The saying goes that everything in the Sonoran Desert wants to kill you. Seems the perfect setting then for one of the oldest and largest 24 hour races in the world. Epic Rides season of shred kicked off with a bang this past weekend as some of America’s finest endurance athletes gathered in “24 Hour town” to race each other and themselves for the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo Presented by Tucson Medical Center. The Epic Rides Series includes the Whiskey Off 50, Grand Junction Off-Road, Carson City off-road, and newly added Oz Trails epic marathon distance mountain bike races and MTB festivals.
A drought ending rain threatened to dampen the dynamite set to go off in the desert as our crew set up in the impromptu tent city which the #24HoP establishes far outside of Tucson Arizona. Even the 7 mile dirt road into town quickly became impassable with mudslides preventing all but the heartiest and best equipped of vehicles from arriving on schedule.
Many vendors and racers had staked their claims to tent sites and expo spaces in the days prior to starting gun but still more were left camping in the road side before rains eventually relaxed and the road could be repaired. The heavy rains had the whole town abuzz with worry and wonder about how the typically dry and dusty course would handle the rain. As the clock counted down the rain clouds seemed to pass and then return and heavy dense fog sat over the venue until nearly the starting gun.
The pre race founders dinner dedicated the 19th running of the Old Pueblo to Victoria Cramer, cancer survivor, author, and 17 time citizen of 24 Hour Town. Lance Armstrong and his WEDU team of fellow ex-professionals were again back after missing the 1st place spot to a handful of impetuous and energized AZ Developmental teens in the 2017 edition of the race. Armstrong gave a few words at the opening dinner before passing on comments about the endurance-amnesia which brought him back Old Pueblo; the fun having eclipsed the pain in the rose coloured glasses of memory, and the cancer survivorship experiences he shared with the honoree.
Day broke to a damp and heavy fog. As 2,4, and 5 person teams scurried to select their riding order and draw straws for the LeMans style run in to kick off lap 1, solo racers said their prayers, buttered their chamois, and coordinated with our crews the what’s and when’s of their days assault on their own well-being.
I had misfortune of being elected for run duty and lap 1 hammering for my 5 person co-ed Pivot Cycles A team. Our team reformed to defend a 2016 victory; hoping our anchors were strong and our new riders ready to shred aboard our Pivot Factory steeds. Walking up to the start line 1k from the bike corral I chatted with local hero and race favorite Taylor Lideen. The peace and ease he had walking to the event belied tremendous nerves about the next 24 hours. Lideen gave me a couple pointers on run strategy, confiding that we needed to walk as slow as we could muster to be as close as possible to the start line. We also ran into my fellow Dirty Kanza racer Jake Wells. As the proverbial timber grew taller with each familiar fast face we ducked under the start banner and prepared for our last rights, administered by Epic Rides president Todd Sadow.
I don’t consider myself a strong runner. But decades as an endurance athlete have given me a strong self-preservation instinct; causing me to be highly motivated by the herd of a thousand racers charging at my heels for the most miserable 1k of the weekend!
Perhaps 5th into the bike I was joined by a small group elite riders quickly formed at the front. The opening lap varies from subsequent laps in that it cuts off the technical opening 1/2 mile for a full throttle dirt road race across a feature known affectionately as “the bitches.” Our troupe navigated the three substantial rises of pocked dirt road punctuated with humps which at speed caused riders to go airborne with potential consequences upon landing if not prepared. There is a singletrack option to cut off the three bitches but it adds several minutes of time to a riders lap, making it impractical for competitive racers.
And if the “bitches” don’t kill you the cacti will. 51 different species of cactus to be clear. A good lap of the Old Pueblo course is guaranteed to earn the rider a little “desert pinstriping” on arms and legs, a bad lap could easily mean flat tyres, substantial bleeding, or even a trip to the hospital where pliers and antiseptic await!
The course profile is generally flat, with the majority desert singletrack winding its way in a counter clockwise loop around 24 Hour Town. After the bitches await several varied sections of singletrack. The speed can be tremendous with fast legs holding 16, 17, 18 mph averages through the Rattlesnake, His and Hers, Junebug trails (dehydrated riders may opt for a brief pit stop at the “Whiskey Tree” for a spot of liquid courage). Riders completing the Junebug trail will cross the entry road and climb “high point” trail on the home stretch back towards town. High Point features a prolonged climb to the “high point” of the course and then rockets riders back towards the transition and pits via a very rocky and technically challenging series of chutes and cuts. The bravest riders choose to send up and slide down a rock drop-in which puts them right at the finish gate. A quick dismount and the In-And-Out Burger transition zone is theirs; lap completed. The fastest riders can finish a lap in around an hour, with some touching under and records in the low 50 minute range on the 16.2 mile course.
My own first lap had me fighting with Cyclocross star Jake Wells, Lance Armstrong, local pro Cal Skilsky, and eventual lap 1 “winner” Caleb Thompson. Caleb and I managed to sneak away once we hit the technical turns of the Rattlesnake section. I succumbed to his accelerations sometime in His and Hers only to nearly catch again on the High Point climb. A cool 56 minute lap and 2nd in off the bike it was time for me to observe some of the race action!
