Tour de Trance

The wacky world of 24-hour mountain bike racing

ESPN the Magazine (5/1/2002)

Brion's comments:
'This decidely unscientific study of the wild and wacky world of 24-hour mountain bike racing was written for ESPN the Magazine. For my own eye-opening experiment in sleep deprivation, check out "Pulling an All-Nighter." '

Feature article:

Jeff Schnitzer is bloody but unbowed. Schnitzer, captain of Team Rub This, must play spectator for the 24 Hours of Canaan mountain bike race after scouring the trails with his face during a practice lap to the tune of 10 stitches and a world of hurt.

"Some jerk put a ramp on the trail," he says, swollen lips barely moving. "Well, I hit it, and went right over the bars."

Schnitzer's disappointment festers like an abscessed tooth. Nearby, his wife, Mundi, recites the sacrifices made so her husband could race.

"He made me put off this pregnancy so we wouldn't have any distractions during the race," says a laughing Mrs. Schnitzer, six months along in the family way. "And today is our anniversary. I gave up my anniversary for this."

"This" is the 24 Hours of Canaan, the original mountain bike team relay race and carnival sideshow held in the Canaan Valley of West Virginia every June. The format is sinister yet simple - teams of two, four or five racers tag-team the Timberline Resort course non-stop for a full day, noon to noon. Each lap features 1,800 feet of climbing and descending. The team with the most laps after 24 hours wins. This weekend (June 5-6), more than 2,100 racers comprising 500 teams will test their mettle against the trail and self-doubt.

Schnitzer worked massage the past two events, and was determined to race this year. He assembled a team of massage therapists (Team Rub This, get it?), started training, dieting, "doing everything right." Then he hit the ramp, and watched his race dreams disintegrate during a 45-minute ride to the hospital.

"It hurts more to miss the race. If the doctor didn't tell me I couldn't ride, you could be sure I'd be on a bike," Schnitzer says.

In one bruised package, the Schnitzers represent the entire emotional sequence - Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance - identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her signature work, "On Death and Dying." Itís the emotional spin cycle you know all too well Ė youíre thrown into the sequence, tossed from stage to stage. Itís human nature. Itís how you deal with lifeís trauma: death, disease, break-ups. Itís how racers deal with the 24 Hours of Canaan.

DENIAL

In the realm of emotions, denial can be the most conspicuous, and the most subtle. Following one late-night lap, Brian Hahl of Team Chain Gang, an imposing rider at 6-foot-6, races through the transition chute, yelling: "Enjoy yourself! I'm going to bed!" His chatter is non-stop.

"I'm talking to everybody, singing, laughing - anything to keep my mind off the hills," says the 40-year-old Hahl. "And I like riding at night, so I can't see the stuff that scares me. I'm a real chicken on the downhills."

California's Vernon Felton of Team Bike, groggy after a midnight cat-nap, sputters: "That had to be the longest 90 minutes of my life. I wake up, thinking it's about 4 a.m., look at my watch, and it's only 12:30. Talk about time management."

Meanwhile, members of Team Hugh Jass of Harrisonburg, Virginia, appear stuck in a time warp, relishing their non-conformist stature. They sport an air of cockiness, resplendent in a sordid array of mismatched plaids and lounge shirts, a vivid counterpoint to the high-tech fabrics used for most team outfits. Wild wigs aren't required, but are the norm. What is required is that every team member, before every lap, pull on the same pair of crusty cycling shorts. Not identical shorts - the same shorts.

"It's tradition," says Jamie Keehner, somewhat uneasily. "Every single race, every single lap, we've worn them, and they've never been washed. They have been modified - we had to put in some extra padding."

And while most riders attack the hilly, 12-mile course with state-of-the-art 24-speed suspension rigs, Hugh Jass opts for archaic single-speed fixed-gear bikes. No suspension. No fat tires. The difficulty factor can't be understated - these bikes have no freewheel. If the rider isn't pedaling, the rear wheel isn't rolling. There is no coasting.

