Today was the sixth and final day of the Breck Epic stage race. It was a perfect bookend to the week for me.
We climbed Boreas pass twice, once outbound and once on return, with singletrack loops at either end. The dog bone shaped course is the most road rider friendly stage of the race by a good margin. Boreas pass offers a long steady grade and a chance to make a good gap before the technical sections.
Last year, Jorge Espinoza rode away solo from the lead group to take the only stage victory from Jeremiah Bishop of the week. At the start today, I said to Jorge, "Let's do it like last year, except I will win this time!" to which he replied, "Ok sounds good!"
Yesterday's trial by fire on the 29er ended up being good in the big picture, because it gave me a day to remember how to ride that bike for the final stage. On today's roads, the Flash was definitely the bike of choice. All four Cannondale factory riders in the lead group today chose Flash 29er bikes for this stage. The big wheels roll so much better on days like this, is was not a hard choice.
After the initial singletrack climb, I was off the back a bit from the lead five riders, but I did not panic because I knew there would be a chance to close the gap on the pass. My legs were not quite firing yet on the snappy sections of trail, but they were coming along as I went further. Better to not push too hard when you are not fully open, cycling is a "momentum" sport: you go your best on a bike after a long warm up and with time to allow your vascular, nervous, cardiac and muscular systems to open up. Didn't that sound scientific?
Sure enough, as soon as we hit the road, Jorge caught me and we motored up to the leaders. I felt strong and took the group over the pass on the way out. We descended the Gold Dust trail as a group and then negotiated the "Flume" trail at the far end of the course, in which you ride a dry aquaduct. Its like mountain biking down a kid's water slide for about 20 minutes, and is about as much fun as you can have riding a bike. Both sides are heavily banked, so you rarely touch the brakes and use the walls to swoop down the course like you are in a half pipe. I am sure we were all smiling. Cannondale factory rider Alex Grant had a helmet camera going today, and I am sure he will post some sweet footage of this trail, so if your interested, I am sure as an internet savvy reader, you know what to do.
When we exited the singletrack and resumed climbing on the road, I surged over a small rise and found myself with a gap. It was 14 miles to the finish with a long steady climb and a headwind, but the opportunity was there and I had to take it. I began to apply pressure with an intentional bit of reservation, knowing that if I got too excited too soon, I would be blown for when my effort was needed the most: over the top of the pass.
For the next 30 minutes, I climbed Boreas Pass at a steady rhythm, always applying pressure to the pedals. I would stand every few minutes and count 12 breaths to increase my pace and stretch my back. I reminded myself to push on the bar with my left hand, as when I am tired I have a tendency to lean on my right arm and slowly twist around the saddle. This eventually causes my lower back to complain a lot.
As I climbed, I began to think about what it would be like to win the stage. I saw myself crossing the line and raising my arms and imagined how gratifying that victory would feel. Any bike racer knows that winning does not come that often and that every win in this sport is hard earned and to be savored.
I thought about my wife and daughter at home this week, embarking on the first week of sixth grade, while I have been up here racing. For those of you who have kids, you know that sixth grade is pretty much the kid equivalent to the scariest job interview you have ever had. The have endured the stress of a new chapter without me, and I am grateful for their support of my sporting career.
I thought about Tyler Blick, who was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of four, just a few short months ago. I can't imagine what this child and his family are going through right now, but for whatever its worth, he was in my thoughts as I labored to climb the pass as quickly as possible.
I only allowed myself to check the gap a couple of times, so that maximum intention could be applied towards forward momentum. No matter what thoughts floated through my consciousness, I relentlessly pushed on the pedals with a subtle but powerful effort. It was like a common denominator which defined the parameters of my consciousness.
Random distractions, pains, and energies came and went, but I always brought them back to the prime directive: speed. It was hard to breathe, my back hurt, my arms hurt, my legs hurt, my ass hurt. Weird mountain birds chirped and squawked angrily at me as I sped past. People cheered, trucks drove past me in both directions, and a family with wandering small children stood in the road. I wondered if I would be caught. I wondered if I would crash on the final descent. None of these immaterial thoughts slowed my pace, my mind was working on two different levels.
It took me about 30 minutes to ascend to the final aid station, where Yuki Saito of team Topeak/Ergon was gracious enough to hand me up a bottle as I flew by at maximum speed. I metered my effort so that as I crested the pass, I could lift my pace. I knew the chase group would be organizing to hunt me down, and I was fighting a headwind, so they had they advantage with numbers. I flew down the pass as fast as possible, passing a truck on the left and wrapping out my gear all the way. Getting aero on a mountain bike is quite difficult but I did the best impersonation of myself on the track that I could muster. I slammed coke down my throat to keep the blood sugar levels up after six days of racing and made it to the final singletrack with no one in sight behind me.
All that remained now was to dedicate 100 percent of my effort to one thing: relaxed flow. Descending on a mountain bike is the ultimate expression of calm in the face of disaster. I did my best to put the pressure of winning the race out of my head and instead focused on getting down the mountain as fast as possible. I pushed the absolute limit on one section and for a fraction of a second, I thought I was going to eat colossal shit on a steep, narrow section covered in scree. Somehow, I made it through upright and kept going.
There was one short paved section before the last trail, and I hit it like the final 200 meters of a criterium, absolutely flat out. I snuck a final peek back just before the trail and saw no one. Baring disaster, I was going to win.
Yuki's estimate of my gap at the final aid station was 45 seconds, and my gap at the finish was perhaps 25 (I have not seen official results yet). Jorge won the sprint for second place, and we gave each other a victory high five after the line. It was the perfect end to the week for me. Thanks to everyone who worked hard to put on and support this race, it is a unique and rewarding experience.
My final Breck haiku:
effort of racing
pushes me to the limits
always a reward