A conversation with 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo winner Jonathan Davis.
Many people say that 24-Hour racing is on the decline, but you wouldn’t think so if you’d attended the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo a few weeks ago. Nearly 4,000 people, including 1,857 racers, poured out onto a stretch of empty desert just north of Tucson, Arizona, to take part in this 14th annual running of the event, mountain biking’s answer to Burning Man. Temperatures were warm (which is part of what attracts the crowds), winds were stiff (making for tough racing conditions for most of the day and night), and competition was fierce.
The Old Pueblo.
At the end of the day, Jonathan Davis, a 40-year-old professional mountain biker from Blackhawk, Colorado, collected top bragging rights by winning the Solo Male category. Racing for the startup Trek Colorado Race Team, Davis dueled it out with endurance legend Tinker Juarez. After a nerve-racking night, Davis eventually outlasted Juarez to notch 19 laps and 306 miles. We chatted with the winner about what it’s like to beat an Olympian, how he gets in shape so early in the season, and why he thinks 24 Hour racing will never go away.
Congrats on the win. Were you expecting that?
Quietly hoping, sure. Expecting it, no. I placed second in 2011 and spent 2012 training to come back and try to win this year. But 24-hour races are brutally hard and all kinds of things can go wrong: Crashes, bad pits, your legs can blow, your eyesight can go, bike mechanicals, and your body can just quit on you. I wanted it bad, but I definitely would not say I expected it. That would not give the race the respect it deserves.
How did you train for it, especially with the holidays and winter weather?
After last season, I took my first real break away from the bike in three years. For six weeks, I didn't touch a bike. Then 12 weeks from Old Pueblo, my LW Coaching training started back up and it was intense. Most days were three-a-days, meaning an early morning ride or elliptical workout, midday gym work like core and yoga, then my main bike workout toward the end of the day. Weekdays focused on interval work that built power and endurance, and then weekends were back-to-back six- to 10-hour ride days. It was pretty standard to do 25 to 30 hours per week.
During the holidays, you just had to squeeze it in. Being the dead of winter at 9,200 feet where I live, I had quite a few ridiculous rides for sure. One weekend started around -12 degrees Fahrenheit and never climbed over 8 degrees, with the added bonus of light snow. I laughed at myself more than a few times when I was out riding in weather that silly. But Old P was not going to accept the excuse that I missed my workouts because it was snowing and cold. If I wanted to do well, then I had to train. You have to respect the goal. That’s just how it is. As a side note, there was often a feeling of peace being out in nature in such unforgiving weather. The quiet suffering that endurance cycling evokes really is a thing of beauty.
In the race, you had quite a battle with Tinker Juarez. Take me through it?
One of the coolest race experiences of my life for sure was racing head-to-head with Tinker. Judging by Tinker’s last three wins, which I studied carefully before the race, he likes to go out fast and hard then dial it back and cruise. I’m a diesel engine so my game plan had to be steady, steady, steady. I figured that he would be a good 20 minutes up on me by six hours in, but after that I could start pulling back time and catch him by morning. As it turned out, my first laps were faster than expected and by lap six Tinker and I were head to head. This was a little scary because Tinker has lots of experience, and the guy knows how to get it done.
Tinker and I traded laps for most of the night, with a lot of tactical game playing. Several laps, he either waited for me to leave the pits first or slowed up on course so I would catch him. Either way, he’d ride my wheel the entire lap. This was a smart play as he was saving a ton of energy drafting in a very strong headwind. He had no intention of taking pulls. So, I adjusted my strategy. I would stretch my pit stops longer to make sure he went out first and then ride far enough back that he wouldn't see me. On lap 14, our speed dropped significantly, and toward the end of the lap I noticed he was have a really hard time riding some techy, twisty trail. I decided he was no longer waiting for me but was just fatigued, so I took the pass, pushed hard the rest of the lap, and blew through my pit to crank out another solid lap and put some time into him. When I came in from 15, I learned that Tinker hadn’t gone back out and my race was pretty much done. I was able to just ride safe and clean for the rest of the race.
What happened to Tinker?
From what I hear he had trouble with his eyesight late in the night. Old P is known for being very hard on the eyes. Maybe it’s the dust. He was not the only soloist this year that dropped from eye trouble. Anyway, I don't really know Tinker personally, but I see he crushed the U.S. cup season opener this weekend, so it looks like he is back to his normal fast self.
It must have been intimidating going up against an Olympian.
Going into the race I was definitely nervous about my chances of taking on Tinker and winning. I had raced him a few times in the past, and he beat me every time. Tinker has always been one of my favorite mountain biking icons. I can remember watching him kill it at the Norba Nationals back in the late ‘90s. I always dug how he would race with no small ring up front and kill the climbs in his middle ring. So yeah, it was intimidating.
