The 2015 Firecracker 50 promises a stacked field of Colorado’s best mountain bikers | SummitDaily.com

The 2015 Firecracker 50 promises a stacked field of Colorado’s best mountain bikers

Anyone who's attempted the fabled Firecracker 50 has a horror story about Little French Gulch.

Found on the far eastern edge of French Gulch, a reminder of Breckenridge's mining past now covered in bike trails, the 5.2-mile loop is one of the most intimidating in Summit County. It's steep and rocky, with narrow corridors of singletrack winding through pine stands and the occasional aspen grove. Riders who manage to huff and puff all the way to the top deserve a beer, even if it's the only ride of the day.

But throw it in the middle of a 50-mile mountain bike race, and suddenly Little French Gulch becomes one of the nastiest legs in one of the nastiest events of the summer.

"That is the queen's climb of the course, the hardest climb of the race," says Jeff Westcott of Maverick Sports, which has hosted the Firecracker 50 for the past 15 years. "More than half of the field will walk at least one or two sections of that. It's rocky and steep, and frankly it's all rideable if you have the fitness, so it really becomes a fitness game."

Tell that to mountain bikers on lap two of the annual Fourth of July race, when they've already climbed some 3,000 vertical feet over 35 miles and have another 1,000 vertical feet to go before they can finally, mercifully pedal across the finish line at Carter Park.

Just ask Josh Bezecny, a pro cyclist from Golden who rides for Honey Stinger-Bontrager. He's raced in the Firecracker 50 five times since going pro in 2001, and over the years he's cracked the top 10 in the men's pro field twice. Yet every single time he dreads the queen's climb — until he reaches the top.

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"I'm always suffering at the end of that nasty climb," says Bezecny, one of roughly 750 riders in this year's race. "It's very steep, with a ton of rock, and that's easily the hardest part of the entire course. But you're still way up there, with stream crossings and wildflowers and just gorgeous views. You're suffering, but the views are spectacular."

'Pure mountain biking'

Bezecny's memory of Little French Gulch is the Firecracker 50 in a nutshell: brutal and unforgiving, but still a can't-miss race for professional and amateur endurance riders from across the state.

As usual, the start list was full several months beforehand and includes a few of Colorado's top mountain bikers, bona fide trail monsters like three-time champ Jay Henry of Vail and 2014 winner Jamey Driscoll.

Due to its reputation, the race has become something of a fixture in the Colorado bike scene. The route is lung busting, but riders like Bezecny and his training partner, Honey Stinger teammate Kelly Migelky, still look forward to a taste of masochism on Little French Gulch and the remaining 45 miles.

"I know it's coming and I know how bad it's going to hurt, and I really try to not walk the bike," says Migelky, a self-professed climbing expert. "But it's also a perfect storm for my strengths. The harder and steeper the race is, the better it is for me at 35 years old. I love those kinds of challenges."

Both Bezecny and Migelky admit they've had to walk the Little French Gulch climb once or twice in the past — those jagged rocks even manage to stump the pros — and as Westcott says, they're hardly alone. After all, the race begins on Main Street Breckenridge at 9,100 feet and tops out around 12,000 feet below Baldy Mountain, touching trails with names like Heinous Road and Nightmare on Baldy as it weaves through the pine-covered hills.

"I saw that course profile and just couldn't stop thinking about how high it was," says Josiah Middaugh, a Vail-based XTerra triathlon champion who's racing the Firecracker 50 for the first time since 2008, when three flat tires stalled him. "But you never know how it will affect you until you're right there, in the race, when you're feeling strong and just have to wait and see how others are feeling. That's the reason why you race."

But the Firecracker 50 is more than climbing and self-induced torture. Westcott and the pros agree it's "pure mountain biking" at its finest, as Middaugh says, a classic Breckenridge route with just enough climbing, descending and natural eye candy to almost make them forget about the second lap. There's a relay division, in which two riders tackle one lap apiece, but the majority of competitors pedal the entire 50 miles — the mental equivalent of Little French Gulch.

"Starting that second lap can be very lonely," Migelky says. "By then you're not feeling so great because it is a true mountain bike course. You almost dread it. I've come around before, in the lead, and when I started that climb I kind of knew I was going to drop a few places. It's just a tough one."

The party scene

Over the course of four hours, while riders battle with the climbs and roots and singletrack, Breck's annual Fourth of July celebration will be in full swing far below Baldy Mountain and French Gulch. But in typical Summit County style, the race itself is the grand marshal: Everyone begins at the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and Main Street, right before the start of the red, white and blue parade.

"The atmosphere down there is one-of-a-kind," says Bezecny, who's bringing his wife and 14-month-old son to the race. "There's nothing else like it, as far as starting out in the middle of that crowd. It's just huge with the parade, and then you have the party afterword with music and food and beer. It's just a blast."

Like Bezecny, dozens of Firecracker 50 riders take the opportunity to turn a few hours of torture into a family affair. Migelky is also bringing his wife, because more often than not, most races — even the pro-level affairs — feature a bike race and little more. In Breckenridge, there are plenty of family-friendly diversions

"I sometimes feel bad having family or friends come watch me because there's a lot of sitting around," Migelky says. "Here, you have the parade, you have beers in the park — even if it's a bad day you always look forward to the end."

By the time he and 749 fellow riders drop from French Gulch to the Carter Park finish line, a beer will be much needed. If they can stand up.

"Usually when I'm done with this race I feel more depleted and exhausted than with any other race," Bezecny says. "It's just such a hard race — I usually have to lay down on the ground for a while when I cross that finish line. But I keep coming back. There's something about it."

2015 Firecracker 50

What: A harrowing 50-mile mountain bike race across the Breckenridge road and singletrack system, featuring more than 4,000 vertical feet of climbing spread between two laps

When: Saturday, July 4 at 9:30 a.m.

Where: Starting line at Lincoln Avenue and Main Street in Breckenridge

Cost: Registration is closed

The start list for this year’s race is already full. The race is the official kick-off for the Breckenridge Fourth of July parade, beginning on Main Street at 10 a.m. Spectators can catch starts from 9:30 a.m. to about 10 a.m. when the parade begins. For more info on the race, including a course map and past results, see http://www.mavsports.com.

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