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Breck Epic Finale: Swenson, Skarda Cement Overall Titles on Chilly Day Over Continental Divide

Fast racing, colorful characters bring 12th edition of Breck Epic to a close

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Braving subfreezing windchills and overnight snow on 11,500-foot Boreas Pass, Keegan Swenson and Alexis Skarda clinched Breck Epic overall victories Friday in the week’s sixth and final stage, Swenson’s second straight GC title and Skarda’s first.

Swenson’s perfect record at the Epic came to an end, as Colombia’s Luis Mejia beat him by inches in a finish sprint to win in 2 hours 9 minutes—Mejia’s first victory over Swenson in 12 Breck Epic stages. Skarda nearly saw her perfect record end too, but after a late crash she passed Rose Grant a mile from the finish and crossed in 2:29:50, a second ahead of Grant. The GC wins represented different things to each champion: For Swenson, it was the latest in a streak of wins after he narrowly missed qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics. Before the Epic, he’d won XC and short-track national titles, crushed the field in the Telluride 100, then won the Leadville 100 a day before starting here—a run of domination fueled by his Olympic disappointment.

“This is definitely a special race,” he said Friday. “Just the terrain—beautiful big mountains, proper technical trails—it’s a real mountain bike race.”

The Breck Epic was a big success for Santa Cruz Bicycles’ new XC race team, the htSQD. Racer Keegan Swenson won the men’s overall while his teammate Alexis Skarda took the women’s win. Tobin Ortenbland, another htSQDer, took 4th in the final stage and 8th overall. Celebratory shots ensued. Photo: Devon Balet

Skarda’s victory represents a significant step forward for a 31-year-old with factory support for the first time this year. She won by more than 32 minutes overall, despite a rare heart condition that forced her to stop and dismount her bike during stage 2. Skarda is in her fourth year working with 2001 world champion Alison Dunlap, and Dunlap’s coaching has helped her rise, Skarda said. So has elite fitness that took six years to build, as well as better nutrition. “I can handle more now,” Skarda said. “It took years to build the training base and I’m finally starting to feel the gains. Just being able to race well consistently all week is a big accomplishment for me. Even in training, I’ve never put in a block like this as far as distance and intensity.”

2015 Breck Epic champion Evelyn Dong finished second overall to Skarda, with Grant in third. On the men’s side, Costa Rica’s Diyer Rincon placed third in GC, while World Tour veteran-turned-mountain biker Lachlan Morton claimed fifth. “To be honest, I just had a fun week,” Morton said. “And I’ve got a huge new repertoire of trails to ride. I’m already thinking about tomorrow’s ride.”

The first dusting of the winter season (?!) welcomed racers on Friday morning. Photo: Devon Balet

EL JEFE CHALLENGE

For most Breck Epic racers, it’s enough to simply finish each day’s stage and recover in time to start the next. The week is relentless in that sense. But not everyone stops there. Consider this year’s house full of nine racers and one volunteer—most of them from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a penchant for singlespeeding. At the last Epic, in 2019, a similar group led by Epic veteran and perennial fun seeker Dahn Pahrs visited a local restaurant for margaritas after every stage, developing a particular affinity for the biggest marg on the menu: El Jefe. Their lighthearted contests soon morphed into a something more formal, and this year the entire house took part in the El Jefe Challenge, a cultural phenomenon of sorts.

“It’s the great equalizer,” said Pahrs, who is racing his fourth Epic. “The faster you are, the more ways there are to lose points. The slower and dumber you are, the more you get rewarded.”

Montana Miller, a 30-year-old bike mechanic from Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania, came up with the scoring system and tracked everyone’s points through the week. Miller is a throwback with a sense of humor as dry as dust. He races on a rigid singlespeed, sometimes in a hoodie, while bumping tunes from a handheld speaker that he carries in his fluorescent-yellow fanny pack. Like Pahrs, he rode his fourth Epic. Miller’s scoring system is shameless: “I set this up so I could win,” he says. For example, you got +5 points for having long hair. How long? “My length or longer,” Miller says. You got +2 for sitting in the hot tub. “That’s because I like sitting in the hot tub.” You also got +1 for finishing a stage in 4 hours 20 minutes, since Miller happened to finish in that precise time one day and figured he should be rewarded.

Other cutting-edge scoring intricacies:

+1 for “exactly midpacking” (i.e. placing 20th out of 40 in your group)

+5 for a “semi-serious” injury

+1 per stitch received due to crash

-15 for having front or rear suspension

-15 for having multiple gears

-5 for any bike electronics

+5 for puking on course (per wretch)

-5 per use of “squeezy leg bags” to recover

+1 per beer consumed at home

+3 per beer consumed on course

Riders got one point for fixing a mechanical on course but are docked more if someone else has to fix it later. There were also personal penalties. Rich “Dicky” Dillen, the oldest of the group at 52, got 10 bonus points “for being closest to death,” as Miller put it. Pahrs and Will Loevner, a 24-year-old goat farmer who finished second at the Unbound Gravel XL 350-mile race this year, got -5 points per day. “Dahn just because he deserves it. Will because he’s fast,” Miller explained. Loevner offset that by beating his housemates each day, earning 15 points (second in the house gets +10, then +5, +4 and +3). Loevner also got +2 for finishing the Leadville 100 the day before the Epic—less than the value of a course beer here, which tells you all you need to know.

Going into Friday night’s infamous Stage 7, Dillen, who crashed out of the race earlier this week, held a scant lead over Miller. “That’s because he’s been sitting at home drinking beer,” Miller said. The champion’s grand prize is a hand-drawn picture of a bull elk.

Breck’s beauty takes center every day of this grueling stage race. Photo: Devon Balet

PUT ANOTHER BUCKLE ON THE BELT

By way of his finish Friday, sideburns king Dean Cahow, 64, earned his 11th “BMF” belt buckle in 12 editions (he withdrew after three stages in 2017 due to a broken leg). But this buckle held special significance. Cahow wept at the finish as he remembered his training partner, Pablo Casasbuenas, who died of brain cancer at age 39 earlier this year. “I was thinking about him a lot this week, and today in particular,” Cahow said. Meanwhile, Laureen Coffelt, 51, earned her 10th buckle, believed to be the most of any woman.