Today’s first installment of the 2011 Breck Epic, The Pennsylvania Loop, seemed to test the rider’s equipment as much as it did their physicality. The loop, which weaves through a combination of the famed Firecracker Fifty loop, and two local Summit Mountain Challenge race courses, climbed 5419 feet over a distance of 39.5 miles. Over the course of the day, it became apparent that tire choice was as pivotal a factor as any other race preparations.
The moderate pace set by the group up Boreas Pass road caused quite a bottleneck funneling into the first singletrack of the day—a local’s favorite known as Aspen Alley. True to it’s name, this trail descended through one of the largest aspen groves in Breckenridge and through some of its founding mine sites. This quick descent spilled into the buttery and oh-so-enjoyable Blue River Trail, which rolled the racers out to the entrance of The Pain Cave (not the actual name, mind you.) From here on, it seemed as though the climbing was never going to end. Even for a seasoned summit man like myself, course knowledge today meant one thing: "I know this climb… and it’s going to hurt." Only time will tell if course knowledge will help me over the week, or if ignorance truly is bliss.
From this first climb of the day, a group of three riders—former U23 National Champion Colin Cares, endurance phenomenon Josh Tostado, and five-time La Ruta de los Conquistadores winner Federico Ramírez—was able to break away from the field. Besides these three, the following riders in the top 10 fought mostly alone; despite many changes going on in placement, passes were rarely followed, and everyone seemed to settle into their own pace for the day. After a long climb up Illinois Gulch, riders opened up onto Boreas Pass road once again, and descended to Bakers Tank, where the conjunction with the Firecracker 50 course began.
After several miles of winding singletrack and worn mining roads, the course dropped into the French Gulch climb, which ultimately leads into the infamous Little French Gulch. Due to a 'gully-washer' earlier in the summer, where a record rainfall flushed much of the two-track down the mountain, Little French was even tougher to climb than usual.
Upon reaching the top, however, many of the top 10 found themselves battling not physically, but rather against the detrimental effects of Breckenridge’s signature baby-head rock-strewn mining roads on their bikes. Just as is seen in the Firecracker every year, flatting became as much a part of this course as anything else, and even the most skilled riders met a heavy contention of sidewall-slicing rocks.
It was in this section of the course that I suddenly found myself, having ridden through without mechanical issue, in contention for a top three spot. After descending the sketchiest of sections known as Rich Gulch, I felt home free, despite 10 miles more of racing. This false sense of security was only heightened when I suddenly found myself climbing on the wheel of none other than Josh "Toast" Tostado. For several seconds, I thought I had ridden my way up to a cracking legend, when, in reality, Josh had slit his sidewall so badly that putting a tube in was out of the question. Josh walked all the way to the third aid station before being able to fix his tire and ride into the finish.
Meanwhile, despite meeting some heavy, confidence-jarring contention from the riders behind, I was somehow able to save my second place on the last (and best) singletrack descent of the day from Sally Barber Mine all the way into Carter Park.
With this newly added weight to my shoulders, it appears that I’ll have a large target on my back for the coming stages. Federico Ramírez won the day by a large margin of over five minutes, though with the large amount of stage racing (and winning) under his belt, he shouldn’t be too fazed. Tomorrow we head over to the beautiful Colorado Trail, where riders who met mechanical issue today will be plotting their revenge on this singletrack-lovers stage.