The 24 Hours of Big Bear is the 3rd venue that the original 24 hour relay race has taken place at. MTB Hall of Famer Laird Knight invented the format and premiered it in Canaan, West Virginia 16 years ago. The format, a relay race where each team attempts to ride as many laps as possible in 24 hours, proved to be a huge success and spawned many other races around the country and world wide, but this is the original. In order to improve course conditions and keep the customers happy it has moved locations twice in it's history, first to Snowshoe and next to Big Bear, it's current location. But it's always remained in Laird's adopted home state of West Virginia and after completing this years race I've now had the pleasure of racing all three venues. Each has had it own challenges and highlights but I have to say I can see why Big Bear is such a crowd pleaser. The course is great, the terrain is beautiful, the location only several miles off of a major interstate and the venue is great for camping.
Originally the newly formed SSO Factory Team was hoping to field two teams for the race, a 4 person womens team and a 4 person mens team to enter in the single speed open class. As racers started to fall off due to other commitments we consolidated those who could heed the call and entered the very competitive 5 person Co-ed open class. We arranged to camp with Team Mom and Team Dad, a collective of family and friends organized by my friend Dave, who show up every year with the number one idea of having fun. Early estimates had 60 - 70 people turning up for this camp.
On Friday Jay picked up our keg of Loose Cannon and a cold box so we could keep the fresh beer flowing all weekend. We crammed this, along with a XL size CO2 canister in with a weekend's worth of bike gear, parts and food into my car and headed west by early afternoon. The plan was to arrive at the Big Bear campground by mid to late afternoon, get a pre-race lap in so we could check out the course and set up camp. Threats of thunderstorms were in the forecast but I didn't pay much attention since the last time I checked (2 days prior) they were only 30%. Jay had a more up to date forecast that sounded like rain was more likely.
We rolled out RT. 70 and then Rt 68 and after 2 hours pulled off at our exit around 4:30 for a quick gas up and ice run before going the final few miles to the race venue. Between the time I finished gassing up and paying for the fuel the sky opened up and dumped hard on us. We arrived at the campsite with the rain fading out and we thought maybe we had lucked out. Camp Mom was already starting to swing and they had their own keg already flowing. Becky and Erin from our team had already made it in and The SSO Rejects were set up too, so Jay and I quickly set the keg up under one of their EZ-ups and got to work on the beer and setting up our own tents. By the time we were set up another storm was rolling in. Luckily the compound had enough EZ-ups to look like a shanty town and give us plenty of cover. The storm was predicted to hit hard and roll out quick but instead came in slow and steady and rained for hours. With chances of pre-riding the course shot we settled in with the keg and got some grub.
There was plenty of carbo loading going on and it was all coming straight out of the keg. Ricky d (team mate #5) and his wife JoJo (our most excellent cook) didn't arrive until after midnight. It was a late night and many beers before I made it into my sleeping bag. I should have conked right away but instead lay awake and barely slept most of the night. A foggy morning came too early but there was plenty of prep to do before the noon start and I had been nominated/prodded/volunteered to take the first lap so I needed to get moving.
Knowing JoJo would be putting in some long hours soon enough at the camp kitchen, Jay cooked us up breakfast of eggs and bacon which we all promptly ate. I did some last minute bike checks. I planned on riding without the hydration pack since I had to do the running LeMans start and I thought I could pare down some weight this way too. I installed my number plate, got water bottles ready, installed a pump bracket and put on a mini-seat bag. After that I headed up to the captains meeting just to make sure there weren't any last minute changes.
In order to spread the pack out at the start of the race the riders line up for a run down a gravel road, loop back to their bikes, mount up and then ride down the gravel road further before looping back once again and heading back to the transition tent where they enter the singletrack. This part is something I wasn't looking forward to. I hate running and more importantly I'm not much of a runner because I never do it. Combine that with running in bike shoes on chunky gravel with 150 other people and it even more unappealing. But hey, you suck it up and do it, after all it's only a small part of the whole race. One of the biggest reasons I dread it is because my suckage factor at running means getting caught behind more people on the bikes once we get rolling. I'm going into this race blind as it is, no pre-ride, no idea where the hills are, where I can make up time, where I can recover and where are good opportunities to pass. All of this means I'd rather be as far up front early on to make life easier on the first lap.
