The Jumping Cactus🌵
I’m standing in the exchange tent surrounded by several dozen riders, each of us fully kitted and nervously fidgeting. My usual pre-race jitters are amped up by the fact that I don’t know exactly when my race will start, just that when my teammate enters the other end of the tent after completing her lap, our team number will be called and I will take the baton—a small wooden dowel that formalizes the handoff between racers—and go.
As I wait, my mind wanders thinking of all of the things that could happen out there. My teammate could flat. Or crash. Or bonk. “787.”
There she is! Wow, she turned a faster lap than I expected. I slip the dowel into my jersey pocket, run from the tent, leap over a few baby-head rocks and throw a leg over my awaiting steed. Seconds later, I’m weaving through cacti on some of the sweetest trails I’ve ever laid tracks in. At last, I’m racing one of the longest-running and most popular 24-hour mountain bike races in America—24 Hours in the Old Pueblo outside of Tucson, Arizona.
The pace is fast. Very fast. Forget the fact that we’ll be doing this all night long and halfway into tomorrow; this is a bike race! At least, that’s one part of the story.
Gathering of the Tribe
“It’s equal parts party and mountain bike event,” says Todd Sadow, the president of Epic Rides, who started this event fresh out of college 21 years ago. Now, every February, some 4,000 people and their RVs, tents and bicycles populate the temporary “24-Hour Town” in the middle of the Arizona desert. Lance Armstrong, who raced here in 2018 and 2019 with some of his former WorldTour teammates, called it “Burning Man meets Woodstock meets Leadville,” because as renowned as the race itself is, it’s the weekend-long experience that has #24HOP selling out in less than an hour every fall.
Unless you’re one of the 200 or so riders who race this event solo, the 24-hour format leaves “big windows of time to drink cold beverages, hang out with your buddies, meet people from all over the country and enjoy desert living,” says Sadow. If, like me, you’ve ever crossed the finish line of a race disappointed to see volunteers taking down the tape and packing up the party, you can appreciate the opportunity to hang out and trade stories with fellow mountain bikers as you await your next turn.
Beware the Jumping Cactus
The landscape in which this event is set is one of breathtaking beauty. Characterized by high elevation and dense vegetation, this stretch of Sonoran Desert is a checkerboard of private- and state-owned land unlike anything I’ve seen before. With the snowcapped Santa Catalina Mountains in the background, there are some 50 species of cacti coloring the rolling hills and making the textured landscape look like a scene from a Dr. Seuss book.
“The cacti look fuzzy,” comments one rider, who has clearly not yet gotten up close and personal with a jumping cholla. While the cholla cactus doesn’t actually jump, the slightest touch—from, say, a racer who leans too far into a corner—will leave a ball of barbed spines painfully embedded in the skin. It is why the welcome packets handed out at registration contain a pair of tweezers, which racers are encouraged to throw in their jersey pockets. I do. And yes, I use them.
Interestingly, the cacti present perhaps the greatest challenge to racers wanting to set PRs. “The course is not technical,” says Sadow. “But the faster you go, the more technical it becomes, because the course is lined with cacti. It becomes more critical you stay between the lines.”
Honoring a Legend
Each year the race honors an individual who has had a lasting impact on mountain biking. The 21st Annual 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo presented by Tucson Medical Center is dedicated to Rebecca Rusch. The seven-time world champion, Leadville 100 winner, author and Emmy Award winner had raced here earlier in her career and returns to 24-Hour Town this year for the first time since 2014.
“She’s been such a prevalent personality who has put mountain biking in front of so many people—mountain bikers and non-mountain bikers alike—to help people understand what our sport is and what it means in their lives,” says Sadow.
The “Queen of Pain” herself stopped by our campsite the night before the race to offer some words of encouragement. We picked her brain for advice: “Prioritize recovery. Body, bike and gear in that order,” says Rusch. She talked about the upcoming Iditarod Trail Invitational, in which she will again race 350 miles across Alaska in subzero temperatures. As we all brace for the considerably lesser challenge that lays ahead of us the next morning, Rusch left us with this final bit of advice: “Most of all, relish in the fact that we get to do this.”
The sun rises on a race day that is quite different from what I’m used to. While most races start early in the morning, 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo runs from noon Saturday to noon Sunday, leaving plenty of time this morning to drink too much coffee and tinker with bikes and equipment.
Our six-person team, organized by Scott Boulbol and Nic Sims of Simbol Communications, is racing a borrowed fleet of Pivot Mach 4 SL cross-country race machines for 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo. Pivot Cycles, whose headquarters is located just a short drive away in Tempe, Arizona, seems to be the overwhelming brand favorite among the local riders here—and after racing the Mach 4 SL, I understand why. The bike feels custom-made for these loose-over-hardpack trails. The bike is light and fast with a subtle 100mm of travel, and once I dial in the suspension and tire pressure, I am railing corners and attacking climbs. The Mach 4 is clearly in its native habitat.
