Take 5: Golden’s Chris Carr gets the 2017 Imperial Challenge hat trick in Breckenridge
Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got an Imperial Challenge hat trick.
On a stunning spring Saturday — one of the finest in years for the annual bike and ski-mountaineering race on April 22 — Golden’s Chris Carr pulled ahead of Summit County locals Joe Howdyshell and Pete Swenson to claim his third-straight Imperial Challenge title. He finished in 1:22:10, beating his 2016 time by nearly three minutes with splits of 26:33 on the bike, 49:16 on the ascent and 6:22 on the descent. It wasn’t quite enough to beat his all-time best finish of 1:17:30 from 2015, but hey, it’s been a long skimo season, and Howdyshell’s cut-off jeans are just as distracting now as they were when the two started duking it out four years ago.
“It’s nice because it combines the two forms of racing I love — skimo and uphill road racing — so it plays to my strengths pretty well,” said Carr, who spends three to four days per week in Frisco for his day job as a Flight for Life paramedic. “I just stayed with Joe and rode a comfortable pace for me (on the bike). I wanted to save it in case I needed it on the ski.”
The Imperial Challenge celebrated its 26th season this April and hasn’t seen many three-peat winners over the decades. It also hasn’t changed much: competitors either ran or rode bikes from Airport Road to the base of Peak 7, where they transitioned to skis for about 3,000 vertical feet of climbing to the summit of Peak 8, where they then turned around for a whip-fast descent through Breck’s upper bowls and lower glades to the finish at Rocky Mountain SuperChair. A few things have changed — organizer Jeff Westcott and the Maverick Sports crew added a “heavy metal” division last season for masochists who want to bike and ski with cumbersome, old-school gear — but that fun-loving community vibe is part of the appeal. It’s still an excuse to wear wigs, tutus and denim for a slushy bike ride followed by one last ski run, and a full field of 150 competitors wouldn’t have it any other way.
Maybe the biggest difference these days is the level of competition. Guys and gals might dress as funky as they did in the ‘90s, but they’re more fit than ever before — and getting fitter.
“I’ve definitely noticed that the retro guys this year were only a few minutes off our times,” Carr said, “So it’s a deep field I would say.”
In the downtime between skimo and road-cycling seasons, the Summit Daily sports desk caught up with Carr to talk about his three-peat, the rest of the skimo season and why something like Howdyshell’s jorts makes the Imperial Challenge one of a kind.
Summit Daily News: Before anything else, congrats on the win. Is this your first time standing on top of the podium at Imperial Challenge?
Chris Carr: No, this is my third year in a row winning. It’s my fourth year doing it and third year winning. I can’t complain — it’s pretty amazing. It’s a great event with tons of history and I’m super excited about it.
SDN: Talk about the race: How did it go for you? It seemed like the conditions were perfect in town, but you never know when you get up above T-Bar.
CC: It started out kind of cool actually. I almost couldn’t feel my toes going from the bike ride to the transition. But it melted out enough that the road (American Way to Peak 7) was mostly mud, not that hardpack, icy dirt like you get really early in the morning. Once the skin started, the weather was basically perfect: 40 degrees, sun was out the entire time, the snow was perfect on the ascent and the descent. It was even soft in some places when you’re going down, and it was a little slushy near the base, but by then you’re on the flat anyway. It might have been some of the best snow I’ve had skiing this event before.
SDN: You finished about five minutes ahead of the next two men, locals Joe Howdyshell and Pete Swenson. Were they on your mind at all, or did you try to focus on what was in front of you?
CC: I focus on both. It’s a hard race to pace because you’re changing sports, so I try to stay in control on the bike, and then kind of feel how I’ll be doing in the first few minutes of the skin. Those guys transitioned way faster than me, so I caught up with them, kind of laid back and took it easy to see how they were doing, and then passed them and kept it going hard. I know Joe can be a good finisher, so I wanted to be just a couple percentage points in front of him in case he wanted to kick it into gear. That was on my mind. I was going hard the entire time, but it was comfortable, I guess — relatively comfortable (laughs).
SDN: Does the party vibe at the Imperial Challenge ever get distracting? I’m just wondering what it’s like to be in full-on race mode when you’re surrounded by people in tutus and wigs.
CC: I love it (laughs). There is such positive energy around that event from everyone, and you see so many people of so many levels out there having fun on the same course. If anything, I draw energy from seeing all those guys and girls out there dressed up. It’s a fantastic atmosphere.
SDN: Would you change anything about the Imperial Challenge? It’s one of those classic Breckenridge events, but sometimes change doesn’t hurt.
CC: I really don’t think so. I mean, I have a ton of respect for the retro guys and might try it at some point. There has been talk about making the retro category the main event, but I understand the pitfalls of having 150-plus people riding down the road with skis strapped to their bikes.
The route overall, though, is amazing. You go to the top of Breckenridge and back down — I can’t imagine a better course. It has a little bit of everything: dirt road-biking, a relatively easy ski up — it can get steep and difficult sections — and then that ski down is real skiing.
SDN: I’m guessing this wasn’t your first skimo race of the season. Where else did you race this winter?
CC: I usually do a full skimo race year. I’ve always enjoyed backcountry skiing, but I always had really heavy gear and I found it kind of miserable to go far with it. A couple of the guys I bike race with tried it out on lightweight gear, and when I got on that it opened up a whole new world for me. I found ski mountaineering enjoyable again.
That’s what I’ve done the last two or three years, and then I bike race in the summers along the Front Range. It’s all road for that — I’m a terrible mountain biker.
SDN: How does the Imperial Challenge fit into your training routine? Summer road season must be starting soon.
CC: I pretty much do a full road season through summer, and then I take the fall to get into skiing. I race almost every weekend on skis in the winter, and there are some (race) I do for training purposes, but I treat every race as a race. It’s the same preparation: two to three days of strength training, then the rest of the time is on skis, and if I can’t get on skis I’m running or biking. That’s five to six days per week by the time I’m done.
SDN: Where does the Imperial Challenge fit into your race schedule? Is this it for winter?
CC: This is the last ski race of the season for me. It’s actually pretty perfect because it’s at the end of ski season and beginning of bike season, and when you have both of those things, it’s a nice transition for me. I’ll go straight into bike racing now, but this is always an event I put on the calendar. It’s always a goal.
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