One Man, One Bike, One Day

A 24-hour world solo mountain bike championship

| September 12, 2007
Jon Gould tacks the 24-hour course.
Jon Gould tacks the 24-hour course.
- Courtesy of Jon Gould

I love to mountain bike with friends after work, during a seven-day race in Canada and anything in between. After completing some endurance mountain bike races in 2006, I qualified to compete in the 2007 24-Hour World Solo Mountain Bike Championships. While I had been on a team of four people for previous 24-hour races, I had never entered one as a solo competitor. After hearing about the excitement and intensity of 24-hour mountain bike racing from Boisean Josh Oppenheimer (who was competing), I decided to enter the World Championships being held over Labor Day weekend at Laguna Seca in California. Local racer Christi Hall was competing too.

The World Championship starts at noon and ends noon the following day. I had heard horror stories of riding between 3 and 6 a.m., the "witching hours." The combination of mental and physical fatigue coupled with limited vision while riding at night can cause a rider's mind to wander.

I rode with Sue Haywood, the 2006 women's world champion, prior to the race. She told me that she listened to her iPod from 2 to 6 a.m. to make it through that time. I planned on listening to music during those hours.

I traveled to the venue on Friday, meeting Josh at the start-finish line to pre-ride the course together and discuss strategy. The course is 14 miles of singletrack, doubletrack and dirt access road with a mix of rocks, ruts and sand. The first half of the course is predominantly descents with short climbs, and the second half consists of climbs with short descents. The temperature was unseasonably hot and the course very rough but enjoyable. The majority of the course was exposed to the sun with the exception of my favorite section—about three miles of fun singletrack through a densely forested area in which the trees cast strong shadows, hiding some tricky ruts.

At the mandatory rules meeting, racers were informed of the many ways they could get disqualified, which included the use of an iPod. The witching hours were again a concern. Many of the professional endurance racers complained about the iPod ban, which only increased my fear.

The race started at high noon with a "Le Mans start," in which the racers run approximately 400 yards to their bikes, in biking shoes, helmets and hydration packs. The run itself was exhausting, especially in the heat. I made it to my bike with the lead group and started my first lap. The lap began and ended by crossing the Laguna Seca automobile race course via 25 stairs up, crossing a walkway and then taking 25 stairs down. Riding down the stairs on the first lap was fun but became abusive as the race wore on.

Each racer had a "pit" on pit row near the start and finish line. A friend originally planned on making the trip and running my pit, but a change in plans left me without a pit person. The pit person does everything possible to keep the racer going, including food and water-bottle preparation, bike maintenance, connecting light systems for night laps and much more. At the last minute, Menso De Jong volunteered to be my pit person, and he did an excellent job.

During the first six hours of the race, I was completing my laps in about an hour and 20 minutes. I felt pretty good, but I was not prepared for the heat. On my first lap, I went out with only one water bottle, which proved to be a big mistake. I lost it on one of the many bumpy descents. Luckily, there were aid stations with water, drink mix and edible energy gel packets at miles six and 10.

During my first few pit stops, I was grabbing half a power bar, two water bottles and approximately three servings of gel. I was dealing with the heat better than most after riding in Boise this summer. At the end of six hours, I was in first place in my division and felt like I was riding at a sustainable pace.

At 6 p.m., we had to install lighting systems on our bikes and/or our helmets. While I tried to eat a burrito, De Jong set up my lights and adjusted my seat. I was only able to get about one-third of the burrito down. I could no longer stomach any more gel and started taking a banana on each lap. I finished lap six without turning my lights on, which was key to saving my batteries.

By the time I headed out for lap seven I needed my lights, but riding at night broke the monotony. The temperature dropped a little, and the course at night seemed to change, especially the four miles of wooded singletrack. After nine hours of racing, my legs, stomach and arms were noticeably sore on the rocky descents. The course continued to get rougher with more pronounced ruts in the corners and bumps—caused by braking—on the descents. The number of riders on the course had decreased.

At midnight, I started my countdown to the finish. I was halfway done. A racer can stop racing anytime after 11 a.m. Realizing I could stop in 11 hours helped the pain subside. I wanted to get four more night laps and then four or five morning laps. I was tired and sore, but felt like I could burn a couple of fast laps in the morning if needed.

As the night wore on, the novelty of riding at night was lost. I had some watery instant oatmeal and a Coke around 3 a.m. I tried to eat some jelly beans, but they didn't want to stay down. I think it was on this lap that I was passed by the new leader but was too tired to react. My final two night laps were fine, but my legs were not only sore but also tender. Sitting on the saddle was getting very uncomfortable.

Halfway through lap 12, there was light on the horizon. I was now about 30 minutes behind the leader, so I had a lot of work to do. I knew I could not ride much faster, but I could be smarter about pit stops. I got excited about the challenge before me.

I rolled into the pit at 6:30 a.m. to a lot of positive excitement and encouragement. I went out hard, knowing I couldn't make any mistakes. My legs and arms were screaming, but I knew I could keep riding. Sitting on the saddle was my biggest concern.

Prior to lap 13, I changed my shorts hoping that would help. Unfortunately, it didn't. I finished the lap but I was no longer able to sit. Standing was extremely hard on my quads. After finishing lap 13, I attempted another lap, but after two miles the temperature was rising fast, and I knew I could not ride without sitting—and I could not sit. At that point, I stopped racing and headed back to the pit. It was difficult to tell De Jong I had stopped, but he knew I left everything I had out on the course.

I completed 20 hours of my first 24-hour race and ended up fourth in my division. Boise and Idaho were well represented: Hailey resident Rebecca Rusch won the Women's Elite division and is now the Women's World Champion. Oppenheimer and I are already planning our trip to the 2008 World Championships. When life starts to move a little too fast, a 24-hour race makes for a long day in the middle of it.

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