Don't look now, but you are on Wile E. Coyote's turf. You have pedaled into the desert surrounding Moab, the old uranium mining town in southeastern Utah, and strange things are happening. You shrink, made small by the cliffs and towers of the canyon lands. Hundreds of millions of years of geological give-and-take—the upthrust of a miles-thick layer of salt that deformed the overlying sandstone, giving birth to arches and minarets—is in plain view. Also, time slows down.� If you don't believe that, ask anyone who has competed in the 24 Hours of Moab, a team-relay event that will be contested for the ninth year, on Oct. 18-19, in an area known to locals as Behind the Rocks, south of this town of 4,800. At first blush the race seems like a piece of cake. You sign up with a four-or five-person team, sit around your campsite sipping drinks, noshing snacks and checking out the scantily-clad masseuses administering to one of the pro squads. When it's your turn to mount up, you figure the 14.9-mile loop should take you between an hour and an hour and a half; ride three or four laps over 24 hours, with a bunch of rest between them, and your ordeal is over.
But it's not that easy. Before your first leg, you may decide, I'll just go at my own pace. Then you spot a rider 200 yards up the trail and think, I can catch that clown. Or you are the clown getting caught. So you reach down for a little more than you'd planned to give. Or you may be tempted to try to find a line down the minicliff that is Nosedive Hill. (Most riders get off their bikes and carry them.) Good luck. You redline it through the boulder-strewn technical section, too busy hucking your front wheel over chert and ledges to take in the dramatic cluster of sandstone fins to the west or the La Sal Mountains to the south. You dig deep during the loop's only sustained climb, then hammer past the most recognizable landmark on the course, failing to see any resemblance to a woman and wondering how Prostitute Butte got its name. With several miles still to ride, you glimpse Tent City, the base camp replete with 80 portable toilets, 500 or so motor vehicles and 6,000-plus people. Even though you have been anaerobic since Mile One, you are obligated to shift into a big ring and start sprinting. (Everyone else is.) You'll be greeted by a cheering crowd, so you want to finish strong. Ten seconds feels like a minute; 10 minutes an eternity. Time has slowed down.
That fat stratum of salt, by the way, is called the Paradox Formation, which seems appropriate for this race. Because the event is grueling, people flock to it. Granny Gear, the West Virginia-based company that puts on the race, also hosts 24-hour competitions in California ( Temecula and Tahoe) and Snowshoe, W.Va. While quite popular, none draws a field close to half the size of Moab's. (A week before this year's race 408 teams had registered, plus 67 certifiably insane solo riders.)
The Moab race has been the de facto Super Bowl of its discipline since its inception in 1995—seven years before it became the world championship of AMTRI (the Association of Mountainbike Team Racing International). "If you wanna prove you're fast," says Keith Bontrager, who has competed in this race for the last eight years, "you have to go to Moab."
Could there be a more spectacular proving ground? Laird Knight, a West Virginian bike racer who founded Granny Gear in 1990, first came to Utah in '94. Having established a successful race in his home state, he was scouting locations for a second one. He arrived with a chip on his shoulder. "Moab had been so hyped," he says, "it had to be overrated. Then I got out here and thought, Wow! This place is cool!"
It is beyond cool, bordering on mystical. "The most beautiful place on earth," as the late naturalist and iconoclast Edward Abbey described Moab, might also be the most anomalous place in Utah, with as many brew pubs (two) as Mormon churches. While the specter of 2,000 wheeled locusts swooping and whooping around his old haunts would've made him cranky, and possibly inspired him to scatter tacks on the course, Abbey would've taken a tiny bit of solace in the fact that the 24-hour racers aren't car-borne. Automobiles are among the chief villains in Desert Solitaire, the book he wrote about his six months as a ranger in Arches National Monument (now Park), just north of town. By the time that book was published, in 1968, Moab's heyday as the uranium capital of the world was long since past, with tourism supplanting yellowcake as the area's meal ticket. Among the tourists these days are no small number of adventurers: not only mountain bikers and Whitewater aficionados but also rock climbers, who flock to Arches and nearby Canyonlands National Park.
Since Charles (Hot Rock Charlie) Steen discovered a lode of high-grade uranium ore 40 miles southeast of Moab in 1952, nothing has transformed this town like the realization that slickrock and mountain bikes go together like Tracy and Hepburn. By the '90s the Slickrock Trail just east of town had become, arguably, the best-known mountain-bike venue in the world. Of the half-dozen companies that have sprung up to help gearheads locate the area's epic vistas and thrills, Rim Tours is the oldest, founded in '85. The president of that outfit, Kirstin Peterson, has finished two Moabs and will compete with four colleagues this year. (Their team, the Rim Cutters, is among the favorites in the coed, open division.) It doesn't matter to Moabites that "this signature event for our town," as Peterson calls it, is not homegrown but was grafted onto the desert by an out-of-state company. "The folks at Granny Gear have completely ingrained themselves in the community," says Peterson. "It's amazing how the whole town looks forward to this race."
It is less amazing when one considers that these events were designed "from the ground up," says Knight, "to be about fun."
Scott Newton is a former racer who lives in Moab and manages the Poison Spider Bike Shop. During his pro days he got a bellyful of races "where no one's really friendly, where the attitude is, 'I'm better than you, I don't want to talk to you.' One of the things I love about the 24 Hours of Moab is that it draws a lot of recreational riders who do these events because it's like a big party for them." At a garden-variety mountain-bike race, Newton would not find himself among a team of cross-dressing men. He would never have been inspired by the courage of Team Huge Ass, four riders who decided a few years ago to do the 24 Hours of Moab sharing the same pair of shorts.
Days before the race the "parking lot"—a vast, overgrazed field—begins to fill with the first of the 500-plus cars, pickups and RVs. Here you see the game within the game, as teams attempt to outdo one another with the elaborate nature of their setups. Last year the Rim Cutters groomed their site with a lawn mower, and sofas will be delivered to the team's compound this year.