Video by Devon Balet Photo.
With the profusion of marathon mountain bike events and the growing popularity of the expanding National Ultra Endurance (NUE) Race Series, I keep hearing talk that the days of 24-hour races are numbered. The argument goes like this: With bigger purses and less time commitment for training, marathons are skimming top-level racers and enthusiasts alike away from 24-hour events, where shrinking attendance means a downward spiral of higher registration fees, more reticent sponsors, and fewer races.
There's some truth to the argument. For example, the 17-year-old 24 Hours of Moab saw around 30 percent fewer teams in 2011 than in 2010, and there was talk that the event could be cancelled (though, happily, it looks like the show will go on). And at the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo two weeks ago, I heard lots of racers talking about the NUE. "I'm doing the NUE series this year," Trek Bicycle Store racer Jonathan Davis told me between laps at Old Pueblo, where he decided to skip the solo category to save himself. (Instead, he raced duo with his 10-year-old son, Tanner.) "It's too hard to be competitive in NUE and also show up ready for longer races. Solo 24 takes a lot out of you." Then again, Davis added that he's definitely going to September's 24-hour Solo Worlds in Canmore, which looks to be attracting a deep and star-studded field.
I raced 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo for the fifth time this year and was struck by the huge crowds and big sponsor presence (headliner Kona Bikes turned out a number of teams for the launch of their King Kahuna Carbon 29er, including Solo Male winner Corey Wallace). Blessed by the warm-weather riding it delivers to racers so early in the season, this Tucson, Arizona, event is part bike race, part Burning Man-style festival, with some 3,500 people descending on a cholla-and-prickly-pear-spiked swathe of open desert. "For the last four years, the event has reached the 1,800 rider capacity earlier in pre-registration than the year prior," says Todd Sadow, President of Epic Rides, which organizes Old Pueblo. Judging by the turnout and the carnival atmosphere, it's safe to say that this race, at least, is as healthy as ever.
The experience got me thinking about the viability of 24-hour racing in general. Having just witnessed so many people out riding and enjoying themselves at a 24-hour event, I can't see these things going away any time soon. With that in mind, I give you ten reasons to sign up for a 24-hour race now:
1. Riding—and lots of it.
2. It's Hard. I don't buy the argument that marathons are going to win out because they take less training. For one thing, they don't. But beyond that I honestly think people like the challenge of 24-hour racing. It's part of why you do it: to see if you can.
3. Bargains—you can often score deals on equipment at the expos and used bikes from other racers.
4. Mountain bikers are generally cool. I'm always impressed with how friendly everyone is at these events. People share camp space and food. Racers stop to help folks with flats. Slower riders pull over and let faster riders by. Crowds stay up all night and shake cowbells. (Although I did have a run-in with a group of decidedly lame Front Range Coloradans who apparently didn't get the Good Vibe memo.)
5. Schwag. There's always something good in the racer bags (T-shirt, water bottle, Stan's, energy food) and you can count on lots of raffles and gear tosses at the pre-race meetings. Watch yourself though: I saw an unsuspecting racer get clocked in the head with a free tire.
6. Night riding. It's damn fun, but most of us need an excuse to get out and do it.
7. People get wacky at these things—in a good way. On my sixth lap at OP, in the middle of the night, I rounded a bend to find a garden gnome and a blaring boombox perched on a little boulder. A few laps later, near dawn, I saw a guy in a gorilla suit (at least I think it was a guy in a costume) running away from the course into the cactus-fringed open desert. Why? Who knows. But those sort of antics keep you going.
8. Breasts. In the 25th hour in Tucson, minutes after I'd gone to the tent to lie down, I heard a roar of hooting men when some hot chick came racing through for her final lap—topless. I was way too tired to get off my back and investigate. But keep your eyes peeled.
9. Post-race gluttony. When else is it okay to have four cookies, two burgers and fries, three bourbons, and a tub of ice cream?
10. It's addictive. If you've ever done a 24-hour race, you've told yourself more than once in the midst of the race that you'll never do it again. But you always change your mind. Who knows why, but the challenge—a.k.a the suffering—is somehow irresistible.
In case you don't know where to start, here's a few to choose from. One word of advice: register early, especially if you hope to solo, as slots fill up fast (one more piece of evidence that 24-hour racing is hardly in decline):
- Burn 24-Hour Challenge: WIlkesboro, NC; May 26-27, 2012
- 24 Hours in the Enchanted Forest: Gallup, NM; June 16-17, 2012
- 24 Hours of Adrenalin: Canmore, AB, Canada; July 21-22, 2012
- 24 Hours in the Sage: Gunnison, CO; August 18-19, 2012
- 24 Hours of Leadville: Leadville, CO; September 1-2, 2012
- Tommyknocker 24: Fort Bayard, NM; September 1-2, 2012
- 24 Hours of Adrenalin: Hurkey Creek, CA; September 10, 2011
- World 24 Hour Mountain Bike Championships: Canmore, AB, Canada; September 14-15
- 24 Hours of Colorado Springs: Colorado Springs, CO; October 1-2, 2012
- 24 Hours of Moab: Moab, UT; October 6-7, 2012
- 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo: Tucson, AZ; February 16-17, 2013