The Firecracker 50 is the most iconic mountain bike race in Colorado. Standing tall above the other 50 milers that have popped up since, the Firecracker does absolutely everything right in producing the most memorable race on the calendar. For its success, there are a couple of factors worthy of credit. The main one being Jeff Westcott. He is the race. It’s his baby. And he treats it as such. Every detail is finely planned to make the race both sustainable and enjoyable, and not just for the pros; the race attracts almost a thousand people to the start line. It’s this big turn out that makes the race profitable. And it’s that profitability that makes it sustainable.
Last year I came very close to winning the Firecracker. I was literally inches behind Jamey Driscoll when he crossed the line with arms aloft. Heart breaking. I’d come into this year’s race with revenge and redemption on my mind. I knew I had the form to win, and I lined up with absolute confidence.
A neutral roll out through Breckenridge follows a shotgun start. The old main street mining houses are bedecked in the famous patriotism of the USA, and children with faces decorated look genuinely happy to see the bike race roll past. The festivities are short lived however, and soon the race creeps onto Boreas Pass, where niceties are shed in return for lactic acid. We rode fast this year. Josiah Middaugh, who I’d narrowly beaten at Grand Junction earlier in the year, set the pace from the gun, and we entered the singletrack (eight miles in), with a small group. Unusual for a long race. The pace stayed high, and by the end of the first lap there were five of us remaining. Jamey Driscoll and Fernando Riveros from the Raleigh team, Josiah Middaugh (of XTerra triathlon fame) and JJ Clark, Colorado Springs native, and stalwart in the top 10 of any Colorado endurance race. From the gun I knew I was on for a rough day. I’m still not sure what the best description is, but “flat” might be as close as I can get. No punch. I was a hanger-on. Not a pace setter. The longer races in Colorado have such a huge amount of talent in them that you can never rely on power alone; you instead need that extra little something to detach yourself from the wheel behind you. Josiah had that, and he pulled away from the four of us on the second ascent of Boreas Pass. I busied myself with eating and drinking. I’ve been trying out the new Carborocket Pineapple Mango drink mix, and I was happy that I could keep getting the calories down my throat, with the vague hope that my legs would come around a little. By the time we hit Little French Gulch on lap two, Josiah had a minute or so lead, and I was just ahead of Jamey. Fernando had done some great pace making that I had benefited from, and it became apparent that he was following team orders today, and not racing for himself. I think he must have packed a lunch, because he tailed off at the top of Little French not to be seen again. A shame, as I think he was the strongest in the field, and I’d rather race him outright than not get the opportunity to do so.
I failed to put enough distance between Jamey and myself on Little French, and he benefited from following my line down the second to last descent. When he came by me like a freight train, I had nothing to give, and saw him pedal strongly onto the slopes of the final climb. I knew the race was coming back together, and with a couple miles left, I was close enough to the front of the race that I could hear cheers for Jamey and Josiah fading into the trees ahead of me as I approached. It was not to be though, and by the time I finally hit the switchbacks that carve beautifully down the hill into Carter Park, I could hear a rapture of applause as Jamey crossed the line below. He’d caught the tiring Josiah to successfully defend his title.
Here’s the best thing about the Firecracker: It wasn’t just tired racers and family waiting in Carter Park – it was a sea of people lining the finish straight, cheering loudly. Drinking beer, barbequing. Like the start, the finish happens in the middle of festive atmosphere. I was disappointed with my race, but there was no way to stay grumpy when faced with a party that’s already been happening for a couple hours. Nothing went wrong, and I didn’t have the fuel to win. Without doubt Josiah and Jamey were much stronger than me on race day, and that’s the frustration. I know I can win.
Promoters: if you want detailed instructions on how to run a mountain bike race, come to the Firecracker. Take notes, and do exactly as Jeff Westcott advises. He doesn’t take the easy route; he takes the hard, expensive, and rewarding route. It pays off for everyone.
To make the most of the long holiday weekend, Christa and the O’Blalders (That’s Katie and Bryan) decided to camp in Breckenridge for a couple of nights before the race. We found a great spot at Baker’s Tank, mile eight on the old railway line over Boreas Pass. It’s the point that the race climbs to before hitting single track, and it has an uninterrupted view over the southern end of the Ten Mile Mountains. It’s a high point to camp, at 10,800 feet up (That’s about 1,000 feet above Breck itself), but worth it for the view, the quiet, and the amazing stars that open up as soon as you move away from the campfire. Larissa Connors joined us for the camping on night one, but coming from California, and with only a California weight down jacket to keep her warm, she opted for a house on night two, but luckily we were joined by Christa’s sister Erika and her man friend Erik. Yes, that’s Christa and Chris, Erika and Erik… and also Richie Trent, who’s been around the MTB scene for a few years, but I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’d actually hung out with him.
On the Friday before the race we went for a Gold Dust loop. Bryan and I had both ridden the loop before as part of the Breck Epic stage race, and as befitting a ride with Katie; we underestimated its distance by about half. It’s not a one-hour ride. But it was excellent, and the early season dirt in the high country treated us well. We got to slowly haul our way back over Boreas Pass from the South Park side before cruising into Breck and the chaos of the throngs of people in town for the holiday. We bid a hasty retreat to our campsite, and then made a great breakfast on race day.
I’m entirely certain that camping is not good race preparation. Camping at ludicrous altitude is probably even worse. You never sleep that well, and without a big comfy sofa to sit on, you expend more energy that normal. But I still wouldn’t change my preparation for the race. Making the race into a weekend retreat goes with the spirit of the festivities, and ensures I get something more from a trip to Breckenridge that just a podium photos. That sunset was kind of a trophy of its own.