"Holy shit!"

I was halfway up the climb to French Pass when this shout pierced the air. Given that no man on earth could ride the section of trail we were on, I couldn't help but wonder: Had someone crashed while pushing his bike uphill? Did a moose just eat a mountain biker?

No, I realized as I whirled around to check the source of disbelief. Turns out the guy simply liked the view and chose to honor it with a spontaneous burst, kind of like singing Bon Jovi songs in the shower. I resumed my wheezing and kept pushing my shopping cart toward heaven, a.k.a. the top of the climb, a.k.a. the Continental Divide, elevation 12,046 feet. So did the rest of the burly people around me.

Breck Epic on French Pass Continental Divide

A Breck Epic competitor pushes toward the summit of French Pass.

There has always been a bit of debate about which of the Breck Epic's six stages deserves Queen status, but it's hard to argue with Tuesday's Stage 3. When the stranger cursed, he was wedged between 13,684-foot Bald Mountain and 13,370-foot Mount Guyot, 15 miles into a 40-mile stage that turned the race upside down in more than a few categories. I forget that this kind of landscape doesn't exist everywhere, even if it is why I live in Breckenridge. But it is also why people enter the Epic. And their awe, however it shows up, is contagious.

Breck Epic French Pass Summit

Approaching the summit, at 12,046 feet.

So is the discomfort and ecstasy that come from circumnavigating a mountain broad enough to have its own zip code. Guyot's summit doubles as the Divide, which means you crest the spine separating the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds twice as you pedal around it. After reaching French Pass on Guyot's west side, we blitzed down a mesmerizing singletrack to a dirt road that led us up to Georgia Pass and the Colorado Trail. There began another revered descent, followed by our fourth climb of 1,200 feet or more, up to an ancient mining trail called the Great Flume.

My partner in this race, Dave Gelhaar, has a checkered history with the Great Flume. Two years ago, while pedaling through one of the trail's many sharp scree sections, Dave crashed and took a rock shaped like an arrowhead to his eye socket, resulting in 40 stitches, a shattered orbital and one hell of a photo to text unsuspecting friends. He's ridden the trail a few times since then, but never at race pace. Given my Stage 1 pedal woes and Stage 2 fade-to-turtle-pace on Monday, I was hardly in a position to tell Dave to take it easy through the scene of his accident. But I knew it was on his mind as we clung to the wheel of an Alberta rider booking it through the forest.

Dave still believes some of his flesh remains on that rock, and he hopes to bring it home one day. Today was not that day. We were both simply relieved to emerge intact.

For the first time in three days, we had a clean race. As I staggered around the finish line like a baby giraffe, gorging not one but two pickle-bacon-mayonnaise-potato-chip sandwiches, I took satisfaction in surviving the Queen.

Later, Dave Wiens, the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame racer and executive director of IMBA—and one of many big names racing this week—addressed the field during a panel on advocacy. He opened by saying, "Anybody else feel like they got hit by a truck?" The crowd winced and nodded. "This is great. But it's hard."

It is also, in addition to those holy-shit moments, why we are here.

Check back for the next installment after Thursday's stage, when we'll dive into the historically tight races shaping up in the pro fields.