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 encouragement.
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 his neck.
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 down-state 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 means money.