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The 24 Hours of Spokane

Round and Round -- The 24 Hours of Spokane  
by Ray Birks

It wasn’t really the thought of being in a 24-hour mountain bike race that captured my attention but rather the idea of participating in a mountain bike event.  Last year I tried to put a team together but things never got off the ground. This year, however, there was more momentum among friends and we came together in Spokane on Memorial Day Weekend for a great adventure. We knew we weren’t there to win our division, or even make the podium. We just wanted to see if we could finish. Our team of five riders, named the Titanium Falcons by a 12-year old friend, consisted of one west-sider who could only ride on Saturday, my wife, my mountain bike partner from Wenatchee, and a rider we met online who agreed to join us.

We were all nervous on the first day, asking internal questions like, “What is the start going to be like? How many laps will I have to ride? How many laps can I ride? What if my bike breaks down eight miles from my team?” I could measure the nervousness by the excitement in our voices, the number of trips to the bathroom, the tinkering with the bikes and outfits, and the overall energy at our campsite.

The start of the race was Le Mans style, meaning one person from each team had to run 600 meters in a big loop, up a steep hill, back to mount the bikes and then scramble for position on the first hill. It was exciting to watch and probably even more exciting to be in that mix (see a video of the start). We all settled back down at our campsite as rider #1 headed out onto the unknown course.

We had two riders that could only ride on Saturday so my first laps didn’t start until 9 p.m. Lights had been on for two hours, but this was the first really dark lap anyone on our team was going to take. The twilight was amazing as the blaze of the head and handlebar lamps lit up each rider’s way. The next few hours were a blur --passing riders, getting passed, dodging huge puddles, discovering what exactly I was getting into. My first 15-mile lap flew by in a little over an hour while the second one took longer as my legs started to cramp on some of the hills from the combination of effort and mileage. When I finally finished my duty and turned over the timing chip to the next rider, I was ready to sleep -- but not before a midnight bowl of chili and a hot dog.

The key to success at night (and the whole race) was resting between laps. Some teams would alternate riders, one lap apiece in the daytime, and then double up the laps at night so the other team members could log real sleep. We didn’t have that luxury because we lost two riders on Saturday -- one planned, the other unplanned. As a result, our patterns were not accommodating to actually sleeping.

My next lap started at 4a.m., after a total of 45 minutes of sleep, and it proved to be my favorite. The farther I got into the ride the lighter the sky became and the less I needed my headlamp. All of the sights I couldn’t see at night suddenly came alive. The river I hadn’t seen suddenly became my companion. The hills that seemed so endless in the dark became manageable. The shortage of sleep was erased from my mind because I was so excited and I clocked my fastest lap.

Between laps we passed the time reading, playing games, throwing a Frisbee, tinkering with bikes, tasting some of the free samples, and sharing tales of our trips around the circuit. We discussed the hills the most, not because they were terribly steep (I think the vertical for the whole route was 800 feet), but because they seemed longer and harder after pushing your body close to its limit for 15 miles.

The route was a mix of single- and double-track, paved roads (due to a trail washout), and gravel roads. It was a fast course and some of the best riders were turning in times just over 50 minutes per lap.  They were serious about their transitions and timing chip handoffs, often having multiple support personnel to help make things as smooth and speedy as possible.

One of the most interesting and encouraging things I noticed about the better riders was how complimentary they were as they went speeding by. I can’t count the number of times I heard a “thank you” or a “great job, keep it up” by someone who was moving much faster and was still much less out of breath.

Things got crazy as teams tried to finish a lap before 11:59:59 on Sunday. Starting a lap before this time allowed a team to rack up one final lap. A lap started after noon didn’t count. The transitions got wild. Teams were screaming encouragement. Tires were peeling out in the gravel. Riders were flying around the course. It was fun to be a part of the chaos.

One idea that resonated with our team as we recounted our laps at the campsite was that the laps we rode became less and less of a race against other riders and teams and more of a personal journey. It wasn’t easy for our team to know if the riders that we were passing or were passing us were ahead of or behind  in the standings. Honestly, it didn’t really matter. We checked the standings throughout the event, but the race for us was really about questions like: Can I beat my last time?  What will my second lap in a row in the dark look like? Can I tell my teammate exactly when to meet me at the timing tent?

I got to ride our final lap and, surprisingly, I felt good after 75 miles.  The course was sparse as some teams either didn’t get their start their lap or decided to call it good for the weekend. By now I knew the bumps and rocks, which way to navigate around puddles, where to accelerate on the straights, and where to hammer down on the hills. As I came down the final stretch, many of the riders and spectators were crowded along the final few hundred yards ringing cowbells, and cheering on all of the riders to the finish line. It was exhilarating to be cheered on by people who understood the effort each of us had spent completing this 24-hour journey.

I screamed down the final stretch, dismounted my bike, passed my timing chip over the sensor, and found my team waiting for me on the other side. We congratulated each other, talked of tired legs and sore butts, and complimented each other on a job well done. As we packed the van for the return to Wenatchee we were already discussing strategies for next year, faster transitions, more sleep, being in better shape. One constant was how the three of us who finished out the last 15 hours really stretched ourselves -- we all met or exceeded the number of laps we had anticipated riding and we felt as if our team had solidified and propelled each other to completing the race.

The real superstars of the weekend weren’t the elite teams with the $10,000 bikes and their own on-site mechanics, but the soloists who rode all 24 hours by themselves.  There were some who rode more laps than our entire team. I can’t count the number of times that I came up behind one of them (male and female) and was amazed that it took me so long to pass them, even on Sunday. They were the ones pushing their bodies way past normal limits, pedaling hundreds of miles in the process. Every time one of them came through the timing tent everyone applauded.  Every time they were passed (or, more often than not, passed us) riders commented, “Nice job, solo!” The event opened our minds to the fact that we can, by pushing ourselves, redefine  the animal we are. It also opened our minds to the reality that the soloists are truly a breed apart.


Additional Details. The organization of this event – from the first batch of emails to the processing of our chips after the last lap – was all topnotch. There was camping for RVs with generators, and quiet areas for tents. There were on-site bike mechanics, vendors selling coffee and tacos, free food and drink samples from nutrition companies. And in the end a rather amazing transformation occurred: we left feeling this wasn’t really a race between 200+ teams but a shared event that connected a community of like-minded enthusiasts.

More Info and Official Website for this event.

Video of the event.