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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Breck Epic 2021 Stage 4: Aqueduct

Longtime World Tour pro Lachlan Morton finding beauty in Breck Epic debut

Lachlan Morton enjoying his time in the mountains. Photo by Eddie Clark

Swenson and Skarda remain unbeaten this week

Alexis Skarda extends her lead on day 4. Photo by Eddie Clark
Keegan Swenson on his way to another stage win on day 4. Photo by Eddie Clark

By Devon O’Neil

BRECKENRIDGE — When Lachlan Morton rolled through the Stage 4 finish Wednesday afternoon, word already had reached those in attendance. He’d suffered another flat deep in the backcountry, his third in two days, and was left to get out on one wheel, hemorrhaging time. Placing eighth on the stage dropped him from third to fifth overall. Suddenly he had an eight-minute gap to close in the final two stages to claw back onto the overall podium.

Morton explained that his flat on West Ridge, high on the Colorado Trail after climbing from Keystone Gulch, had left little hope of repair. Yet he spent 10 minutes trying in vain on the side of the trail, before limping down to the final aid station and bumming a replacement wheel from the Santa Cruz team. “I tried to rim it as soft as I can,” he said, “because I need to ride this wheel tomorrow.” He’d also crashed during Stage 2, shredding his forearm, and generally had not been on lady luck’s good side since Sunday’s start—which, ahem, came one day after he finished second to Breck Epic leader Keegan Swenson in the Leadville 100.

Yet to understand Morton, one of cycling’s most meditative characters, is to understand he did not come here for the number next to his name at the end. “Focusing on results is in the past for me,” he said.

Morton, 29, has become a singular professional because of his refreshing approach to a sport that gobbles up talent and often spits it out. A member of the EF Education-Nippo team and a World Tour rider since 2012, Morton started mountain biking two years ago. During his career he has ridden the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España grand tours, finished the Colorado Trail in under four days, set a fastest known time on the Kokopelli Trail, and won the Tour of Utah. Earlier this summer, he made international waves by riding the entire Tour de France course, plus transfers, faster than the peloton. He averaged 190 miles a day for 18 days, sleeping outside sans support. “I just try to be genuine to things that motivate me and inspire me in a certain way,” he said.

The Breck Epic fit that mold long before he was given bib No. 2 behind Swenson’s No. 1. “It’s just a race I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. Morton’s parents first brought Lachlan, a native of New South Wales, Australia, to Breckenridge when he was 12, then every year thereafter until he was 16. The junior team that the Mortons ran, Real Aussie Kids, trained here each summer. “Breckenridge was the first place I ever visited in America. Well, that’s a lie. I went to Disney World first,” Morton chuckled. “It’s probably my favorite place in America. I would live here, but my wife [a graphic designer] would rather be in Boulder.”

Morton has no support this week. He’s racing a two-year-old Cannondale frame with gaping chips in the paint. After Stage 1, he sipped a Modelo at the finish while his competition sucked down recovery drinks. “I’m just doing the best I can with what I’ve got,” he said. Yet he’s found the race fulfilling, as he does with any adventure. “You’re basically getting shown around the best local rides for a week, and I get to mix it up with some of the fastest racers too.”

Morton’s approach is as rare as it is intentional. “When I started mountain biking, I said I would never do it competitively because I didn’t want to ruin it,” he said after finishing in 3 hours 32 minutes. “So when I’m on course, I’m having a good time and giving it a go, but if I were really serious about results, I’d go home today really disappointed. Instead, I’m going home to have a shower and then have a nice afternoon.”

GC TAKEAWAY

Keegan Swenson won his 10th Breck Epic stage in 10 tries Wednesday, crossing the line after riding 41 miles in 3 hours 10 minutes, a minute faster than his 2019 time. As he has for the entire week, Swenson waited until late in the stage to put time into his Colombian rival, Luis Mejia, who finished in 3:12. The victory was a nice salvage for Swenson, who clipped a stump in Keystone Gulch and bent his derailleur hanger, leaving him without the use of his easiest gears. “The stump caught me on a hard right turn and lifted me up,” Swenson said. Morton witnessed what happened and was shocked Swenson didn’t go down. “That was a nice save,” he told his friend at the finish. Swenson now leads Mejia by 9 ½ minutes overall. Costa Rica’s Carlos Herrera moved into third overall Wednesday, while Nash Dory enjoyed his best finish of the week in fourth.