Old Pueblo organisers choose to isolate the race action to Solo, duo, 4 and 5 person teams while allowing corporate teams of as many racers as an organisation can muster to participate with as many laps as they choose in any order they choose. The 4 and 5 person teams are governed by the simple rule that no rider can be more than 2 laps up on any other teammate, making consistency and equal strengths the winning recipe. 5 person co-ed squads are grouped by combined age brackets 0-149, 150-199, 200-25, and 250yrs+.
As the evening rolled on battles developed in nearly every category. Male and Female solo winners saw early hot laps surpassed by strong pacing and tactical choices by Men’s winner Taylor Lideen (Pivot Cycles, DNA, Industry Nine) and Women’s winner Kait Boyle (Pivot Cycles/Industry Nine). Lideen gradually drew in the Solo men’s leader Canadian Adam Hill (AWI Racing) in the midnight hours when traffic and temperatures provided smoother sailing for the endurance specialist. Phoenix AZ local Lideen has a checkered history with the Old Pueblo. He has attempted the race in the two prior editions; once unable to complete due to debilitating knee pain, and another time facing the same knee issues in the weeks leading into the event. Taylor came into the 2018 edition with his knee surgically resolved and deeper in fitness than ever before. I spoke to him prior to the event:
GW: What does 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo mean to you and how did you come to focus on it?
TL: This event is much more than a single bike race, not only for me but also for my wife Mary. Completing this race would help me prove to myself that I’m not crazy for trying something over and over again. The past two attempts at this race have gone pretty terrible – the short of it is that I was ready (both mentally and physically) only to have knee injuries each year, and had to pull the plug weeks before the event each time. It was really hard to come to terms with not going to the event and instead watch from the couch. Last year after the devastating decision was made, I got my knee operated on to fix the issue (and I am so glad I did). I have so many reasons to run away from this race, but that is exactly why I am coming back for more. I need to prove to myself that hard work and perseverance will pay off.
GW: What’s it like at night in the desert? How will OP be different from your long training rides and races? Are you EVER alone out there?
TL: Oh man, the night time is my favourite – I absolutely love solo night rides in the desert! I do a ton of training on the road here at home in Phoenix and am usually out riding well before sunrise, so it is pitch dark and definitely when I go in to my “zen-mode”. A few weeks leading in to the big race, I spend my time on my Pivot LES out in the desert with coyotes. My longer training rides at home are at a higher pace, so key for me on race day is to pace from the gun and hopefully have enough in my tank to go faster for the 2nd half of the race. With how many people there are racing, it’s rare to be “alone” – you are usually somewhat close to someone else pedalling away.
GW: Let’s talk about gear. What race machine did you go with? What do you change for OP than your normal MTB loadout?
TL: I am so fortunate to be on the most reliable and amazing equipment out there. My main rig will be a Pivot LES 29er rolling on Industry Nine Ultralite wheels paired with Maxxis rubber with Ergon and TOGS bits for added comfort. I am lucky enough to also have a backup bike, which is my Pivot Mach 429SL with the same build The only real thing I change from my normal setup for OP are tyres – I swap out the rear tire for the Maxxis Tread Lite. It’s a fast course and I like to try and get all the rolling benefits I possibly can. I truly love my bike setup for this race and I can be confident in my gear for the whole 24 hours.
GW: Can I have your autograph? I’m a HUGE fan!
TL: Only if you give me yours 😉
Taylor’s racing was awesome to watch. His consistency in handling and pace were remarkable and fully indicative of what a win at one of the worlds largest and well recognised 24 hour races requires. He completed 20 laps in the 24 hours allotted.
Women’s winner Kait Boyle had a similar tactic; favouring pace and consistency over an early lead. Like Lideen Boyle passed Virginian Carla Williams (Joe’s Bike Shop) in the evening hours and remained consistent to bring home the victory aboard her Pivot Cycles Mach 4 27.5. I Chatted briefly with Kait as well and she shared some of the pacing wisdom which brought her the Womens Solo W:
GW:So what’s your racing history in brief? Where are you from, what about your home trails rattles your stoke bone?
KB: I started racing in 2011 on a singlespeed mtb, and then transitioned to gears and longer races in 2014. Since then I’ve primarily focused on self-supported ultras, 24s, and now the occasional xc race and enduro because going fast is fun!
GW: What was OP like, what was your strategy?
KB: What was it like? Surreal I guess. It all came together. I controlled the controllable and the rest fell into place for me. For that I feel super grateful – the weather, not getting run over by anyone, etc. My goal for this race has been to do 18 laps, and to do the best I can on that day. It really didn’t have to do with anyone else there, so my strategy was to race my own race. I knew what my pace should be, so I focused on that until the last few laps, then I had 18 laps in the bag and it turned into racing Carla
GW: How did you feel it played out?
KB: So smoothly! I nailed my lap time goals and I was focused, positive, and happy the whole time. My only hiccup was crashing on the first lap. I dislocated a rib, and nearly took out a whole line of riders, which I felt horrible about. But fortunately no one else got hurt and I resolved to move past the crash and deal with my rib if it got worse; it didn’t.
