This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Current members, click here to learn how to upgrade)
BRECKENRIDGE — The two radios on his chest are cackling through his light-blue, hooded fleece onesie.
“It’s onesie Wednesday,” said Mike McCormack, the founder and boss of the Breck Epic as hundreds of the world’s best knobby-tired athletes race through Wednesday’s fourth stage of the famed weeklong mountain bike race. “This is the Snorlax, the napping Pokemon.”
For 11 years, McCormack, known to everyone as simply MikeMac, has choreographed a six-day, 215- to 250-mile mountain bike race across the challenging, high-alpine trail network above Breckenridge. The Breck Epic has grown into an international event, luring not just the biggest names in mountain biking, but the biggest name in competitive endurance events: Ironman.
Last year, after months of negotiations and some passionate public meetings, McCormack walked away from a deal to sell his beloved race to international racing giant Ironman and its owner World Triathlon Corp. The company wanted to more than double the number of Breck Epic racers, and that worried local riders and McCormack, who anchors his race in ethical stewardship of his former hometown’s trails and culture.
“Their vision last year was putting a thousand people on course, and that’s not fun and it’s not good for the trails. I needed them to pump their brakes,” he said. “So yeah, I gave my kids’ college education back in order to do the right thing.”
McCormack called the derailed deal “a necessary course correction.” It wasn’t that the Ironman people were not quality managers. He calls them “smart, hard-working and ethical,” and he’s developed a friendship with the company’s chief executive, Andrew Messick, who came to Breckenridge and raced a stage this year.
But the Ironman people weren’t experts at running a backcountry race that requires good behavior from its athletes and treads lightly in its namesake town. McCormack and his team don’t close roads for their race. They don’t demand hundreds of free rooms, like the Pro Challenge did when it toured the state. They corral volunteers to help maintain trails, a task that this year included clearing five major avalanches that had buried the race course in downed timber.
“It’s a challenge to do a world-class race that is in tune with the rhythms of a mountain community,” he said, nibbling a burrito between radio calls as athletes raced Wednesday’s 41-mile stage that included the lung-searing ascent of the well-named Vomit Hill.
This year, for the first time ever, the Breck Epic is sanctioned by the UCI, cycling’s governing body, which means elite riders from 25 countries are earning critical international ranking points while competing for a $30,000 purse.
Ironman came knocking again this summer. That surprised McCormack, who deploys more than 25 staffers and 125 volunteers to throw each year’s race. He thought that door was shut for good. But this time Ironman has a different plan than simply incorporating the grassroots Breck Epic into the global company’s roster of top endurance events in the U.S., Africa, Australia and Europe. The company wants to invest in McCormack’s company, Greenspeed Project, which hosts mountain bike events like the Vail Outlier Allroad Festival and the Firebird 40 race, as well as the flagship Breck Epic.
McCormack said his negotiations with Ironman leave him in control of the Breck Epic. That’s important. And the company offers loads of efficiencies at managing events that can help him. Last year he had to send back $100,000 in registration fees — two years of his profits — when he was forced to reschedule the race four months after registration opened.
“We learned a hard lesson last year,” he said.
A company like Ironman can help him better weather those occasional blows. And it can help him grow the race into more than a race.
“I think the Ironman people are going to give us the structure we need and remove some of the day-to-day worries and then they are going to take a step back and let us do what we do,” he said.
Filling in where Interbike fell off
McCormack next year wants to host sessions and meetings in a weeklong mountain bike festival that will rally suppliers, retailers, athletes and spectators. Watch some racing, participate in a panel on e-bikes or access or advocacy and then catch a mountain bike movie, he said. He’s calling it InterBreck, to replace the now-shuttered Interbike trade show.
“We want this to be the center of the universe for mountain biking in the coming years,” he said.
The town is supportive of McCormack, who lived in Breckenridge for 15 years but now lives in Eagle, where he spearheaded the unique drive to carve singletrack trails next to paved trails so kids could learn to pedal dirt on their way to school or across town. Last year, after some intense meetings where locals worried that rapid growth of the Breck Epic could hurt the town’s trails, the Breckenridge town council expressed its hope that he stayed in control of the race.
Back in 1995, when Breckenridge passed its open space tax, the town had a couple of trails. Now there are more than 60 miles of singletrack bike trails within the town limits, most connecting with county trails that connect with Forest Service trails.
“There’s a real protective feeling among locals for these trails,” said Breckenridge Mayor Eric Mamula, an avid mountain biker who owns the Downstairs at Eric’s restaurant, where he cooked 20 pounds of bacon to share with riders on the course on Thursday. “Those are our trails. I really appreciate that people don’t come to me and say ‘They are screwing up our trails.’ That’s because Mike takes care of them and his riders know to take care of them.”
McCormack has an annual talk with his racers, warning them they do not want to be invited into his “woodshed” for littering.
“I am a really easygoing guy, but that is the last person’s woodshed you want to be in,” McCormack said. “I tell the riders, do not mistake kindness for weakness. Garbage is sacrilege.”
Mamula and local businesses celebrate the type of folks who flock to the Breck Epic. While there are never more than 425 riders on course at one time, the race has more than 600 registrants — including toe-dippers who try his three-day stage race — and they all bring support crews and family. In all, the race fills town with about 1,500 people every August, when families tend to be thinking about getting kids back to school and business slows in Breckenridge.
“It’s a great time of August that works really well for our local businesses,” said Bruce Horii, the longtime director of sales for Beaver Run Resort, the 515-room slopeside conference center that hosts the race.
Horii was glad to see McCormack balk at the initial Ironman plan.
“It felt, for a little bit last year, that it might get slammed through without being thoughtful,” Horii said. “Those guys can sell a good story, but sometimes the good story is not aligned with the personality of the community and the event. This is not a circus, and it doesn’t have to be. It’s about the riding and the experience. I hope that never goes away.”
All day, every day, riders line up for a few words with McCormack. For many, the Breck Epic is a lifelong goal, an event that takes years of training to complete. And MikeMac is their shepherd, the man who brings their dream to life. A rider from Tulsa, Oklahoma, tells him the downhill sections from the previous day “were the best of my life.”
Canadian cycling legend Jill Vale tells him the Breck Epic is “by far the best race I’ve ever competed in.”
“I’ve raced around the world, but this, with the singletrack, was simply amazing,” she said on Wednesday, a day after finishing fourth in the three-stage race. “The first day, day one, I’ve never in my 25 years of racing experienced something so tough. But I’ve got to tell you Mike, the volunteers, the feed people, the environment, it just makes me get to the finish line. That sounds cliche, but that’s what keeps me coming back here.”