Mt. Evans Chill Climb. A look back a year later.

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By: Jennifer Hines

Photos by Rufus Ryan Cathrall, Reid Neureiter, Jenn Hines, and Stephen Fitzgerald

Mt. Evans Chill Climb: August 9, 2014 One Year Anniversary It was one of those mornings when your alarm goes off and it takes a few blinks to realize that although it feels as if your soul has been separate from your body for the last eight hours, you’re indeed still alive. And your covers are really warm so you don’t want to move. And you’re a bit annoyed and momentarily confused as to why you’ve been woken up when the sun clearly has not. Is that the moon? Yeah, definitely annoyed. But as your mind catches up to the best of your body, a smirk finds its way to your face as you remember why you’re awake before the rest of the world; it’s the morning of the Mt. Evans Chill Climb.

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The Breck Epic: Six Days of Singletrack Survival

IMG_0030PROLOGUE

Bear with me, this could take awhile.

Epic is such an overused word anymore. It’s hard not to think of it and roll your eyes at its virtual meaninglessness, among hashtags and internet memes and over-exaggeration. Too often, it’s an unearned descriptor. So there is a certain audacity in naming your mountain bike race the Breck Epic – even if it is six days and 240-something miles of gnarly backcountry singletrack, with 40,000 feet climbing and descending, mostly above 10,000 feet in elevation.

But here, in those six days, epic cannot simply be claimed. It must be earned.

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Rodeo Rally // Rampart Range // Video

Rampart Rally was one of the most difficult, most incredible rides we’ve ever done. Patrick, Chris, Peder, Jacob, Tim, Michael, myself. All the usuals were there, the guys who show up time and again for the biggest things that we do as a team. It strikes me that, when boiled down, this is the group that casts the mold for Rodeo. Not everyone will ride bikes the way we do or do the things we do and that is okay, but at the end of the day when it comes to telling the story of who we are as a team, you couldn’t ask for a better crew.

Rampart Rally covered 80-100 miles each of the two days, but through conditions that we ourselves would admit were often over the top. We were each equipped with bikes that had fairly skinny, fairly slick tires, but that is where the similarities ended. Steel, carbon, road, MTB, CX, everything was represented. We aren’t biased towards Traildonkeys and Flaanimals, we love each of the bikes that showed up to tackle the course. At the end of the day on a ride like this, just showing up and pedaling until you arrive at your destination is the most important requirement. Everything else is gravy.

I couldn’t be more happy to call these men team mates. It is an honor to call them friends as well.

-Stephen

 

Go chase the sunset.

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Last night was all about chasing the sunset, Team Dream Team style. I wanted to get up to Raptor Point to see the sun dip behind the hills. 5000 feet of climbing and a late start stood between me and my goal but somehow it all worked out and I got up there with a few minutes to spare. The sky is so dynamic at sunset. In the matter of a minute everything can change. Watching it all evolve while on a bike on my current favorite road was a pretty special thing. The realization hit me that being high up in the Rockies at sunset meant being high up in the Rockies after dark, alone, and without even an extra vest. Thankfully last night was a trophy summer night. Warm breezes and clear skies were my companions. Sunset was beautiful, but the light right after sunset was, to my surprise, even better. The colors became electric, the shadows were at their softest. I had nobody to share what I was seeing with, but as always I had my camera. This is why I started taking photos of my rides in the first place. I want to relate to people what I’ve seen and what I’ve experienced. Photos rarely capture the true feel of a place, but that is always the goal to aspire to. I’m still buzzing from the experience.

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The Castelli “Rodeo” Jersey

Early on in any endeavor the work to payoff ratio is incredibly low. (Did I say that right? Lots of work, low payoff). But occasionally something really cool happens and you start to think that those investments of time and sweat are starting to come full term. I won’t count any chickens, but I’m really happy about the progress.

These jerseys will be available in bike shops around the world next year.