We outfit our Pivots with some interesting new technology. First, we replace the mechanical shifters with Archer Components D1x electronic shifters. The D1x system converts any mechanical rear derailleur to wireless electronic shifting. The difference between D1x and other systems (besides the fact that you don’t need to buy a whole new drivetrain) is that it allows you to tune shifting by .25mm at a time. Clunky shifting—and we all know the feeling—is easily fixed trailside, as the D1x allows micro-adjustments to each sprocket to perfect each gear individually.
The Archer system works flawlessly for me. I find it much easier to shift under load, whereas with my usual mechanical setup I would have had to gingerly finesse gear changes mid-climb for fear of dropping a chain. I like it so much, I decided that I’m going to install it on my bike when I get back to Texas.
We also throw a pair of Hustle Bike Labs REM pedals on the bike. Hustle uses powerful neodymium magnets centered within the platform of its pedals to attach to an REM plate that mounts to a standard SPD two-bolt fixing. This allows for nearly unlimited play and countless foot positions while keeping my feet firmly connected to the pedals. It takes 128 pounds of pull force to remove my foot from the pedal—easy to do when I want but strong enough to prevent accidental detachments.
The Hustle pedals are equally at home under new riders or pro riders, as they offer benefits to all on the trail. Newer riders who don’t quite feel comfortable going full clipless may find these to be a much less stressful experience. Riders who like to go back and forth between flats and clipless as part of their training no longer have to swap out pedals to do so. The Hustle pedals we ride are prototypes but expect to see them on the market soon.
Human Stampede of Lycra
While I can’t wait for the race to begin, I’m relieved to not be riding first for our team. 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo features a Le Mans start, meaning that when the gun goes off at high noon, swarms of racers—some of them in ridiculous costumes—run a 1/2 mile down a dirt road and scramble to find their bikes. If you ever need a good laugh, watch several hundred mountain bikers running in their cycling shoes!
The start is lined with thousands of spectators cheering, ringing cowbells and video recording the absurd parade. The human stampede of Lycra goes on for several minutes, leading me to wonder how in the world that many riders will fit on one 16.3-mile loop. I’m envisioning lots of traffic jams out on the course, which fortunately never happens.
I am scheduled to ride fifth for our team, and since we estimated approximately an hour and 30 minutes per lap, I won’t ride until close to 6 p.m. With time on my hands, I wander over to the Expo, buy some merchandise, watch a track stand competition, talk to local trail advocates, down some calories (the food trucks are fantastic!) and demo a Canyon Lux 8.0.
When it’s finally my time to hit the course, I push the pace right from the start. With approximately 1,200 feet of elevation gain per lap, the trail doesn’t feature any brutal climbs; but, when riding at the upper limits of your fitness as I was, the series of steep, rolling hills at the beginning is more than enough to sear your legs. I average close to 15 mph on the fire road before passing an old horse corral and dipping into the singletrack.
The bulk of the course is flat, fast and twisty. The aforementioned cacti require that racers remain alert at all times, yet there are plenty of opportunities for passing. It seems to me that every racer out there, no matter their level of skill and fitness, is passing some riders and being passed by others. But, the field has spread out nicely, and everybody I come across is courteous and respectful.
The driving force behind these well-manicured trails is three individuals who, for more than 20 years, have chosen to winter in their vans out here in the desert. A 73-year-old woman, who rides a rigid single-speed, and her 80-year-old husband are the namesakes of the Junebug and His and Her trails. While I didn’t meet them—apparently they head for the hills when 24-Hour Town comes around—I think about how challenging it must be to clear the treacherous cacti from the trails. They no doubt have earned all the beautiful riding they get to enjoy when 24-Hour Town isn’t in operation.
The weather this weekend is beautiful—70 degrees in February—and as the sun starts to set, the sky and landscape light up with pinks, purples, oranges and blues. I realize now that I hit the jackpot by drawing the sunset lap! I am also immediately grateful that I had the foresight to strap lights to my bars and helmet when I set out in broad daylight.
Eventually, I reach a landmark called the Whiskey Tree, where a dozen or so spectators are pressuring riders to stop and take a swig of bourbon. “No, thank you!” I call out. Not with the long, gradual High Point climb ahead.
When I reach the High Point Trail, the surface gets a bit rockier, and there is a decided headwind to contend with. After blasting through the early part of the course, I have to dig a little deeper to settle in and grind my way to the top.
Once there, I reach the most recognizable feature on the course—the double-black diamond Rock Drop. There’s a bypass for those who aren’t up for it, but for most of the racers out here, it’s an adrenaline-filled rush to make a sharp left-hand turn between some rocks and then drop down the sheer face of the feature. The Rock Drop is surrounded by spectators who have parked themselves on boulders to heckle racers and taunt them into sending it off a perfectly positioned jump at the bottom.
