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By Fred Dreier
Jeremiah Bishop wore a face of bewilderment and agitation as his Trek-Volkswagen teammates doused him in beer at the finish line of Breckenridge, Colorado’s Firecracker 50 on Friday. Bishop, 32, had no idea he’d just won the race and taken the marathon national championship, his first U.S. title as a pro rider.
The look changed to one of joy once the Virginian realized that he’d crossed the line first.
Indeed no one who watched the eighth running of the two-lap, 50-mile race could blame Bishop for being confused. The 2008 running of the Firecracker 50 evolved into a bizarre battle of attrition, as a plethora of race leaders succumbed to exhaustion, flat tires, crashes and mechanical disasters.
“I thought Andy Schultz was up ahead. I was hoping I had gotten top-five, maybe,” Bishop said at the finish line. “I had no idea why people were spraying me in the face with beer and jumping on me. But after a second or two it started to make sense.”
Bishop, himself, was an early victim. As it has done annually since its inception in 2001, the Firecracker 50 departed downtown Breckenridge at 11 a.m. as the kickoff to the mountain town’s annual Independence Day celebration. Once the pro men left the neutral parade grounds, the pace quickened, and the race saw its first casualties of the day. Just minutes into the opening climb, returning champion Jay Henry (Tokyo Joe’s) rubbed tires with Trek-Volkswagen’s Xterra triathlon star Brian Smith and the two crashed. The pileup badly injured Henry, who pulled out moments later. Smith, too, would eventually abandon.
Bishop took the lead up the fire road climb to Boreas Pass, hoping to distance himself from Ryan Trebon, his primary rival. But on the ensuing descent the Trek riders’ chain whipped in to the spokes of his rear wheel, and he came to an abrupt halt. Bishop’s chain was badly bent, as was the derailleur hanger, and several spokes were snapped in half.
As the entire pro men’s field spun by, Bishop had to take out his chain breaker and remove a link, then bend the spokes out of the way of the spinning wheel.
“I was thinking, ‘that’s the race’ — maybe I could get back into the top-10,” Bishop said.
Trebon was next to exit the race. The lanky Kona rider, who took last weekend’s National Mountain Bike Series cross-country victory in Deer Valley, left midway through the opening lap due to exhaustion. Ross Schnell (Trek-Volkswagen) also abandoned.
Schultz, who finished third in 2008, took control of the front of the men’s race with Dave Wiens, Evan Plews and Michael McCalla (both Scott USA) riding in arrears. Schultz, the 2005 U23 national champ, enjoyed a comfortable lead, but then suffered a flat on the long, twisting descent back to the start/finish. He too, abandoned.
Plews, who hails from Salem, Oregon, took the lead on the second lap, which he held over McCalla and Wiens. But with Wiens suffering a flat and no one riding ahead, Plews admitted he had no idea he was in the lead.
“It was weird, I felt worse than I have all year, but I just kept going — then the next thing I know I was in the lead,” Plews said.
Plews, who had also flatted earlier, waited briefly for McCalla to catch up to find out exactly what their position in the race was. The two then sped ahead along the 25-mile lap to the finish.
After fixing his broken spokes, Bishop rejoined teammate Brown to try and catch the remainder of the men’s field. The Trek riders stopped occasionally to re-fix Bishop’s bent derailleur hanger and chain, but steadily made up ground.
But when Bishop looked up to see Plews beginning the final tight, un-passable descent to the finish line, he thought the game was up.
But just minutes from the finish line, Plews accelerated around a corner, struck a rock and watched in horror as his rear tire deflated. It was the gap Bishop needed to win.
“I had been riding conservative all day,” Plews said. “I saw [Bishop] catching up and sped up and the next thing I knew I flatted.”
The women’s race also boiled into one of attrition. With last year’s victor Shonny Vanlandingham missing, 2007 runner-up Pua Sawicki (Team Mata) surged to an early lead. But a crash on one of the course’s steep, loose scree patches sent Sawicki tumbling painfully to the rocks. And Sawicki abandoned after snapping her chain.
Sari Anderson, who competes as a professional adventure racer for Team Nike, took the lead, with Tokyo Joe’s pro Gretchen Reeves giving chase. Anderson held her five-minute gap to the finish.
Anderson, who lives in Vail, Colorado, is a former top-level women’s hockey player. She has taken wins as an adventure racer at the Raid world championships in 2006, as well as at the Teva Mountain Games in 2005 and ’06. She took the Firecracker 50 victory just 13 months after having her first child.
- The 2008 Firecracker 50 was a big success for the entire Trek-Volkswagen program. Two riders — Bishop and Kelly Magelky — landed on the pro men’s podium, with four riders finishing in the top-10. Jennifer Smith finished third in the women’s race. The team’s manager, Zach Vestal, won the Open men’s 30-34 race. Vestal’s finishing time of 4:00:52 would have placed him in 7th place in the pro division.
- Hot temperatures and dry, dusty conditions led to much of the attrition. The course’s steep, descents — named “Pinball Alley,” “Nightmare on Mount Baldy,” “Rich Gulch,” and “Flume” — featured loose dust and sharp rocks.
- The race awarded age-group national titles as well. Braden Kappius (Tokyo Joe’s) took the men’s 19-29 title. Joel Mischke (Basalt Bike and Ski) won the men’s 35-39. Mike Hogan (Chipotle-Titus) won the men’s 40-49. Russel Asleson (Procycling Colorado Springs) won men’s 50-59. Leon Fetzer took the men’s 60-plus. Jane Rynbrandt (Tough Girl/Contessa) won women’s 19-29. Jill Sorenson (Tokyo Joe’s) took women’s 30-39. Karen Hogan (Chipotle-Titus) won women’s 40-49. Jane Finsterwald (Chipotle-Titus) won women’s 50-plus.