by Jacob Sheppard
I’d heard about this idea of a 24-hour relay race on MTBs, but I didn’t really get it. 24 hours? Trail riding in the middle of the night? Stripping off your kit at 11 pm knowing you’ll just be squirming back into it at 2 am? I race bikes so I understand the allure of suffering, but this kind of suffering was a head-scratcher for me.
So when Nick Adsero emailed me looking for a fourth member of the RCR team at the Round and Round 24-hr race in Spokane, to take the place of an injured Josh Simpson, I was skeptical. But way too curious to say no. I warned Nick that I didn’t own a bike, or MTB skills, or experience, but when he still wanted me to jump in, I took it as an opportunity to try something new, not to mention an honor to race bikes with some of the RCR originals. So I got a bike, signed up, and tried not to think too much about what a stupid, stupid move this might turn out to be.
Memorial Day weekend in Spokane could be any kind of weather imaginable. On Friday, as people were setting up camp in Riverside Park and getting in their pre-rides on the 15-mile course, a squall line came ripping across the landscape, with drenching rain and nonstop lightning and thunder. And then 15 minutes later the weather was gone, and the course was bone-dry and dusty. That was it for the interesting weather, it turned out – the rest of the weekend was hot and dry (well, except for the nighttime racing, which was downright pleasant).
Our strategy for the race was simple – rotating through our four-man lineup one lap at a time. Steven Smoothy Williams – the ringer – went first, then Nick, then Mike Brown, then me. The plan was to keep that rotation all the way through.
The race starts LeMans style, with an unnecessarily long run (more than half a kilometer) before you can get on your bike. I’m guessing there are few dirt races in which the holeshot matters less than this one, but nevertheless, some folks went HOT from the gun. Smoothy kept it steady, though, and waited until he was on the bike to start picking people off who’d wasted their legs on the run.
I was all nerves for the 3 hours before my lap – first MTB race, hadn’t done a pre-ride, had no idea how to dole out my energy over the course of the race, etc… When my turn finally came, of course I went out too hard, and when I hit the one significant climb on the lap, less than 15 minutes in, I was already feeling the effects of the heat and the effort. At the one semi-technical descent of Devil’s Down, since my meager tech skills disappear completely when I’m tired, I chickened out and took the bail-out route around it. At the top of the bail-out, I was probably 15 seconds ahead of the guy I’d come around earlier in the lap. At the bottom, I didn’t see him, and thought “oh, I guess the bail-out route isn’t too bad a handicap!” It wasn’t until near the end of the lap that I finally caught the guy again – he’d probably put close to a minute into me while I was plodding around the bail-out.
I hit the line at the end of my first lap feeling way too spent, and I was worried about the rest of the race. But a bunch of water bottles and a dip in the river later, I’d shaken the bad feelings and was ready for more. At this point (evening), we were sitting in 2nd place, only a few minutes back from the 1st place team. We started to realize that if we held it together, we were in good shape for a good result. But 24 hours is a long time, and Browner, who’s done this race 25 times or something, kept telling us, “Don’t even look at the results until the morning. They don’t mean anything until the morning.” But we’re racers, and we had to look.
After a couple rounds through the line-up, we had a sense for the times we were putting up, and how they compared to the other teams. We were feeling good about that, especially about Smoothy’s times – consistently blazing fast. And slowly, we eased into 1st place. But we knew that the 2nd place guys were matching up with us pretty evenly, and it was looking like it could be a battle.
Nighttime started out uneventful. Everyone’s times went up a little, but not too much, and we all knew the course by now (no more bail-out route for me) and still felt good. Sleep was hard to come by – the time it took to recover from a lap and then get ready for the next one only left 1.5 hours max in between – but we were hanging in there. At 3:15 am, though, Nick came into camp after a lap that had taken much longer than we expected, and told us he’d put his rear derailleur through his wheel about 3 miles from the finish. He got the wheel spinning again and ran/kick-pushed his bike across the line, adding 20 minutes or so to his lap time, which was enough to drop us down into 2nd. Like Mike said, the results don’t mean anything until morning…
By the time morning came, though, things were looking up again. Nick’s bike was fixed (always carry a spare hanger, kids!), Smoothy was still putting in monstrous laps, and the rest of us were still ticking along consistently. And we were back on top!
At around 6 am, we could see the game plan for finishing it off. We’d do one more round through the line-up, and then we’d probably have time for Smoothy and Nick to do one more lap with Browner and me getting off easy. I tried to throw down in my final lap, and I was spent by the end, but my time wasn’t quite up there with earlier in the race. Didn’t matter, though. Smoothy absolutely railed it for his last go, and then Nick just had to watch the clock and spin on his lap, coming in at 12:03 pm and putting the cap on our 1st place.
Even with Adsero’s early-morning mechanical, we finished just about 30 minutes head of 2nd place. The feeling of winning after an effort as demanding as those 24 hours was really, really sweet.
Like Mike Brown said, “It’s fucking hard to win a bike race.” So stoked that I got the opportunity to ride with these three RCR legends and do my part to get us a win.
Photos by Bryan @ Woodinville Bicycle, which is not Recycled Cycles, but is awesome for taking so many good pictures.