We line up at the start and I take a place near my buddy Todd and figure we are in an alright spot, not at the front but not too far back either. Later Erin tells me I should have been up further and pegs me in the rear 2/3rd's of the pack as we get ready. The gun goes off, the crowd cheers, it's pretty cool having all of this energy around you. People stumble, elbows are flailing and you try to stay upright as you attempt to find the right pace. I'm just trying to keep a decent stride without burning up too much energy on something I know is not my strength anyway. As we near the bikes I'm feeling pretty good and seem to have a better position than expected. We race the gravel loop and I'm spinning away, it's flat and not the best place to gain with a single speed. Todd slips past me and I pick up my pace. We enter the singletrack (Erin says I was about 38th or 40th at this point) and I'm on Todd's wheel and things bunch up fast. There are rocks immediately that slow some in front of us and there's no chance to pass. I try to settle in for the next 12.8 unknown miles in front of me. Last week I was wondering if I had been riding too much leading up to the race and I think I may already have my answer: probably. I don't follow any training program, I just ride, but you can tell when your legs are well rested or when they aren't fully recovered. They aren't feeling bad right now, but you can tell a bit more time off would have been better for this weekend.
The train is going good but there still aren't passing opportunities and I wonder just how long I'm going to have to sit in this position. I hear the crunch of derailluer as we hit a short, rocky rise and see a rider hop off to deal with it. It's Fredrock local Stephan who is just in front of Todd and I take this opportunity to slip around them. They are both right back on my wheel in seconds and the train continues on the narrow singletrack.
When I reach for my water bottle it's gone already. Brand new cage, bent to tighten it up like I always do because I'm always losing bottles. I've tried nearly every cage and still this happens. High speed hammering over rocks on the rigid bike is my only explanation for the constant lose of bottles. I curse switching from using my normal hydration pack setup and for the rest of the race I fight using the bottle on my seat tube. It's not easy to access and this cage is super tight due to my bending it to grip the bottle. I'm thankful for it though but this course does not make it easy to drink from a bottle.
The trail is tight, singletrack with chatter bumps and rocks. Good stuff but little room to get around riders. Little by little I pick off riders and move up. Todd and Steven are right with me. After a while we settle in with a few riders that seem to be keeping our pace then hit a technical downhill that just goes on and on and seems like if will never stop. It's pure gold and when it finally ends the body feels it, but it feels good. The trail opens to a rare section of double track that is slightly up hill and I try to keep a solid cadence and get a little recovery time. Stephen shifts up and takes the opportunity to make a big pass around a few of us. I try decide if I want to chase and figure I'll wait since I don't know what's ahead. Stephen pre-rode the course and his move pays off in a big way when we catch the next pack of riders as we re-enter the singletrack. He only has a couple of riders to pick off while we are now stuck behind quite a few and things are tight and twisty and they are bogging us down. I've been following another SSer for a bit who is keeping a pace I like and seems to know the trail and I can sense he's frustrated like me. Todd's on my wheel so that makes 3 single speeders who are ready to punch it harder but we've got nowhere to pass. Eventually we get a chance and again pick off riders here and there when a brief opening comes up. Really, I've never seen so much tight singletrack on a course. No complaints, this is the trail we all live for, it's just tough to capitalize.
Near the end of the lap I make a move and lose Todd briefly, still following the SSer in front of me. We seem pretty evenly matched and I can't see making a pass and yo-yoing back and forth with this guy which is what I'm guessing would happen if I made a move earlier. We catch one more guy at the ramp leading to the finish bridge and race into the transition tent. I pass the baton off to Jay. The real time results show me rolling in with a 1:19 lap, 19th overall and putting us 6 seconds out of first place in our class. It is way too early to get excited or make anything out of where we stand, there's a long day ahead of us and until everyone on the team has done at least one rotation it's hard to get a feel for where the teams will start stacking up. Still, I'm feeling pretty good about the lap for not knowing the trail and count on lap #2 being much better.
