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Breck Epic delivers punishing start

Pedal woes dampen day one for our racer in the field

In the Breck Epic, a six-day stage race known for punishing even the strongest mountain bikers on earth, it helps to keep the ups and downs in perspective. I reminded myself of that the moment I felt my pedal wriggle free of its spindle 10 minutes into Sunday's opening stage, nearing the top of the first climb.

Actually, that's a lie. My first thought was an expletive. So was my second, and so was my third. My fourth thought, however, was to stay calm.

I pulled to the side of the road and dug into my pack for a tool, hoping it might solve the problem, almost positive it would not. My teammate, Dave Gelhaar, was barely 20 yards ahead of me in the mass-start herd, but he didn't hear my shouts. Once I realized the pedal was doomed, I figured my best hope would be to keep it attached to my cleat and try to balance on the slippery spindle as well as possible.

It was hardly an optimal plan given what awaited us: 35 miles and 5,200 vertical feet of technical riding with climbs that make you want to cry and descents that twist through the forest like a drunken snake. As a Breckenridge, Colorado, resident of 15 years, I knew the course well. I also knew I didn't want to miss any of it due to a failed spindle, of all the damn problems one can encounter 10 minutes into a 25-hour race.

Deep in the Breck backcountry, the Epic can feel lonely at times.

The Epic, in its ninth year, attracted its largest field ever this week, with 600 riders arriving in Breckenridge to test their talent and fitness on arguably the best mountain bike course in the world. Almost every one of the event's 220 miles takes place above 10,000 feet, and during two of the stages you crest 12,000 feet multiple times—on singletrack no wider than a cereal bowl.

It's the rare event that attracts world-class racers year in and year out, despite not offering a cash purse. Sunday, three-time Olympian Todd Wells, the defending champ, narrowly edged out three-time champ Jeremiah Bishop and Howard Grotts to put an early stamp on a second straight title. Wells' win came one day after Grotts, a 2016 Olympian and the current national XC champion, had bested him on the grueling Leadville Trail 100 course. On the women's side Sunday, 2016 national champion Erin Huck won Stage 1 ahead of Czech Olympic rider Katerina Nash.

Of course, the pros were long gone by the time I sheepishly asked a local policeman—who, as luck would have it, ticketed me for speeding the last time I saw him—to use his cell phone at the top of the first climb. I needed a new pedal and was desperate. After 15 minutes of calling anyone who could help and watching at least 300 riders pass—a feeling that compared to the time I smashed my forehead with a hammer—my brother agreed to drive out to my house, grab a dusty old pedal from my garage and meet me at the next intersection a few miles away.

I balanced my foot on the spindle for a glorious aspen descent then hustled up the next climb. When I reached my brother, in something like 500th place, his 5-year-old son said, "Are you losing, Uncle Devon?"

It was just what I needed to put the moment in perspective. I went on to clip my handlebar on a tree during a later high-speed descent, crashing and rolling twice while my Santa Cruz Tallboy shot into the bushes. As I collected myself on the side of the trail, evaluating bloody wounds on both arms and a shin, a fellow racer reminded me, "Not a great place to stop, dude."

I know from doing the inaugural Epic that nobody escapes this race unscathed, and there will be better days ahead. But to improve my chances, I stopped at Avalanche Sports for a new pair of pedals on my way home.