While cross season still feels as though it was mere moments away, a few weeks off the bike and some solid R&R at home in the flat light and monotone colors of a dry January left me more than ready to head south. The mid-February cult gathering of mountain bikers seeking relief from winter climates in the Tucson desert sold out in just over seven hours this year. Around 1,800 racers and over 3,500 people set up camp just outside of Oracle, AZ ready to see who could turn the most laps on a cactus shrouded 16.1 mile course in the Sonoran desert.
This year I was invited to join the five-person co-ed team led by Enduro Bites founder Brian. We had a few shuffles for team members as most races with registrations six months earlier then the event but managed to secure the fifth and final team member with just days remaining before the race. I enjoyed a peaceful drive down with an overnight in the El Malpais National Monument. I imagine you aren't supposed to spend a night parked there but there aren't many visitors and the ease in which you can hide a large white van between a 3.8 million year old lava flow and chalk cliffs is well worth the effort.
The skies opened up as the weekend drew nearer and the bone jarring, pothole ridden, dusty, 11 mile drive off the highway to 24 Hour Town transformed into a quagmire of greasy mud, axle deep ruts, entrenched cars, and an exceptionally slow-moving line of traffic inching their way towards the weekends destination.
After being directed one at a time through and clearing what was presumably the worst portion of the road, I barely made it up the following rise with more sliding, spinning, breath holding, and traction desperation than I had yet experienced in the van. Moments later the skies opened up yet again to a short lived but drenching downpour and I could only imagine how many vehicles were now stuck on that slick off-camber uphill.
The little encouragement I provided to the team to show up at their earliest convenience and secure a camping spot failed and we were left to bargain with those already there which involved less bargaining and more heated bantering about how much space a team did or did not need. The van mysteriously found its way into an already taken area with promises of utilizing minimal space and we set up our barely-there camp of two 10x10 tents.
Three of the five of us had made it in Friday, with one driving up Saturday morning and another spending two hours on the dirt road after an 18 hour straight drive only to be turned around one mile before reaching us when they closed the road to low clearance cars after dark. With some help from a backhoe and as much sleep as a 6’6 guy can get in a VW Golf, the last two team members made it Saturday morning with plenty of time for an impromptu team meeting and quick hashing out of a game plan just as the sun came up to burn off the fog.
The race kicks off at noon with a Le Mans start consisting of a quarter mile stampede to a collection of over 500 bikes belonging to the sole or lead member of each of team. We nominated our runner based on leg length and stacked our team by predicted speed. The chaos that ensues is awe educing, we held up a broomstick with a bright orange Enduro Bites t-shirt as a flag so we could be found and got our rider on his way.
My first lap would be over four hours in so it was time to eat and chill out and make sure the bike was ready. I re-upped my Stans just to be safe, tied my very first number plate of the year on the front of the bike and pulled on a chamois. With little to no riding in the past few weeks and definitely no hard efforts since cross nationals a month earlier, I warmed up a bit on the Omnium before heading to the transition tent. Having not ridden the fat tires on the actual trails much this season with the muddy home conditions and no-pre ride due to rain, I was pretty nervous about how my start lap would go.
The handoff came and I was out the door, as I began the endless game of passing I felt my heart rate skyrocket with the shock of that first hard effort hitting me like a wall of brick. With each racer that I approached I secretly hoped they would hesitate to let me by so that I could have just one more breath of recovery but almost every rider cleared the trail quickly and smoothly and let me slide through.
I moved through the first section of rollers known as the “three bitches” figuring I should still have three 30 second full gas efforts in my legs left over from cross. Somehow I counted five or six rollers as opposed to the three the feature is named for and as I crested the final one I wondered what position that effort would leave me in for the rest of the lap. I did recover as the course flattened out and I was relieved my bike handling was still with me as I carved and weaved my way through the twisty cholla encased singletrack.
