Highs and lows at the Breck Epic

I first raced the Breck Epic in 2010, and swore I'd be back. It's one of the best mountain bike stage races I have done, right on par with BC Bike Race, La Ruta, and Transylvania Epic. Each is so unique in what it has to offer that I can't really pick a favorite. What Breck has going for it is top notch trails and course layout, a single location clover leaf format, a great group of people both riding and in the race organization, and a great all around town/vibe.

I knew I'd be back, but schedule conflicts prevented it for the last two years since Leadville fell the day before. I wasn't man enough to attempt the double like Todd Wells did, so I missed it in 2011 and 2012. This year I decided that I would get my fill of dirt road racing at The Crusher in the Tushar, and skip Leadville. That freed me up for Breck, and I'd been looking forward to it all season. The news that Todd was going to be racing definitely raised my eyebrows, people said he would be tired from Leadville, but I know better than to count him out, and I know he doesn't show up to race unprepared. I also knew than defending champ Ben Sonntag would be back, adding to the firepower at the front.

After nationals, I took a short break to recharge and shift gears in to the second half of the season. I had netted my best finishes at marathon, cross country, and short track nationals with a third, fifth, and seventh respectively. For the second half of the year, I'm looking to stretch that speed out to the longer distances, starting with Breck, then the Park City Point 2 Point, and ultimately La Ruta. Adam Pulford of CTS has me set up with a nice plan, which included the rest after nationals and a good block of training going in to Breck.

The one wildcard was the altitude. I live at 4,600 feet or so, and Breckenridge sits at about 9,500 feet while the race tops out at 12,500 feet. Altitude has never really bothered me much in general, but things are always magnified with maximum physical exertion. I had done some rides up to 9,500 feet around Salt Lake and felt fine, so I wasn't worried. No sense in worrying about what you can't change!

A few days before the race Sammi and I drove to Steamboat to stay with my sister and Kevin and meet their new St. Bernard puppy Stu. We had a nice dinner and got in a ride the next morning over on Emerald. Then Sammi and I headed down to Breck, arriving Friday evening. Saturday I checked out part of stage 1, and got all my ducks in line for the race. My coach Adam Pulford was in town to support me all week which was huge.

Here's how the stages broke down:

Stage 1: One of the roughest and rockiest, so I broke out the Scalpel 29, which just eats up the rough stuff. I had hoped to capitalize if Todd was tired from Leadville, but my legs were a little off and didn't come around until near the end, right about the time that Todd put in a dig up Little French. Todd pushed the pace pretty good and we got away from Ben. Near the end, I was feeling better and went to the front on the last climb, but couldn't shake Todd, so we raced it out right to the line with him edging me out in to the last singletrack for the win. During the stage, I drank Osmo Active Hydration and ate two bags of Stinger Chews and a Gu.

Stage 2: Lots of steep climbing and smooth (ish), so an F29 day. Todd went hard up Heinous Hill, and I stayed with him, but unfortunately had slow leak due to a sidewall cut on the first main downhill, which I had to stop and fill with a CO2 on course, and again at the feed zone. I chased as hard as I dared at 11,000 feet and caught Ben and then Todd eventually, and figured I would try to keep my momentum going in to the final climbs. I came around him but again didn't get away, and he put in a wicked surge up the last climb, which I hung with for a few minutes before blowing up a little, and losing a minute and forty-five seconds. Again I drank Osmo and ate two bags of chews and had one gel.

Stage 3: The ride around Mt. Guyot is pretty rough and raw so, this day I broke out the Scalpel 29 again. I was fortunate to have two bikes to choose from, and between those two you can't go wrong. Todd put the pressure on up French Pass and I suffered at 12,000 feet (wheezing, tingly, the works), and a gap opened up. Todd kept his head down and I buried myself to stay close, but lost another two minutes. Today I did the same nutrition plan but mixed in a Clif bar. Proper fueling on the bike is crucial once you get a few days in. I think the descent of the Colorado Trail off Georgia Pass is one of the best anywhere

