Monterey, California This year's 24 Hours of Adrenalin at the Laguna Seca Recreation Area was chock full of foul weather, broken bones and gut wrenching inspiration. Basically, all the makings for a great weekend of endurance mountain bike racing.
With the solo field not welcomed back to Granny Gear's 24 hours of Canaan, Laguna Seca's solo field was extra strong. The two dozen solo men mingled with the mass of team riders waiting for the "running of the bulls," more commonly known as the Le Mans start.
The Le Mans start is where push comes to shove running for fear of being trampled is the primary focus while negotiating a cattle shut of chain link fence with half-crazed bike junkies cheering us on. It's hard to hold back and not ride the wave of emotions which roll up around me.
Every race I tell myself, "relax, hold back start out slow, work into it." That strategy sounds good at first, but when the horn goes off, the crowd starts screaming, and the cow bells clang, I'm just like everyone else... running for my bike like track star.
If the bottom line is to finish, John Dalman (Bianchi) went beyond. During the early laps, John went down hard and when the dust settled, a painful wrist would be his clue that something very wrong had happened. Back in the pits, the evidence became overwhelming, a broken wrist, but five hours, and a trip to the hospital, later Jon was back at it riding with a soft cast and lots of painkillers. Jon survived a night of hell completing a respectable 15 laps.
The team competition started tough and never let up. My favorite guys on CBF Racing had their hands full with the Armadillo Willies. These two corporate teams shredded sub-50 minute laps from the beginning. Not even fog so thick it was edible could hinder these guys. The weather was not much of a factor for Velo Sapiens either; this two-man team literally rode away from the field, and finished with an amazing 23 laps.
And for me, and th men's solo field, the usual suspects were riding in the grove. By 8pm, John Stamstad (Chevy Trucks) had a slight lead on me. The night was fast approaching and my crew support, Dave Dewbrey, informed me of Greg Blackwell's (Fisher/OCG) position just 40 minutes behind. I had had a good position going into the night...or so I thought.
While I felt prepared for the night, Dana Bradshaw (Dean) was having a completely opposite experience. Between eight and midnight, lap after lap, Dana experienced the gamut of mechanicals. It all started with a messed up front derailleur which lock the drive train. Once back in the pits, his crack mechanic fixed the problem and off Dana went only to have the same problem reappear.
"I was so frustrated when I got back to the pits, I didn't want anything to do with the bike. I couldn't trust it," Dana said. The next lap, on another bike, became even more frustrating this time it was a double flat lap. Now, having one or two mechanicals in an ultra race is not the end of the world, but four hours of non-stop mechanicals' definitely pisses you off.
While I rode tentatively around a course I knew intimately by day, but was a stranger to by night, Greg Blackwell started picking up his pace. The guy from the North, from the land of wet and slimy, where moss covers everything, was favored by these course conditions.
In the pits I needed food and dry clothing. My metabolism started bouncing on zero and I knew sitting down would be the end of me. But I had no choice; I had bonked. The wind was making me shiver uncontrollably. Dave hustled around, getting me a sleeping bag, a hat, gloves, bologna, yogurt, potato salad, whatever. I needed to get out of the wind.
Chloe Lanthier (Rocky Mountain) the solitary solo woman raced against the clock and herself. It could have been easy to slow down, take a long break, savor the win, but not Chloe. She rode nonstop for a record 16 laps maintaining a pace to finish an impressive 9th overall.
I definitely did not want to start this next lap with John on my tail, but of course he caught up to me and we entered the first singletrack together. The fog and wind were gone and visibility was excellent. I was feeling better even though the pace was kind of fast for just coming off the couch. But then, all of a sudden, I hit a rock on a power stroke which flipped me over the handlebars. My hip landed square on a pyramid shaped rock. While I lay, flopping around like a fish out of water, my bike jacknifed in the middle of the trail and John came running by.
Now two laps down and with a bruised hip, I wondered what more could go wrong? Well, how about a bloody nose. Not a one nostril leaker, but a double blow out and me with nothing to dam them up. "This really sucks, why do I do these races?" I need to get my head examined.
The sun is rising, birds are singing, and the smell of sundried grass lifts my spirits. Like a shedding snake, I let go of the previous night's mistakes. Six hours left and the teams are cranking up the pace. There is light at the end of the tunnel and everyone can see it. For me, the next five laps will be critical in how I place. Back in the pits, Dave keeps track of my lap splits, monitors my XL-1 drink intakes and keeps my jersey pockets filled with Fireball energy gels, leaving me to work on getting my lap times close to, or below, one hour. What a team!
Sunday morning heats up the, by this point, extremely familiar 11-mile loop, which has evolved into a humongous sea of washboard ruts. My palms ache from the relentless brutality. Hurl Hill is like climbing a wall but is the only reprieve before the next palm punishing downhill. The course ends climbing up "The Grind," a.k.a. the wind tunnel. The best part of The Grind is being able to see far ahead; I almost always found someone to focus on and try to catch. The last palm punishment ends with a trip over the Boss Bridge, a run up one set of stairs, cross the bridge, then bounce down two sets of stairs. The crowd loved the bridge. I would have hated to stack it up on this tooth jarring descent.
There is a three-way race for first in the open age division. Teams C.V.Weeners, Bicycle Trip and Diego Francisco are within minutes of each other. Pumping up The Grind, Brett Wolfe is riding steady. He has "done some damage," but will finish. Whether negotiating the Boss Bridge or carving a single track line, this guy is inspiring to watch. Brett does it all with total style.
Looking into Dave's bloodshot eyes at 11:40am, I see an adrenaline crazed, sleep deprived junkie, who has been nursing me along for the past 23+ hours. "Dave, do I need to go out for one more?" I whine. The junkie's eyes sparkle; he knows I will do what he says. Matt Ohran (Pharmanex) tells me i don't have to go out. I look at Dave, he nods, "Yes, you do." I do.
Once again, third place is in the bag. The pressure off so I can enjoy this last lap. I saw John and Greg riding into the venue before noon. Will they hold back and wait it out? I have a premonition they choose to ride another lap. I half expected them to catch me in the single track, but they didn't so I sit in the shade at Checkpoint Three, sipping water and wait. I was right. Here they come, "I've been waiting 20 minutes for you guys," John says. "What are you doing sitting around, get on your bike." We chat away the time on our last trip up The Grind. Sort of like the last time, the usual suspects together again.
Pat Norwil, MountainZone.com correspondent