Nothing is more reliving in a 24 hour event than seeing the tense face of your teammate waiting for the handoff as you roll through the tent and on shaky legs I passed our baton over, escaped the buzz of the transition area, and climbed through all the camp sites up the hill to our set up at the very top. Recovery drinks, removal of a knee full of cactus thorns I hadn’t noted acquiring, a baby wipe bath, dry clothes, and sandwiches later we checked the results to see we were sitting in a close fourth place. A lot can happen in a 24 hour period but we had some work to do and consistency to maintain if we wanted to reach the front of the race.
Our wildcard late addition to the team turned out a lap equally as fast as the other four guys with my lap times being about five minutes behind. So far our consistency was impressive, lap times do slow in the dark but with no mechanicals we could slowly gain ground on the other teams. It wasn't long before we slipped into the front of the race.
My second and third laps were in the dark, I borrowed a bar and head lamp and hoped for the best. Not knowing how much charge was on it, ten minutes into the first night lap the helmet light went out leaving me a little slower in sighting my turns. I managed to pull off a reasonable pace, definitely feeling the fatigue of having not been on the bike much lately but still finding it in me to accelerate out of the corners, keep the rubber side down, pass other riders quickly and smoothly, and power up the last uphill.
I managed 30 minutes of sleep as the morning hours neared, then woke up to a cold sweat and solid panic over the confusion of what time I needed to be getting ready. We had debated skipping my lap as it was the slowest of the five but we seemed to be on track leading the 38 five person teams while also holding a place in the top ten of all the race teams. With the thought of pulling on more stretchy pants less than desirable, I threw on some jean shorts, hoped a wool long sleeve would be the right combo and headed back down the hill.
Our lap times were indeed shortening in the daylight and I was quickly out and on my way marveling at the lack of ooph in my legs and questioning my clothing choices. Final lap fatigue left me a little heavy on the saddle and as I bounced over an unseen bump I came down hard on the rear of my seat causing it to flip up. Having spent the last three laps thinking the nose was half a millimeter high at least I was relived to not be dwelling on that any longer.
I had been utilizing more standing power on my third lap and now I really had to stay out of the saddle. I could feel even those muscles going but the innate urge to catch and pass each rider I caught sight of kept propelling me forward throughout the lap. I started to fret that the second place team hot on our heels might have the early morning epiphany of swapping their rider order to utilize their fastest racers, and that as slow as I was going, us not looking at this possibility more closely could cost us the race.
I spun the last few miles of trail, relived I could descend in the daylight without re-aiming my bar light to the ground in front of me after each bump flipped it to the sky, and thanked each racer as they pulled off to let me pass. Fatigue is real at this point, many racers simply hear you coming and move over to give you room welcoming the chance to slow their own pace. I tried to make up whatever time I could on the final descent as my uphill power output for the lap felt significantly behind the original.
I pulled in to the tent, greeted my handoff and literally shoved him in the direction of the door at his comically lackadaisical transition. I turned around to see our closest competition performing their own handoff on the other side of the tent just seconds behind us. They had done what I had predicted and swapped out their order to run their fastest racer again. Our eight minutes lead time had slipped to a mere 30 seconds as he barreled into the tent just moments behind me.
Anxious at the proximity of our race and the jeopardy of our lead, but delighted at discovering I had turned a lap just three minutes different than my first, I cruised back up to the camp to find Brian and Jason jean clad and hotly debating who should get to do a fifth lap. Team mom (me) stepped in to direct Brian to chamois up as he had been having the most consistent laps and we got him on his way. We held our breath as the transition to the final rider came but our lead had grown back to a less stress inducing eight minutes separating us and second. Brian went out in a flourish of adrenalin to seal the deal with a clean final lap.
The four of us hiked back down to the transition tent in anticipation and with fingers crossed to welcome Brian in and he rolled through the finish chute 11 minutes after noon, ten minutes ahead of the second place racer. Elation was the feeling of the moment as we had high hopes to do well but little expectation to finish on the top step. Our rag tag bunch of racers, two on single speeds, having not brought tents, food, lights, chairs, beer, or means to charge anything battery operated, pulled off a top ten out of over 500 teams and brought home the wood for the top step. Not a shabby way to start out the mountain bike season!