24 Hour Mountain Bike Nationals

The cast iron skillet was the last item to be placed into the red 1998 Ford Windstar with the crumpled left-front fender. I would say “crammed into” if it were not for the fact that there was a small patch of daylight that provided, via the rear-view mirror, a clear view of the four bikes on the rear-hitch rack. Maurice, Carol Clemens and I assumed positions in the mini-van’s remaining free space and prepared for a 740-mile tag-team drive to the 24 Hours of 9 Mile in Wausau, WI—home of the 2008 USA Cycling 24-Hour Mountain Bike National Championships. Carol was headed to America’s Dairyland to race, with Maurice and yours truly serving as pit crew and roving journalists. I’ll spare you the gory details of the drive, but suffice it to say that 14 hours behind the wheel makes one roadworn and weary.

After hitting the soft beds at Wausau’s Fairfield Inn for what seemed like a short nap, we were up and at ’em on Friday morning, in search of groceries that would be crammed into the the remaining unoccupied mini-van space. So much for the rear view. The unchecked items on our checklist required a visit to the local bike shop. Thanks to the friendly folks at Rib Mountain Cycles for giving Carol the hook up, and for treating the Dirt Rag crew like celebrities. Then, off to the races…

Sean ReederSet-up at the race venue was a bit confusing for first-timers with no prior knowledge of the layout, but once we got situated the rest of the weekend ran smooth like butter. Speaking of set-up, we were fortunate to have the crew from Johnny Sprockets bike shop of Chi-town as our next-pit neighbors. It was great to meet them and hang out for the duration. Congratulations to their racer Sean Reeder (pictured left), who ended up taking the victory in the solo singlespeed 24-hour race.

Late Friday afternoon we had time for a pre-race recon lap of the 14-mile long course—a delightful mix of tight singletrack sections and wide open fireroads (and no major climbs). An ample dose of rocks and roots, combined with all the twisty turns, added up to a course that would demand the racers’ attention and favor a smooth, efficient and mistake-free riding style. Stay off the brakes, my brain kept telling my fingers.

Back at the venue in time for race packet pick-up, we discovered that we had the good fortune of setting up camp within earshot of the PA system, through which GripShift Ed kept participants informed and entertained for the entire event. Granny Gears’ Laird Knight was on hand with his nifty RealTime Scoring, which provided instant standings via on-site computer terminals. Friends at home, or anybody with an internet connection, could follow the race live online. Add to the equation hot showers, food vendors, neutral charging and the super-friendly and helpful event staff—and and it all adds up to a top-notch event, worthy of National Championship status. Kudos to race promoter Kevin Eccles for running tight ship that rocked like a party boat.

big sexySpeaking of party boat, the guys who set up the “Big Sexy” encampment, located midway through the course, pushed the festive atmosphere right over the top. During the race, Maurice and I were treated to a midnight VIP ride to the encampment, while “relaxing” in folding camp chairs in the back of a trailer pulled by a quad. Big Sexy himself had been alerted by radio of our approach, and upon our arrival the big and sexy chef handed us hot-off-the-grill cheeseburgers. My first burger in 8 years was as good as guilty pleasures get, while fully clothed. Big Sexy had a campfire, a rocking stereo, Gatorade and Hammer Gel for the racers, a gazillion christmas lights, and a festive atmosphere. The guys camped there had even built a sweet dirt jump as an “optional line” for the braver racers. Hats off to those riders who hit the jump during our nocturnal visit. Aaaah, but I digress…

