2015 Breck Epic stage race draws elite ultra-endurance riders Jeremiah Bishop and Alban Lakata | SummitDaily.com

2015 Breck Epic stage race draws elite ultra-endurance riders Jeremiah Bishop and Alban Lakata

A cyclist gets trailside aid in the form of a whiskey shot during Stage 5 of the 2014 Breck Epic stage race. This is biking at it's burliest. Don't miss the show this year from Au.g 14-19.
Special to the Daily |

2015 Breck Epic stages

Stage 1: Pennsylvania Creek (Ice rink start/Carter Park finish) — 35 miles, 6,000 vertical feet

Stage 2: Colorado Trail (Lower Washington start/B&B Lot finish) – 43 miles, 7,200 vertical feet

Stage 3: Mount Guyot (Lower Washington start/B&B Lot finish) – 46 miles, 8,100 vertical feet

Stage 4: Aqueduct (Lower Washington start/B&B Lot finish) – 44 miles, 6,300 vertical feet

Stage 5: Wheeler Pass (Beaver Run Resort parking lot start/Peaks trailhead finish) – 32 miles, 4,900 vertical feet

Stage 6: Gold Dust (Ice rink start/Ice rink finish) 28 miles, 4,800 vertical feet

Stage 7: Traditional after-party at the Gold Pan Saloon on Main Street in Breckenridge, held after the Stage 6 finish

It takes Jeremiah Bishop a few seconds to remember the last time he won the Breck Epic.

“That’s a tough question,” he tells me over the phone two days before the start of the race. “I mean, I’ve done literally hundreds of races since then.”

Truth be told, it was only three years ago, back when the Maine native was still riding for Cannondale Factory Racing. He joined the Sho-Air/Cannondale crew the next season, and for three years “they didn’t really let me race there anymore,” he says of the Breck Epic.

He was still racing across the world, taking starts in Europe and at the legendary Absa Cape Epic in South Africa, but he missed the Breckenridge race. It’s unlike any other event: a six-stage, 250-mile test of sheer will on the area’s most harrowing singletrack, with roughly 40,000 vertical feet of climbing at altitude no less than 9,000 feet.

“There’s an element of fear, and I think that’s reasonable, but it’s the same for everyone,” said Mike McCormack, race organizer for the Breck Epic. “We try to tell everyone to throttle back on the first day of racing. It’s about getting acclimated and resting, and if you burn all your matches on day one, you won’t have anything left for the rest of the race. There really is an academic and intellectual overlay, just figuring out how to navigate the week from a nutrition standpoint, a rest standpoint, a race strategy standpoint.”

Not like Bishop needs any advice. Now 39 years old, he’s a finely tuned trail machine with the accolades to prove it. He’s easily the most decorated American stage racer on singletrack, with 12 consecutive (yes, back to back) titles at every major U.S. race in the National Ultra Endurance Series. In 2012, he went from the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race in North Carolina to the Trans-Sylvania Epic in Pennsylvania to his final win at the Breck Epic, all without losing a single race. And those were just in the middle of the season.

Maybe that’s why Bishop can’t remember his last Breck Epic victory: he had already won the race twice before, first in 2009 and again in 2010.

But, being the die-hard competitor he is, a triple crown on Colorado’s nastiest stage course isn’t enough. When he signed to Team Topeak-Ergon — one of the most prestigious names for international ultra-endurance (aka marathon) racing — they gave him a shot at an unprecedented fourth title.

And he couldn’t wait for a return trip.

“Anyone who finishes a Breck Epic will feel damn proud of their athletic achievement,” Bishop said. “That’s one of the cool things about these races. It harkens back to the heart of these races, with people wondering if they can handle a test against the mountain. That’s always cool.”

The field

Bishop returns to the Breck Epic as a clear favorite, but the field is much deeper than just three years ago. The stiff competition begins with his Topeak-Ergon teammate, Austria’s Alban Lakata, dubbed “the fastest man in the world” by McCormack.

Lakata is making his first appearance at the Breck Epic, and like Bishop, he’s one of the most decorated ultra-endurance pros in the world. “The Albanator” holds a World Championship title, a European Championship title and the course record for the Leadville 100 MTB trail race. That feat came in 2013, when he beat Olympian Levi Leipheimer’s time of 6:16:37 by 12 minutes.

For McCormack, seeing pros like Lakata go out of their way for the Breck Epic is a testament to the course. Sure, the Leadville 100 has international name recognition, but like the Firecracker 50 and Breckenridge 100, the Breck Epic draws top-tier riders because it’s simply a damn good race.

“I’ll stack our course up against anything in the world,” McCormack said. “There’s just no place like Summit County for mountain biking. You can take these incredible rides from one central location, and you just don’t find that anywhere else.”

The six stages are familiar to Summit locals with a soft spot for unforgiving rides. There’s Stage 2 on the Colorado Trail, a 43-mile day with 7,200 vertical feet of climbing, followed the next day by McCormack’s unofficial “queen stage,” a 46-mile trek around the base of Mount Guyot. Riders never summit the 13,370-foot peak, but they still pass over the Continental Divide. Twice.

Over the past few years, Bishop has held his own against high-level Europeans in marathon races. They’re far more popular abroad, but that popularity leads to jam-packed starts and crowded courses. At the Absa Cape Epic, he was caught in a swarm of riders at the starting line — only to remain stuck in the melee for the remaining eight days of competition.

“Most of what we were riding was very raw, difficult double-track, where you’re riding in packs on corrugated washboard,” Bishop says. “The dust is kicking up, you’re coughing and can’t see — it adds a new element.”

The Breck Epic is nearly the polar opposite, Bishop says. There’s a cluster at the beginning, but once the group of roughly 350 riders leaves the staging area, the trails clear out and everyone has room to soak in the cool, crisp, very thin air.

“The Breck Epic is just a blast — it’s too much fun,” Bishop says. “When the race isn’t ballistic, when you aren’t neck and neck at the start line, you can enjoy the scenery and talk and just have a good time on the trails. It’s just a unique combination of ultra-endurance riding and these fun cross-country style trails.”

Or, as McCormack likes to say, it’s simply mountain biking.

“There’s a line between riding trail and riding two miles of gravel road,” McCormack says. “I think we really do see people who appreciate these back-and-beyond, soulful rides. The person who wins here won’t have the longest femurs and the best lung capacity — it will be the best mountain bike racer. This is a mountain bike race, emphasis on mountain.”

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