Matt Niswonger

The Hammerstein 24 hour MTB Race, June 8-10, Laguna Seca
Story by Matt Niswonger • Photos by Michael Horn

Race director Jim Northey prepares the riders for the starting gun. Photo: Michael Horn

When I first heard that Jim Northey was hosting his Hammerstein 24-hour MTB race in Laguna Seca, I took it as a sign. Laguna Seca is one of the birthplaces of 24 hour mountain biking. This was meant to be. I had to do it.

For anyone unfamiliar with the format, “24” is usually just a hundred or so mountain bike riders screaming around a ten to twelve-mile loop, all night long. The race starts at noon on a Saturday, and it’s “pedal to the metal” until noon on Sunday. Some do this as a team relay event, taking turns through the night, and other particularly masochistic individuals try to ride for the whole 24 hours in the solo category. Well known as a fun event, with loud music and plenty of heckling, 24’s are also highly competitive. Experienced racers come to have a good time, but they also push their bodies and bikes to the limit to take down friendly rivals.

I pretty much got crushed the last time I did a 24 in 2008, but that was then and this is now. Not wanting to repeat my mistakes of 2008, I started reaching out to a few select individuals, and point-by-point, I sought to remedy the mistakes of the past. The 2012 Hammerstein would be different in every way from my last 24.

My first mistake in ’08 was that I rode solo. As I found out the hard way, going solo is way too brutal for a casual mountain biker, especially one in his forties. I’d be just as likely pull a hammy or break a hip than ride for 24 hours straight! The last thing anyone wants to hear while racing a 24 is that phrase from the Life Alert commercials, “ Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

Seriously though, with mileage counts approaching 150 (and beyond) for the race, solo category riders are serious enduro-junkies who enjoy wrestling with their inner demons all night long. Not my bag. This year, I was riding on a team.

My second mistake in ’08 was my bike: A rigid single-speed with a gear ratio of exactly 2:1 pushing 26-inch wheels. For non-riders who are unsure what this means, the English translation is “torture machine.” Out of the saddle like a blood doping road biker on every hill, I was then spinning the pedals like a crazy wild-man on all the downhills. In other words, my bike required a minimum level of fitness that I didn’t have. By contrast, this year I was going with a geared bike – perfect for the venue – a Santa Cruz Blur LT.
Part two of my bike issue in ’08 was that it was a hardtail. Not that hardtails aren’t excellent for certain conditions, but 120 miles on fireroad and singletrack meant that my legs, butt, and spine had to suck up every bone-jarring bump. No thanks. This year I was treating myself to a new FOX CTD suspension system with integrated fork and rear shock adjuster and a five-inch drop FOX DOSS seat-post. Let the good times roll.

From left to right: Chris “X Games” English, Michael "Treelegs" Horn, Matt Niswonger and Barnaby "Bullet" Lee.

Equally as important as the right bike, I knew that picking the right team was a make-or-break decision. I had been warned that certain core values have to align for a team to gel. In my case, I was looking for teammates who are very serious about having fun. Luckily, I had three guys in mind who are the right combination of strong rider and easy-going personality:

1. Michael “Treelegs” Horn: Michael Horn is a big guy with a gentle personality who works at Fox, loves a good laugh, and eats, drinks, and breathes cycling.

2. Chris “X Games” English: A pilot by trade, Chris switched to cycling when he destroyed his ankle in a snowboarding accident.

3. Barnaby “Bullet” Lee:
A fixture in the Santa Cruz cycling scene for over two decades, Barnaby brought street-cred and overall speed to the team.

With three ringers by my side, clearly things were looking good for team ASJ. Our campsite was right in the middle of the warm-up area where all the other teams could see us. So, I suggested we all drop down and fire off 100 push-ups just to intimidate the competition. Nobody else thought this would be funny, however.

After the starting gun, Barnaby took off like, well, a bullet after the traditional “ceremonial” lap behind Jim Northey’s ATV. Coming in at just under an hour, we were off to a good start.

