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Kloser repeats in Imperial Challenge

Jason Starr

BRECKENRIDGE – Sliding on his butt, skis in hand, down the center of Vertigo chute on Peak 7 – that’s what it took for Mike Kloser to lock up his second straight Imperial Challenge win Saturday.

Competitors call it “survival skiing,” and Kloser’s touring skis just wouldn’t do the trick in the fresh, windloaded snow on Peak 7. He took them off at the top of the chute and slid to victory in 1 hour, 30 minutes, 58 seconds, beating the course record he set last year by more than two minutes.

Kloser, a veteran mountain bike racer and Eco-Challenge champion from Vail, was pushed this year by first-time Imperial Challenger Pete Swenson of Boulder and by University of Denver Nordic team member Ola Berger.

Berger spent most of the uphill in second place, keeping Kloser in his sights. But the snow got the best of him on the descent. He broke his ankle early in the downhill, opening the door for Swenson to finish second, less than two minutes off the pace in 1:32:20. Local Thane Wright passed Berger as he was being attended to by patrol and finished third for the second straight year.

“That’s not the way I wanted to go into third,” said Wright, who finished in 1:42:18. “The descent was unbelievable. Your legs are so noodely at the top of the hill. It’s just survival skiing.”

Swenson was recruited by women’s winner Monique Merrill to challenge Kloser. The two ride on the same mountain bike team, and Merrill set Swenson up with the necessary gear. But he couldn’t touch the two-time champion.

“I used to race bikes against Mike,” Swenson said. “He’s always a competitor, no matter what the event. I had a little gap on him coming off the bike. I thought my only chance would be if I was closer to him at the top because I had a little more ski. But he was still really fast coming down.”

Unlike last year, Kloser did not lead from start to finish. He took the lead during the transition from the six-mile bike leg to the uphill trek from the base of Peak 8 to the top of Imperial Bowl.

“I’m pretty good with transitions,” Kloser said. “You learn after a lot of multi-sport events that you have to be simple and efficient.

“I felt the pressure from these guys,” he continued. “Their biking was good today, and on the skis, they never let up.”

Merrill did not have a similar challenge for the women’s title. She beat second-place finisher Sue King by about eight minutes. But the longtime local and owner of Amazing Grace could not beat her women’s record of 1:48:04 that she set last year. She finished in 1:51:12. King crossed the line in 1:59:08, and third-place finisher Jari Kirkland had a time of 2:12:23.

“I don’t think I felt as fast (as last year),” Merrill said. “I didn’t come out to beat my record. I just came out to have fun.”

Merrill has proven to be without peer among women in all types of local races, and she shows no signs of slowing.

“I’ve just been doing it for so many years,” she said. “I’m good at it and I enjoy it, and when I feel strong, I try to push myself to the next level and try to catch some of the guys.”

About 280 competitors registered for the race, similar to last year’s turnout. They lined the start at Upper Blue Elementary School along Airport Road for a 10 a.m. start with the imposing specter of windblown Imperial peak in the distance.

Long after Kloser and the top finishers crossed the line at the Bergenhoff restaurant at the base of Peak 8, there was still a visible procession of competitors slogging up the traverse line to Imperial bowl. It was a long day for some.

There was also a citizens race that went to the base of the T-bar. Josh Dayton won the men’s category in 1:03:03, and Cindy Bargell won for the women in 1:16:45. Jeff Bergeron was second for men, and Brent Oddson was third. For the women, Louisa Jenkins was second and Anna Helton was third.

Team Great Adventure Sports/Drug Free won the team race – in which three racers split the event into a bike leg, a hike leg and a hike/ski leg. Team Slacker was second, and Team Sjostram was third.

Jason Starr can be reached at (970) 668-3998 Ext. 231 or at jstarr@summitdaily.com.


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