By Michael Ackerman
No one likes a quitter. So after scratching from my own CTR ITT, I was still intent on experiencing all I could from this race. I had set out from Durango, enroute to Denver, excited to cross paths with friends old and new. But there were three racers in particular that I had special interest in intercepting: Neil Belchenko, Garrett Alexander and Mark Caminiti. I figured Neil would spend little time with me on his way to victory. Garrett and I had figured a rendezvous somewhere on Sargents Mesa would lift both of our spirits, probably when we needed it the most! Mark was pursuing the elusive, single-season triple crown and I was pumped to witness history in the making.
Although my race ended prematurely in Lake City, I was lucky to have the opportunity to hustle back to Durango and meet these gentlemen as they finished. I spent my remaining CTR “vacation days” stalking dots and waiting to see the finishers emerge triumphantly at Junction Creek. All three racers were gracious and appreciative for the cold beers, food and support I was able to provide at the finish line. And the greatest gift was the stories they shared with me from this year’s race.
The Winner- Neil Belchenko
“Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.” That’s how Joe Polk from MTBcast has described Belchenko’s last two seasons of ultra-endurance, multi-day mountain bike racing. With some of the sport’s biggest names sitting out this year’s CTR, Neil knew the 2014 race was his to lose. While most racers were focused on surviving and finishing the 500 plus miles of trail, the 26 year old from Crested Butte, Colorado was looking to set a high bar for the “new course” (* With the addition of the Taryall Detour in 2013, this year would mark the first time the CTR would run southwest with the additional 50 miles and 5k in play.) A self-proclaimed protégé of Jefe Branham, Neil has dedicated himself to learning everything he can from bikepacking’s veteran racers. He trained hard all winter and delivered an impressive performance in this April’s AZT300; besting the course record and earning himself a 3rd place finish. He entered the 2014 CTR with a singular, obsessive focus and if it all went according to plan, he was guaranteed to be on top of the podium this year. But as is the norm in these races, Belchenko encountered seemingly insurmountable challenges and came incredibly close to scratching only 45 miles out from the Junction Creek trailhead! An indefatigable spirit and commitment to his goal saw Belchenko through as he turned in one of the CTR’s most historic performances. A bridesmaid no more, Neil has unquestionably established himself as one of the sport’s top racers. Here’s more in his own words:
The Rookie- Garrett Alexander
Garrett Alexander’s first, multi-day bikepacking race was this year’s CTR and by all measures, the experience was a complete success! The 29 year-old hails from Durango, Colorado where he’s completing the final requirements for an Engineering degree from Fort Lewis College. Garrett is a familiar face within the four corners cycling community; traveling to race almost every weekend of the season, wrenching part time at the Durango Cyclery and helping hundreds of young riders each year through his work as a DEVO coach and Explorers instructor. Known for his pink spandex, sexy fatbikes and superb bike polo skills, the G-man has now added a new highlight to his resume- 2014 Colorado Trail Race Fourth Place Finisher! Some have suggested that this year’s smaller field of participants, a less-talented pool of racers and a higher volume of CTR scratches are all evidence of a “soft year” for the race. Regardless, Garrett’s solid performance from Waterton Canyon to Jct. Creek resulted in an inspirational rookie run.
I first spoke with Garrett about tackling the CTR last fall when we worked together coaching our local high school mtb teams. Garrett has traditionally been a short track, cycle-cross and one-day ultra racer. With Twenty2 Cycles out of Glenwood Springs as his keystone sponsor, Garrett has exceled this season with third place finishes at the Rumble at 18 Road and 18 Hours of Fruita. He also has enjoyed success in the 2014 Colorado Endurance Series, taking fourth place at the Salida Big Friggin’ Loop and tying for third at the Colorado Trail Classic in July. Yet, when Garrett told me he was seriously considering a go at the CTR, I wondered if he could successfully translate his sub-24 hr. stamina and super human speed into a multi-day, ultra-endurance race pace and strategy. As the curtain falls on this year’s CTR, Alexander has proven he is a multi-day, endurance beast that is sure to be taken seriously in future races. As his skills improve and Garrett continues to log more time in longer backcountry events, he is sure to prove a formidable challenger for many years to come. I took a moment to speak with Garrett about his rookie experience, the hardships he faced and the success surrounding his inaugural run on the CTR:
The Veteran- Mark Caminit
They broke the mold after making Mark Caminiti. He is undeniably the most successful, ultra endurance mountain bike racer in the history of the sport. The stories of Mark’s grit, determination and perseverance are legendary. If the bikepacking community ever creates a Hall of Fame, Caminiti will undoubtedly be inducted in the inaugural cohort. A quick look at the numbers to gain perspective on Mark Caminiti’s success:
•Participant in the inaugural, 2007 CTR- He scratched but returned to ITT the route in 2008 (although he doesn’t count the 08’ run as one of his finishes because “I really was just touring but in self-support race practice mode.”)
•5 Colorado Trail Race finishes- 3 consecutive finishes including 2014
•4 Arizona Trail 750 finishes- 3 consecutive finishes including 2014
•Tour Divide finish- 2014.
•7th person to complete a “career” triple crown
•4th person to complete a “single-season” triple crown
•10 overall triple crown event finishes
•4 consecutive triple crown finishes in a row
But the Caminiti legacy looms larger than just finishing times and triple crown events completed. Mark’s willingness to share wisdom, experience, systems and strategies with racers both new and old is as well known as his racing accomplisments. For all his triumphs, Caminiti’s humility, as evidenced by his chagrin with “facebook bragging” and “glory blogging” is just as inspirational. It’s hard for a mid-packer like me not to be a little star-struck by Mark. But his openness, accessibility and welcoming energy quickly diffuse any effort to treat him like a celebrity. He walks the talk and challenges all to do the same. Additionally, Mark has garnered a large fan base through his colorful MTBcast call-ins and cryptic haikus of suffering often posted mid-race on bikepacking.net. When ultra-racing’s Mt. Rushmore is carved and busts of Stanstead, Lee, Refsnider and Branham are chiseled into the mountainside, the hardest, toughest granite should be reserved for Caminiti. Mark’s accomplishments represent a lifetime of dedication, experience, stubborn resolve and endless suffering. It was absolutely fascinating to meet him at the finish, share some time and learn more about this living legend:
Michael Ackerman is a professional educator, adventurer and photojournalist living in Durango, Colorado. Read more at mountainjah.blogspot.com