 

Source: Ello | stephenfitz | Early on in any endeavor

Firebird 40(ish)

When a Bad Race is the Best Thing for You

“Don’t crash. It hurts.” That was the sage advice my buddy Brian – a Cat 2 MTB racer – shared the day before my first ever mountain bike race. In literature, I believe this is what they call foreshadowing.

I was set to start the Firebird 40 in Eagle, CO. With two new courses set up for the rescheduled race date, I opted for the 22-mile intermediate course, with an advertised 2900 feet of climbing. It seemed like something I could handle, as I’d been putting in decent miles on the road bike, in between travel, injury, and biblical rain storms.

What prompted the entry? Necessity.

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View from near the top of Firebox

Last fall, Brian and I decided to register for the Breck Epic, a 6-day, 240 mile mountain bike race in August, with some 40,000 feet of climbing.

“This is definitely not a decision we should make sober,” he said when were debating whether to pull the trigger last fall.

The Breck Epic would not be our first rodeo, so to speak, but it would definitely be our most ambitious. Some years ago, en route to a friend’s wedding in Italy, we decided to do a three-day tour of the French Alps, for which we were thoroughly out of our depth.

The first day we rode Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Mollard, and Col de Telegraphe, the last of which left me hallucinating about a French girl yelling at me out the window of a van that did not exist.

Col du Galibier, circa 2006
Col du Galibier, circa 2006

The second day was Col du Galibier and dodging lorries in the tunnels on the long, winding descent back down to Bourg d’ Oisans. And we saved Alpe d’Huez for last, but definitely not least, as the vaunted climb did not disappoint.

In the years since, we’ve done some big charity rides, centuries, and the like. And more recently, Brian moved up the ranks in mountain bike racing, while I raced in triathlons over the last few years. Until I remembered how much I hate running.

We were overdue for biting off more than we could chew. So we pulled the trigger on the Breck Epic.

Fast forward to this spring, when I began to realize that I am actually not very good at mountain biking. Aside from a few Front Range rides and trips to Salida, the last time I did any amount of trail riding was back in high school in Indiana. That came to an abrupt end after a couple months, when a rogue stump launched me off the trail and head first into a tree.

So I needed a tune up race, and due to missing earlier, easier options, the Firebird 40 was pretty much the only available choice.

“I like your style,” Brian said during our pre-Firebird prep conversation. “You’re going to do one race, and then be all set for one of the toughest mountain bike races in the world.”

The Firebird race itself quickly turned into a hard slog for me. I had felt relaxed and ready to go at the start line, and even got a little fired up when they piped in Thunderstruck during the countdown. But after a neutral rollout, I lost contact with all but a few other riders. I’d been on antibiotics for the previous five days, which left me and my legs pretty depleted from the get-go. Excuses, excuses, I know. But it’s a pretty empty feeling to have no juice before you’ve even hit dirt.

I tried to make up a little time on some rolling singletrack through Mayer Gulch, which almost ended disastrously when I reacted late to a sharp, downward right turn, and through some mix of dumb luck and latent childhood BMX skills, avoided what would’ve been a bad crash.

“6 miles of tempo, then it gets steep,” said one of the race organizers at the bottom of first real climbs. That seemed encouraging. Until I realized that one person’s tempo is another’s tough grind up Turniphead, 3rd Gulch, and Pipeline, with wooded singletrack, loose rocks, and very, very muddy stream crossings.

Then came Firebox.

“Firebox is going to suck,” the race organizer told us at the start. And he was not wrong.

Firebox was a combination of steep, scorching hike-a-bike sections – sometimes sandy, sometimes rocky – and too many muddy stream crossings to count. These parts of the course sapped energy and resolve, and it became vaguely demoralizing to make such slow progress.

That’s when the doubt started creeping in. It’s happened before – during two half-Ironman triathlons, and other long rides like the Red Rocks Century – so I was somewhat prepared. You’re alone in your own mind on the road or the trail for too many hours at a time, and your thoughts can go to dark places. (This is one of the many reasons that the Rodeo squad who all finished the Dirty Kanza 200 this year is so incredibly impressive.)

