Scare Yourself Shiftless

In a 24-Hour mountain bike race, life begins at 4 a.m.

Luckily, dozens of riders unattached to teams usually show up at the race, so we headed to the registration area and right away found two to join us. They were strong, fast, and, most important, willing to share their beer.

Such good luck is common at 24-hour races. Riders are just as anxious to be helpful as they are to be winners. The Hugh Jass team, for example, specializes in providing aid to racers in distress by carrying around extra batteries and spare tools. They bring along a retinue of 50 fans to Canaan, who turn a section of the race course into a big living room, complete with plush couches, a trampoline, kegs, and a disco ball, which riders are encouraged to touch for good luck. Most famously, the four teammates share a single pair of shorts for the whole race, swapping them during the baton pass.

To make it through a rocky, steep, root- infested bike trail, which sometimes narrows to just 15 inches across, one needs to follow a few maxims that are also relevant to real life. Like "Don't stare at the hazards. You always end up where your eyes are focused." Or, "If you're in trouble, pedal faster. Inertia causes crashes."

Streams of consciousness: somewhere between the 16th and 17th hour
photo: Daniel Green
Streams of consciousness: somewhere between the 16th and 17th hour

Riding the Canaan course, there could have been another one: "No matter how difficult things get, they are bound to get even harder." The route starts with a steep climb of 300 vertical feet, then drops into a fast, straight downhill through some trees— that's where Dan broke his hand. Then it is a pleasant ride for a few miles, passing the Hugh Jass entourage and other spectators in the camping area.

That arcadia shortly ends, though, and riders soon find themselves negotiating an arduous 900-vertical-foot climb. From there, it's a rocky road (literally) to another absolutely dreadful ascent, dubbed "the Wall." It's a pathetic scene there, as all but the burliest of riders have to dismount and push their bikes.

The first time you navigate the Wall, it's a challenge. When you hit it again on your next loop, a few hours later, it becomes a pain. By the third go-around, when it's 4 a.m. and you've gotten perhaps 20 minutes of sleep, it becomes the most horrible thing that you can possibly imagine, a curse you must endure to pay for some long-forgotten sins. Our team was slow enough that we didn't have to do it a fourth time. Sluggishness has its rewards.

From the top of the Wall, an exhausted rider comes to a steep, terrifying downhill, referred to as "Crash and Burn" on course maps. Medics sit perched in the trees, their first-aid kits warmed up and ready. Steep pitches are easy to spot because big groups of spectators gather there, unapologetically hoping to witness a spectacular fall.

Riding down these pernicious sections can be harrowing. For most of us, every bone in our timorous bodies screamed: "Don't fracture me! Get off the bike and walk this part." Yet most of us felt strangely compelled to act courageous in front of strangers, so we stayed in the saddle, choked the brake levers, and, with a little luck, barely avoided yawing into the rocks and trees that formed a gauntlet along the course. The spectators cheered our derring-do, though I suspect they were a little disappointed at having to wait another few minutes for spilled blood.

Despite the sadistic magnetism of Canaan, it is safe to say bike racing will never again be the number two spectator sport in America. But if there's any event that can lift the sport out of its doldrums, that can get people out to actually watch a bike race, it is the 24-hour competitions. The events (there are 13 in North America this year) have everything: speed, constant action, violent crashes, weird competitors, and a festive atmosphere.

With all that, the sport should at least become more popular than table tennis.

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