Why the Breck Epic Said No to Ironman

Photo: Eddie Clark

Mike McCormack had a chance to sell Breck Epic and secure his family’s financial future. It seemed like an easy choice, but it wasn’t.

This article originally appeared on Velonews.com.

The Breck Epic has just concluded its nightly awards ceremony, and, as if on cue, riders line up at the podium. They wait patiently to speak with the man behind the race, organizer and owner Mike McCormack.

McCormack sits atop the podium, wearing his usual cowboy hat. One by one, he answers each rider’s questions and listens to their concerns. He thanks those riders who have lined up to simply say hello, and assures others that any problems with the day’s results will be resolved quickly.

The procession takes 30 minutes to complete.

In the valley far below Wheeler Pass or French Pass, the high-alpine trails that define the seven-day race, McCormack has sweated the details for the last 10 years, producing an event that is, as he calls it, “a soulful little indie.”

Early in 2018, McCormack had the opportunity to sell the Breck Epic, and the deal would have provided a substantial return on his decade of investment. The World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), the owner of the Ironman triathlon series as well as the Absa Cape Epic mountain bike race, reached out to McCormack to buy his race. The WTC wanted to add the Breck Epic to its growing portfolio of global mountain bike events.

McCormack declined to name a dollar amount for the deal but acknowledged that it would have solved many of his financial headaches. The deal would have also given him substantial organizational support to run the race.

Yet, on July 10, McCormack stood up before the Breckenridge Town Council and made a surprising announcement: He would not sell. Why?

McCormack gave VeloNews an inside look at why he declined the WTC’s offer. The WTC did not respond to multiple requests for comment. VeloNews also participated in the 2018 edition of the race and spoke with participants, Breckenridge town officials, and others to gain perspective on the proposed deal, and why it ultimately fell apart.

Photo: Devon Balet

An ideal deal

WTC’s proposal came at an opportune time for McCormack. In 2018, the Breck Epic took a sizable financial hit due to an unanticipated date change. With a crowded event schedule, the town asked McCormack to change the race date in order to accommodate a Spartan Race and the International Festival of Arts. Unfortunately, that move came in December 2017, four months after registration had opened.

McCormack agreed to change, but there were consequences. He estimates he refunded approximately $85,000 in entries. A jack-of-all-trades in the bike industry, McCormack also operates a public relations agency called Uncommon Communications. He said he relies on the race to balance his personal finances.

“This race has grown to be a portion of our [family’s] income that’s difficult to replace,” he said. “We’ve had a challenging fiscal year. The date change this year slaughtered us to a degree that I don’t think people appreciate.”

As 2018 began, the conversation was underway between McCormack and WTC. McCormack had reservations on a deal, yet he was optimistic.

“We would have become part of a bigger family and that’s really attractive. It’s hard to say no just because of the logic of that. There’s one of you and 25 staff and in this new potential situation, one of you and 100 staff,” he said. “I get to step away from the things that keep me really, really busy wearing probably too many hats.

“The other part is they were nice; they were great; I really liked them.”

As winter progressed into early spring, the deal was lined up. The money would secure his family’s future and pay the college tuition for his two kids. As part of the deal, McCormack would continue on in a management role with Breck Epic.

In May, McCormack went to the Breckenridge Town Council to explain his plan and get buy-in from the community.

Breckenridge mayor Eric Mamula has known McCormack for years. He’s seen mountain biking take root in the ski town since he moved there in 1986 and was part of Breckenridge’s original open space advisory committee in the ‘90s. He has also seen the positive impact Breck Epic has had on the region. When he heard about the sale, his first reaction was very positive.

“Honestly at first I was pretty excited,” Mamula said. “I was like, ‘Wow what a way to raise the level of awareness of what we do here.’ My first instinct was what a great thing for the town.”

The first Town Council meeting went smoothly; local officials discussed the matter in executive session after it was announced on the floor. There weren’t any arguments.

And then, Breckenridge citizens began to read about the potential deal after the local newspaper Summit Daily published a story explaining the details. The reaction was not positive.

Photo: Devon Balet

A vocal community

Citizens voiced concerns about the impact the sale would have on the trails around the mountain town. Prior to the potential sale, the Breck Epic rarely exceeded 500 total participants on any given stage. According to McCormack, the WTC had a plan to gradually increase registration to 1,500 people.

The Summit Daily reported that WTC had significant expectations of support from Breckenridge, such as complimentary hotel rooms, police support, and the leeway to start and finish stages on the town’s busy Main Street. Plus, the event would charge an annual host venue fee of $350,000, the Daily reported.

The demands raised concerns.

“There was a two-week period where I didn’t do anything but answer the phone and talk to people about Ironman buying the Breck Epic,” Mamula said.

Mamula said that generally speaking, citizens were supportive of Breck Epic, even if the sale drew concerns. McCormack said the feedback he heard had a similar tenor, apart from the occasional hothead on an internet comments section.

“Going to the MTBR, Pink Bike forums — we tend to be a very opinionated group and there’s a little bit of ready-fire-aim going on in any comment section,” McCormack said. “I was really surprised there were a lot of people that supported not the sale but they supported us.”

