Story and Photos by Rob Sherlock

Mountain bike racers seem to fall into two categories: riders and racers. Riders proclaim that racing takes away from the very idea of mountain biking, shedding the fast paced, citified lifestyle in exchange for some winding single track with expansive views. Racers tend to approach riding as more of a challenge, and faster is always better. Ultimately, both pursuits will enrich your riding experience tremendously. Even if you lean more toward riding than racing, experience in one will always make you better at the other. Nowhere is that more apparent than during an endurance event like 24 hour racing.

For me, racing and riding differ largely because of the voices in my head. When I ride I’m able to zone out. Sometimes miles will pass and I’ll have only the slightest idea of what I’ve just ridden over. Maybe I was thinking about how the tall grass makes the wind visible, or meditating on past trails I have ridden. Maybe I was dwelling on how the dust, mixed with the lupine smells like grape flavored gum. Racing is different. I carry on constant conversation with myself and my focus narrows to a few bike lengths in front of me. The voices in my head volley in some schizo banter that falls somewhere between praise and derision:

Yin: “Full on, you’re passing the big guy like he’s riding in sand!”

Yang: “Yeah, you’re passing him, but he whupped your sorry as in the run and he’s got a cowbell tied to his bike!” Point. I pedal faster, pull alongside the big man, smile “Nice bell”. Then I ride on, thankful that the voices speak only to me. During a cross country race or in cyclecross, zoning out usually means you’re done. The voices provide focus. In a 24 hour race you’re toast if you can’t tune them out, at least from time to time.

The line of riders snakes along, moving fast in front, finally blurring in the warm waves rising off the trail below. The first lap goes by fast despite the heat. Ten miles. The last stretch slides along Laguna Seca’s car racing tarmac. Here people line either side of the track close enough to smell the riders as they go by, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone they know – a John Stamstad, a Tinker Juarez, an Allison Dunlop, wanting to be front row when an overzealous rider turns into an over the bars rider. All waiting for a reason to cheer loudly.

The roar is friendly, encouraging, energizing. The race clock and finish line beckon. Coincident with the time to pass the baton comes a second wind borne on the crowd’s enthusiasm. Dismounting reluctantly, I run the bike through the finish line, rap the baton on the table and pass it to Stout. One down, maybe four or five more to go·. If no one gets hurt, or bonks hard. Stout is arguably in the best shape of the five of us. He races competitively in kayaks, on foot and by bike and he’s been training hard for this race. Our ace in the hole, Stout is at one extreme of our team’s bell curve. Dave, who is also a fine rider, is at the other never having raced before and riding a rigid. Herein lies the beauty of endurance racing: you are your primary competition. A team can consist of people with various goals and/or skill levels who will still feel totally jazzed by race end. In a 24hour race you can beat your last lap You can lap the dude with the cowbell, or not eat shit in front of the crowd at the bottom of the stairs – it’s really all you. If you didn’t get it right last time well, very soon you’ll have a chance to do it again and to do it better. Then you’ll have a chance to do it again. My voices know this. They use it. I love it.

Almost an hour gone by and there was no sign. Not unreasonable, especially if he had a flat, but typically he could crank this course in just over 3/4ths of an hour. No rider can leave the start/finish line without a baton, however a teammate can ride the course in either direction in order to recover the baton from someone who’s had a breakdown or who is injured. That lap, however, is voided and the new rider must start again. As we were discussing the options, still hoping Stout flatted, he shows up sans chain and pushing his ride. He looks tired and hot, ready to pass on the baton. Tap, tuck, and without waiting for Stout’s explanation, Dave is off.

Stout rides fast, but does little else that way. His story comes out in bits and pieces. He’d had a fast start on a warm day, but cleaned

the first part of the course without mishap. At the end of the single track, just below the stretch of dirt road affectionately termed ‘the grind’, the lower pulley screw in his rear derailleur fell out. Amazingly, Stout

found it quickly and was able to reinstall the pulley without losing much time. That was the end of luck for his lap. At the base of the two-mile plus uphill grind he broke his chain. To this day he’s not sure what happened,

whether he was shifting and cranking too hard, whether he had a bur in his chain ring that caused the chain-suck, whether Mars was in alignment with Venus and Jupiter I think the engineer in him wanted to be able to explain.

Just over two miles to the finish and he had the choice to repair the chain and hope it would hold or to run the hill with his bike. He chose the latter. He’s a good runner and a good runner should beat a good rider up a steep hill· if the runner doesn’t have a bike to push uphill at the same time. It was more uncomfortable than he’d thought to run off-kilter, leaning over pushing the bike ahead by the seat but by the time pain had

really set in he’d gone too far to quit. Despite the fact that he was clearly bummed about what would have been a great time, his lap time really wasn’t so bad. Next time it would be faster. There were approximately 22 hours left. Plenty of time.

Meanwhile retro Dave was rattling through his first lap on the bone white Bridgestone. Earlier he’d been grousing about being given only two weeks notice for the race. But Dave knew the trail fairly well and was in good shape. Basically, what he lacked in training he made up for in size: Dave has the body fat of an insect. Imagine your x-ray on a bike. Not a guy who should be riding a rigid through rutted single track. After some late spring rains, even the fire road was washboarded and, to hear him tell it, Dave lost a nut somewhere in the initial stretches of downhill. Apparently he didn’t stop to look for it because he crossed the finish line less than an hour after he started. Even down a nut the boy climbed like a Sherpa.