Nash Dory on his way to a top-5 finish in stage 4. Photo by Eddie Clark
Keegan Swenson chases Luis Mejia on Henious Hill. Photo by Devon Balet
Luis Mejia leading Keegan Swenson early on stage 4. Photo by Devon Balet
Luis Mejia walks the tightrope to stay on. Photo by Devon Balet
Swenson and Mejia on Heinous Hill. Photo by Devon Balet

On the women’s side, Alexis Skarda won her fourth consecutive stage in 3:52. Rose Grant ended Evelyn Dong’s second-place run in 3:56, though Dong (4:02) remains comfortably second overall. Skarda leads by 19 minutes in the GC standings.

Evelyn Dong stays strong for another runner-up spot on day 4. Photo by Eddie Clark
Alexis Skarda regroups after another tough stage. Photo by Eddie Clark
Rose Grant eyes up a tight corner. Photo by Devon Balet
Alexis Skarda stays out front on stage 4. Photo by Devon Balet
Amy Chandos is having a good week riding near the top-5 all week. Photo by Devon Balet

FIELD NOTES

For those outside the field, it’s hard to comprehend just how fast even the midpack racers cover ground at the Breck Epic. But that’s especially true of the top third. Among this week’s standouts is Macky Franklin, a 34-year-old fat-tire chameleon from Taos, New Mexico. Franklin won the Singlespeed title at the Epic in 2012 and is the current Singlespeed national champion. He’s also competed in more than 20 Enduro World Series events, and makes a living as a pro racer and YouTube personality. This week he’s swept the Singlespeed division and finished 14th, 12th, 12th, and 13th overall, crossing in 3:42 Wednesday.

Singlespeed leader Macky Franklin is forced to push on Heinous Hill. Photo by Devon Balet

Franklin keeps more meat on his bones than the father-son duo of Chris and Justin Peck, who have run away with the usually tight Duo Open Men division. Chris, a 51-year-old engineer at Apple, and Justin, an 18-year-old college freshman-to-be (and one of at least a dozen teenagers in the race), hail from Los Gatos, California. Chris weighs 140 pounds and ski bummed in Breckenridge in his early 20s; Justin weighs 115 and can sometimes be heard hooting on the trail. They finished in 3:56 Wednesday and hold the 28th fastest GC time overall.

Christopher Peck and his teammate navigate the steeps in Breckenridge. Photo by Devon Balet
Matt Pike emerges from the trees. Photo by Eddie Clark
Justin Desilets starting his ride back to town on the Aqueduct stage. Photo by Eddie Clark
Photo by Eddie Clark
Evelyn Dong grinding her way up Heinous Hill. Photo by Devon Balet
Chris Mehlman charges through the water. Photo by Devon Balet
Photo by Devon Balet
Photo by Devon Balet
Jacob Miller gets low on stage 4. Photo by Devon Balet

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Breck Epic Stage 3: Guyot

GC margins grow during Queen Stage around 13,370-foot Mt. Guyot

Alexis Skarda takes in some views before starting the descent on stage 3. Photo by Devon Balet

Local riders making moves as race moves into second half

By Devon O’Neil

BRECKENRIDGE — Despite a bit of late-race drama Tuesday, the Breck Epic’s Queen Stage delivered one more reminder who the fastest racers in the field are. Keegan Swenson overcame a brief, unintended detour to pad his lead in the pro men’s field, while Alexis Skarda won the pro women’s race by her biggest margin this week.

Race leader Keegan Swenson powers off the front with Luis Mejia in tow. Photo by Devon Balet

Swenson rode off course just before the finish (the exact cause was unclear, but it required him to pedal about two additional miles), yet he still won by 53 seconds ahead of perennial runner-up Luis Mejia of Colombia. Swenson’s winning time of 3 hours 18 minutes leaves him almost eight minutes up in the overall standings. Lachlan Morton remains in third overall, 20 minutes back of Swenson.

