Over 750 racers will compete in the ninth edition of the Firecracker 50 on July 4th in Breckenridge, Colorado. Among them will be many professionals and amateurs attempting to win 12 national championship marathon jerseys. These will include defending champions Jeremiah Bishop (MonaVie/Cannondale) and adventure racer Sari Anderson (Honey Stinger).
Racers will ride two laps of a rugged 25-mile course that takes them into the backcountry high above Breckenridge. Starting on Main Street at an elevation of about 9,600 feet, riders will climb above the tree line to nearly 12,000 feet. There is an estimated 5,400 feet of climbing per lap. The rocky course includes switchback climbs, singletrack, and some steep high-speed descents back into town.
Unlike many of the original Marathon Championships that were run at a distance of 100 kilometers/62 miles, the 50-mile distance of the Firecracker race has opened the door for some of the cross country racers who typically race about two and a half hours. The Firecracker is expected to take less than four hours so it may be a better fit for those racers than the ultra-endurance crowd that is more comfortable with longer efforts.
This year's Marathon Championships appears to have the deepest field yet, both on the men's and women's side.
Jeremiah Bishop has been training at altitude ever since the US ProXCT race in Colorado Springs. Most recently he has been riding in the Park City, Utah, where Cannondale was introducing some new products. When asked about the Firecracker,he replied "I pre-rode the course, and it is awesome!"
Bishop has had one of his most satisfying seasons as a pro. His new team is allowing him to pick and choose races he wants to do. This has resulted in several wins including the Mohican 100 and Dirt, Sweat, 'n' Gears. He will also race in the Breck Epic stage race, which begins the day after the Firecracker 50.
Bishop is expected to be challenged by a number of riders including Boulder's Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (Gary Fisher/Subaru) who recently won the Teva Games. In head-to-head match-ups this season, JHK has had more speed than Bishop, however, these races were contested at shorter distances. Horgan-Kobelski has been in his home state of Colorado for a month now due to a break in the World Cup schedule combined with the fact that the last ProXCT race was held in Colorado Springs. He should be well rested and will be going for the win.
Also contending for the title will be the 2007 winner Jay Henry, Dave Wiens (Ergon), and Harlan Price (Independent Fabrication), and World Cup racer Mike Broderick (Kenda-Seven-No Tubes). Ross Schnell, who excels in these mountainous epics, is expected to miss the race due to an injury.
As all of these racers know, a lot can happen out in the backcountry. Last year's event saw many mechanicals and crashes that resulted in lead changes. Things got so crazy on the final lap that Bishop rode across the finish line unsure he had actually won the race.
On the women's side, Heather Irmiger (Gary Fisher/Subaru) has emerged as the pre-race favorite. She has raced the full World Cup schedule so far, lives at altitude, and has posted some impressive results in the US, including the short track win at the Colorado Springs ProXCT.
"I am really excited for the Firecracker 50. I've wanted to do it for years but it's always conflicted with another major race or has been too close for ideal training," said Irmiger. "Breckenridge has amazing riding, and I'm really looking forward to racing and tuning up for the second half of the season."
Sari Anderson, the defending champion, knows she has her work cut out for her this year. "This year's Firecracker is stacked with competition from Mary McConneloug, Heather Irmiger, Pua Sawicki, Gretchen Reeves (two-time winner), and many more," said Anderson.
"I have been focusing more on multi-sport racing, X-Terra, and adventure racing, but I'm looking forward to enjoying an awesome course and a fun race."
US cross country national champion and Olympian Mary McConneloug (Kenda-Seven-No Tubes) will be using the Firecracker 50 to help prepare for the US National Championships in Granby, Colorado, on July 18. Until this week, McConneloug has been living at sea level in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, but she will now stay at altitude for several weeks to acclimate.
"Mike (Broderick) and I are excited for the opportunity to race the Marathon National Championships. This is the first year it fits nicely into our race calendar," said McConneloug. "The timing and location of the event seem to be about right for acclimating to the high elevation for racing the cross country national championships."
Pua Sawaicki (Ellsworth) also figures to be a threat to win the race. While she always does well in the longer races, this year she has added to power and speed to her repertoire by competing in the full US ProXCT schedule. She has become a regular on the cross country podiums and is challenging some of the top cross country racers in the sport.
The Firecracker 50 also includes a relay race where two racers each do one lap. US national cyclo-cross champion and short track champion Katie Compton will team up with Kelli Emmett (Giant) to compete in this format with Emmett riding the anchor leg. It is hard imagine who can challenge them unless there are mechanicals or other mishaps.
Breckenridge was founded in 1859 during the mid 19th century rush to settle the west. The discovery of gold brought miners to participate in the "Blue River digging". However, as a result of the Civil War and difficulty in finding new gold, the population of Breckenridge plummeted to 51 people by 1870. The closest it came to becoming a ghost town was in 1936 when it was dropped from the map of the United States.
In 1961, a lumber company opened the Breckinridge Ski area and a new boom era began that continues today.