By Jared Chausow
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As unlikely as it might seem, bicycle racing used to be one of America's top spectator sports. Granted, it was before George Mikan or even Ty Cobb, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of fans would come to Madison Square Garden and other arenas around the country to watch six-day races, where solo riders would complete thousands of laps around a banked velodrome track, often pedaling for more than 24 hours in a row.
"Those races were as big as the Super Bowl is today," says Carl Burgwardt, owner of the Pedaling History Bicycle Museum in Orchard Park, New York. "But in 1898 the New York State legislature banned riding for 24 hours, saying it was inhumane. So it was changed a bit. Teams of two men each would ride for six days straight, though each rider went for just 12 hours at a time." These "Madisons," as they were called, "were the second most popular sport in the country, after baseball," Burgwardt says.
Bicycle racing as a spectator sport went into a coma in this country after World War II. While European city-to-city stage races, like the Tour de France, prospered, Americans' loyalties turned to football, hockey, boxing even table tennis: anything besides bike racing. And with good reason: most bike racing is boring. Attending a stage race involves waiting around for several hours only to watch the riders race by in several seconds. On television, all but the most sophisticated viewers find it impossible to determine who is in first place.
About 10 years ago, mountain biking became a popular recreational sport. Its appeal was that one could ride on quiet, rugged dirt trails tucked away in the woods, far from concrete and automobile exhaust fumes. Mountain bikers enjoyed the danger of riding along rock-strewn cliffs and across flowing streams. They laughed at the grim determination of serious, Lycra-clad road bikers, who seemed to ride only for the sake of adding miles to their training logs. Mountain biking, conversely, was a giddy journey, where you could lazily explore a forest or scare the crap out of yourself by negotiating a boulder-laden precipice.
Offroad biking, however, has yet to catch on as a popular spectator sport. But it's begun to achieve a cult status thanks to the emergence of 24-hour mountain bike races the sport is starting to generate a bit of a buzz.
The concept, similar to the Madisons of 90 years ago, originated in 1992 with Laird Knight, a West Virginia bike race promoter. "Actually, I was inspired by the 24 Hours of LeMans auto race," Knight says, "and wanted to do a mountain bike race in the same style."
His first event, the 24 Hours of Canaan, which took place in Davis, West Virginia, featured 36 teams, each composed of two to five riders. One racer from each squad would circle the demanding 12-mile loop and then pass off a baton to a waiting teammate. The event began at noon Saturday and kept going until noon Sunday, with riders using battery-powered headlamps at night. The team that completed the most laps won.
bbb The race became an annual event and each year more and more teams trekked to West Virginia. Thousands of spectators began coming, too, and they would pitch tents, watch the racers, and party for 24 hours straight no easy feat, either. The event is sometimes compared to Woodstock, and with good reason: there is mud, camping, a festival atmosphere, music throughout the night, the occasional hit of bad acid, a surplus of good vibes, and a paucity of hot showers.
The race, now known as the Toyota 24 Hours of Canaan, had 500 teams this year, many of them coed. I captained one made up of my fiancée, Andrea, and three friends, Brian, Dan, and Ken. To say we were ill-prepared would be a severe understatement. I was the only one who had ever competed in any kind of bike race, and neither Dan nor Ken had ridden more than 15 times in their lives. We prepared by working out a few times each week, but I had the nagging feeling that such anemic training was merely tilting at treadmills.
But skill or vast amounts of training aren't prerequisites to compete in Canaan (the $100 entrance fee is), so there are a great many amateur competitors. Yes, there are elite racers who can finish the course in less than one hour. But it wasn't all Jimi Hendrix and the Jefferson Airplane. There were lots of riders like us overweight, slow, unseasoned who, two hours into our laps, still found ourselves far from the finish line. We were the Sha-Na-Nas and Keef Hartleys.
We proved our worth 15 minutes into the practice ride: On the initial descent, Dan crashed over his handlebars, breaking two bones in his hand. Not five minutes later Ken skidded on a rock and landed on his thumb, incurring a deep bruise. Both wound up too hurt to race. Which created a problem: Dividing 24 hours of riding among five teammates had been an acceptable task. Each person would ride for two hours, then rest and nap during the eight-hour interval. Splitting it among three people, with just four hours' rest between rides, seemed near impossible.