Lachlan Morton climbs up to the Colorado trail on day 3. Photo by Devon Balet

“I’m not doing any more work than I have to,” said Swenson, whose Santa Cruz team put burlier tires on his Blur CC for Tuesday’s rugged descents. “I didn’t attack [Mejia], he just fell off after Aid 3. So I was like, I’ll turn the screws just a hair and snap the elastic.”

Lachlan Morton leads the chasers after surviving the climb. Photo by Eddie Clark

Skarda, meanwhile, further separated herself in the GC standings with a time of 3:56 and a 6-minute advantage over Evelyn Dong, who remains in second overall, 8:35 back. Rose Grant took third and moved onto the GC podium heading into the week’s longest stage, Aqueduct.

Evelyn Dong sits in second just minutes behind the leader in the GC. Photo by Devon Balet
Rose Grant putting herself solidly in a podium spot for the GC. Photo by Eddie Clark
Adriana Rojas grinds out the last slopes before the summit. Photo by Eddie Clark

LOCAL HUSTLAS

The circumnavigation of 13,370-foot Mount Guyot takes riders over the Continental Divide twice, through two counties, and down some of the area’s sweetest singletrack for a total of 40 miles. It is typically one of two stages, along with Wheeler, in which locals improve their overall ranking. That didn’t happen with Breck’s Jarad Christianson, because he was already in first place in the men’s 30-plus category; but he tripled his winning margin from Stage 1. Christianson, 31, works 8-5 for a construction company and rides after work. He started entering local races four years ago. On Tuesday, he finished 15th overall, pros included, in the 387-rider Breck Epic (3:53—30 minutes faster than his 2019 time).

The only local ahead of Christianson, 17-year-old phenom Lasse Konecny, suffered what you might call a mining-town-only mechanical. An ancient, heavily rusted, 4-inch-long rectangular nail pierced his sidewall and exited his tread like an arrow through a banana late in the race. Konecny ran to the finish pushing his bike and losing minutes, but still finished ninth (3:39). He sits in 11th place overall, four minutes out of eighth.

Close to a dozen other locals are toeing the line this week, and not everyone is taking time off from work to compete. John Rauen, a 22-year-old who finished in 4:54, clocks in at an escape room from 3:30 to 10:30 p.m. every night between stages. The field is dotted with ski patrollers (Duke Barlow, Breck’s snow safety supervisor, finished in 4:51 on a recently replaced knee), massage therapists (Ro Mayberry took third in the Coed Duo division in 4:45), and government workers (Nicole Valentine, Summit County’s communications director, clinched the 3-day Open Women’s title in 5:27).

WHO NEEDS TWO GOOD ARMS?

One of the week’s most impressive sights was watching Robin Brown, a retired Las Vegas firefighter, navigate the high-speed technical descent from 12,000 feet with a prosthetic left arm. Brown and Mark Duncan, another Vegas firefighter, conquered the Queen in 6:07 and stand second in the Duo 100-plus class. Brown lost his forearm to a grain auger in Panhandle, Texas when he was 4, but he still played football, basketball, baseball, and golf growing up. He became a paramedic and captain in the Clark County Fire Department and has entered dozens of endurance races, but never the Breck Epic. Asked about riding the course with one hand, he said, “I don’t think anything of it.”

Robin Brown and Mark Duncan are currently in 2nd 100+ Duo

Another visiting racer, Sean Perry of Issiquah, Washington, has competed all week with a cast on his wrist. Perry suffered an intra articular fracture of his distal radius while training on the Miners Creek Trail three weeks ago—the most perilous descent in the race. It was his first ride in Colorado. “I thought there was no chance I would get to do the race,” he said. He finished the Guyot stage in 4:39.