JoJo has already got the food working and feeds me some pasta with pesto while I down an energy recovery drink. I rework my setup and go back to the hydration pack so I can easily drink on the fly. Jay rolls in with a nice lap followed by Erin, Becky and Ricky who gets the first flat of the team. Stomach starts churning funky and I eat some Pepto shortly before I go out and hope this fixes it up, hope I'm not mixing the wrong foods. I'm out for lap #2 shortly before the cut off time to carry lights and I roll without them.
Without the congestion of the first lap I'm able to turn up the pace. When I come up on riders they are usually alone and this makes passing easier. I don't know ever inch of the trail yet, but I'm not flying blind this time and it makes it a lot easier to know when climbs are coming, especially the long one near the end of the loop. I'm feeling good, feeling like I'm on a solid pace to beat my first lap time, in a good groove. The sun is setting and gives some beautiful views but as it gets low in the sky it creates some blind spots in corners where I lose visibility for brief flashes. I finish the big climb towards the end and know the hard part is done and start turning it up a bit more. No big up or down hills now, but some rock gardens and suddenly my speedy ways are brought to a quick halt as I hear air exiting my tire. I don't even know what I hit, there was no rim bashing moment that stood out.
My mood instantly changes as I realize my lap that was feeling so good is circling the toilet. I know I'm close, I'm wondering if I should run it in. I try to stay collected and decide I'm better off fixing this quick. I flip the bike and open my kit. Wrench out, V-brake unhinged, remove rear wheel, remove tire. I tried to make deliberate moves like a one man professional pit crew. Efficiency I tell myself, let's salvage this by fixing this fast and getting back on the trail. Tube back in, I need a lever to get the tight bead of the tire back on. CO2 out, I never use these things in everyday life, just another landfill item that's unnecessary but I allow myself the luxury at a race. Open valve, inflate tire, remove CO2. The head of the inflater comes apart, still attached to the tire and out rushes powdery white, freezing air as my tire deflates. Shit!!! I shake my head in disbelief, reassemble the unit and grab the spare CO2. I figure I can hold it together and get it filled and still get back in with only a few addition seconds lost. Take two repeats take #1 as the inflater falls apart again. Blood pressure is rising as I try to stay collected. Pump out, stroke, stroke, stroke 100 times. Tire is soft and losing air. Check pump attachment to valve. Pump, pump, pump some more. Same results. What the hell is going on??? Panic starts to set in. Strip the tire off and patch? It's getting dusk, I can hear the faint roar of the crowd at the finish. I can't dwell, I need to make a decision. That's it, wheel gets bolted back on and I shoulder it and start to run the rocky trail. I thought about riding it in but I've got no spare wheel and no spare bike (remember that Kelly?). I'm hauling ass, thinking the finish must be close as I can still hear the crowd. Then I pass the marker for mile #12. Shiiiiiit! The course is 12.8 miles, I've still got a way to go so I do my best to keep the pace. I run up the ramp for the bridge, then mount up the bike and roll down the other side, no way I'm running that steep section in my Sidis. Off the bike again and run it in to the transition for the hand off to Jay. My attitude has just headed south on the express elevator. Lap time is 5 minutes longer than the first. Not bad I suppose for trying to fix the flat and running it in about a mile, but that doesn't matter, all that matters is the time on the clock.
Back at camp Ricky d hears my tale and sees my disgust and offers to check my bike. His diagnosis: I pinched the tube when I used the lever to get the tight tire back on. Jeezus! What is this, amateur hour? I'm pissed at my bad luck flatting, pissed at the fact I didn't swap out that Specialized thin tube that was in the rear like I intended to and most of all pissed at my botched repair job. I get some food and try to readjust my head and get things ready for my night lap.
