Got an itch to ride a 24-hour race solo? The trick is making it to dawn

By Jesse Smith

Topping out on last climb on lap nine, two and a half hours from the finish.  Photo: ©

Topping out on last climb on lap nine, two and a half hours from the finish. Photo: ©

If you’ve sampled 24-hour racing as a competitor on a relay team, you’ve probably entertained the thought of racing a 24-hour race solo. Once you’ve tasted the odd mixture of pain, celebration, delirium and camaraderie, it’s hard not to be intrigued by the thought of attempting the whole enchilada yourself.
During my first 24-hour relay race at Laguna Seca in 2007, I clearly remember my impression of the soloists riding in the midnight fog. They appeared to me as ghosts as I passed them, slowly and quietly inching their way through the darkness.

Their private struggle, the seeming nobility of riding alone through the night, independent and self-reliant, like the heroic loner in an Old West movie, captivated my imagination.

At the same time, I thought, “It can’t be that tough.”

And so it was that I found myself joining the ranks of the men’s solo singlespeed category this February at the “24 Hours in the Old Pueblo” race in Tucson, AZ.

Getting in Gear

I had the best laid plans. I employed the very best of my organizational skill to prepare for this event. I had my situation entirely planned out from the number of laps I would aim to complete, my nutrition, on down to the exact pair of socks I would wear at which time of the night and day.

Nevertheless, prior to race start, I was nothing more than a ball of anxious energy, constantly double-checking my chain tension and tire pressure. Any sense of organization or anything resembling clear-headedness had been lost. I’ even developed a paranoia that one of the cleats on my shoe was loose despite having tightened it twice. I was nervous, to say the least.

The start of the race, like all other 24-hour races I’ve experienced, began with a spandex stampede. The corralled competitors were set loose by shotgun fire and a herd of bike jerseys and helmets dashed through the desert, dodging cacti in their cleated shoes, roughly a quarter mile to a crowded mass of bikes.
Unless you were among the first to enter the bike staging zone, finding your bike amongst the dust, racers and other bikes was a bit like searching for a loved one in the chaos of a street riot.

Guess which part of the pack I was with?

Training Lessons

Since I write this geared not toward the experienced racer, but for first timers like me, I must stress that it’s likely much of what you know about competitive cycling will be upended in your first solo 24-hour race.

I found out immediately that it was virtually impossible to train for these races based on my pre-existing model — “Find a route similar in length to the race course and ride it once a week at race pace.” During a 24-hour solo, you may log anywhere from 150-300 miles in one race, so that begs the questions: Where is a course suitable in length and what the heck will my race pace be?
Clearly it is not reasonable to head out on a 200-mile training ride on any given Sunday. Thus, I had to tailor my training to mix high-intensity with endurance in a model that fit into my busy lifestyle yet also adequately prepared me physically.

The other shocking realization was how much food I would need relative to other races I had entered. Similarly, the make-up of that fuel would take on a completely different form in order to service the demands of long-distance endurance racing versus high-intensity sprint racing. This meant a higher percentage of fat and protein, and a much larger overall calorie count.

“Unless you were among the first to enter the bike staging zone, finding your bike amongst the dust, racers and other bikes was a bit like searching for a loved one in the chaos of a street riot.”

Sundown Struggles

Sometime around sundown, the rosy picture of my first solo race was shattered. I hobbled into my camp after about 80 straight miles fending off a nauseous stomach and an aching neck. As the sun fell crimson in the western sky and hung out that spectacular sunset as only the desert can, I pulled on whatever down clothing I could find, laid down and tried to figure how I would manage to finish this race having completed just six of the 24 hours.

It was during this time of doubt that it became clear to me that the beauty of these races does not lie overarchingly in the romantic notion of steely, bull-headed independence, but predominately in the strength provided by those who are there to help and support you. For a stoic character like me, this realization was a little uncomfortable at first. It was the notion of heroic, man-against-wild independence that was one of the chief attractions calling me to attempt this solo 24-hour race in the first place.

As one after another of my friends entered my tent to assess my state of being and encourage my effort, I felt the life and spirit to race return. Their calm words and kindness formed a platform of solidarity shared by those who have been in similar straits and it soon calmed my nerves. I strapped the lights on my bike and headed out into my first night lap.

The Light of Darkness

Night riding is ironically the most illuminating aspect of 24-hour racing. It is during these laps, particularly those completed during the very wee hours of the morning when the cold and dark are at their most penetrating, that much of the energy of the event slows to a crawl. You find yourself shedding warm clothing to wheel off down the path for another lap into darkness, and soon your world shrinks to the 20-foot strip of dirt in front of you.

You begin to see your experience, exactly as I did, not in terms of finishing time, lap splits or division results. Instead you find that you are simply alone in the dark cold Sonoran desert pedaling your bike and it’s an all-together spectacular moment for no other reason than that.

Still, there is nothing more welcome than your first “dawn lap.” Whatever you do, make sure you are on course during this magical time. For my dawn lap, I had to coax myself out of the grips of a bonfire into cycling clothing and an icy wind at 5:30 a.m. Midway through my lap, the paltry light of my headlamps was gradually replaced by the sun’s first rays. As the desert landscape reemerged, the warm light refreshed my tired, aching body and hoisted my spirit for a final push to the finish, just a measly six hours away.


Upon completion, I found that the winner of my category, men’s solo singlespeed, had logged 18 laps for a total of 305 miles. This meant he rode twice as far as I had in the same time. This realization was entirely humbling, but also reminded me that this discipline of 24-hour racing is less about results than it is about seeing what you are capable of. Each standing from first to last place can represent a personal victory.

Another lesson I took away from my inaugural solo 24-hour race is that you need to train emotions just as much as you train your body. You will experience a lot out there, and not all of it will be good. A 24-hour race is all about rolling with it, literally and metaphorically.

Jesse Smith is a licensed acupuncturist and founder of Santa Cruz Family Acupuncture. He has competed in numerous disciplines of mountain bike racing and is the co-founder of the grassroots race team Miracle Racing,

More photos of the “24 Hours in the Old Pueblo” race available at