Photo: Michael Horn

The course was about ten miles long, and favored riders who were comfortable with sand and able to keep speed through rolling hills. Most riders from the Monterey Bay area are familiar with the Sea Otter “Gran Fondo” races, and this pretty much sums up the Hammerstein. Basically just fireroads interspersed with sections of singlerack rolling through the Oak trees – nothing technical, just sections of sand to keep things spicy. Sick riders were coming in at 45 minutes, while average riders were doing slightly more than an hour per lap. However, I knew from my race in ’08 that fastest lap times were much less important than average lap times.

Team ASJ kept the hammer down as the sun set, with Treelegs, X Games, and Bullet all registering fast second laps.

Night was upon us as I left for my second lap, so I fired up my Light & Motion helmet mounted Stella 300. Unfortunately the wheels fell off for Team ASJ at this point, because I missed a crucial turnoff – not once, but twice – and became hopelessly lost in the dark.

Barnaby "Bullet" Lee going out for another lap.

All smiles, Barnaby. Photo: Michael Horn

Celebrating a quick lap. Photo: Michael Horn

Banaby stretching. Photo: Michael Horn

Exhausted, I limped back into camp after being gone for over three hours. Now I was clearly the Least Valuable Player of Team ASJ, having cost us the podium if not the gold. Switching gears into serious “suck-up” mode, I tried to sweet talk my way back into the team’s good graces. Approaching Michael who was dozing in a chair next to the campfire, I said, “Hey big guy, you look tense. How about a foot-rub?”

“No thanks”

Or: “Hey Barnaby—should I make you a s’more, or would you prefer hot cocoa?”

“I’m good.”

Sheesh. Clearly I was going to have to work hard to win these guys over after my nighttime snafu.

X Games had to pack up and leave to fulfill a work commitment, so it was time for the remaining three members of Team ASJ to pull together and make up for lost ground. I rode a lap at dawn that was slower than I’d hoped, but watching the sunrise as I chugged up the final incline made the whole effort worth it. The three of us kept pushing until just after 11am and then we called it a race.

When the airhorn sounded at noon it was high-fives and hugs all around. The Hammerstein 24 was a huge success. As I packed up my tent, I thought back to 2008. While there is nothing quite like the accomplishment of riding over 100 miles solo in 24 hours, racing on a team is ten times more fun. We are hooked. Team ASJ will return next year.

Thanks to our sponsors for making all of this possible: FOX, Ryders Eyewear, Coconutz Fuel, Family Cycling Center and Seabright Brewery.

Family Cycling mechanic, Emery Wedel, installs my CTD suspension.

CTD: Climb, Trail, Descend
FOX’s new ride dynamics system

For the Hammerstein 24, I treated myself to a new FOX suspension system. The new CTD system is integrated, meaning the fork and shock have common technology that function consistently to boost performance.

CTD (Climb, Trail, Descend) is FOX’s new package that includes the fork, the shock and a new adjustable seat post called DOSS. The three modes are easily accessed on the fly with a big lever.

FOX’s CTD suspension uses the Climb mode to replace the need for a lockout. In the Climb mode both the fork and the shock are engaged in the firmest low-speed compression setting for maximum pedaling efficiency, with enough movement to take the hard edge off bumps and keep tire traction. Complementing my Blur’s built-in climbing features, my bike is now ascending with a noticeable improvement in overall “pep”. Now I can only blame myself for falling behind on grinder hills.

The Trail mode is the middle suspension setting and provides a moderate tune for a blend of pedaling efficiency and bike control on varying terrain, similar to the tune of the RLC. The Descend mode is designed for steep, aggressive descents and offers the best damping setting for smoothness.

On some rides I find myself going straight from Climb mode to Descend because the effects of the Trail mode are subtle. Longer rides—with big sections of varied terrain in between the climb and the descent—are where the Trail mode shines.


FOX CTD shock

DOSS adjustable seat post

The FOX DOSS adjustable seat post comes standard with the CTD program. Drop in On Steep Sh*t is the nickname, and true to the CTD theme, it has three modes.

On the post, the Climb position is full height for maximum climbing power, and the Trail mode is the middle position that provides 40mm of drop for a lower center of gravity and better trail control. The Descend mode, the lowest position of the seat, readies you for the maximum clearance to avoid getting tangled up in your bike when the terrain gets airy.

I had a constant grin on my face the first time I tried out my CTD suspension and DOSS adjustable seat post. The overall effect is that it energizes the feel of my bike and raises the fun factor of every ride. — MN