Photo by Devon Balet
Keegan Swenson takes Skittles on board on his way up Mount Guyot. Photo by Devon Balet
Tobin Ortenblad grinding through the meadow with Skittles on his mind. Photo by Devon Balet
Chris Mehlman is sitting in the top-10 after day 3 of Breck Epic. Photo by Devon Balet
Benjamin Torvik feeling all the pain riding his singlespeed up the pass. Photo by Devon Balet
Alexis Skarda stays focused on another win at stage 3. Photo by Devon Balet
Support crew cheering on the riders and handing our Skittles. Photo by Devon Balet
Riders topping out at the Skittles feed. Photo by Devon Balet
Time to refuel. Photo by Devon Balet
One got away! Photo by Devon Balet
More Skittles! Photo by Devon Balet
Isaac Centeno rocking out in the thin air and Rocky Mountains. Photo by Devon Balet
Keegan Swenson starts the descent from Mount Guyot with Luis Mejia behind. Photo by Eddie Clark
Riders enjoy the long single track descent back into town. Photo by Eddie Clark
Nash Dory putting in a top-notch performance at the 2021 Breck Epic. Photo by Eddie Clark
Starting the descent to home. Photo by Eddie Clark
Macky Franklin gets the payoff after climbing his singlespeed up Mount Guyot. Photo by Eddie Clark
Justin Desilets starts his descent. Photo by Eddie Clark
Riders enjoying a well-deserved DH run. Photo by Eddie Clark
Rebecca Gross opens it up on the DH. Photo by Eddie Clark
Riders enjoy the finish of stage 3. Photo by Eddie Clark
Riders attack the Colorado trail single track on day 3. Photo by Liam Doran
Photo by Eddie Clark
Riders have endless views every stage of the Breck Epic. Photo by Liam Doran
Race director rallying the troops on stage 3. Photo by Liam Doran
Lasse Konecny has another top-10 performance on stage 3. Photo by Liam Doran
Benjamin Torvik wraps up another second place in the singlespeed group. Photo by Liam Doran
Riders can’t get enough Breckenridge single track. Photo by Liam Doran
Photo by Liam Doran

HOW DO YOU FEEL?

We posed this question just below the summit of 12,046-foot French Pass, the Queen’s high point. As usual, sentiments varied.

“Fantastic, thanks.”

“I’m not sitting in an office, so pretty damn good.”

“Can’t. Too much altitude.”

“Got a tail wind—what more can you ask for?”

“Like I look.”

“Literally could not be better.”

“I’ve got 20 pieces of metal in my elbow from Dirty Kanza. This is nothing.”

“Blessed.”

“As can be expected.”

“Fucking awesome, man.”

“Really?”

“Well, it depends. Are there Skittles up there?” Yes. “Fuck yeah. Then I feel amazeballs.”

Breck Epic 2021: Stage 2 Colorado Trail

Skarda overcomes midrace stop to win second straight stage

Alexis Skarda leaps toward another stage win on day 2. Photo by Devon Balet

Epic rookie leads Evelyn Dong by 2:30; Swenson dusts Mejia on Colorado Trail descent

Evelyn Dong giving it her all on day 2. Photo by Devon Balet
Racers ready for the start of day 2 of Breck Epic. Photo by Devon Balet

By Devon O’Neil

Race director Mike McCormack oversees the start on day 2. Photo by Devon Balet

BRECKENRIDGE — Shortly after starting Monday’s second stage of the Breck Epic, Alexis Skarda felt it. A familiar fluttering in her chest. As the pro women’s leader in her Epic debut, with a scant lead over former champion Evelyn Dong, Skarda knew she didn’t have time to spare. She also knew she had no choice but to stop.

So Skarda, a 31-year-old from Grand Junction in the midst of the best season of her pro career, pulled off the trail and dismounted her bike. She drank water and breathed. She watched other racers fly past her, agonizing at the time she was losing.

For much of her cycling career, Skarda has managed a rare congenital heart defect known as supraventricular tachycardia, or SVT, an erratic heartbeat that comes from faulty electrical connections in her upper chambers. “It feels like a butterfly in your heart and lactic acid in your legs,” she said. She first felt it when she was 21. Ever since, it shows up periodically and unpredictably. It is caused by stress, but there’s no way to know exactly when or why certain moments trigger it, Skarda said. The first time it happened, her heartrate spiked to 260 beats per minute. On Monday morning, her rate rose into the 250s—an alarming number for someone who tries to stay around 170. “You have to relax to make it slow down, but it’s hard to relax when you see all these people passing you,” she said.

