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Hundreds of racers run to their bikes in the Le Mans start at the 24 hours of Old Pueblo.
Pro racers past and present plan to compete in Arizona desert
Mountain bikers from around the world are arriving in Tucson, Arizona, to participate in the 13th annual Kona Bikes 24 Hours of Old Pueblo being held at Willow Springs Ranch. The organizer claims it is the largest 24-hour mountain biking event in the United States. Todd Sadow, president of Epic Rides, describes it as the "mountain bikers' Burning Man".
With 1,800 participants and up to 3,000 supporters and spectators, Old Pueblo will turn into a living 24-hour town, a makeshift city filled with tents, campers, and RVs. The city will be buzzing with activity including round-the-clock barbecue, music, and spectators watching the race perched on top of the giant rock formations and in the comfort of their lounge chairs. There is a festival atmosphere as everyone seems to be celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of another season of riding.
Riders will enjoy a fast 16.1-mile Sonoran Desert course with spectacular views of Mount Lemmon and the Catalina Mountains. The terrain is rolling with a combination of hard pack, sand, and rock surfaces. The weather forecast is optimal, complete with a big full moon to aid with night-time visibility. The course has a few technical sections that should give the more experienced riders a chance for some thrills. But of course there are usually longer go-around options for the less adventurous.
This year's race is being dedicated to Susan DeMattei, Mountain Bike Hall of Fame inductee, Olympic bronze medalist, and UCI World Championship silver medalist. She will be honored at a dinner Friday evening and then will be coming out of retirement to race at Old Pueblo.
"I'm looking forward to getting back on a bike after a Gunnison (Colorado) winter, meeting lots of nice people, and riding some new terrain," said DeMattei. "I have heard lots of great things about the event, the area, and the laid-back appeal of the group, so it sounds perfect. I'm honored to be a part of it!"
One of the highlights of the weekend is the quarter-mile Le Mans start. It is quite a sight to see hundreds of runners sprinting down a dirt road and then trying to find their bike. Many of the top pros find themselves heading out onto the course behind amateurs who happen to be fast on foot. It generally takes a lap or two for the faster riders to find their natural place on the track.
Racers will have the opportunity to either race solo or in two- or four-person teams. Some teams will be mixed gender, while others allow riders to combine ages to stay under a total number of years such as 150 or 200.
The weather has played a major role in past 24 Hours of Old Pueblo races. There is has been snow, mud, freezing temperatures, and high heat. During last year's event, severe dust storms blew through the desert and the riders faced sub-freezing temperatures all through the night. Wind gusts hit 40 miles per hour. The forecast for this year's event is for daytime temperatures in the high 60s and lows down to 37 degrees (Fahrenheit) at night.
While the race is competed seriously by many, the majority of those participating claim they are just there to soak up the atmosphere and do some riding. Sponsoring companies such as Stan's NoTubes and Kenda are sending their factory teams and using the event to showcase their products.
Kona is flying in 15 international media representatives to introduce its carbon King Kahuna mountain bike. They will be treated to a week of riding the bike on sweet Arizona singletrack.
Kona Team Manager and veteran racer Barry Wicks is bringing a four-man team that includes himself and World Cup racers Spencer Paxson and Kris Sneddon. While on paper it may appear that they should sail to victory, a few years ago they were pushed to the limit by a previously unknown team from Mexico. In order to secure victory that year, Wicks (who had been turning the fastest lap times) had to go out and ride two consecutive laps for a come-from-behind win.
Wicks commented on this year's event, "We are really looking forward to this race. 24-hour races, especially the team format, offer up new challenges that we don't face during the course of a two-hour, cross country race. From running into huge cactus, to having your lights or body fail at 3:00 am, we really have to be prepared for anything. 24-hour racing hearkens back to the original ethos of mountain bike racing, which is to be self sufficient, self reliant, and ready for whatever happens out on the trail."
"The team aspect is also very cool. Normally having a teammate in a race is nice, but not necessarily the deciding factor," said Wicks. "Depending on your teammates to put in consistently fast laps and keep their bikes together creates a great bonding experience and collective sense of trust that is life long. 24hr racing kinda of sucks, but it is through the suffering and pain that you gain the most."
The NoTubes Elite Women's team made their debut here last year and won by an enormous margin. Team leader and newly crowned masters world champion Shannon Gibson will be joined by Kaila Hart, Jenny Smith, Vicki Barclay, Sarah Kaufmann, and Susan Haywood.
"Stan's NoTubes is proud to return this year as a sponsor of EpicRides events, including this weekend's 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, The Whiskey Off Road and The Tour of the White Mountains," said Gibson. "The Stan's NoTubes Women's Elite Team will be on hand to defend the ladies' four-person relay title, have some fun, hang out by the fire, and stretch the legs out in the warm Arizona sun."
The NoTubes team is dedicating their race to Chris "Pepe" Sherwin, husband of team member Kathy Sherwin. Chris is battling kidney cancer after having surgery to remove one of his kidneys. While he has made a remarkable recovery from the surgery, they know the battle is not over. Kathy Sherwin will miss this year's race but is in the hearts and prayers of her teammates.
Veteran former national champion Sue Haywood, while retired from World Cup racing, will be returning to Old Pueblo after a brief hiatus. Over the past few years, she has described herself as a "recreational pro" who has participated in many of the country's epic events, especially around her hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Haywood told Cyclingnews, "I last did 24 Hours of Old Pueblo in 2005 as a duo with my friend Spring Clegg. Where did seven years go? Old Pueblo is a classic early season party race. It's one of those races that you can take seriously and crank out some fast laps or take it mellow and hang with your buddies. Mine is the later option. The first effort of the year will burn the lungs and legs bad, but I'll be in great company."
"And of course my buddies are my new teammates at the Stan's No Tubes Women's Elite Team!" said Haywood. " I don't know what the right terminology to use to describe my situation. I am a mountain biker first and foremost, not a racer. I'm still fit, but I don't do the structured training of intervals, threshold training, and I eat butter and bacon. I drink beer."
Other high profile racers include Rebecca Rusch (Specialized), former world 24-hour champion and Leadville 100 winner. Jenny Smith, X-terra and endurance racer told Cyclingnews, " I'm super excited to get out of Gunnison in February and have my skin see the sunshine, see all my friends both on Stan's NoTubes, Light and Motion, and meet my team!"
"I raced the 24-hour nationals last year," said Smith, who was part of the winning women's team, "and it was such a blast to get back into the 24-hour team racing. It was one of my most fun races last year."
Last year, Anthony White won the solo men's race with a remarkable 18 laps completed. He rode laps as fast as one hour and four minutes. Jonathan Davis was second with 16 laps, and Kip Biese was third with 15 laps. Each is expected to be on hand this weekend to resume their battle. Nina Baum (NoTubes) turned in the fastest women's lap last year: one hour 11 minutes. The women's solo field this year includes 40 racers - nearly double any previous year.
The Kona Bikes 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo is in the first year of partnering with the Tucson Medical Center. They also collect over four tons of canned goods for the Tri-Community Food Bank in Mammoth, Arizona.
Cyclingnews will be on hand this weekend in Tucson to bring you news and photographs from "24-Hour Town" and the 24 Hours of Old Pueblo race.