Stage 4: Since I was down almost four minutes in the GC, I knew I had to put the pressure on in . Being another smooth (for Breck) stage, I broke out the F29. For tires, I think the best choice was Maxxis Ikon tubeless ready Exo protection 2.2s with 21 psi in the front and 22 rear, mounted to Enve XC hoops. With those tires, I can get away with low pressure since the sidewalls are so stout. I rode hard on the climbs, and while Todd seemed to suffer a little that day, I still couldn't get away, and he upped the pace on me at the end. I was able to hang on, and took the stage win after we duked it out pretty good for the last few miles. Bummer of the day went to Ben Sonntag whose crank arm fell off only a mile from the finish while he was in a solid third. Luckily he didn't lose enough time to jeopardize his third overall. Same plan with nutrition, including another bar.

Stage 5: Wheeler pass, Scalpel day for sure, the descent is rough! I knew just getting over the thing was tough, never mind racing it. Todd went hard early, and created a separation which he eventually stretched out to a five-minute gap over the course of the stage. I lost the most time up over 12,500 feet again, there's no air up there! I was giving it all I had but couldn't hang, hats off to Todd for an impressive ride. The highlight of the Wheeler stage is the descent in to Copper: 12 minutes and 4,000 feet! I was a little hypoxic from going so hard over the pass ,so I took the first part of the descent easy, then got in to a groove and tried to ride fast but safe. I did the same thing nutrition wise: Osmo, chews and choked down half a bar at 12,000 feet. The bummer of that stage was Dax Massey who crashed and broke some ribs and punctured a lung, but still finished the stage! Best of luck on the recovery Dax.

Stage 6 is a short stage with more gradual climbing, another F29 day. It was short (two hours and five minutes) so I got by with three bottles of Osmo and a bag of chews. I knew only a major mechanical from Todd would change our overall finish, and since I never wish bad luck on anyone I was just racing for the stage win that day. Takei Kyosuke from Japan had the same idea, and rode hard up the first climb. Eventually it was just Todd and I with him, and things settled down for the middle of the stage. Going up the final climb, Takei put in a small dig at the bottom, and I figured it would be a good time to try to shake him, but couldn't get away on the gradual, windy dirt road. Todd drove it over the top, grabbed a PBR beer feed and let Takei and I race it out. I led the whole descent, and knew that if I came in to the final tree lined singletrack first I would take it. All went according to plan until about a minute from the finish. I made a stupid mistake descending a rocky hill with a right hand turn at the bottom. I was pushing it hard on the descent and carried too much speed and blew the turn right in to the bushes. I was off the trail completely when Kyosuke came by and although I jumped right back on and got in behind him, there was no more passing, and not enough of a finishing straight to come around. It was a great battle even if it didn't go the way I had planned, but that's racing. Anything can happen at any time. That's what makes it exciting and keeps us coming back for more!

Overall I am super happy with how I rode. Todd was just stronger, hats off to him. I was riding as good, or better, than I ever have and learned a lot. I'm hoping to continue to improve, and with Adam Pulford from CTS guiding my training and Team Sho-Air/Cannondale behind me I have no excuse not to!

Next up Park City Point 2 Point, then La Ruta to finish out the season.

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Alex Grant, 31, is one of America's top endurance mountain bike racers. Sponsored by Cannondale Factory Racing in 2012, Grant juggles racing as a pro with managing an outdoor gear consignment business called Gear Rush, which he co-owns with fellow Utah cyclist and racer Bart Gillepsie. This season, look out for Grant on the podiums at major endurance and stage races. For variety, you may also see him on on the start line of some super Ds, cross countries and short tracks.

In 2011, Grant finished third at the Leadville 100 and eighth at the US cross country national championships while also logging top 10s at the super D and marathon nationals. He finished fifth in the Downieville Classic All Mountain Overall and seventh at La Ruta de los Conquistadores. For the third year in a row, he won the Park City Point 2 Point.

In 2010, Grant made headlines with his second place finish at La Ruta de los Conquistadores, the Breck Epic and the Trans-Sylvania Epic.

When not on his mountain bike, Grant enjoys backcountry skiing, snowboarding and hiking.

Grant is from Richmond, Vermont, and he presently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Follow his 2012 season in this blog on Cyclingnews.