Since the episodes are random, Skarda often tries to build an early gap during races just in case it flares up. When asked if the condition—which is not dangerous in a mortality sense—has ever cost her a race, Skarda said, “It’s cost me a lot of races.” But she downplayed it being called a disadvantage. “I think everyone has something they deal with. This is just what I have to account for. I call it a body mechanical. It’s sort of like a flat tire.”

SVT didn’t cost her Monday’s race. Skarda got back on her bike once her heartrate slowed and rode strong to the finish, winning in 3:53:22. Dong finished second again, 56 seconds back, followed by Rose Grant in third. Skarda’s overall lead now stands at 2 minutes 30 seconds.

Evelyn Dong settles in for a long climb to start day 2. Photo by Eddie Clark

SWENSON BUILDS SIZABLE OVERALL LEAD

In Monday’s pro men’s race, reigning champion Keegan Swenson sent a message that echoed across Summit County—and perhaps down to South America. Swenson had narrowly beaten Colombia’s Luis Mejia in Sunday’s opener, winning by four seconds, and the two were tightly packed again until they began descending the Colorado Trail from West Ridge—one of the highlights of the week in terms of views and pure fun. Swenson sensed Mejia struggling to keep pace on the technical descent and rocketed away from his rival. Once out of sight, he built a seven-minute gap over the final 15 miles, winning in a time of 3:08:52. Lachlan Morton overcame a crash that bloodied his elbow to take third in 3:18:41.

Keegan Swenson sports the orange leaders jersey on stage 2. Photo by Devon Balet
Keegan Swenson and Mike McCormack enjoy a little pre-race chat. Photo by Devon Balet
Carlos Herrera on the hunt in stage 2. Photo by Devon Balet
Diyer Rincon gets low on the Colorado trail in stage 2. Photo by Devon Balet
Lone rider launching some roots on the Colorado trail. Photo by Devon Balet
Chad Barrentsen enjoying his time on stage 2. Photo by Devon Balet
Stage 2 is always a racer favorite descending the Colorado Trail. Photo by Devon Balet
Riders don’t have much time to take in the scenery on stage 2. Photo by Devon Balet
Rebecca Gross checks on her teammate Madelynn Gerritsen currently leading the duo women’s race. Photo by Devon Balet
Luis Mejia and Lachlan Morton lead Keegan Swenson in the early miles. Photo by Eddie Clark
Chris Mehlman gulps in air on his way up the early climbs. Photo by Eddie Clark
Riders enjoy the finish line. Photo by Eddie Clark
Macky Franklin grinds his singlespeed out front on day 2. Photo by Eddie Clark
Shannon Warburg is all smiles in the Women’s 50+ leaders jersey. Photo by Eddie Clark
Keegan Swenson enjoys another day in orange after winning stage 2. Photo by Eddie Clark
Lachlan Morton was all in on day 2 of Breck Epic. Photo by Eddie Clark

BAD LUCK HAS NO GOOD TIMING

The Epic has exacted its share of bodily damage over 12 editions, and this week, although young, has been no exception. Monday a pair of unlucky racers sat next to each other at the Tiger Dredge aid station, commiserating over their mutual misfortune. Rich “Dicky” Dillen, one of the Epic’s most popular characters and familiar faces, had crashed earlier in the day, breaking his carbon-rail saddle, twisting his ankle, crunching an already injured right side, and realizing he had to withdraw from the race. His shoulder was bloodied and smeared with dirt. His morale was crushed. After finishing eight prior Epics, Dillen—a professional bike messenger from Charlotte, North Carolina and nationally known singlespeed racer who competes on rigid frames—struggled to accept he won’t be going home with a BMF belt buckle. “I bought a geared bike a month ago and I think God hates me until I sell it,” he joked. To his point, he’d broken a carbon rim, bruised his ribs and cracked his helmet, all before Monday’s crash. The 52-year-old sat beside the trail and cried when he realized he couldn’t continue the race.

