When 37-year old Jay Henry, from Avon, crossed the finish line and threw his hands up as the top pro competitor in Wednesday's Firecracker 50 mountain bike race, the victory didn't come without effort - a lot of it.
All Henry, 2007 Firecracker 50 champion, wanted to do was put some distance between him and silver-medalist Ben Melt Swanepoel and bronze- medalist J.J. Clark, but every time he looked back, they were chasing his tracks.
"Those guys were pushing me the whole time," Henry said, adding that though he crushed the course, he felt like the 50-mile race crushed him.
The top three finishers passed through the split gates neck-and-neck on their way into the second lap. Henry led with a 1:43:58 while Clark tailed with a 1:44:19 and Swanepoel clicked in a 1:44:42. The well-decorated Travis Brown, 2004 Firecracker 50 champion, kept up with the leaders to finish fourth overall.
"It's pretty spooky someone can go that fast," announcer Larry Grossman said. The course was fast, hard-packed dirt with some rain to reduce some of the dust. Still, racers crossed the finish line covered in grime. The weather was overcast, making it more bearable for racers, who are used to the sun baking down, making their skin feel like it's melting.
Henry and Clark go head-to-head in many of the professional riding races, like the Crested Butte Wildflower Rush, held two weeks ago. There, Clark finished third, behind Henry with the silver medal.
Henry doesn't have much strategy for staying ahead of his competitors except to stay steady and not burn too much energy on the climbs, cruising and recovering on the singletrack.
"It was stressful and a little more uncomfortable, riding faster than you want to," Henry said.
Meanwhile, some said Swanepoel could have finished ahead of Henry, had he known the course better.
Swanepoel denied it.
"Jay was good uphill, downhill," said the rider, who finished just behind Henry even with having to stop to fix a derailed chain. At one point, Swanepoel passed Henry, but Henry was surprised to again overtake his fellow rider - which doesn't usually happen.
The South African is riding the United States races because his sponsor, Squirt Lubrication, wanted to get more of a North American presence. He showed up at the Crested Butte Wildflower Rush after he finished Michigan's Lumberjack. He plans to be back for the Breck Epic.
He was impressed with the course, which is improved year after year. This year, the two-way stretch at Sally Barber Mine was replaced with a new trail created in cooperation with the Breckenridge Open Space and Trails department, primarily to reduce the risk of collision and create better flow in the course.
"It's a well-balanced course," Swanepoel said. "It was tough. You can never take it easy."
Though the Firecracker 50 attracts professional riders, it's a race designed mostly for the sport riders in the Summit County and regional community, said Jeff Westcott of Maverick Sports, the company that organizes the race.
"Not to take away from the pros and experts, because they are supremely conditioned athletes, but I have so much respect for those who fight for every pedal stroke. This race is for them," Westcott said.
The sport class holds the most competitors, many of whom crossed the halfway mark with broad grins, showcasing how much fun they were having riding the 50-mile course. Approximately 150 of the racers were in teams, too, which adds a fun component for the community. Team members each complete a 25-mile stretch. Other categories include men's and women's single-speed and the men's, women's and junior Sparklers, who complete a 14-mile course.
Westcott was surprised at the men's professional finishers; he expected Brown to go head to head with Henry at the finish. But he wasn't surprised that Gretchen Reeves took the gold medal in the women's professional division with a time of 4 hours and 12 minutes. She was champion twice before in 2005 and 2006.
Westcott is quick to thank the sponsors and more than 100 volunteers who help with the event.
"Not to be cliche, but it takes a village. The community that rises up around this event is one of the most gratifying parts," he said.