Swenson, Nash clinch overall titles as Epic wraps up on Gold Dust
Finsterwald, Finchamp earn stage wins leading into UCI World Championships
By Devon O’Neil
GC TAKEAWAY: Russell Finsterwald and Hannah Finchamp spent all week looking up from second place in the GC standings, and both rode to convincing stage wins in Friday’s 30-mile finale on the Gold Dust Trail. The overall results remained the same, however: Keegan Swenson and Katerina Nash cemented dominant victories in the six-day race. For Swenson, who’s positioned himself as the top American hope at next summer’s Tokyo Olympics, the Breck Epic was a launching pad toward the UCI World Championships in two weeks. For the 41-year-old Nash, a three-time Olympian for the Czech Republic who took fifth at the Rio Summer Games, it’s the latest win in a career that never seems to slow down.
Swenson, 25, was intent on helping his friend Nash Dory leapfrog Colombia’s Luis Mejia into third place overall Friday. Dory needed a little more than a minute, and Swenson attacked Mejia early on to “soften him up” after he and other racers had grown weary of Mejia’s constant attacks all week. It worked, as Mejia overextended himself then flatted, paving the way for Dory. “When we go race in South America, it’s all the South Americans against all the Americans. So that goes both ways, man,” said Swenson, who took fourth on the day. “It’s not like we were maliciously trying to elbow him or do anything mean, it’s just aggressive racing tactics.”
Swenson will be seeking a top-10 XC result at Worlds, where he’ll be joined on the U.S. team by fellow Breck Epic racers Finsterwald, Stephan Davoust (who took second Friday), Alex Wild, and Finchamp. “Even the easiest day here is still a really hard training day, so this is kind of the best training you can do,” Swenson said. “It’s definitely up there as one of the hardest races I’ve done. And also the most rewarding—the singletrack here is world class.”
“I respect this event; it was good to come back and do it one more time,” said Nash, who finished second in 2017. “It kicked my butt again.”
THEY SAID IT: “Someone noted that my bike probably weighs a good portion of me.” — Mason Allen of Charlottesville, Virginia, who, at 14, was the youngest racer in the field and one of the most popular photo requests. He weighs 75 pounds. Next week he’ll enter his first 100-miler … a few days after starting high school.
“It’s emotional, man. I always cry at the end of these races. Because I was a loser. But I’m not anymore.” — David Del Fiugo of San Jose, California, whose journey sounds like a TED talk. Fourteen years ago, Del Fiugo got caught selling crystal meth to an undercover cop. He’d already gone to rehab six times for addictions to crack, meth, and alcohol. He spent eight months and 22 days in county jail and has been sober since the day he got out, replacing drugs with endurance competitions. He finished the Epic with his friend Stephen Husted, another recovering meth addict.
BEST THING WE SAW TODAY: Manny Kelm, a 58-year-old racer from Edmonton, Alberta, suffered through a brutal first two stages. He was on course for 17 hours, more than Keegan Swenson needed to finish all six stages. After the second day, which took him 9 hours and 5 minutes, Kelm withdrew from the race. It was not a hard decision: He has Stage 2 prostate cancer, and before he left for Breckenridge, his doctors had warned him not to overdo it.
Kelm was diagnosed with cancer in 2015 and had his prostate removed soon after the diagnosis. The cancer went away for three years, but after Kelm and his wife, Janelle Brown, got home from a mountain-biking trip to Nepal last fall, he found out it had returned. That didn’t deter him from the Breck Epic, however. While Brown, a six-time Ironman finisher, got up at 5:30 a.m. to spin in the basement, Kelm trained less. He’s quick to dismiss his illness as the reason why he couldn’t finish the race. “I’m sick. Whatever. I don’t feel sick. I didn’t train hard enough,” he said, admitting “it stings a lot” to DNF.
Brown, who is 20 years younger, offered to abandon her race and ride the remaining four stages with him. “No you’re not,” Kelm replied. “Go.” So she went. Horrific mechanical issues left her stationary for an hour and 46 minutes during Stage 2, but she won the other four stages to remain in contention for her division title going into Friday’s race. She won that stage, too, but not by enough time. Kelm was crushed. He’d been waking up at 3 a.m. to get everything ready for Brown, texting her dad with updates during the stages. “It’s like losing Game 7,” he said Friday, a reference to his beloved Edmonton Oilers, for whom he worked 30 years as a clubhouse attendant and won five Stanley Cup rings alongside Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.
Kelm has a meeting with his doctor when he gets home to determine the next course of treatment, which could include radiation. “I’m going to be back,” he promised at the finish line Friday. “I don’t get a belt buckle, but …”
Right then, race director Mike McCormack happened to walk by us. I introduced Kelm to McCormack and told him Manny’s story. McCormack, taken aback, handed Kelm a finisher’s belt buckle. Kelm didn’t want to accept it at first, but he changed his mind. Which felt fitting: No one deserved one this week more than he did.
BEST THING WE SAW TODAY: â€œJust finishingâ€ can sound like a clichÃ© in mountain bike races, but today it ranked as a stout achievement. To see racers stagger and shake like vibrators at the finish, with drool hanging off their noses and chins, struggling to stay upright, their faces blasted by mud, strangers hugging them to keep them warm â€¦ well, thatâ€™s what itâ€™s about sometimes.Â
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