Dave Million has missed the last 21 Valentine’s Days, but his wife, fortunately, has a pretty good sense of humor. Lucky for her, this year it fell on a Monday, and Million doesn’t leave for Tucson ’til Thursday.
It’s not that Dave Million is a bad husband or anti-romantic. It’s just that 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo falls on or around V-Day every year and, unlike the heart-shaped holiday, Million can’t miss it.
According to 24HOP’s race director and founder Todd Sadow, Dave Million is the only person in race history to have attended all 21 editions of the event.
His wife concurs.
There are worse habits than a bike race
In today’s culture of flaking and FOMO, committing to do something, year after year, feels like a really big deal. But it’s how Dave Million rolls.
Million is a math and geology teacher from Las Cruces, New Mexico. He’s 60 years old and has been teaching for 35 years. I’m no mathematician, but 35 years of teaching and 21 years of 24HOP lead me to believe that when Million does something, he does it for a long time.
“I’d say so,” he says. “I did Tae Kwan Do with my son, we started when he was five. I ended up getting my third-degree black belt doing that. So I guess I don’t know when to quit, or something like that.”
There are worse habits than a bike race.
The first 24HOP was in 1999. Million was 38 and fairly new to mountain bike racing. He’d done the 24 Hours of Moab several times, and when he heard about a race in Tucson, which was much closer to home, he and his racing buddies decided to try it.
“And I’m glad I did,” he says. “Whereas Moab was this very humbling experience, where we were very small fish in a big sea, when we got to Tucson there were only 200 or maybe 300 people at this race. And so we raced it, and we were four-man open, and we won it. Who knew! Of course, that’s because no one was there.”
Million recalls that Sadow came by their camp that year and asked what he could do to make the race better. He was struck: “Who was this guy talking to us and why did he want to make this great race better?”
24 Hours in the Old Pueblo is one of those bike races with cult status, and Sadow has been refining it, yet leaving it staunchly the same, for 22 years now. That’s partially the reason why Million doesn’t like to make a big deal — or understand when a big deal is being made — of the fact that he’s been to every one. He just loves it.
I ask him if it’s the 24-hour racing thing or the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo racing thing that has him so hooked.
“My very first race was this race they did in El Paso called Dusk to Dawn,” he says. “It was a 12-hour race that started at 8 p.m. and ended at 8 a.m. So, I got into this racing at night thing. I really like those night laps. Since I have kids and I work all day, I do a lot of my training at night, outside. It’s nice and warm most evenings in winter. Is it 24-hour racing? Not necessarily now. I think it may have been at one time, but I think it’s just this race. This race is pretty special.”
In his 21-year tenure at 24HOP, Million has competed on both four- and five-person teams. He’s been on the podium countless times, and once, his three-man, two-woman team won their category.
“We’re the only team to have ever done that,” he says. “And it’s like, I’m probably the only one who knows that. I looked up all the teams throughout the years to figure it out.”
While Million says he would never consider racing 24HOP in the solo category — “or, I take that back, I haven’t considered doing the solo yet” — he does race on a singlespeed. Million’s bike is an aluminum Specialized Stumpjumper that he’s had since 201o.
“It’s my commuter, my bikepacking bike, my race bike, it does it all,” he says.
In 2006, Million raced 24HOP on a borrowed singlespeed when his old team disbanded and a friend asked him to join a new squad. He didn’t know anyone on the team but agreed to do it, and “I’ve been singlespeeding ever since,” he says. His current team rides geared bikes, but they keep Million around anyway.
“It was pure joy”
After 21 years, you’d think Million would have more battle stories than he does. The 24HOP course is 16 miles of mostly singletrack, shrouded in cactus. But, Million’s never had a bad crash or race-ending mechanical at 24HOP. Just a broken chain one year and “a flat or two, although that’s rare nowadays.” One year, he raced through a bout of bronchitis.
What stand out more are all of the good memories. Million recalls one, in particular, with the clarity of yesterday.
“There was one race, I can’t even remember how long ago, but there was a lap I did when I started about 11 p.m. and it just, the sky opened up and it was just pouring rain,” he says. “Just as stormy as the desert can be. Thick with water. It was just pouring crazy rain. My person came in, totally soaked, handed off to me and I took off. Within 30, 40 seconds I was completely soaked and I said to myself, ‘I’m just gonna have fun.’
“You know like when you’re a little kid, riding through the puddles? I went through the whole course, water flying everywhere, I was hooting and hollering. I passed probably 200 people hunched over their bikes looking miserable. I said ‘whoo hoo!’ to everyone I passed. Not sure they appreciated my enthusiasm. And it didn’t stop. It was absolutely the most fun lap I’ve ever had in a race anywhere. It was pure joy. I loved every minute of that lap.”
Then, there was the time he took a selfie with Lance Armstrong for his sister, an avid Tour de France fan. “I recall that my night laps were faster than Lance’s although his day laps killed me so we won’t talk about that,” Million says.
Or the time a photographer snapped a picture of him coasting by Tinker Juarez with a limp chain.
“It was the first year I did the singlespeed category,” he says. “I borrowed a bike from someone, a Redline Monocog steel bike with a rigid fork. Two-thirds through the race I’m having to pass a ton of people. I’m going up this short steep grade and I ask if I can pass some guys. And one guy yells, ‘strong singlespeeder going by,’ and I think, Cool I’m a strong singlespeeder.
“I’m stepping on it and then my chain felt like it broke. I’m like, damn, what happened. I had bent the chainring. So I ran up the hill the rest of the way, it must have been three miles. I got to the top and coasted down the hill. I’m coasting downhill and there was a photographer at the bottom. And there’s Tinker, he was finishing his third lap, and my chain is limp. It was still intact but I couldn’t use it. So there’s a photo of me, there I was in front of Tinker Juarez, coasting.”
Million will show up for this weekend’s race, #22 for him and for the event, as always, well-trained and there to try and win. If it doesn’t happen, he’ll still be happy he went because that’s how it feels every single time. His colleagues at work may not understand why he takes a few days off every year to ride his bike in the middle of the night, but, “I’ve never gone there and come home like, ‘Well I wish I wouldn’t have done that,'” he says.
As far as the yearly milestones that keep piling up? Million says that he doesn’t have an endgame in sight, just another lap on the horizon.
“I’m riding it out,” he says. “I can’t imagine me not doing it. I’m 60, my teammate’s 65. One year a 69-year-old woman got third place in women’s singlespeed solo category. So whenever I think I’m kinda all that, then I’m like, ‘No, I’m not all that.’ That’s pretty amazing.”
But, 22 years in a row of 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo? That’s pretty amazing, too.