McCormack asked for feedback from his friends and professional contacts. They encouraged him to do what was right for himself personally—the deal would change his financial situation. Scott Reid, director of recreation for the town of Breckenridge, was one friend who was concerned about the deal.

“We talked and I told him you’ve gotta do what you gotta do,” said Reid, whose kids play lacrosse with McCormack’s kids.

“The field size was a huge concern for me, the loss of the homegrown aspect or the supporting of the local trail systems versus race at all costs,” Reid said. “That’s not what this event is about. People come here for the experience; they’re not coming here to flex their muscles necessarily.”

Reid has raced in all but one Breck Epic since the race’s debut in 2009.

While McCormack was trying to make a decision, Mamula was inundated by feedback from his town. Being Mayor isn’t his full-time job; he also owns Downstairs at Eric’s, a restaurant where citizens can find him to voice their concerns about anything happening in the community. Through the end of May and into June, customers spoke endlessly about the Breck Epic and the proposed deal.

At the urging of a town councilwoman, Wendy Wolfe, Mamula held an official public forum on the sale.

In early June, nearly 100 citizens turned up at the Breckenridge Recreation Center to hear from Mamula, McCormack, and a WTC representative. They answered questions for an hour and a half. The tone was that of concern, but citizens were civil.

“It was great discourse, as usual in this community, even when people are bent out of shape they’re pretty respectful. We had some great discussion,” Mamula said.

The meeting occurred just before another official town council, and as the meeting approached, the deal was still on.

Just before the July 10 meeting began, McCormack stood up in front of the group and told the packed crowd that he had come to a decision. Breck Epic was not for sale. According to the Summit Daily, the room gave him a standing ovation.

“I think, to the relief of the council, Mike did it instead of us,” Mamula said. “Because I feel at the time the council was very split on where we were going to go with this thing.”

After the decision, the WTC released a statement to the Daily saying it would continue its search for a North American mountain bike race to acquire.

“While it is unfortunate that our vision was not ultimately shared, we have refocused our efforts and will develop other races: There remain many world-class options located in North America that are suitable for our goal of growing the sport of mountain bike stage racing, and that are looking to benefit from the economic impact that a successful event will bring,” the statement said.

Photo: Eddie Clark

A difficult deal to turn down

The decision may have been a relief, but it was an agonizingly difficult one to make, McCormack said.

Apart from the financial gain and manpower, WTC would have significantly boosted the Breck Epic’s international profile.

Without prize money or leeway to offer many complimentary registrations, the 2018 Breck Epic attracted few pro riders. Under the WTC, that situation may have changed.

Multi-time national champion Jeremiah Bishop (Canyon-Topeak) competed in the 2018 edition, winning the race. Having raced Cape Epic multiple times, Bishop knows the benefit a big organization can bring to a race for pros like himself.

Bishop said the decision not to sell carries “a double-edged sword.”

“There’s over $100,000 of prize money at Cape Epic, they treat the pros very well, it develops the sport and is a great platform for sponsors,” Bishop said.

The Cape Epic’s video production team distributes footage worldwide, boosting his sponsors’ exposure, Bishop said.

McCormack said the WTC planned to produce a 30-minute television program about the Breck Epic, to be broadcast on Eurosport and NBC Sports. The Breck Epic’s existing media team does distribute short daily videos (which VeloNews published throughout the 2018 race), but not with the same level of production.

“We were just approaching being able to do that,” McCormack said. “They would have brought a lot of manpower and a lot of distribution and those things cost real money.”

McCormack said the WTC planned to give his race a high-end pro racing look as well, similar to what you see at a UCI World Cup. And behind the scenes, the logistical support would have been significant, he said.

“Instead of using our four janky gas cans — they would have brought more gas cans and power strips and all their course markings and paper are organized,” McCormack said. “Sometimes it feels like we are a rolling dust cloud of production materials. They’re amazing at that, they’re best in class.”

Photo: Eddie Clark

Why did McCormack say no?

So why did McCormack decide to stay independent? McCormack said it was a deeply personal decision that came after months of legwork to see the deal to completion. The turning point came when his wife Emily urged him to simply do what he felt to be right.

“She said you have to do what you can live with—this is your baby,” McCormack said. “She gave me the freedom to do what was right. I tried to argue for Ironman. It feels like I’m being irresponsible with our children’s future, and she said we can take out a loan. We can get through this. It’s just money. And she’s a pretty down-to-earth person. That was my tipping point. I was given the really heartfelt latitude from the person I love most.”

There were two other deciding factors, he said.

McCormack said he wanted to maintain the race’s independent legacy.

“We’ve invested a lot in the race quantitatively and qualitatively,” he said. “For all its ups and downs, its zigs and zags, you come to think of it as one of your children.”

McCormack also said he felt swayed by the community of Breckenridge, a place he moved to 20 years ago. He wanted to personally ensure the event was a good steward of the land. Based on his impression, the community opposed the sale.

“I feel like I have a debt, an obligation to preserve the Breckenridge that I knew,” he said. “And I think that [WTC’s] vision just wasn’t compatible with that.”

Could the WTC and Breckenridge have found common ground? Perhaps, McCormack said, but still, the deal was simply not the right fit. When discussing the sale, and why it fell apart, McCormack returned to a simple phrase to describe his decision.

“Bigger isn’t better,” he said. “Better is better.”