The Imperial Challenge is getting back to its roots.
For its 25th anniversary, the annual bike-skin-ski race is back on the Saturday of closing weekend after several years bouncing from March to April. This season also brings the debut of a heavy metal division for folks with alpine touring skis, splitboards, snowshoes and just about anything other than an ultra-lightweight ski mountaineering setup that’s all the rage these days. The division replaces the short-course option by giving competitors a 45-minute head start on the open division.
Both changes are nods to tradition. For longtime organizer Jeff Westcott with Maverick Sports, they also mark a return to form for a race every local should try at least once — skimo vets and AT newbies alike.
“This is one of the iconic, must-do, quintessential Breckenridge events,” Westcott said. “It has the recognition in the community, and it seems like one of those events that most lifestyle athletes put on their bucket list.”
It’s lofty praise for something known as a “pseudo triathlon,” but that’s about as close as one phrase can come to describing a funky event like the Imperial. Other choice phrases: “celebration,” “rite of spring” and, in the words of former Breckenridge mayor John Warner via perennial competitor Doc PJ, “a Stairmaster with a view.”
“Imperial is one of my all-time favorite races,” said Breckenridge local Angela Knightly, whose choice phrase is rite of spring for the event. “It’s mentally such a brilliant way to say goodbye to winter and welcome the spring, and I love that it is coming back to the closing weekend at Breck. It’s usually my last day on skis and first day on my bike, so in my head it’s the best way to welcome spring.”
On April 23, Knightly and Doc PJ join several hundred athletes at the Breckenridge Recreation Center starting line for a tour of Breck the old-fashioned, man-powered way: from town to the top of Peak 8 and back, with nothing but a bike or running shoes and skis or a snowboard to get them there. The classic course covers 3,500 vertical feet and nearly nine total miles from start to finish, split between 500 vertical feet in 6.2 miles for the bike/run leg and a whopping 3,000 vertical feet in about three miles for the uphill touring leg. Then, competitors descend the way they came to finish at the base of Rocky Mountain SuperChair.
“I love to ride, I love to ski, so I had to do it,” said Jaime Brede, a local triathlete and defending Imperial Challenge champion. “It’s like a winter triathlon and I love those. The beauty of it is that if you’re a ski racer or a bike racer it’s the best of both worlds: combining the ski racing you’ve done all winter with the bike racing you’ll do all summer.”
RISE OF SKIMO
Brede first tackled the Imperial Challenge four seasons ago and it hasn’t left her competition calendar since. She doesn’t train just for the event — she’s busy prepping for a three-day stage race “of my own creation” in Durango, she says — and instead uses it to get ready for the summer triathlon season.
“I’m just going to go out and use this as solid training for a big race in the end of May,” Brede said, referring to the Durango race. “This will just be another deposit in the fitness bank.”
Over the past four or five years, the Imperial Challenge has attracted a growing number of die-hard athletes. Brede, a professional triathlon and XTERRA athlete, recorded a jaw-dropping time of 1:37:49 last April, while the men’s winner, Chris Carr of Golden, edged past local Joe Howdyshell by 45 seconds with a time of 1:17:30.
It doesn’t hurt that skimo gear has gotten lighter and better at the same time. There will be plenty of spandex on the course, Westcott says, but it doesn’t change the fact that every competitor faces the exact same course.
“Be prepared for an honest, hard effort,” Westcott said. “The skimo crowd…is putting up some blistering times, so it stands to reason that times will always get faster, but we still have that section of the community that wants to get out and just participate for the fun of it.”
HEAVY METAL HIGHWAY
That’s where the brand-new heavy metal division comes into play. For competitors like Knightly, it sticks to the spirit of the event.
“It’s right up my alley,” Knightly said. “I’m not the fittest person in the county, so (Westcott) is letting us start early and we don’t have to worry about cutoff times, the lightweight skimo gear. We can even wear costumes.”
And you’d better believe Knightly will pair butterfly wings with her Armada TST alpine-touring setup. She’s a self-described “one quiver” sort of skier, and like her fellow heavy metal racers, she prefers to go at her own pace, on gear she already owns.
“It can get expensive to have more gear, to buy that lightweight setup,” Knightly said. “I think the whole point of this, with this new category, is you can go up in anything. You can go up in snowshoes with a board strapped to your back if you want.”
With the introduction of the retro category — yet another return to proper Imperial form — folks can even bike with a board on their back. Most competitors choose to drive their gear to the transition site at the base of Peak 8, but veterans like Doc PJ don’t see the point.
“Why burn gas to drive your skis to the mountain when you have a ski rack on your bicycle?” said Doc PJ, who bikes his skis to and from Peak 8 almost daily during the ski season. “If I really wanted to cut time I guess I could drop them off, but I just want to do the event.”
In the end, that’s all anyone wants.
“When it’s all said and done and your packing up the car, looking at Peak 8, it’s a massive sense of accomplishment that you made it all the way up there on your own,” Knightly said. “I love that people can experience that.”