The National Championship status is a big deal in my book. While various 24-hour races claim to be some sort of “Championship” or other, the USA Cycling Championship is the only 24-hour race that is sanctioned by a major governing body. In addition to the championship classes, the 24-Hours of Nine Mile also offered a mind-boggling number of 12- and 24-hour non-championship race categories—everything from singlespeed to clydesdale to age groups. Tally up the riders in all of those classes, and you’ve got an impressive turnout. In case you hadn’t noticed, the endurance racing scene is alive and well. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Pua SawickiSpeaking of National Championships, Pua Sawicki (Ellsworth) rode away from the women’s solo field on the first lap and never looked back, on route to winning her second consecutive National Solo 24-Hour Championship in impressive fashion. She cranked out 18 total laps, and lapped her nearest competitors twice, over the course of 24 hours. I caught up with Pua after the race and asked her to share some of the secrets that she’s learned along the way at 24 hour races: “It’s such a huge mental game, I would say that almost matters more than your fitness. Because once you crack mentally, then you’re done. There are times out there and I’m just hurting, right? Then I’m like: ‘OK, Pua everyone else out here is hurting. No excuse. This is what you came here to do. You’re gonna hurt. That’s part of it.’ So you have to put that in the back of your head. There were a couple times where I kinda of cracked, but you just have to start taking it lap by lap and not over-thinking and just keep pedaling.”

I also asked Pua what motivates her to compete is such a grueling sport. “I’m definitely a competitive person. I love challenge. Anything that someone says is hard or I can’t do, I want to do it (laughs). I always tell people it’s a love-hate thing. When you’re out there sometimes you’re hating it, and you’re just like: ‘Get me off this bike. What am I doing. Why am I doing it?’ But when you cross the finish line it’s like the greatest feeling in the world. To think of what you’ve accomplished, it’s such a great feeling.”

The hard-fought battle for the Men’s Solo National Championship more than made up for the lack of drama in the women’s race. By the three-quarter mark, Chris Eatough (Trek/VW) and Josh Tostado (Bach Builders) had opened up a gap on the rest of the field, making it a two-man race to the podium. These two competitors spent the final six hours of the race pacing one another, and waiting for the final lap to make their move. On the final lap Eatough pulled away to take the victory and earn his fifth Solo 24-Hour National Championship, after Tostado was forced to dismount due to severe back pain.

Chris EatoughAfter the race I had the opportunity to interview both men. Chris Eatough explained the gentlemen’s agreement that he and Josh Tostado made to end the race on what amounted to the next to last available lap: “We’d basically been riding together for about six hours. The attacks had really died down because we realized that neither rider was going to let the other rider get away and it was going to come down to the last lap. So it was really just prolonging the inevitable, and there was no need to do that.

“So I’d thought about it and I mentioned it to Josh with about a lap and a half to go. I said: ‘You know we could just agree to make the next lap the last lap.’ And just agree that neither of us would go out after that. And he was so happy to hear that, he was like: ‘Oh I was thinking the same thing. I’m so glad you said that.’ So he was really into the idea.

“I wasn’t sure how it would play out. I could tell it was going to come down to the last lap and I was thinking through the scenarios in my head. Josh just all of a sudden, he actually stopped, because I think his back was really bothering him. This was with about half a lap to go. Once I saw an opportunity, I just went for it full on.”

When I caught up with Josh Tostado, he was in good spirits, despite the fact that the finish did not work out the way that he’d hoped. Josh Tostado“‘Id built a lead on Chris somewhere between 8 and 10 minutes and was pushing pretty hard, and about 3:30 in the morning lost my lights and had to ride half the lap with some LEDs that were emergency lights basically. You couldn’t ride any of the singletrack with them. So I had to just wait for somebody, latch onto the back of them and try and stay with them. It probably took me three guys to get back to my pit. And then I had problems with changing the lights over, and by the time we got everything sorted out Chris got back all of my lead and we basically rode together until the last lap where he gapped me. I had nothing left at the end (laughs).

“My back had been hurting me for four or five hours. It was really getting painful and I was having trouble riding and basically I just had to stop and stretch it out for like five minutes. It helped a little bit, and then I was able to finish the lap. That was the last lap, so I ended up getting second. But, you know, I’m really happy with how things turned out. I rode well, had a great race. I can’t complain at all (laughs). I tried to make it happen that last lap, but I think at a certain point your body just says: no more. Mind over matter stops working (laughs).”

Words and Sean Reeder photo: Karl Rosengarth. All other photos: Maurice Tierney.

For the full, uncut interviews with Josh Tostado and Chris  Eatough click here.