Everyone else turns laps consistent with their earlier ones but we slowly slipped positions through the day and bottomed out in 8th for our class. Becky brings us up to 7th on her night lap. I have a hard time deciding what to wear for the night but settle on a long sleeve wool jersey, shorts and knee warmers. The thermometer at camp reads 50 degrees F and I'm sure it's a little colder in the woods. It's 2:30am and JoJo goes up to the transition tent with me to keep me company and wait for her man. She is A+ support for the whole race and always has a smile on our face. I can't say enough how much the team values what she is doing for us.
Ricky rolls in, we make the transition and I'm on my way. I'm quickly in the night groove, I really like these lonely, dark laps. For some reason I always seem to wind up with laps between 2am and 5 am at these races. I dig them but wish for a sunrise lap just once. Out there alone, occasionally coming up on a rider and passing them, I'm lost in my thoughts. The mind starts to wander and I need to snap myself out of it as I'm weaving through the pine forest's loamy berms. The never ending downhill is rocking until I catch a pack of three riders creeping down it at a snail's pace. I let them know I'm back and try to make the cleanest pass possible when it's safe but they still look stiff and like they are hanging on for dear life. I'm feeling good, but definitely feel the earlier laps in my legs and when I hit the big climb I decide to walk/jog two short steep sections or else pay heavily for it later. It's something I have a hard time wrapping my head around mentally, I'm a rider who wants to clean everything or die trying (and I did the first 2 laps), but racing dictates you tailor your decisions around other criteria. Going through the final rock garden where I flatted last lap I try to be a bit more careful, don't want any repeats in the dark. I roll into the transition tent, check in and call out for Jay. No Jay, where is he? Before the race I told everyone there are 2 rules for the team. First is you've got to have fun. Second is do not leave your rider hanging at the transition tent. My mind races, Jay was snoozing when I left for my lap. I don't want to go out for a double right now since my light surely won't last. Ten seconds later he is there at the table, back from the Spot-o-Pot. Cool, no worries, just paniced for a minute. I head back, eat and crash.
Our position stays consistent through the night and into the morning. Try as we might, we can't claw our way back, but everyone is coming back from their laps with smiles on their faces and having a good time. The Team Mom compound is back in full swing at sunrise with beers flowing once again. Actually, I'm not sure that it ever fully wound down.
As the race closes in towards the end I head out on my final lap and it looks like Jay will follow up with the final one for the team. I'm feeling good and rested and nothing out of the ordinary happens. Those great spectators and volunteers crank up the cheers for each passing rider and help motivate you to finish strong. As the race winds down for me I turn out my fastest lap for the finale and hand it off to Jay to finish up. We wrap up the race with 17th laps total and finish 7th out of 20 in the Co-ed Open class. I was shooting for higher going into this but this is how it played out and I had a great time (except for my flat/run-in). Race day weather was beautiful, my team mates were great and all of the people we camped with were a blast. Plus the course was sweet as pie.
Post script: The race is like a festival and draws a lot of people. I finally get to meet prolific blogger Gwadzilla in person who's sporting a bloody forearm at the finish. We've had a bit of correspondence over the years but it's strange to finally meet people in the flesh who you know so well from only electronic exchanges. Caught up with Justin from Dirt Rag who was on my 24 Hour Team at Seven Springs in 2005. He was working the booth for the weekend but managed to ride a support lap with 2nd place solo winner Carol Clemens. She had a strong race and looked pretty fresh at the end considering all of the miles she put in. Spotted the kids from Ride Lugged but never got over to introduce myself. Before breaking down camp Team Mom and Team Dad put on their own awards ceremony complete with trophies for such categories as "Most Effing Best Time" which rewards not the best lap time but who had the most fun for the weekend. Afterwards we crammed my car full of gear once again and rolled back towards civilization. On the return trip a bear ran across the highway two cars in front of us and made safely to the other side . A fitting close to the Big Bear weekend.