One thing that helped a lot was having raced the National Endurance Series (NUE) last year. I did 14 of those 100-plus-mile events. The first couple times I lined up for them I remember thinking, “Yikes what am I doing up here on the front line with Olympians and nationals champs?” But after a few races it became less intimidating. A fellow racer and good friend of mine, Kelly Magelky, once said to me: “If you want to be fast, you have to try and hang with the best. One race it will be an hour, then three hours, then five. Then one day you’ll be there at the end.” That advice really stuck with me over the years.
Everyone keeps talking about how 24-hour racing is dying with the advent of the NUE series. What do you think?
They seem to be losing some steam for sure, although you wouldn’t know it at Old Pueblo. I think this year was the most competitive solo field that race has ever seen. But they are definitely contracting.
Twenty-four hour races are stupid hard and require a huge time and financial commitment. I think those are the main two reasons they are falling off. A solo 24-hour race crushes you, and with recovery times of a month or more, it really cuts into the season and limits how many races and how much training you can do. Then there’s the investment in things like lighting systems and back-up bikes. You have to find support if you are solo, and you have to take a four-day weekend. It all just makes 24s harder to pull off than other types of events. But I'm confident they won’t die completely. They’ll tighten up 'til there are just a few really good ones, like Old P.
Twenty-four hour solos are not as “fun” as other disciplines in the sport, for instance the new stage races like the Breck Epic or all the new enduros. But they are incredibly satisfying. No other races bring me to tears when I finish like a solo does. There’s just such a huge and overwhelming feeling of accomplishment with these. That’s why I think they’ll never go away.
It was recently announced that there would be fewer categories at 24 Hour Nationals this year. That can’t help.
I was very disappointed in USA Cycling for that decision. A few years ago, they moved nationals from Moab, which was a very experienced venue, and after that there was a major decline in attendance. Now they say they’re cutting the national categories because of that decline, but their decisions are the reason attendance decreased in the first place. I personally know a handful of people who had planned on racing at Nationals this year, but now they are not going to go because their categories are no longer national championship categories. Nats was on my schedule long before this decision, so I will be racing solo this year for sure. But after this year I can’t say for sure. I’ve always believed in and supported USA Cycling, but lately I am just not sure many of the decisions they are making are good for the sport. It’s frustrating.
You’ve sprung onto the endurance scene quickly. How did you get so good so fast?
I’ve actually had two racing careers. In the mid ‘90s I raced in the NORBA National series and moved to Colorado to work toward turning pro. But after one season I stopped racing to start a family and build a business. Fast forward 11 years, and I was 242 pounds, I had high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and I was pre-diabetic with doctors telling me I had to make a change.
My wife, Kathy, somehow talked me into training for a marathon with her. Those first few runs I could not get around the 1.8-mile circle we live on without walking the hills. Over the course of 16 or so weeks I had the worst shin splints and knee pain I have ever experienced. Long runs would put me out for days. But I suffered through, lost 44 pounds, and ran a 4:05 marathon in March of 2009. That was my gateway to riding again. I bought a bike, entered a Cat 2 35+ XC race, almost died, got 7th place, and I was hooked. Since then I’ve hired a coach, moved up to Cat 1, changed my diet to get down to 175-pound racing weight, turned pro, and committed everything to being the best I can be.
So how did I get so fast? I honestly think I am more stubborn than I am fast. I have learned that giving everything to whatever you pursue in life breeds success, be it racing, your kids, your marriage, your job, whatever. So what my coach schedules, I do. What I should not eat, I don’t—well, most of the time. What gear I need to buy to be successful, I save money and make the purchase. I’ve done over 110 races in four years and at many of them every bone in my body hurt and my brain yelled “Quit!” But I never did. I fear quitting. I’m afraid that if I quit at something like a bike race that I chose to do, then I will teach myself that quitting is okay and that will bleed over into my marriage, my health, and the things that are really important. I believe anyone can achieve their dreams if they are willing to work really, stupid hard, sacrifice a lot, surround yourself with loving positive people, trust in God, and never be comfortable with failure.
It has to be tough to support yourself as a mountain bike racer. How do you do it?
It’s very tough, to say the least. My biggest asset is my wife, who has given up a lot for me to pursue this dream. We rarely take non-event vacations. We don't buy new clothes or eat at fancy restaurants anymore. We don’t stay at hotels, but instead camp to save money. For now we are living off the income we earned selling a business we built over the years. That might seem silly to some people: work really hard to build a business, then sell it just so I can race bikes. But the number of days we’re blessed with living is unknown, so you have to take chances to really be alive. I’m striving to taste and experience life in its fullest before the chance slips away.
Do you have any advice for the aspiring endurance racer?
If you are willing to do the work and stay consistent and committed, you will be successful. But if you skip your workouts, eat crap, and watch TV when you should be training, then you’re going to hate it. There is no faking endurance racing. Just remember: the hardest things to accomplish are the most satisfying things in life.