(Photos courtesy MCoady)
The legendary start of the July 4th Firecracker 50 in Breckenridge, Colorado doesn’t disappoint: We’re staged, there’s the national anthem, then a neutral start has us parading down Main Street packed with revelers five or six deep hollering and waving the stars and stripes. The sense of the community coming together in light of recent and present fires around the state gives the event a charged, cathartic feel. I stay left for high fives with the gangly shining kids sticking their hands out and to make sure that I get to say hello to little A&G, their own home so close to blazes. Margaret yells out my name and I grin and laugh, not at that moment thinking about two 25 mile vindictive laps at 10,000 feet.
Thirty five single speeders out of 750, we get a shout out from the emcee for lunacy and grit, “these are the guys I’d want with me in a bar fight,” um, uh huh. Mostly it’s one of those ideas that one poses to oneself to vigorous nods and fuckyeah while sitting in underpants clicking registration buttons on the internet months before when, you know, braggadocio costs nothing.
It’s definitely not East Coast normal still to be ascending, broad switchbacks with medium grades, nor are the wide open dirt roads on the Boreas shoulder, nor the shortage of opportunities for breathing. But at least things are jolly in this gang and there’s no damn shifter clicking racket. The cross-eyed hypoxic pain and bewilderment come soon enough, we angle off into a rocky steep, walking pace with dubious traction, through a gap in a fence and then snaking single track with all the signatures of the West, Aspens giving way to pine, kk-kkicking over rockslides with exclamation points over my head from the steep drop left, unpredictable breaks out into hyperbolic blue dome skies. Two hours of lost on the slopes, high speed double track descents where I two wheel drift over marbles and try not to case it into the ditch.
Race support is excellent, I’m only carrying water, so when I roll into the feed zones I thank folks and call out for gels while rolling through. This turns into a game of hope, though, since the vanilla and fruitwhatever is fine, but squeezing the double mocha chocolate into my mouth feels like pouring discouragement and glue, I end up feeling ungrateful for resenting it even while consuming three an hour.
Near the beginning of the second lap going up again I hear 80’s hair metal ahead, that can only be a good sign whether it’s real or whether I’ve gone hallucinatory. I round a bend to the Wild Turkey Challenge, so indicated on a hand-painted sign, alcohol fueled glee with a barbecue going and an impossibly small ramp set up in front of a log hop low enough to be ironic in New England. “JUMP IT, JUMP IT,” they howl, I gamely do, then there is a plastic college cup handed up to me, amber liquid at the bottom. I like whiskey, even this cheap stuff which you wouldn’t confuse for an Islay or Elijah Craig , there’s an eruption of cheer and I throw the empty vessel down. Ridiculous, yes, but I am on a rigid bike and I am thoroughly more than kind of sucking, so may as well entertain myself. Mental note to try to persuade someone to write “The Effects of Small Amounts of Alcohol on Performance During Athletic Efforts,” I prognosticate a null result but for caustic burps and delusions of lumberjack cool.
Midlap, pushing the bike up the baby head chute to the high point, walking is a decent alternative to cramping. I recall this feeling of racing at altitude, everything happens a bit more deliberately and slowly, and if you go past redline all chaos breaks loose into an unstable manifold with your breathing and vision and coming back to an attractor takes an interminable while. Great course, just the right blend of single track linked up with wider connectors for passing or getting passed, hard but not silly, sunshine in the morning, drizzle for the last third, back into summertime Rockies style.
The group I am with crests the absolute last climb and someone whoops out the declaration, the guy behind me says, “let’s let it rip!” and we’re skittering, Endor speeder bike through narrowly placed trunks, manualing through stone piles. Pssft thwap thwap, I flat and they leave and I say “fuck!” and then I put in a new tube. Bermed luge to the bottom of the ski area, I feel a rider behind me, we sprint to the line and I hold back puking, at least it felt like racing all the way to the end, unusually enjoyably so, and MMC’s bottle of iced tea to sprawl on the grass and tell stories of the day.