Next came Chris, who is the only one on the team I worry about. He flings himself completely and utterly at whatever life throws down before

him. Whether cooking in the kitchen or on a bike. Riding, he’s completely fearless and descends just on the hairy edge of control. Usually he eschews training. Then again, he is one of those rare individuals who could

survive off Oreos and beer and look like he exercised and rode for a living. Perhaps I worry needlessly, but I’ve lived with him and I know the boy has burned a lot of toast. Today he was rock solid, breaking neither himself

nor his bike. Eventually, he would ride anchor and finish the hottest and last lap looking as fresh as his first·but that was still a long way off.

Daylight gave way to dusk and night fell without further

mishap. Ride a lap, cut up some vegetables to add to Brian’s famous curry (we try never to let Brian ride because he’s too fine a cook), stretch, put lights on the bike, scarf some curry, turn a lap. After midnight, the menu

changed to corn. Most of the cagey, seasoned veterans anticipate a nice piece of corn on the cob as a precursor to their warm sleeping bag. Although not the first food I would choose, normally, to eat after a hard ride, it’s like the race itself and somehow it just fits.

Post corn, we stand by the bonfire and add stories to those already piling higher than the flames- tall tales grow as daylight fades. Tonight the moon would be old and not rise until late. Riders spoke of the “loose stuff” like it was quicksand, and the fog, cold and thick, like it was a live thing trying to make their laps harder. Headlights were of no use, the light scattering unfocused off the drops of water like broken glass. Bar lights were the

way to go. Some stretches of rolling hill were out of the oaks and the moonlit trail, if it were clear, would be bright enough to be ridden

without lights, by Braille. I looked forward to this because it reminded me of night rides in Southern California with old friends Baldy and Shoe when we were too poor to afford lights and unable to use them anyway because the trails were illegal and patrolled.

A rider can miss a wake up call in a 24 Hour race, or maybe just give in to a warm sleeping bag and call it quits until the morning. Whatever the case, racers seem to spread out at night. Sometimes you even feel alone on the trail. After the thrill of riding in a pack, listening to somebody behind you pant doggedly on for half an hour or, worse, chasing some colorful lycra just in front, the gap widening then narrowing and then widening again, it is weird, surreal to be riding alone. The acrid smell of dust gone, damped down by fog. Your own

tires crunching over gravel the only sound. Even the grind, the 2-3 mile stretch of fire road, passes more quickly when you can’t see it stretching endlessly up ahead.

I felt Peter shaking me awake, back from his 3 a.m. lap. Pawing my earplugs out, it was too early for my tongue to actually work, but I must’ve succeeded in making some small un-snorelike sound because Peter began to talk about his lap. It was tarmac black when he took off with the baton, but the moon soon rose, bathing the Live Oaks and grasses in silver, and casting shadows that made the familiar trail seem new. Peter was particularly moved by his night laps and the early morning ride was nothing short of religious for him. On returning to our camp,

on a hill and removed from the melee of the pit below, he had sat silent in the dark before waking me. When I could focus, I saw his eyes shone with a light they’d not had before, “I had the most incredible lap” was all he said but his awe hushed voice hinted at so much more. I wondered about what they’d talked, the voices in Peter’s head.

The fog had cleared. It felt much colder outside the tent than in. I realized my fourth lap would bring daybreak but the thought brought no warmth yet. My legs felt used but at least they weren’t sore. I wiped the dew off my bike seat and put it in the work stand to clean the chain and lube it, also for the fourth

time. Probably not necessary but over time even inanimate objects take on a persona and I wiped off my bike the way a jockey would rubdown his horse, talking softly to it between bites of banana, wishing I didn’t feel so tired.

Dave was sick. He felt food poisoned. I preferred

to think it due to the missing ‘nad rather than Brian’s curry. Whatever the reason, he was as pale as his bike and could not ride. Running up the grind, Stout had pulled something as he leaned over his bike to push it. Since

then he had ridden some slow and painful laps but racked his bike when he began to have problems walking.  I

thought then of a 24 Hour Race some years before. I was riding in the dark but had seen a strange motion in a light up ahead. The light pointed

up the trail, right up the steep part of Hurl hill, but it jerked erratically, spurted forward, paused then lurched again. Stop, pause, lurch

forward. As I got closer I made out the figure of a rider off his bike. Just before I rode by, he flung the bike forward, clamped hard on his brakes and hopped after it. He had only one leg. Hurl hill is too steep for some people

with two good pistons. I’ll never forget that gritty, determined image and, when I feel tired, especially at night, I cling to it like he clenched his brakes. I believe he completed 13 laps. He rode solo. Heroes are everywhere

and extreme events unmask them all the time.

At the start of my last lap, I glanced over at Peter’s lap time: Fifty-three minutes would have been tough to beat during the day, especially

at this stage in the game. Yikes.

Maybe it was the lights of Salinas, but I imagined that I saw more of a glow already rising in the east. I cast a glance over at the fire, red coals dying but far from out. I reminded

myself that I was the competition. I smiled as their heat began to seep through my Swobo’s and into my legs and I thought about all I

could accomplish before breakfast·.and about how good the beer would taste at noon.