24-hour cycling: madness, or the future of mountain biking?

Twenty-four-hour mountain bike racing is quickly gaining popularity  Credit: Nathan Billow/Allsport
In a restaurant awhile back, I overheard a middle-aged suburbanite couple discussing a 24-hour mountain bike race they had recently read about in a national newspaper.

"What kind of a moron would want to do that?" the man asked sarcastically as he sipped his Diet Coke. I noticed his belly was wedged up tightly against the table.

They went on about the idiotic nature of such an endeavor over hamburgers and fries, then later apple pie. I heard the woman say 24-hour racing "sounds like the Bataan Death March." From what I could see, both had the reserves to survive that march.

Perhaps I shouldn't expect people from the land of remote controls and 7-Elevens to understand the lure of racing from noon to noon on a mountain bike. To be honest, the idea of racing a mountain bike down singletrack in the middle of the woods at 3 a.m. sounds a bit preposterous, a little demented and perhaps unthinkable. Maybe thats why people do it.

Twenty-four-hour mountain bike races, like the ultra-marathon events springing up around the planet, are relatively new. Laird Knight started his 24 Hours of Canaan in West Virginia in 1992, drawing a measly 35 teams that inaugural year.

Last year, his race attracted more than 700 teams proof that this format is one of the fastest growing in the mountain bike world. While cross-country events seemed to have peaked or declined, 24-hour races continue to gain momentum.

The next major 24-hour mountain bike race will be the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo on Feb. 12 in Tucson, Ariz.

Whats the appeal of pedaling for 24 hours? Why would you want to ride through sunset, dusk, midnight, into the deep, still hours of the morning chasing a headlight beam and finally into dawn and the final numbing hours before noon the next day?

A big reason, for sure, is the camaraderie. Most contestants enter as teams, typically of four to five members. Its a dare: "Ill do it if you will" or "I can do it if you can." Suffering is better done in groups, too. Two-person teams are less common. A few lunatics ride the entire time solo, 24 hours in the saddle.

The courses average 12-15 miles. The formula behind this length seems to be the distance a fit and experienced mountain biker can complete in an hour. For an accountant or school teacher running on adrenaline, the loops can take much longer. Generally, teams pass the baton off to another team member after each lap.

When riders complete their lap, they ride through the start/finish, pass off the baton to a teammate and head to their headquarters for sleep, food, bike repair and if theyre really lucky a massage.

The winners complete the most laps, with times being used as the tie-breaker. For example, the winning time might read 21 laps, 33 minutes, 47 seconds. Once the clock reaches noon of the second day, all riders complete the lap they are on at noon. Teams on the same lap finish according to elapsed time.

But all-day races are more than laps ridden and elapsed time. Most teams seem bent on having a good time rather than on achieving the most laps. Take team Hugh Jass, for instance.

Like the Merry Pranksters in Tom Wolfes Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, who toured the country in a magic bus tripping on LSD and freaking out Main Street America, Hugh Jass seems bent on doing the same to the mountain bike scene.

Theyve been described as "drunken dharma bums" and "part bike racing, part performance art and part inarticulate rage." They ride one-speed bikes, often cobbled together from parts harvested from dumpsters and garage sales; their trademark is riding the entire 24 hours in the same pair of shorts. One pair for all five riders, that is. Hugh Jass, instead of passing the baton, changes the shorts.

In the 24-hour-racing world, this Woodstock attitude is more common than winning at all costs. For most, the goal is just to complete the race. Doing it is what counts, and this attitude tends to bring out mountain bikers who normally would not compete in a weekend cross-country event.

These people bring with them a festival-like atmosphere not found at a typical mountain bike race. Contestants and spectators alike set up tents, trailers and Winnebagos. A few who dont like planning sleep in the backs of trucks, in car seats or curled up on the ground with a blanket and a spare jersey. Others still choose the conventional route of a warm bed and shower at the nearest condo or hotel.

During the event, groups gather around campfires, drinking beer and telling tall tales of the trail. Spectators line the start/finish area to witness the LeMans start characteristic of many of these races.

Imagine 200 riders at the start, churning away down the trail caught up in the frenzy of the moment, disregarding the long hours and miles ahead. People set up lawn chairs around the course where they expect to see thrills and spills while offering encouragement and commiserating.

Or they may offer a pilsner to a haggard and thirsty cyclist. Most gladly accept. Good beer and good times thats the soul of the 24-hour event.

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