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.
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.”
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.