Sunday, August 18, 2019

Local riders continue to dominate epic races

by Than Acuff

Summertime and the riding is… EPIC! I know that I, and many of you, have been having a great time on our local trails the last couple of weeks. Meanwhile, Gunnison Valley hammerheads and Griggs Orthopedics riders Jefe Branham and Neil Beltchenko were busy burying themselves covering insane amounts of miles with little sleep and dominating the competition. Branham won the Colorado Trail Race (CTR) and Beltchenko set a new CTR course record riding it as an individual time trial.

The CTR course follows the Colorado Trail between Denver and Durango and is 500 miles long, including more than 300 miles of singletrack, with 70,000 feet of elevation gain reaching its highest point at 13,200 feet. The direction switches each year with riders lining up in Denver on Sunday, July 24 bound for Durango this year.

Beltchenko has been on fire as of late, winning the Arizona Trail Race and setting a new course record in April and then doing the same in June at the Comstock Epic race across Nevada. As he prepped for the CTR, he had one major goal in mind but felt breaking the course record of three days, 20 hours and 20 minutes might be out of reach.

“The ultimate goal was to get under four days but I didn’t think I could touch the record,” says Beltchenko.

Branham’s approach was a bit different. Heading into the race, Branham had three CTR titles under his belt, his last win in 2013, but admits that preparations for the CTR this time around were less than typical.

“This was probably the least focused I’ve ever been,” says Branham. “I wasn’t really riding that much. I was basically working and drinking beer.”

Branham   wins   the   race

It wasn’t until two weeks before the race that Branham decided to jump in and planned on taking six to seven days to complete the course, where in the past, he’s done it in just over four days.

“My plan was to go out, have fun and just tour it,” says Branham.

But once the race started, Branham upped his expectations and decided he might as well go for the win. Unfortunately, his body was telling him otherwise for the first 36 hours.

“The first day and a half it was hot and my legs were cramping,” explains Branham. “My legs were so pissed off.”

But, perhaps taking a page from bike racer Jens Voigt’s philosophy, who famously said “shut up legs” during a race, Branham pressed on.

By the second day Branham was trading off in front with one other rider and had a total of four hours of sleep through the first two days of riding. Branham opted to sleep a little more days three and four but still remained in a battle for the lead.

“I think we were just passing each other at night,” says Branham.

Continuing on his loose but reliable nutrition plan of gummy worms, potato chips, salami and frozen burritos, among other things, Branham continued on.

“I basically eat anything I can get down, anything with fat. Frozen burritos are great because they stay good for eight hours and I eat them when they thaw out,” says Branham. “I don’t keep track of calories. I’ve gotten pretty good at just eyeballing it.”

The CTR has one notoriously physical and mentally tough section between Buena Vista and Silverton, but Branham managed to ease through better than most and better than in years past.

“A lot of people get their butts kicked in there. It’s a long stretch and people have had some creepy experiences there but it wasn’t that bad for me,” says Branham.

By the time he reached Silverton, Branham was still neck-and-neck with one other rider but made one final caffeine-fueled push to build a gap on the final 50-mile stretch.

“I kept forgetting caffeine until Silverton so because I hadn’t had much caffeine and dosed the crap out of myself, I was feeling it,” says Branham. “I felt great.”

In addition, Branham typically rides the section in the dark but his timing this year put him on the trail bound for the finish line as the sun was setting.

“It was a magic six or seven hours, I was loving where I was,” says Branham.

Branham crossed the finish line in Durango four days and 17 hours after starting in Denver, saddle-sore but otherwise in pretty good shape.

“There was a fair amount of suffering for how slow I felt I was going, but the weather was pretty darn good. I only got soaked twice,” says Branham. “The only thing really was my butt. My butt is pretty damn sore. I didn’t put in the miles I usually do before the race so I hadn’t built up the calluses.”

beltchenko   sets   the   record

Beltchenko lined up Sunday morning for the race ready to crush the course and looking to break the four-day mark and take the win, but he was derailed early on. While walking a section of hike-a-bike, he lost his balance and the bike dropped to the ground.

“In slow motion I watched my shifter break and a piece just fling off,” says Beltchenko. “That sucked big-time.”

