Breck Epic 2021 Stage 5: Wheeler

Gnarly storm unleashes high on Wheeler, testing racers at 12,000 feet

Anne Gonzales still smiling as she reaches the top. Photo by Eddie Clark

Swenson, Skarda stay perfect and inch closer to GC victories as bike racing’s essence shows through

Alexis Skarda rocking out on a gnarly Wheeler stage. Photo by Eddie Clark
Keegan Swenson navigates Wheeler summit and another stage win. Photo by Eddie Clark

By Devon O’Neil

BRECKENRIDGE — On a Wheeler stage that will live in Breck Epic lore, it paid to be fast Thursday. Rain, sleet, biting wind and all the earthbound challenges that such weather brings to alpine terrain pushed racers to the brink, breaking some, steeling others, yet seemingly having little effect on the sharp end of the field.

Keegan Swenson stayed perfect this week with another convincing victory. He broke from the pack about six miles into the 24-mile stage and rode alone to the finish, crossing in 2 hours 46 minutes 23 seconds—2:18 ahead of Luis Mejia, who finished second for the fifth straight day. Lachlan Morton was another 13 seconds back in third, after sprinting to the line ahead of Diyer Rincon.

Swenson’s GC lead stands at almost 12 minutes going into the final stage, the flattest and fastest of the race, with finish times typically under two hours.

Riders cross rock gardens as the cross Wheeler Summit. Photo by Devon Balet
Mike Hurst making the wet, cold descent. Photo by Devon Balet
Race leader Keegan Swenson came prepared for a wet day. Photo by Devon Balet

The women’s GC is in a similar state of non-flux after Alexis Skarda won again to extend her overall lead to 22 minutes. Skarda dropped Evelyn Dong on the Peaks Trail climb from Frisco to Breckenridge after Dong caught her on the 3,200-foot descent from the Tenmile Range crest. Skarda’s time of 3:31 was three minutes faster than Dong and 19 quicker than third-place finisher Rose Grant. Afterward the three women hung around the finish replaying their adventure.

Rain clouds blow over Wheeler Summit as the riders arrive. Photo by Devon Balet
A lone rider makes the approach to Wheeler Summit as rain clouds blow over. Photo by Devon Balet
Alexis Skarda powers through the rain clouds on a way to another stage win. Photo by Devon Balet
Alexis Skarda begins the descent off Wheeler summit. Photo by Devon Balet
Evelyn Dong summits. Photo by Eddie Clark
Adriana Rojas crests Wheeler summit. Photo by Eddie Clark

Grant: “Wow, that was so hard.”

Skarda: “I definitely ate a lot of mud and water.”

Dong: “I loved it.”

Skarda: “I tried to eat a piece of bacon [from the swine handup at mile 7], and I just chewed it and chewed it, and 10 minutes later I still had the whole thing in my mouth and was like, OK, this is not happening, so I spit it out.”

Dong: “There’s probably a marmot that was super psyched about that.”

RANDOM ACTS OF RADNESS

When Mother Nature decided to twist her knife, timing dictated that certain segments of the field endured a greater wrath than others. That’s when humanity stepped in. Not everyone who started the stage finished—more than 140 racers abandoned or were cut off due to time or safety—but those who did told stories of bike racing’s essence. One of them came from Mike Thompson, an Epic rookie from Louisville, Kentucky.

Thompson’s partner in the Duo 80-plus category dropped from the field early on, unbeknownst to Thompson. So Thompson continued riding, eventually coming upon a distraught competitor on the Tenmile crest at 12,400 feet. “He was sitting off the trail, crying and shivering,” Thompson said. “I was like, ‘Dude, you gotta get up and get off this mountain.’ The wind kicked up, sleet was coming in sideways. He just started shaking his head. I was like, ‘No, dude, you gotta get the fuck up.’” Thompson helped the man continue to a lower, safer place. He also gave some of his food to additional stragglers later. “Doing what people do,” he said.

Meanwhile, farther downhill on Miners Creek Road, another racer stopped to eat a gel when he noticed a lady sitting beside the road, “shaking, in rough shape,” he recalled. “She was like, ‘Don’t leave me!’ and asked if we could ride together because she hadn’t seen anyone else. So we rode for a while before mountain rescue showed up. We got in their ATV and they drove us down the mountain. I hugged her for 20 minutes to keep her warm. I also saw a guy with a flat on top of the range and gave him my pump. So I have no idea where my pump is.” The good Samaritan only wanted to be identified by his first name, Ben. “Anybody would’ve done it,” he said.   

Diyer Rincon having a good day despite the rough weather. Photo by Devon Balet
Nash Dory approaches the summit. Photo by Devon Balet
Lasse Konecny emerges from the clouds on top of Wheeler Summit. Photo by Devon Balet
Chris Mehlman navigates wet boulders at 12,500 vertical feet. Photo by Devon Balet
John Rauen pushes through on the Wheeler stage. Photo by Devon Balet
The infamous goat trail leading to Wheeler summit. Photo by Eddie Clark
Lachlan Morton still smiling on an epic Wheeler stage. Photo by Eddie Clark
Luis Mejia leads Nash Dory on stage 5. Photo by Eddie Clark
Rain clouds blow through. Photo by Eddie Clark
Pete Karinen has himself a little push on the way to Wheeler summit. Photo by Eddie Clark
Even the best riders are forced to hike some section of Wheeler. Here Lasse Konecny battles the mountain. Photo by Eddie Clark
Rain clouds shrouded Wheeler summit throughout the day. Photo by Eddie Clark
Kenneth O’Donnell signals as he reaches the summit. Photo by Eddie Clark
Riders brace the elements on a truly epic day of the Breck Epic. Photo by Eddie Clark
No smiles for Jacob Richardson as he approaches the summit. Photo by Eddie Clark
Lead coed duo team of Blanco & Espinosa happy to survive an epic day. Photo by Eddie Clark

HOW’D IT GO TODAY? / HOW DO YOU FEEL?

After climbing 5,500 feet and cresting elevations of 12,300 feet three times—much of it while pushing their bikes—racers had plenty to reflect on.

“I feel absolutely terrible. That was the worst thing I’ve ever done.”

“Like shit. Complete shit. You’ve got hail hitting your face, so you can’t feel your friggin’ face. It was a mess. But that’s why we do this, right?”

“When it was sleeting, I almost curled up in the fetal position and sucked on my thumb.”

“Today was the coldest I’ve ever been.”

“The only thing you could do was keep going. I’m so proud of myself for getting through that.”

“The downhill was a creek. Water running down, mud splashing, people endoing right in front of me.”

“Just relieved, because that was brutal, man.”

“Today broke me.”

“Fantastic. That was the most epic stage ever. To have rain and sleet on Wheeler is, like, legendary.”

“Mother. Fucker. That was the hardest day of my life. The last little uphill crushed my soul.”

“Great. I’m not redlining, I’m out here to smile.”

“My grip got loose and I went to brake and it twisted, and I went over the bars. There was a nice click when my face hit the rock.”

“I’m glad it was raining because I couldn’t see my tears. You just had to close your eyes and ride by feel.”

“Retrospectively, that was fun.”

“I’m going to tell my grandkids about today.”

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1 thought on “Breck Epic 2021 Stage 5: Wheeler

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