"It makes it a little more challenging," deadpans Mike Carpenter. "It's just biking - it's not about the gears, it's not about the competition."

Still, the Harrisonburg faithful will tell you that Hugh Jass loves stomping the field, despite their "handicap."

ANGER

Anger takes many forms at Canaan. Most years, it is directed at the course. The race has an ungodly track record with rain. At Canaan, rain means mud. Recalling the 1995 edition, Sean Sabol of Team Woods, Water & Wheels, says: "It was so thick, you couldn't ride through it, and you couldn't run through it. You didn't even want to walk through it. It was impossible to push your bike, and you didn't want to carry it, 'cause it weighed about 60 pounds with all that mud on it."

The1999 version has no such problems. Baked in the sun for a week, the course is bone dry. Though it's dusty, especially after a herd of 500 racers stampede through the LeMans-style start, no one is complaining. Instead, their ire is directed at other riders, teammates and competitors alike.

At 7 a.m. Sunday, Wendy Russell of Keene, New Hampshire, sits by the transition area, her face flush with frustration. "I'm not happy. My teammate didn't show up," says the rider from Team Two Elks, Two Ponies & the Fast Guy. "We're looking for one of the ponies, and I've been here 10 minutes."

"I felt great until I came in and couldn't find my teammate," says Russell, declining to name the offending pony. "I'm gonna break his leg. He had better have gotten into an accident, or be severely head injured."

The heat of competition also gets the better of some racers. Early Saturday afternoon, John Jenkins of Team Fast Forward is flying through a rocky downhill - Crash and Burn - with another rider in hot pursuit. The pair turns a corner, and shouts of "F--king asshole! F--king asshole!" echo off the forest canopy. Later, Jenkins readily owns up to the statements.

"He didn't put on enough speed to pass. He kept saying he wanted to get by, and I finally gave him a line," says Jenkins. "He picked a poor line and ran me off the goddamn trail. So I yelled at him.

"Funny thing is, I talked to him next lap, and he was very apologetic. He was actually a very nice guy."

BARGAINING

"I'm tired. I'm worn out," says Randy Stemple of Team YABO (Youthless, Aged, Broken and Old) at 4:30 Sunday morning, waiting for his next helping of pain and suffering. "I didn't get into the denial stages. But I'm bargaining with myself. I keep telling myself 'I'll give you next week off' if I can just get through this.

"I had two pretty good laps, but I told the gang not to expect too much from this one. It's definitely grueling."

The dark hours between midnight and dawn Sunday bring most racers to the edge of doubt. Sleep deprivation, lactic acid, and frayed nerves tempt racers to waver from their commitment. Faustian pacts are commonplace. Even the best riders admit skepticism.

"Sometime during the night, I sat down in my tent to change, and said 'I don't want to do this. Someone else can ride,' " says Jen Olbrich of the New England-based Team Rocket Gurls, winners of the Women's Expert crown. "The next second I'm saying 'What am I thinking?' Everyone on the team is working just as hard, going through the same thing. So I'm going to go for my girls. I don't want to be the weak link. But your body just isn't right - everything's a little off kilter."

Ryan Ervin's team, Murphy's Law, doesn't win, but deserves recognition for "most appropriate nickname." The law enforcement squad lost their captain - Dan Murphy - to a military obligation. Another member, Heidi Helwig, goes MIA after being injured in a car accident.

"And then we had a bunch of mechanicals, you know, Murphy's Law," says Ervin. "But I'm feeling great, 'cause I know this is my last lap."

Matt Nagle of Team Columbus Cutters (a tip of the hat to the local boys in "Breaking Away") has no such luck. "I was hoping someone would forget it was my lap. But they don't, especially when they know it's not their lap."

DEPRESSION

"You can't sleep," says Cheryl Cassell of the Canaan Coots at 5 a.m. Sunday. "You keep tossing and turning, thinking about the course. I just want to get this ride over, and hope I don't kill myself."

