Mountain biking seems to have returned to its roots with multi-day festivals becoming more popular every year. Not since the early days of the Sea Otter Classic and the Cactus Cup have we seen such enthusiasm in the ranks of recreational racers. This weekend's race in Tucson is a prime example.
Mountain bikers from around the world are arriving in Tucson, Arizona, to participate in the 12th 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. While the event is called a "race", the festival atmosphere dominates, with many racers unconcerned about their placings, let alone winning the race.
"We are heading down to see the beautiful Southwest desert in springtime, have a beer under the night sky, and watch people race bicycles through the cactus gardens- it's FUN!" said Veteran racer Shannon Gibson (No Tubes).
Epic Rides President Todd Sadow described the event as "a huge party that happens to have a mountain bike race going on nearby." The event expo area also includes over 30 vendors.
1,850 participants plus up to 2,000 supporters and spectators and will be living in "24 Hour Town", a makeshift city filled with tents, campers, RVs, and people sleeping under the stars. The city will be buzzing with activity including round-the-clock barbecue, children playing frisbee, and spectators watching the race from the comfort of their lounge chairs. The race organization prides itself on the fact that this town leaves no trace whatsoever in the desert once the event is over.
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 nighttime visibility. While the course is designed to be rideable for the hundreds of recreation racers, there are a few technical sections that should give the more experienced riders an option for more difficulty. But of course, there are usually longer go-arounds for the less adventuresome.
One of the highlights of the weekend is the one quarter-mile Le Mans start. It is quite a sight to see nearly two thousand 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.
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.
Top-level talent expected to toe the line includes returning solo champions Anthony "Ant" White (United Kingdom) and Michael Melley (Arizona). While Kona will not be sending a team this year, they are sending Cory Wallace. He is the current 24-hr Canadian national champion, was third at the 24-hour World Championships, and was second in the Trans Rockies stage race. He is a legitimate threat to win.
Other key riders with a solid chance at victory in the solo categories include Steven Yore (New Mexico), Catherine Bywaters (Colorado), Timari Pruis (California) and Lindy Lane (Arizona), Kyle Akin (Arizona) and Albert Lewis (Arizona).
In the duo category, the team of Lynda Wallenfels and Dave Harris is showing promise, while the duo male team of Brian Bennett and Ernesto Marenchin (Pivot Cycles) is highly regarded.
In the team category of four+ riders, there will be many recognizable including recognizable names like Keith Bontrager, Dax Massey, Ezekiel Hersh, Dejay Birtch, Shannon Gibson, Ben Sonntag, Chloe Forsman, Sarah Kaufmann, Tyler Coplea, Yuri Hauswald and Matthew Slaven.
Mountain Bike Hall of Fame member Keith Bontrager (Trek Store San Diego) will be making a comeback after recent surgery on both his wrists. It will be his fifth time racing on the Old Pueblo course. With 70 24-hr races to his credit, Bontrager has also noticed the growth of these types of races. "To the extent that festivals are attracting riders...that's a good thing. It will be interesting to see if it helps cross country bikes make a comeback.
"For me, it's about getting in the laps. I will be racing on both a Trek Top Fuel and a 29er hard tail. I plan on doing a couple laps on each. Todd [Sadow] is one of the best promoters in the bike business. He has everything together and he makes everyone as happy as can be," said Bontrager.
Ben Sonntag, winner of La Ruta de los Conquistadores, will be kicking off his 2011 training with a low-key effort at Old Pueblo. "I'll be racing in a five person co-ed team, mostly for fun and good training. It's a mixed team of professional racers, weekend master warriors, and some friends from Durango. It's a great escape from winter and a chance to get excited for the upcoming mountain bike race season.
"It's a relaxed atmosphere, but if you want to do a hot lap you can," said Sonntag. "I guess since we won our category last year we want to defend our title. Besides that, it's about a good time and feeling dirt under the tires!"
Junior 24-hour National Champion Tyler Coplea will also be racing on a five-person coed team that includes none other than former four cross World Champion and multi-time USA National Champion Melissa Buhl. While "Buhly" is certainly no stranger to cross country racing, she is undoubtedly using the race to bump up her fitness level for what is likely to be another run at a world championship.
Coplea talked about the race. "Old Pueblo is one of those races that you think about all year. The atmosphere there is like no other. If you get a flat on the trail, every person that comes by you will ask you if you need a hand. For the four days you are down there it turns into a bike town. Street signs go up and a community of cyclists is built in a matter of hours."
Coplea then said, "This year I will be racing with my new team AZ Devo Cycling (Trek-No Tubes-Bontrager). It is a new junior elite team with our main goal of going to worlds this year. At Old Pueblo we plan on never slowing down, beating our time from last year, and drinking tons of recovery drinks -chocolate milk!"
On paper, the fiercest competition this weekend could come from the elite women's teams. Stan's NoTubes will be sponsoring three teams packed with talent including the NoTubes Elite Women's Team. They will be making their debut in Tucson with hopes of winning in the four-person category.
Team leader Shannon Gibson said, "Stan's NoTubes will be back in cactus country for an early season roll in the cholla with a four-woman relay team that includes big guns Kathy Sherwin, fresh off the Cyclo-cross National Championship podium, and Zephanie Blasi, who is already tearing it up early season as a Tucson local, as well as Nina Baum and NoTubes development rider Kaila Hart in her first ever race as a pro."
Sherwin and Blasi are both accomplished professional cross country riders with many years of experience. As anchors for this new team, they are going to be very difficult to beat.
Chloe Forsman, a recent graduate of the University of Arizona, is also set to compete. She has won countless junior, collegiate, and national cross country titles and will be racing on a five-person team called "Chloe and the Colavitos" along with newly married Melanie Meyers-Colavito.
Colavito described her team. "Although only two of us are 'cyclists' by label, the Colavito family is deep in athletic talent. The group includes myself, my husband Kyle Colavito, and his two younger twin brothers Jason and Jon. Kyle is a Cat. 1 road racer; Jason is pretty much a legend in the Tucson running community; Jon can hop in to any athletic event and succeed.
"In terms of our strategy for the race, we pretty much intend to rock out as much as possible," she said. "That may or may not involve winning the race, but instead winning the 'we-had-more-fun-than-anyone-else-and-still-almost-won' category. My personal race strategy will be to not fall asleep during the late night laps, and not freak out when I come around a corner and encounter a giant cardboard alien in the middle of the night!"
The Kona Bikes 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo raises funds for the Arizona Cancer Center's lung cancer research through its Rideathon fundraising program.
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 Puebo race.