It’s been nearly a week since my both-footed jump back into mountain bike racing. “Racing?” Okay, well racing is like when it’s you against the other riders in the race-right? The Wisconsin Off Road Series (WORS) are what most people imagine when they think of mountain bike racing, but for me an endurance event is more of a race for survival. It sounds a bit dramatic (don’t worry, I survived), but my recent efforts in the Wausau 24 had a much different feeling that a “normal race.”
For the Wausau 24, it sounded like fun to be part of a four man team in the 12 hour fatbike catagory, but a lack of other teams within that category forced a shuffle of our assets (riders) into a couple two-man fatbike teams. What sounds like a little change meant I would be riding twice as many laps as I planned and guaranteed very little rest from 10:00am to 10:00pm. Before my brain had time to calculate sleep loss, hydration needs, and muscle fatigue, I heard myself saying “Okay…I can do this,” Besides, it meant I would be done in the evening and able to enjoy post race banter and some cold beverages with my teammates while the 24 hour folks were still pounding the pedals all night into the following day.
Bike racers are typically not runners. There is a reason for that, but the Wausau 24 began with a Le Mans-style start with racers lined up on foot and their bikes laying scattered in a field a hundred yards away. The race director yelled “GO” and I watched the racers take off, doing their best imitation of running in stiff bike shoes, the other middle aged guys getting passed by a 12-year-old twigs of girls, to find their bikes, hop on and spin into the singletrack. My younger teammate Joe “volunteered” to start the race for us (whew…dodged a bullet there) and was soon engulfed in a cloud of dust threading his way though the field on lap one. The day before, we pre-rode a lap at Nine Mile Forest in Wausau, and with is worthy by any mountain bike (and fatbike) standards. With plenty of single track, rock gardens, some double track to spin the legs out and a very tough climb about halfway through, the course is a worthy test of any mountain bike racer, or fat bike racer as the case may be.
The old familiar butterflies gathered in my gut as I stood anxiously waiting in the transition area for Joe to return. We guessed around an hour-plus per lap, and as if on cue, I saw a new highly fashionable black “Fat hyphen Bike dot com” jersey appear over the rise. With a swift tag, I hopped on my fatbike and was off for my turn. Long distance racing plays funny games with your brain, and early in an event, one’s mind can be going much faster than the bike. “Oh, there’s a guy right ahead…I’m faster and will pull him in here soon.” Sometimes that plays out, but other times they disappear over the next climb never to be seen again. Since everyone is in this for the long haul, there is a more civil discourse out on the trail than I have experienced at other traditional mountain bike races. If someone catches a rider in front of them, most are happy to pull over and let the faster person pass, with a “go get ‘em!” and a “thanks bud!” For those of us on big bikes, we might also hear “Alright! Rock on fatties!” (talking about the bike).
The 24 hour solo riders would fly through the night by with nary a word. I didn’t find that stuck up at all; they are mutant breed of rider, focused on some spot deep inside their own minds at allows them to ride 24 hours by themselves, seemingly unaffected by fatigue or darkness. They seem to not even notice other racers on the course as they methodically carve lap after lap after lap. In the dark hours, it really becomes silent, the six hour racers are gone, so one usually has a lot of alone time.
I ended up, as Joe mentioned I would, counting down the laps and checking off memorable sections of trail in my head: “Only 4 more times thru this boulder field.” Or “Only 2 more Ho Chi Min da*m climbs!” Traffic sorted itself out after a few laps, and it becomes quieter out on the trail. Binking red LED lights appear in the darkness as other riders thread the trail ahead, and occasionally the ground around my bike would be lit up by an overtaking racer. It is a very surreal, tunnel-like world. The only sounds are of gears changing, breathing and me saying to myself “only one lap to go.”
Survival in these endurance races isn’t just about the pedaling. For a two person team, it is also about those breaks between laps when you have to be sure to eat and rehydrate. Very quickly energy bars, bananas and Gu packs become a sickening necessity of energy sloshing around inside that you have to continue to force down your gullet to make it though the next lap. At this point I found a new mind game about “real food” crept in, where all I could think about was a burger or brat and cold beer.
As it ended up, the other two members of our original four-man team, Andy and Butch (who are bike animals-one of them on a single speed!), were a lap or two up on Joe and I. We had a 45 minute lead on 3rd place, so using our very best race delirious math skills, we’d determined that I’d not have to venture out for another lap nearing the 10:00pm finish time. At 10:01, Joe and a tide of another racers crossed the line to conclude the event. Our race time math proved accurate and we held onto second place, representing the fat bike scene very well. The bikes handled this course superbly, slinging around tight twisty singletrack with ease and only the climbing sections hindering (me) during the laps.
For myself, the Wausau 24 wasn’t really about racing other riders, or even about pushing myself. Sure, I wanted to finish on the podium if I could to represent the fat bike category, but this was really more about the fun of spending a weekend with friends, riding with great effort and living to tell about it, to laugh about it and be humbled by it. I may just have to do this all again!