GW: Carla Williams IS actually a friend oddly enough, did you know what your competition would be like?
I had no idea who Carla Williams was or what she looked like, and didn’t until the awards. Like I said, my goal was to do 18 laps and to do my best, so I approached the whole event with my own mission that had nothing to do with other racers. It wasn’t until lap 16 I felt the pressure of racing other people as it became evident she too might pull off 18 laps, which is super impressive and had never been done!
GW: Feel free to give me a play by play! I saw both of you on my last lap (Red, white, and blue jersey and pivot bibs, passed you on high point trail) and you looked steady and strong!
KB: I think my play by play is basically: first lap, crash and move on, resolving to not break any more of my “rules”. Then I just rode my pace until mid morning. Sometime during the night I must have passed Carla, but I don’t know when. I didn’t know what place I was in until the wee early hours. By lap 15 my lead had narrowed a little, so I went out for three laps without stopping (to get through lap 17). Heading into lap 17 I got a blurred message from my crew as I rode by that left me feeling like I might have to race Carla, who I still couldn’t have identified. I decided that although I would certainly do 18 laps and meet my goal, I had no interest of having to race someone head to head in the final 15 miles of a 300 mile ride, so I rode as fast of a lap as I could for lap 17, turning out a 1:16 lap and solidifying my lead for lap 18 should no show stopping things happen. Then lap 18 was the most painful of them all, as I didn’t know Carla had stopped and kept pushing a bit. And that was it!
GW: What was your setup like? Did you pick? And why? Anything you’d change now other than the terrible decision to roll solo?
KB: I rode a Pivot Mach 4 with 27.5 Industry Nine Pillar Carbon wheels, Maxxis 2.2 tires, extra chunky ESI grips, and Sram eagle drivetrain. I had a Revelate Designs Jerry Can mounted to my top tube for food. I chose that set up because it is the lightest, fastest, most forgiving set up for solo. I find having rear suspension, even on fast smooth courses, for really long rides just reduces the overall abuse of riding that far, and allows me to continue to descend smooth and fast as my handling gets less precise from fatigue. I’ve been lucky(?) enough to be trying to execute this race for a couple years now, so I would not change anything, and I feel so fortunate to have such a worthy ride.
GW: Where will we see you next?!
Well the Arizona Trail 300 race is next! But I don’t expect to see many people. After that is the Whiskey Off Road pro race, and I’m hoping to go to Scotland for 24 hour Worlds!
Highlights in the co-ed and team fields included a complete domination of the young combined age groups by Arizona’s El Grup Youth Cycling. El Grupo fielded several teams and stood on all but the top box podium in the 0-149 bracket, which was had by Construction Zone (CZ Racing) youth.
Our Pivot Cycles “Burrito Factory” team endeavored to repeat on a 2016 win in the 5 person co-ed (200-249) but despite a strong battle head-to-head and even on time in the 3rd to last lap were nipped by a mere 8 minutes at the finish line.
Singlespeed stunners the “Rocka Roja Rollers” took high honors pulling down a 2nd overall spot with 22 laps while arguably having the most fun on course. The largely flat or rolling course favors singlespeed riders and MANY were in attendance for the 19th 24 OP.
The 2018 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo was again proof that the 24 hour format can bring some of the best racing action alongside the party atmosphere which so many prize. Over 3500 riders gathered in the desert to celebrate the weekend completing 101840 miles (6365 laps) in the 24 hours of racing. Over $30,500 was raised for local charities including Bag It, The Cascade Foundation, AZ High School Cycling League, The Arizona Trail, and the Sonoran Desert Mountain Bicyclists. 7500 lbs of canned goods were also donated by participants.
In conversation prior to the event I spoke to WEDU teammate George Hincapie who confirmed that the 24 hour racing at the Old Pueblo is “the best side of the sport,” and that the event is tremendous fun for him and his teammates because there was no socializing or mingling during his pro road career and that it was great fun to “get a great workout and then hang out” with friends.
Epic Rides first event of the year was; as always, a smash hit. Riders from all over the US and all over the world gathered in 24 Hour Town to celebrate the sport and the community while diving into the deep end of endurance mtb racing.
First Place Results:
Solo Female: Kait Boyle, 18 laps
Solo Male: Taylor Lideen, 20 Laps
Solo Singlespeed Female: PRP Cycling, 14 laps
Solo SS Male: Sticky Racing, 19 Laps
Duo Female: gO United Nations of Unicorn Magic, 16 laps
Duo Male: Team TBD, 22 laps
Duo Co-Ed: Shake it Off V2.0, 18 laps
4 person Women: CZ-Racing, 20 laps
4 person Men: The Average Joey’s, 22 laps
4 person singlespeed: Roca Roja Rollers, 22 laps
5 person Co-Ed 0-149: CZ-Racing, 22 laps
5 person co-ed 150-199: El Grupo Uno, 20 laps
5 person co-ed 200-249: Enduro Bites, 21 laps
5 person co-ed 250+: NoTubes Weapons of As Destruction, 21 laps
Corporate Team: Team Low T, 23 laps
All photos, unless noted, are by Brian Leddy.