The fifth stage of the Breck Epic was a bit of an adjustment for me. After putting a hole in my dual suspension Cannondale Scalpel yesterday (from a satanic igneous rock), I chose to ride my 29er Flash Carbon hardtail.
I am lucky to have multiple options in my quiver, but today was a bit rough. I stopped twice to let air out of my tires, and really felt like a pinball in the technical, rooted and rocky sections of trail. Going from a Scalpel to a Flash on a stage like today is similar to taking all the cushions off your Lazy Boy and replacing them with two by fours. Thus, one formula for the day was:
rigid bike + fatigue + reasonable but rusty handling skills + a little bit too much air = get jackhammered
Luckily for me, Daimo at The Service Course has been repairing my bikes every night after I destroy them. He has washed away all the mud, dirt, regurgitated race drink, empty gel packaging (Cannondales have hollow head tubes which make perfect trash receptacles while riding) and horse poo we find on the trail. He has fixed flats, fixed disk brakes, fixed hubs and fixed everything else we break. Our bikes are clean, lubed and ready to rock every morning. It makes this race so much more fun for me to not have to worry about dealing with putting my bike back together. So when we discovered a big hole in the downtube of my Scalpel, Daimo fired up the Flash, and it was ready to rock. The Service Course is based in Boulder and does professional bike repair. What is cool about them is that they will pick up and drop off your bike from your house, so you don't have to schlep it across town to a shop. Totally pro.
Today's stage contained the hardest single obstacle in the entire race: Wheeler pass. This mountain is a 3,000-foot climb, which is formidable on its own, but the route (Promoter) Mike (McCormick) chooses to send us over it is what makes it a doozy.
We scale the mountain on a narrow, mostly unrideable singletrack which is littered with a smattering of golf ball sized rocks. Many sections are extremely rocky, loose and rugged, and are just unrideable. A long stretch of the trail is very narrow and at the perfect gradient which teases you into trying to ride it. I got on and off the bike several times trying to make up ground on the leaders, who were only a few meters ahead of me. 200 meters equates to a couple of minutes at that altitude and rate of ascent.
I could clearly see the race for the stage win developing ahead of me on the long stretch of the pass. While I pushed my bike up the side of the slope at maximum speed (about 2km/hr, in case you are wondering) I saw Ross Schnell riding and hiking his way up to the leaders. In a silent moment of prophecy, I decided he was my pick for the win, knowing that a monster descent was still ahead of us. Ross is a stellar bike handler and this was going to be his best chance for a stage win on the week.
All this betting was a distraction from the effort of pushing my bike up the slope and the pain in my calves from toeing my way up the trail in stiff carbon-soled shoes.
My training for this 20 minute hike-a-bike at 11,500 feet consisted of hiking with my family at Brainard lake last week. I probably should have carried my bike on my back to make it more authentic. Instead, I had a wrestling match with my 112-pound black lab. I also practiced my bike handling skills by riding on planks of wood which traversed poisonous mercury dust from an old mine. Not quite as much negative feedback as falling off of Wheeler pass, but good motivation to ride straight none the less.
As I crested the summit of the climb, my attempt at hydration was foiled when I tried to breathe while drinking, which resulted in a cataclysmic barfing of race drink all over my top tube. Hence, another formula:
pegged heart rate + 12K Altitude + too much fluid + desperate need for O2 = nearly drowning in race drink on top of Wheeler pass.
I have descended Wheeler three times in my life and this was definitely the slowest. I even went faster at the Breck 100 in July when I was still processing my melatonin from the previous night and rode like a drunken singlespeeder. The 29er is a very capable machine in the right hands, but I just did not have the feel for it yet, and opted to make my personal safety a priority.
The stage ended with the Peaks trail, which amounted to more pinball action on the rock gardens and old, rickety bombed out bridges. I rode the trail with another rider and gaps formed quickly on the more technical sections as I was left behind.
riding a hardtail + reference of another rider = realization that my handling skills need work
Next year, if I do this again, I will rig a video and instant shot camera so I can show all this stuff to my readers. No time this year to pause and pull out the iphone.
Even though Ross made a huge bid for solo victory, J-Bish (Jeremiah Bishop) caught him in the final miles of the race and edged him out for the victory. I have now clawed my way up to ninth on GC, which is not bad after all the punctures I have had this year. One stage left so we will see how it all wraps up.
The leading team for the open men's duo race had one rider crash today in the final mile of the race, there were some very high speed sections with big water bars. I think he was bucked off his bike. He crossed the line bloody but functioning and conscious. We are all wishing Clint a speedy recovery.