Jenai Cristler of Purcellville, Virginia, looks longingly up the course. The 28-year-old elementary teacher from Team Underground is fairly steady on her feet, but shaky in speech and demeanor. The huge rash along the left side of her face, left shoulder and back suggests all is not well.

"I guess I never saw the bump," she says, nodding to a divot near the finish line. "I must have been hauling. People said I hit it and did a somersault. I'm pretty sure I was having a good time up to that point."

Cristler managed to stagger to the transition area, where she handed her baton to a teammate. Then she was hospital-bound.

"I don't remember the crash," she says. "I feel pretty good now, considering. I'm on a lot of painkillers. I feel bad for my team. And my mom's here, and I think I scared the crap out of her."

Even the ultra-confident Team Hugh Jass struggles. "I was about to cry, I don't think I can do another lap," newcomer Joel Maynard tells a teammate. "I threw rubbing alcohol on my ass and was freaking out!" Three hours later, the pink-coifed Maynard is back aboard his fixed-gear bike.

Almost to a person, racers admit they'd rather be between the sheets than at the transition area before sunrise. Sleep is a rare commodity. Pat Miller of the Rock Stars is paying dearly for making camp at the Hugh Jass party headquarters alongside the course - complete with a keg detour and head-banging music. Cowbells prove his undoing.

"That is the most obnoxious noise," mumbles Miller, bleary-eyed at 2 a.m. "Everything else I could drown out, but that ..."

Miller wanders off, dragging his sleeping bag into the woods. Now, at 8 a.m., he's ready to ride.

"There's four of us, and no matter how poorly or fast we're riding, we work as a team," says Miller. "Road racing has teams, but it's more snotty, with tactics and everything. Here, it's just about surviving."

For others, discretion is the better part of valor.

"I'm done. Forever. John, I can't do another lap," Betsy Larson of Team Vicious Cycle tells her husband after finishing her second lap.

ACCEPTANCE

There is no deceit, no machismo in the transition chute. Finishing racers, splattered with mud and dust, shout team names or numbers loud and sharp, secure in knowing that their suffering is over, if only temporarily. Conversely, teammates heading off, especially after midnight, display all the enthusiasm of front-line foot soldiers. The key is that they show up to accept the baton and the next lap.

"The thing that impresses me the most is how incredibly motivating is to be on a team," says promoter Laird Knight. "You never race harder than when you have a bunch of teammates waiting for you at the finish line. When you race for yourself, it's easy to think about quitting."

For many, 24-hour racing is all about overcoming a very human trait - self preservation - and pushing past personal limits. Sue Haywood, of the Co-Ed Pro/Am champion Trek East Coast Factory Team, says: "We came to win, so we can't stop."

"Every year, I say I'm not going to do this again, because there's always that time at night when I don't want to go. I usually relish the night lap, because you can show you're tough. But it was so fast and sketchy - those things add up to make you a little tentative," says Haywood following her final lap. "But I'm smiling now."

Others accept they're not at Canaan to win, but to sample the spectacle, or participate in it. Take Matthew Mento and Peter Nimmer of Team Dick. The five members of the New York City squad are readily identified by the placard strapped to their seats: "CAUTION, DICK." But Mento and Nimmer, in full polyester regalia, amp the routine at 2 a.m. Sunday, unveiling the team's secret weapon - a 1965 Schwinn tandem festooned with white lights, a slew of batteries, and a digital recording of the Ohio Players's "Love Rollercoaster" blaring from frame-mounted loudspeakers.

"Oh, yeah, the bitches love that," yells Nimmer as the pair pedals along, arms flailing in their best John Travolta "Saturday Night Fever" imitation.

Atop Mento's helmet is a rotating miniature disco ball, and four MagLites to create the light show. The tandem, however, doesn't feature a "CAUTION, DICK" sign. "I think it's obvious, don't you?" cracks Nimmer.

On their final lap, just past noon on Sunday, the Team Dick pair stacks headfirst into the snow fencing that lines the finish chute. The ladies are not impressed. But the crowd howls just the same.

See all other articles associated with subject: Racing

Back to Article Database

 
© 2002 Inspired Ink Communications