The soul of 24-hour MTB racing still blooms in the Arizona desert
TUCSON, Arizona (VN) — The clock ticked toward the noon deadline inside a giant wedding tent in the Arizona desert. Soon, it would be too late for me to pedal out onto the singletrack course to race one final lap. I mulled over the reasons to go back to my tent and sit down and rest. I was down to my final clean chamois. I had already completed five laps during the past 23 hours and 55 minutes. It was windy, and the 17-mile course was covered in cholla cacti. I didn’t need to pedal one more lap here at the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo.
Yet something intangible and difficult to describe happens during a 24-hour race. You end up doing things that are inadvisable on a regular basis: pedaling like a madman through the dark after your lights cut out, taking a gulp of Jose Cuervo before trying to sleep or just staying up all night long.
And in this moment, my sleep-deprived mind told me to throw logic out the window and spring one final lap around this course, even if my effort stretched the race to a 25th hour.
The last time I did a 24-hour race was about 10 years ago at Granny Gear’s famed event, the 24 Hours of Moab. That company, which popularized 24-hour racing, had big plans for the format back then. It even maintained a national series for several years. The 24-hour scene produced a number of heroes in the solo division that you might remember: Chris Eatough, Rebecca Rusch, Josh Tostado, and John Stamstad. And countless riders traveled to these events to camp, ride, and party.
In the years since, the 24-hour scene almost evaporated in the United States. Moab ceased existence after 2012, and other events followed.
Yet successful 24-hour races still dot the calendar, and after my recent experience at the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, I can see why. At 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, I saw a sense of community and inclusivity of riders of all levels that you don’t always find at bike races. People came out to camp and party. And yeah, there was a dose of peer pressure that made you want to ride one more lap.
“Back in the day, 24-hour racing got compared to Woodstock — the Woodstock of mountain biking,” said event organizer Todd Sadow. “These days, it’s compared to Burning Man. I think it’s that quality … everyone together sharing the bike in common is what makes these things so fun.”
Perhaps there was not an enormous wooden effigy to burn, and thankfully there was no mud, but the LeMans-style start of the 20th edition of Sadow’s event didn’t feel much like an uptight cycling race.
I saw plenty of riders in costumes: a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, a unicorn, one rider — cold temperatures be damned — wore just bib shorts, a luchador mask, with a Mexican flag for a cape. After a small airplane did a flyover, we ran down a quarter-mile of dirt road to mount our bikes. I’m pretty sure one guy in jeans hopped in halfway through to shorten his run. No one seemed to care. I sure didn’t.
That festive vibe contributes to the welcoming feel. I spoke with multiple people who were clearly casual riders and not hardcore cyclists.
One woman, wearing what looked like spin-class shoes, said she often comes out to do this race with a team. And that’s it — she doesn’t do any other bike races.
I met two guys who were having some beers and spectating the course’s famous rock-drop, right at the end of the lap. They were part of a 10-man team that was taking a decidedly relaxed approach to the race.
“Racing?” said one of them, “I would say we’ll be out there riding with a lot of spirit.”
By the cold night laps, you can tell based on the diverse array of clothing that many riders are here for a good time, not to pretend they are pro riders.
“You got the sweatpants mafia at night where they’re cold,” says Kaolin Cummens, whose team won the five-person co-ed category. “They got sweatpants and they’re in tennis shoes and you can tell that they’re suffering because their friend got them into it. But we all come together and we do it together, and nobody gets too pissed off and it’s awesome.”
Plenty of the people camped out in the desert aren’t even suiting up to race either. By most estimates, half of the 4,000 attendees are just there for a good time, or to volunteer.
One of the volunteers, who does the tireless work of sitting in that huge transition tent, checking riders in and out through the frigid desert night, told me he’d raced before and this time, he just decided to come back and help out instead.
In the early days of the race, Roark Trahan, a hulk of a man with long blonde hair, came out to camp and party with friends at Old Pueblo. After a few years, he decided to help the Epic Rides crew clean up after the race. And now, he has a job as one of the race’s key contractors, helping with setup and teardown. Sadow refers to him as the “resident donk,” referring to a similarly large character in “Crocodile Dundee II.”
Around the campground, packs of kids ride around on all manner of bikes, begging for stickers at the expo booths, or looking for the “Swag Angel” (a.k.a. Epic Rides employee Cat Greene) who roams the venue with angel wings, giving away free stuff.
It wasn’t effortless to get to this point though. Sadow and his team had to weather the nosedive of mountain bike racing’s popularity about 10 years ago, as well as the near-extinction of the 24-hour format. By his estimation, his race was perhaps the fifth 24-hour event to launch in the U.S.
“There was a time when there were 50 or 100 of them out there, and now it’s contracted down to probably less than a dozen, maybe five,” Sadow said. “Because there are so few 24-hour races out there, people perceive it’s a dead racing format, even if that’s the case we’re glad to keep it alive.”
Over the years, he also struggled to get his event permitted. In fact, in 2005, he wasn’t sure if it would go on.
“We had this crazy run-in over permits with the permitting agency,” Sadow said. “We had dedicated the event that year to Keith Bontrager. I told him, ‘Look, the event is going to happen, you should definitely come to town, but I might be in jail because I don’t know if we’re getting a permit or not.’ And he just laughed and said, ‘That’s mountain biking man. I’ll be there.’”
Sadow didn’t end up going to jail, and the event went on to thrive.
Sadow says his organization is so dialed that he even enjoys a full night’s sleep during the race, while his army of Epic Rides employees and volunteers work through the dark. Nevertheless, it’s a tricky undertaking.
“A 24-hour race, you’re tracking ultimately a staggered set of races for 2,000 people over the course of 24 hours,” Sadow said. “So the production of it and the timing is undeniably different from a standardized mountain bike event with one start and one finish. It definitely adds a layer of complexity.”
That crew of timers, volunteers, and staff is part of the broader Old Pueblo community. Greene says the start and finish of the event always bring her to tears.
When I was waiting in the transition tent, looking ahead to a final lap of racing, that collective feeling came through. I was there because my teammates had sped through the course in the early morning hours to chase down third place. Now, we were neck-and-neck for a coveted spot on the podium. I didn’t want to let them down.
There were a few other brave souls waiting for teammates as the clock counted down. With five minutes left in the 24-hour period, Sadow walked up to our select group of riders, those who hadn’t had enough, and smiled at us.
“I think you guys are going to get something special for this,” he said. “I think it’ll be one more lap of riding.”