, and thus began a much more difficult section of trail. Large boulders as big as car tires littered the trail. These are the kinds of trails that almost ride you. You and your bike become a ping-pong ball, bouncing in random directions trying to keep some semblance of speed and "grace"—although I hold that word loosely in my own experience.
A fast and flowy trail followed—which was a welcome change from the roughness of Georgia Pass. Big berms, tabletop jumps, and high speeds that would bring a smile to any trail rider. However, less smile-inducing was thinking that the finish line was near only to realize we had another mile of work to do.
Stage 5: Wheeler Pass
Two hits over 12,000 feet, with multiple pitches at an 18% grade meant two things for the day: hike-a-bike and amazing views. With an immediate start on singletrack, the start line consisted of 10-person waves spaced out in 1-minute intervals. Instead of being based on overall time, the waves were determined by the previous days finishing order. It was nice to not worry about jockeying to the start line to get a good position knowing we were starting with people around the same speed.
After six miles of wonderful singletrack in the trees, we emerged above the tree line to loose rocks and mandatory dismounts. After being on and off the bike a couple of times, we reached the final mile where everyone was hiking. It was almost completely tire-to-tire hiking, with very few gaps between people.
As we came around a false summit, a spectator yelled something about bacon and whiskey being available at the true summit. I’m more of a tequila drinker, so I opted for the bacon hand-up. Big thanks to Orange Seal for the summit goodies!
After a 1,000-foot descent, the course began to climb back up to the Ten Mile Range and join the Colorado Trail’s Miner’s Creek segment. I’ve climbed this segment many times and have strong memories of the hiking involved. One of my more vivid memories atop Ten Mile was racing in the dead of night during the Colorado Trail Race! Luckily, this time around we would be descending Miner’s Creek on a beautiful bluebird sky day.
The summit was amazing. A dizzying 12,500 feet in elevation gave way to endless views of Copper Mountain and the Ten Mile Valley below. The descent was so much fun and I felt like my bike and I could charge through anything. Before getting to the tree line, there are multiple scree fields running across the trail. A scree field is like a landslide, but instead of dirt, there are large, sharp rocks. If one were to fall on a scree field, a broken bone would nearly always be the result. They're very hard to ride and nearly impossible to see a line to follow. It doesn’t always go well—I have the scars to prove it—but when it does, it’s transcending. There's something special about entering a technical bit of trail with some doubts, and absolutely blasting out the other end without hesitation.
Stage 6: Gold Dust Trail
The last day of Breck Epic was the shortest—if judging by time. Excited to go deep since it was the last day, a lot of racers were ready to give it their all. Again, we had a 10-person wave start format, the only way to start a race that dives straight into singletrack—and boy did we dive. For the first few miles, we climbed tight singletrack, which made it difficult to pass others. Two minutes behind my riding buds, I was desperate to catch them before they could put time into me on the descents. After a couple of miles, I could see Coed Duo leaders' jerseys up the trail. They had been in the lead of that classification from Day 1, having an almost 50-minute gap to second place by the last stage.
Soon enough we spilled out on the lower bits of Boreas Pass. We climbed at a steady pace, slowly reeling in riders. Near the top, I began to break away, knowing I was grabbing a fresh set of bottles from the aid station. My buddies blasted through the aid, and I hooked up to their rear wheel, getting ready to descend. Another fun, classic Breckinridge descent complete with some dusty blown-out turns and plenty of hero dirt between. The second half of Gold Dust was a flume trail (think aqueduct). It’s a small trough that housed the trail, with a three-to-four-foot hump on the side as if to divert water along the side of the mountain.
As goes mountain biking in Breckenridge, we began to climb again. A steady six or seven miles with 1,200 feet of gain stood between us and the exciting descent to the finish line. I pushed my limits on the climb to try and catch the group ahead. The ability to ride hard at altitude is interesting. Back home in Tennessee, the legs tend to give out first, but in the high Rockies, your lungs simply won’t let your legs get to that limit. It’s almost like a governor on a golf cart. You feel like you can go harder but just can’t.
Breck Epic Finish:
Fluffernutter sandwiches awaited us at the final finish line, and all I can say is that I’ll be back next year. Back-to-back days are hard. Adding in elevation that stays about 9,500 feet is next-level. But riding with 400 other people, each dedicated to the training is something special. This event draws out people from all over the world. The finishers around me were from some amazing destination places like Quito Ecuador and Arequipa Peru. I hope I get the chance to ride in those even higher alpine countries but in the meantime, I look forward to returning to Breckenridge—and those high country climbs—next year.