Then Dicky found Bob Orlikowski, a 47-year-old nuclear regulator from Illinois, and plopped down next to him. Orlikowski had trained for the Epic for a year and a half—or, as his wife put it, “his whole life”—before arriving with two buddies to toe the line this week. Twelve miles into the first stage, while pushing his bike up Little French Gulch, Orlikowski heard what he described as two rocks hitting together. “I actually turned around to see if somebody was running up on me,” he said. “But I think the noise was just my Achilles tendon rupturing.”

He made it back to an aid station and found his wife, who drove him to the hospital. Monday his leg was splinted up to his knee; a pair of crutches rested against his shoulder. And yet, as he watched racers pedal by at the dredge, Orlikowski was smiling. “It’s sad, but to me it’s nothing I had control over,” he said. “It’s just bad luck.” Dicky, resting in the dirt a few feet away, added: “It helped to sit down next to Bob. It could be way worse.”

A MOMENT FOR BEN

Riders remember Breck Epic veteran Ben Sonntag before starting stage 2. Photo by Devon Balet

Shortly before Monday’s start in downtown Breckenridge, racers and staff held a moment of silence for 2012 Epic champion Ben Sonntag. Sonntag, a longtime pro cyclist and beloved member of the fat-tire community, was hit and killed by a pickup truck traveling at 69 mph in a 35-mph zone on March 4, 2020, during a training ride outside his hometown of Durango. He was 39.

RESULTS

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Breck Epic-2021 Stage 1 Pennsylvania Creek

Alexis Skarda takes Day 1 of Breck Epic

Alexia Skarda on her way to a stage 1 finish. Photo by Liam Doran

Swenson picks up where he left off in Epic’s opening stage

2019 champ shows no ill effects after winning Leadville 100 on Saturday; Skarda takes lead among women

Keegan Swenson and Rose Grant dap it up on the start line. Photo by Devon Balet
Rose Grant and Alexis Skarda line up for the start on day 1. Photo by Devon Balet

By Devon O’Neil

BRECKENRIDGE — Two years after the last Breck Epic was staged in Colorado’s singletrack kingdom, much of what we know about the world has changed dramatically. But a few things haven’t, foremost: Keegan Swenson is still the man to beat in Breckenridge. Swenson, the 27-year-old defending champion from Heber City, Utah, made a late pass Sunday to beat a familiar foe in Colombia’s Luis Mejia and start the six-stage Epic with a four-second victory. He completed the 36-mile course in 2 hours 44 minutes.

The duo distanced themselves early on from the rest of the field, with Mejia—still smarting from a series of flat tires that derailed his 2019 bid to challenge Swenson—turning the screws on America’s most versatile racer. Swenson had won the Leadville 100 the prior day in 6 hours 11 minutes, the eighth fastest time in that race’s history. He’d also defended his XC national title in July and narrowly missed qualifying for the Olympics. He showed little weariness Sunday morning, less than 24 hours after his Leadville win, as the Epic kicked off on perfectly tack-ified dirt thanks to a brief rain shower. Content to chase Mejia’s frequent uphill surges and set the pace on the descents, Swenson found himself trailing the 36-year-old Colombian on the final downhill, until they reached the mini freeride features on Barney Flow. There, Swenson saw a window.

Riders start stage 1 of the 2021 Breck Epic. Photo by Liam Doran

“He wasn’t jumping the doubles and I started jumping the doubles and gained some time,” Swenson said. “Then I took one of the log skinnies and made the pass.”

Longtime World Tour racer Lachlan Morton of Australia held third for much of the day until a sprint for the finish with Costa Rica’s Carlos Herrera saw Herrera edge him by a few thousandths.

SKARDA’S FAST START

Swenson wasn’t the only Santa Cruz Bicycles team member who enjoyed a happy Sunday. Breck Epic rookie Alexis Skarda of Grand Junction led from start to finish ahead of Epic veteran Evelyn Dong and a host of other challengers, winning by 25 seconds. Skarda said she concentrated on staying under her target heartrate of 170bpm to preserve energy for the subsequent stages. She’d trained for the Epic by riding—and winning—the Telluride 100 last month. She also finished second at XC nationals to 2021 Olympian Erin Huck, another Epic vet. Though Skarda won on the same bike as Swenson—a Blur CC—she rode a 100mm fork while he opted for the cushier 120mm.

