At 3 a.m. on Sunday, deep in the backcountry of West Virginia,
where the Allegheny Mountains rise out of a haunting blue haze,
a gearhead dismounted his mangled stumpjumper and wobbled into a
first-aid station. His clothes were caked in mud; his
face--unblinking, glassy-eyed--had settled into an eerie
paralysis. Between great gulps of air he asked an emergency
medical technician, "Can you help me? I've got nothing left."
The techie laid him down and hooked him up to an IV. "In this
race we're like garden hoses," said EMS worker Jeff McElwey. "We
fill up athletes with fluids and send 'em back out. They wheeze
but never whimper or whine. All they want is to keep on going."
Outside in the moonlight the exhausted rider's detoothed bike
chain glimmered like armor damaged in some modern tribal warfare,
having been booby-trapped by roots and rocks on trails made
doubly tough by darkness. Two IV bags and one new chain later,
the rehydrated cyclist was ready to barrel back into the night.
The well-trafficked first-aid station was tucked into a clearing
just off the trail at the 24 Hours of Snowshoe, the mountain mama
of ultracycling. Last weekend 20,000 spectators converged at
Snowshoe Mountain Resort to watch 44 solo racers and 500 relay
teams ranging from two to five riders attack a brutal 10-mile
loop of S-turns, stair-step descents and tire-eating hollows.
At noon each squad sent out its first cyclist in a LeMans-style
running stampede to a bike corral, where they hopped aboard their
iron steeds and began pounding the course. While the riders were
scrambling around the circuit like hamsters on a vast wheel,
teammates ate, rested and even slept until their turn. In each
relay class the winning squad would be the one that amassed the
most laps in a day and night of all-out, sleep-deprived racing.
Participants, ranging in age from 12 to 50, were decked out in an
array of modestly inventive and wholly outrageous outfits. One
foursome dressed as caped superheroes and called itself the
Legion of Vroom. Other handles ran from the prophetic (48 Hours
of Advil) to the profane (Captain Colon and the Butt Pirates).
Asked how his team came up with the moniker Boozebag, Sandy
Hridel said, "We were trying to figure out why we had signed up
for this torture and realized alcohol must have had an impact on
the decision." Hooch has had an even greater impact on Team
Botulism, a two-man relay squad that for seven years in this race
has fueled itself with test tubes filled with tequila and lime
Gatorade--"motivational supplements," the team calls them--and
offered them to other competitors along the route in need of such
The maiden mountain bike endurance race that begat this one was
launched by promoter Laird Knight nine years ago in Canaan
(rhymes with insane), W.Va. Inspired by advances in night-riding
gear, he came up with 24 hours of Knight riding. That grassroots,
gonzo affair attracted 36 teams. "Back then, the race had more of
a tribal aspect," recalls Maurice Tierney, publisher of Dirt Rag
magazine. "The point was to go through some incredibly rough
terrain and make it back."
No team embodies the survivalist spirit of those early days more
than Hugh Jass, a band of Harrisonburg, Va., irregulars who strip
to the skin in plain view before each lap and take turns wearing
the same pair of foam-padded shorts. The pants haven't been
washed since their first 24-hour race in 1994. "It's like having
a La-Z-Boy taped to your butt," says lead rider Pat Miller, who
rode with streamers on his handlebars and a feather boa around
In a field of $6,000 titanium-framed, full-suspension mudhogs,
the Hugh Jass riders turn in strong laps on single-speed,
fixed-gear track bikes that require constant pedaling--even
downhill. "Everybody thinks I'm crazy for riding a 1974 Schwinn
World," says captain Tim Richardson, whose crown of green and red
curls frames a pale face, "but over eight years in this race I've
never had one flat or mechanical. Even when I'm physically and
mentally wasted, the bike still goes."
Old-timers like Richardson lament the yuppification and corporate
drift of the event. When the federal government bought much of
the Canaan course in 1999 and closed it to recreational mountain
biking, Knight moved the race downstate to upscale Snowshoe. What
the race gained in technical challenge, it lost in pioneering
passion. "It's not about freedom and survival anymore," grumbles
Hugh Jass mainstay Mike Carpenter, "it's about bling-bling." He
"Now you pay fees for camping, parking, shuttles," adds Mike
Ikenberry, a.k.a. Captain Endo of the Legion of Vroom. "What's
next--a toll after every lap?"
Knight, who charges an entrance fee per team of either $160 (for
pros) or $110 (for amateurs), dismisses such critics as "die-hard
retro-grouches." He courts sponsors and quotes a
self-commissioned survey that depicts 24-hour participants as
older, better educated and more affluent than typical mountain
Bling-bling is one of Snowshoe's indisputable allures. The 10
coed pro-am teams vied for the lion's share of the $30,000 cash
purse. Three-time defending champ Trek-Volkswagen JBL led out the
opening lap in one hour, 13 minutes, followed closely by
perennial also-ran Cane Creek Pro's. However, when Trek's Jeremy
Wimpey (a former Hugh Jass cyclist) popped a stem bolt a third of
the way through Lap 2, the team lost more than half an hour and
never recovered. The four-person Cane Creek won with 17 laps.
Thirty-five-year-old Paul Bell, who covered 12 laps, won the solo
Cane's ablest rider was its newest, a gun for hire named Chris
Sheppard. His clockings in the second and fifth laps (1:05.57 and
1:06.07) were the fastest in the race. "This was the hardest
thing I've ever done in my life," moaned Sheppard, last season's
eighth-ranked North American pro on the NORBA tour. "At about 1
a.m., as I was running my bike through four miles of calf-high
mud, I started yelling what I'd like to do to the organizers."
Meanwhile, Sheppard's teammate Gretchen Reeves claimed she had
banged her knee against a tree so hard that she saw Elvis. "He
was heavily medicated," she remembered. "Half the time, I wished
I were, too."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY Head over wheels There were spills aplenty on the treacherous 10-mile circuit, making for a steady stream of traffic at the first-aid station.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Going bump in the night Riders relied on headlamps to see and humor to ease the pain.
COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY
"It's not about freedom and survival anymore," grumbles one
veteran racer. "It's about bling-bling."