Let The Training Begin for Mountain Biking 2013

I am not a bad ass. These guys are bad asses. That or they are stupid. Actually, I applaud these guys for challenging their bravery and being great athletes. Check out this Red Bull downhill mountain biking event and you’ll agree. The only thing I don’t like about this video is watching people manipulate the landscape. Seriously, check out the size of that boulder they break off. Must be in Utah. Do they have enough turf like that to be sacrificing it? Honestly, I don’t know the answer. Do you? If so, please share.
I doubt many of you know that I like mountain biking just as much as I like rowing boats and fishing. I didn’t do much of it this past summer, not even in the past four or five years. Life got in the way. But I’m committing to a return and I want to participate in another 24-hour race. I rode in the 24 Hours of Rappleje several years back, then wrote a story for The New York Times about it. Thought maybe all of you would enjoy that read, so I’m attaching it here. Also have the video here for you, so check it out.

 

24 Hours of Rapelje … by Greg Thomas

From The New York Times June 2007

RAPELJE, Mont.—It was after high noon in Montana’s broad, central expanse and from my vantage, perched on the seat of a mountain bike, I could see two riders ahead, turning from a dusty cow path onto pavement and the final leg of their first brutal lap.

Traversing rolling hills of knee-high native grass, under an immensity of blue sky and a variety of puffy popcorn clouds, this much was clear: I couldn’t catch those mountain bike racers before the check-in and that meant I would finish the first lap in the seventh annual 24 Hours of Rapelje in dead last place, behind 131 other riders. I was dealing with that reality when another rider shouted, “On your left,” and passed at speed. For the first time in my life, I’d been lapped.

The Twenty Four Hours of Rapelje is a challenging USA Cycling sanctioned endurance race that takes place in a portion of Montana that rarely appears in the glossy tourism brochures. From a distance, the land appears as mostly flat and the town of Rapelje (a post office, an evangelical church, a cafe, and 60 residents) is one of the last places you might choose to host such a race.

But, hidden in Montana’s interior are a series of shallow valleys, winding coulees, and abrupt, horizontal rocky veins. Hoodoos complement some of the hillsides. Whitetail and mule deer cruise the tall grass. Pronghorn antelope dot the horizon. Rattlesnakes, blue racers and five-foot long bull snakes twist through the sand searching for rabbits, mice, and beetles. Overhead, hawks and falcons hunt those serpents. Songbirds crow from the sagebrush crowns. In the evening, from distant hills, coyotes issue their nighttime screams. Old wooden windmills spin toward eternity. During spring and early summer brilliant-green native grass and colorful wildflowers carpet the land. Towering grain elevators, modern and dilapidated, observe it all.

In race director Jason Frank’s opinion, Rapelje (which is pronounced Rap-L-J) is the perfect location for a race, mainly because of the town.

“Most 24-hour races, you show up and it’s in the middle of nowhere and you have to bring everything with you,” he said. “Here you have a café, a band, a pancake feed, and a pig feast after the race. Nobody else does that. It’s the town of Rapelje and the people who live here that make this race so unique.”

I’d decided to enter the race, my first endurance event, five months ago. At that time it sounded like a good idea. But, a week before the race, which took place last Saturday, my physician said, “Listen, your father had a stroke in January. His brother had a major heart attack last week. You’re on the cusp of 40 and you’ve admitted that you haven’t trained as thoroughly as you’d have liked. I’m not letting you ride until we see an EKG.”

After the test I stood before the doctor in nothing but shorts. He cocked his head, frowned and said, “You aren’t going to win, so listen to your body. It will tell you when to stop. At this point in life, you’re riding for the common man.”

I didn’t feel common or proud at the end of the first 11.3-mile lap. But, in a 24-hour event, soloists are judged on overall distance, not fast lap times. The eventual winner, Chad Dexter of Helena, Mont., would crank through 15 laps and nearly 170 total miles, to take the 2007 crown.

I set a personal goal of 100 miles and to accomplish that task I was prepared to employ the tortoise and the hare rationale. On my second lap, in temperatures that rated above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, I kept the pedals turning and the hydration pack pumping as members of teams and fellow soloists screamed past. At the end of each lap, at the check-in, I reviewed the soloists lap times and their total laps. At the start of my third lap, I wasn’t in last place.