Skarda and Dong figure to see more challenges later this week from five-time national marathon champ Rose Grant, who won Leadville on Saturday and finished TK SUNDAY.

Evelyn Dong sending her way to the finish line. Photo by Liam Doran

“I figured if I didn’t go too crazy, I wouldn’t ruin it for the rest of the week,” Skarda said at the Carter Park finish. “But it’s tough when you’re feeling fresh to not go too hard.”

BIENVENIDO A LOS TICOS

Though the pandemic changed many racers’ plans, especially international competitors, plenty still braved the travel it took to get here. They include two dozen Costa Ricans from San José, who are riding in custom white jerseys this week. Due to a 9 p.m. curfew imposed in their country, riders couldn’t count on night miles to build their training base. Instead, they rose early—and often. Epic rookie Isaac Centeno, 26, trained six days a week for six months, starting at 5 a.m. “My friend Pablo told me to come because it’s his fourth time here,” Centeno said. “I just want to explore different landscapes and weather.”

Adriana Rojas splashes through stage 1 of the Breck Epic. Photo by Liam Doran

STATS AND STUFF

Sunday’s opening stage saw 387 riders start. More than seven hours later, all but one crossed the finish. Pro racer Kyle Trudeau crashed hard coming down the notoriously tricky Grind into Indiana Creek, telling a teammate he thought he’d broken some ribs. He abandoned the race—but not until he’d finished a grueling climb to Boreas Pass Road. In all, the stage covered 36 miles and roughly 5,000 vertical feet. Full results can be found here:

HOW DO YOU FEEL?

Each day, we ask this very simple question at some point on course, usually at the top of a merciless climb. Today it was posed near the top of Little French.

“Legs don’t feel great, but it’s the first day, they’re not supposed to.”

“Like 50 cents.”

“Meh.”

“Pretty good. Actually, great.”

“This is heinous. Wait, is this Heinous?” [Ed’s note: No. Heinous Hill will introduce itself in Stage 2.]

“Horrible.”

“Wonderful!”

“Could be worse.”

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

Millard Allen won the singlespeed division at Leadville on Saturday and stayed in the Cloud City for the awards Sunday morning, which meant he arrived late to start the Epic. He hopped on course at 10 a.m. and caught the sweep halfway up Pennsylvania Gulch, eventually finishing in 3:54 on a geared bike.

Jenny Smith locked in a top-5 on day 1. Photo by Liam Doran
Alexis Skarda on day 1. Photo by Liam Doran
Lachlan Morton leads the chase group on stage 1. Photo by Liam Doran
Amy Chandos loving the altitude and wildflowers on stage 1. Photo by Liam Doran
Riders take in the views around Breckenridge. Photo by Liam Doran
Lachlan Morton descends through the flowers. Photo by Liam Doran
Keegan Swenson on his way to a stage 1 win after winning the Leadville 100 a day ago. Photo by Liam Doran
Lachlan Morton leads the chasers out of Pennsylvania Gulch on day 1 in Breckenridge. Photo by Devon Balet

UP NEXT

Stage 2 takes riders across multiple drainages highlighted by the locally famous West Ridge descent on the Colorado Trail. Real-time results can be found at itsyourrace.com.

Results

Click Here for full results from all categories

2022

Slated for August 14-19, 2022, 400 riders. In the words of race director Mike McCormack, “Sometimes bigger is better. We feel that in Epic’s case, better is better. There’s a balance we need to strike. To us, that means enough riders to create that special big race feel, but not so many that we experience crowding on course. We want our riders to experience the soulfulness of Summit County’s trail system and backcountry–that’s hard to do if you’re riding nose-to-tail all day.”

McCormack added, “Additionally, while our trail system holds up very well, fewer riders means less impact. We love our trails…we just don’t want to love them to death.”

2022 spots will be limited. Registration information for 2022 can be found HERE.