Beltchenko continued on to the next highway on his modified singlespeed and was forced out after 23 miles. He headed back to Denver to get it repaired and while he was “officially” out of the race, he remained determined to hit his pre-race goal of finishing the course in less than four days. He lined up the next morning at the start at 6 a.m. with his sights set on his personal goal and riding the course as an individual time trial (ITT).

“The downside of the ITT is you’re racing against yourself,” explains Beltchenko. “The upside is I’m chasing carrots the whole time. My whole goal was still gunning for that time. I definitely wanted to accomplish a goal.”

Beltchenko’s plan was fairly simple: ride more, sleep less. He tried his plan out during the Comstock Epic, sleeping just one hour a night and felt it worked pretty well so he went into the CTR with the same plan.

“I was sacrificing sleep for forward motion,” says Beltchenko.

He proceeded to reel in the field, passing riders along the way, riding at a blistering pace and staying on pace and in and out of the saddle for 22 hours straight the first day. By the time he hit the Copper Mountain area, 120 miles into the race, he was well into the field of racers who started a full day ahead of him and rolled past 20 riders sleeping in their bivy sacks that night.

At 4:30 a.m. he lay down for a restless hour of quasi-sleep and then hopped back on his bike. By the end of day two, he had moved into the top 10 of the official race.

“The first day I felt sluggish but the second day I felt motivated,” says Beltchenko.

He admits that something on his body always flares up during these races and during day two he started experiencing knee pain, but experience was his guide, and the pain failed to slow him down and ultimately subsided.

“You learn that you just have to push through it mentally. More times than not it goes away,” says Beltchenko.

He rolled into the Shavano trailhead just after midnight and after a cold and sleepless hour of rest the day before, he opted to get in his hour of planned sleep a little earlier in the night. The upside was that he slept much better; the downside was that when he woke up, he was still hours from daybreak.

“That was as long night of riding after my sleep,” admits Beltchenko.

Beltchenko got his third and final hour of sleep for the entire race in a bathroom on Slumgullion Pass where he found it at least 20 degrees warmer than outside at 10:30 at night. He too headed into the dreaded section bound for Silverton and had pulled all the way into third place at this time but did not fare as well as Branham with the epic Sargents Mesa crossing.

“It’s the longest stretch by far,” says Beltchenko. “Big continuous baby head rocks and you can’t get any momentum with horrible descents where you’re just trying to stay on your bike. By the time I went through it, it was hot and there’s no water out there. It’s just brutal.”

Regardless, when Beltchenko reached Silverton, things were looking up. Race fans were out in force to give him an update of the two riders in front and he realized that his goal was still well within reach, with one caveat.

“I knew I was getting really close to beating that four-day mark,” says Beltchenko. “But two years ago I was in the same boat and tore something in my knee and the last section took me 20 hours so that was definitely on my mind.”

Beltchenko climbed up Molas Pass out of Silverton and turned off for the final 60-mile stretch complete with scorching downhills, some spirit-crushing sections and a stretch known as the Indian Trail Ridge ahead of him.

When he got to the start of the climb up to the Indian Trail Ridge, he passed the rider in second place and did some quick math to determine that, not only would he reach his goal, but the course record was within reach as well. The only problem now was the sun was setting and he had slept just three hours total.

“I decided I’m just going to give it my all,” says Beltchenko.

Dealing with frustration and sleep depravation, Beltchenko dodged demon-like hallucinations along the trail, riding harder than he had the entire course, and covered the final stretch faster than he ever had—to set a new course record of three days, 19 hours and 40 minutes.

“I put everything in my body and I got through that section way faster than I ever had,” says Beltchenko. “It was perfect. Jefe won and I set the record.”

While Branham feels he will continue to line up for the CTR, he’s pretty much done with the epic self-supported bike-racing scene.

“I’m kind of phasing out. I’ve gotten my fill,” says Branham. “I’ll mostly just ride normal stuff now.”

Meanwhile, Beltchenko continues to ramp up. With the Arizona Trail Race win and record, the Comstock Epic win and record and the record set for the CTR course, his short term plans include jumping into the Trans North California and Vapor Trail races this fall. Next year he may head overseas for a similar bike-packing race across Israel.

“That would be a really cool cultural experience,” says Beltchenko. “My plan is to keep doing it. I want to do a lot more of these races.”

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