The last few hundred yards of the course wind through the tents, RVs and campsites of 24-Hour Town, and the trail eventually leads into the exchange tent. As I dismount and hand the dowel off to my teammate, I look up at the running clock and quickly do the math: one hour and 18 minutes. Roughly 12.5 miles per hour. I’m thrilled with my first effort! (Only later do I learn that 1:18 was the 1,894th fastest out of 6,338 total laps—not exactly world-class speed.)
My next lap is scheduled for roughly 1 a.m., so remembering Rusch’s advice, I scarf down a pizza, get into some dry clothes, set my gear out for the next one and try to get some sleep in the RV. With my heart rate still elevated, sleep proves hard to come by, but the rest is nonetheless appreciated.
Creatures in the Night
As a reader of Mountain Bike Action, you likely have a pretty healthy obsession with mountain biking. You’ll ride just about any time and anywhere your schedule will allow. Me, too. But let me tell you, my obsession is tested when I have to peel myself out of a warm sleeping bag and head out into the cold desert air.
Temperatures have dropped some 30 degrees, and it feels as though half the population of 24-Hour Town is asleep. I throw on arm warmers, ear warmers, knee warmers, a vest, heavier gloves and two pairs of wool socks and march down to the exchange tent.
Once out on the trail, the reward for venturing out into the night is immediately evident. The desert is incredibly beautiful at night. All the unique-looking cacti take on ghostly appearances and cast eerie shadows. I hear coyotes yipping in the distance. Several jackrabbits and field mice cross the path in front of me, and I tap the brakes just quickly enough to ensure they scamper off unharmed. But without question, the most prevalent wild animals out here tonight are all on two wheels.
The amazing thing about night riding on a looped course like this one is that there are times when you feel completely alone in the wilderness and others when you are not alone at all. As I crest a climb and look out over the desert floor, I see dozens of lights dotting the desert floor and winding their way along the trails. Before long, I catch up to another rider and have a nice conversation about the incredible stars overhead.
Sometime around 2 a.m., a bright orange slice of half moon appears low in the sky. Looking like an advertisement for Sunkist, it prompts me to remember my nutrition. I down some GU Energy Chews and once again churn my way up the High Point climb.
At the top, I find the Rock Drop now deserted. No hecklers, no cameras, no cowbells. Suddenly, I miss all of them, as it seems to be harder to descend down the feature alone in the darkness than it is in front of a raucous crowd.
As I finish my lap, I roll up to a volunteer who seems to embody the spirit of the entire event. Stan Lattin, a mountain biker and trail builder from Fallon, Nevada, is out in the cold, dark night hugging riders and helping them turn off their lights before they enter the tent. “Welcome back to 24-Hour Town!” he says. “Lights off for safety! We don’t want to blind the volunteers.”
Working a Double on the Graveyard Shift
When I pull into the exchange tent this time, there’s no teammate to be found. Like a school kid stepping off the bus to no awaiting parent, my heart sinks. I realize my teammate must still be sleeping.
I do a quick self-assessment and tell myself that I feel strong enough to keep going. Besides, who knows when I will have this chance again? So, I tell one of the volunteers that I’m going out for another. Working a double on the graveyard shift. Of course, the soloists out there would laugh at my idea of grit and determination.
With a mindset tuned to just enjoying the experience, I let my foot off the accelerator a bit. I skip the rolling hills and take the slightly longer but significantly more fun singletrack bypass. In fact, there are several bypasses woven into the course intentionally, and I decide to experience every one of them. I soak up the night, as the rest of North America sleeps. I will have earned my sleep in the morning when my teammates finish off our effort.
When all was said and done, our crew notched 15 laps, or 244 miles, in 24 hours, good for 39th place out of 80 corporate teams. The overall winning team, a group of four Californians who call themselves Not So Pretty in Pink, racked up an amazing 23 laps, and the winning soloist, Josh Tostado from Breckenridge, Colorado, tallied 20 hard-earned laps by himself.
Personally, I totaled 83 glorious miles for the weekend. Not the most I’ve ever ridden, but perhaps the most memorable. Overall, the 2000+ riders rode more than 101,000 miles. I have no doubt that every single one of them felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
Back in the real world with my mind still in the desert, I receive a post-race e-mail from Epic Rides. It acknowledges that “racing” is a relative term. “Everyone’s there to ride first and race second.” The note goes on to say that everyone who participated in this year’s 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo “took first place for being the best at enjoying life.”
That, fellow adventurers, is what 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo24 Hours in the Old Pueblo is all about. I’m now convinced that a life well-lived is one that includes at least one Old Pueblo experience. Cheers to you, Epic Rides.
↓Video Update: Perseverance In The Old Pueblo↓
By Stans NoTubes
A lot can happen in 24-hours. Follow pro racer Taylor Lideen and weekend warrior Mike Rice through the trials and tribulations of racing the solo class at the 2020 Epic Rides 24-Hours in the Old Pueblo. Mike sets out to escape work and challenge himself, while Taylor sets his sights on a record-breaking 21 laps.
A 24-hour event can take both the body and the mind to some extreme places, and filmmaker Cody Wethington captures just what it means to push yourself to that limit.
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