I thought I’d fly through this course in maybe two and a half hours, and at this rate it was going to take more than four. Could I even finish this race? How the hell will I finish six days of the Breck Epic? Or any of the individual stages for that matter? Should I do the three-day race instead? Should I bail entirely?

Eventually, though, I got back in some sort of rhythm. One pedal stroke after another. One foot in front of the other. And I got a little boost when I regained contact with a small group in front of me. I came by another racer, who had pulled off, under the welcome shade of a tree. He had cracked open a bag of energy chews, and said gleefully, “Time for a picnic.”

The four of us slogged over the final, crushing hike-a-bike section, up Mike’s Night Out, which had 35% grades and was strewn with loose boulders.

And then the descent.

I should note here that I am pretty bad at descending on single track. I ride the brakes too much, I often don’t get my body in the right position, and many of my instincts are the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do. So our group of 4 quickly became a solo descent for me.

The top sections of Mike’s Night Out were fine, save for a belligerent stick that got caught in my drivetrain, and severely bent my rear derailleur. Lower on the mountain, where it was rockier and sandier, I did not fair as well.

On a steep stretch with lots of loose rock, I got off my line and my front wheel nosedived into a pumpkin-sized boulder, which launched me off onto rocks and dead branches to left.

Brian was right. Crashes do hurt.

About a mile later, I hit an even steeper stretch and had to stop after inadvertently going off trail. I walked the last few yards down to where the trail opened up a little. One of the race staff waiting there asked if I was the guy with a broken rim.

“No, just a broken spirit,” I said to him and the medic volunteer, who got a good laugh out of that.

The next stretch was a blistering singletrack descent down a white sandy gulch that might have redeemed mountain biking to me. It was fun, fast, scary, and totally exhilarating.

That exhilaration came a screeching thud a few minutes later, when I was on a final section of sandy singletrack that traversed a hillside. As I came around a slight right hand bend, my bike suddenly dropped away beneath me, and momentum flung me hard into the ground on my right side. The whole left half of the trail had just sunk and disappeared.

The fall shoved all the air out of me, figuratively and literally. I laid there for a minute gasping, pissed, finished. I took stock, and despite a hard hit on my shoulder and hip, no serious damage. Rodeo kit 2.0 took it like a champ.

It turned out I was less than a mile from the finish. I limped over a few more rollers and rattled down the bike path to the home stretch. I’d covered 22 miles with 4,000 feet of climbing – not necessarily epic stats, but numbers that put a hurt on me nonetheless.

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Making it hurt in the dirt

Finishing was all I had set out to do, though preferably not last, among what seemed like a pretty fast field of mountain goats. The mountain goat on my kit is still aspirational. I later found out I beat one guy in the open category and a few others in the overall, which brought some small sense of satisfaction. So too did the chill camaraderie in the start corral, the encouragement from racers and volunteers, and the unique bond between strangers that happens when you’re both fighting the relentlessness of gravity.

For better or worse, I have seldom entered a bike race hoping for a top result. To me, the challenge to myself is the thing, finding my limits and seeing if I can go beyond them. If I do get a result, great. If not, it was time to go anyways.

That was certainly true of the Firebird, which tested me in new ways. I felt like it almost broke me, and it definitely prompted serious fears about the Breck Epic. But after some food, a shower, and a beer, I realized that it also sparked a deeper motivation to prove to myself that I can do it. That, over the next 55 days or so, I can train harder, prep smarter, and eventually ride the way I want.

Some healthy doubt remains. But strangely, making it through a tough day inspired a sense of confidence that I’d been lacking at the start line.

The next day, I went out for an easy spin on my road bike. My hip and knee and shoulder were a little sore from the crashes, but I felt fine otherwise. I felt like I’d recovered relatively well. And I felt a little more ready for the challenge to come.

And for that reason, the Firebird 40 was exactly the tune up I needed.