Irmiger, Horgan-Kobelski aim to defend marathon titles at Firecracker 50

Twelve national championship jerseys will be awarded this weekend when athletes from around the country converge on the quaint western town of Breckenridge, Colorado. They will compete on a 50-mile course consisting of two challenging 25-mile loops through the Rocky Mountains. In addition to the championship events, 750 racers will be competing in the 10th annual Firecraker 50.

The race starts on Main Street, on the Fourth of July, in front of thousands of spectators assembled for the holiday parade and festivities. It is pure Americana with balloons, cotton candy, and parade floats.

Last year's champions, Heather Irmiger and Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski ran away with the competition, besting their rivals by 10 and 14 minutes respectively. The two not only are part of the newly formed Subaru-Trek team (formerly Subaru-Gary Fisher) but are also married. Both will be returning to defend their jerseys at this year's race against field that includes both endurance specialists and several other World Cup cross country racers.

The 50-mile distance is a bit shorter than the traditional 100k (62-mile) distance that marathons have been raced at. The shorter distance makes the race much more appealing to some of the nation’s cross country stars. In contrast, the recently completed European Marathon Championships were 129 km (80 miles).

The men's race is going to be stacked with talent. Jeremiah Bishop (Cannondale) has been riding extremely well lately, wining the Trans-Sylvania stage race and the Massanutten Triple Crown cross country race. In the latter, he beat Sid Taberlay (Sho-Air/Specialized), which is no small feat at the cross country distance. While last year he suffered with the altitude, he proved at Snowmass in 2006 that a sea level dweller can still win.

The winner of USA Cycling's Pro XCT in Wisconsin last weekend, Sam Schultz (Subaru-Trek), will be competing in the Firecracker for the first time. Schultz is a rising star in the sport and has beaten his teammate JHK on numerous occasions. Whether Schultz has the endurance to compete for 3.5 hours is yet to be seen.

Former cross country champion Ryan Trebon (Kona) will also be racing this year. Trebon, a former "mixed team" winner of the BC Bike Race, has had some impressive rides in endurance events. Jay Henry (Tokyo Joe's), a former Firecracker 50 winner, proved earlier this season that he can compete with the current cross country stars. He finished second in the Chalk Creek Stampede Triple Crown held last month in Nathrop, Colorado. He was third in last year's Firecracker 50.

Road racer Peter Stetina (Garmin-Felt) was quite a surprise in last year's race. Because the course begins with four miles of pavement, Stetina rode himself into a three-man breakaway early in the race. He held on for fourth place and demonstrated excellent off-road skills in the process. Colin Cares (Kena-Felt), fifth last year, will also be back. He not only rides exceedingly well at altitude, but is noticeably faster this year. He finished on the podium at the Chalk Creek Stampede.

Other racers who can be expected to figure prominently in this year's race include Dave Weins, the 2001 winner. Weins was riding to a podium finish last year when his hopes were dashed by a tire problem. Jeff Schalk (Trek), leader of the National Ultra Endurance (NUE) series, will be on hand. Andy Schultz (Kenda-Felt) and Jeff Kerkove (Topeak-Ergon) could also figure in the final standings.

The Firecracker 50 course is brutally hard on both the racers and their equipment. The starting altitude is 9,600 feet and it reaches a height of 11,400 feet in the first nine miles. Total climbing per lap is a whopping 5,400 feet. The course starts with a four-mile road climb up to Boreus Pass. While most endurance racers will tell you that you should avoid going anaerobic during these types of events, that is nearly impossible in this race if you want to be anywhere near the leaders on the climb.

Racers will plunge down into French Gulch, descending over 1000 feet, before beginning an exceedingly difficult climb up Humbug and Lincoln Park Hills on steep trail littered with loose rock. The course then descends down the very steep Rick Gulch before returning to French Gulch.

On the return trip to the start/finish, riders will climb a fireroad for two miles before descending multiple sets of switchbacks to Carter Park in Breckenridge. Three strategically placed Aid Stations will be available to provide water bottles, and to assist riders with problems.

Pua Sawicki (Okole is likely to provide Irmiger with the stiffest competition. She has morphed herself into a cross country racer over the past two seasons and is attending the entire World Cup series. With extremely large World Cup women's fields, Sawicki has overcome poor starting positions to achieve finishes in the 30s.

Sawicki raced while sick during the 2009 Firecracker and was bitterly disappointed with her second place performance. While she has only beaten Irmiger once this season in head-to-head competition (at the Fontana Pro XCT round), she excels at these distances. Last year, she led the charge up to Boreus Pass and only Irmiger could match the pace.

Two-time Firecracker winner Gretchen Reeves (Tokyo Joe's) will also be racing. She finished third last year. Amanda Carey (Kenda/Felt) was racing to a podium finish last year when a flat tire spoiled her day. This season she is racing leaner, and appears to be even faster as a result. Endurance specialist Rebecca Rusch (Specialized) will be on hand, as will rising star Amy Dombroski (Luna Pro Team).

While Irmiger is winless this season, she has plenty of cross country podiums. In addition, she will be riding her 29-inch Superfly bike this year which should be very well suited to this course. The big question is: who is going to ride 14 minutes faster to stay with her?

Almost anything can happen at this race. The sharp rocks can change the complexion of the race in moments. Just ask Dave Weins and Amanda Carey. Jeff Kerkove said on his Facebook page, "Trust me, there will be races within this race. Plus, at this venue, nothing is guaranteed. The final podium never ends up the way you would think."

The weather is predicted to cooperate with partly sunny skies and temperatures in the low 70s (degrees Fahrenheit).

Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for full coverage of the Firecracker 50 this weekend.

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