The course, which included an overall elevation gain of 700 feet, was no pushover. It started on a dirt road that fed into a two-track rancher’s trail. After passing a beehive complex, and dodging the airborne missiles that called those wooden boxes home, riders turned onto single-track and wound across fields of native grass, cactus and lumpy, hard-packed mud. After that, the trail wound to the top of a ridge and split two rock cairns before offering a quick descent to the edge of Hailstone Basin. Along the rim of Hailstone Basin, riders maneuvered between trees and around jagged rock outcrops. In one place, riders funneled between vertical, head-high rocks—not much more than shoulder-width apart—and they pedaled hard, while avoiding a half-buried rock, to make the pass. Immediately after that technical squeeze they launched off a near-vertical rock ledge, which marked the beginning of a mostly downhill leg of the course where riders reached speeds exceeding 30 miles an hour.

Even during the rush of that downhill spree, riders couldn’t help but consider what rest ahead, a lush, bottomland stretch that served as a major cow trail during spring, when the earth was moist. Those animals had walked abreast, carving a distinct trail into the land. Their hooves, about six inches in diameter, cut jagged depressions into the mud. Now, during the early stages of summer, with the earth bone-dry, those tracks were nearly as hard as concrete. Riding a bike over that cow path, which extended for a half-mile or more, was a teeth-jarring, butt-bouncing, death-grip-on-the-handlebars affair that taxed the body unlike any other portion of the course. Several times, my bike almost stopped as it chattered across the trail. On lap four, approaching the “Cow Trail of Pain” as I called that stretch, a rider passed and said, “Oh, here we go. The trail from hell. Are we really doing this again?”

As compensation for a sore hind-end, immediately after the cow trail riders cranked their bikes along a smooth, mostly straight, single-track path. On either side of the trail grass grew tall and massaged the riders’ shins, offering an exhilarating sensation of speed. After a mile of pure pedaling bliss, riders turned hard right onto a lonely asphalt county road and spun their wheels for two easy miles to the check-in, which was located under the largest of four aging grain towers.

At the end of my fifth lap, as I neared the check-in, a mix of spectators and competitors acknowledged my arrival. In addition, a photographer pointed her lens my way and snapped photos on auto-drive. To meet my goal, I had just four laps to go. That idea and the attention buoyed my ego. I waved a fist, then squeezed the brakes, and promptly fell over in a heap. I’d forgotten to extricate my shoes from the bike’s clip-in pedals. I brushed rocks and dust from my shoulders, straightened my helmet, recorded my time, and slinked away, just a hundred yards, to tent-camp.

Camp at Rapelje consisted of two mowed fields, six mobile outhouses, six showers, and all variety of tents, trailers and truck campers. In camp, some riders worked on their bikes. Team members lounged while waiting for their turns to ride. Soloists prepared meals, took naps, and refilled hydration packs. Friends and family entertained kids and dogs and worked on riders’ sore muscles. One group, a team from Bozeman, Mont., called Gordon the Fish, reclined on La-Z-Boys and old couches while chewing corn-cob pipes and sucking down regional beers, such as Fat Tire Ale, Moose Drool and Black Butte Porter.

The Stockman Café, which is located across the street from camp, served as the race hub. Locals manned the tables and grill for the entirety of the race. On Saturday night The Two Geezers strummed tunes on an outdoors stage until 1 a.m. while volunteers served hamburgers, beef hot dogs, potato salad, baked beans, macaroni salad and watermelon. Later, beginning at midnight, the crew offered a complimentary pancake dinner. Local rancher and race volunteer Mike Erfle told me, “We keep feeding people pancakes until everyone is done eating. Doesn’t matter if that’s just after midnight or five in the morning.”

The 24 Hours of Rapelje is the major funding event for Stockman’s Café, which likely would have closed several years ago if the town hadn’t decided to host a race. In rural Montana, a single café might make the difference between a town worth visiting and a relic on it’s way down. Stockman’s serves as Rapelje’s social hub.

“The café used to be a bar and we had lots of drinkers here,” said Cork Erfle. “But those guys got old and sobered up or they died, so we had to do something different. We turned the bar into a café and volunteers man it. Only the chef gets paid. Proceeds from this race keep us going.”

After devouring a hamburger and watching my two-year old daughter, Tate, dance in front of the stage, I wandered across the street and fixed a light to my handlebars. Then, a friend mounted a headlamp to my helmet. By Rapelje rule, riders who begin laps after 9 p.m. must have a fixed light and flashing red taillight in place before they can ride.

As I checked in for lap six a near half-moon rose above the grain silos. The persistent Montana wind died. Coyotes howled. Somewhere ahead in the black, a bull bellowed. I’d seen him earlier, a dark chocolate menacing hulk. I wondered what he might look like in the headlight beam, straddling the trail, one giant animal as anchored in the landscape those grain towers.

As I pedaled into the night, leaving the voices of the Two Geezers behind, I concentrated on the trail ahead. Now it was all about keeping those pedals turning and staying awake and upright, just me and the antelope and the snakes and the sage, out there in the overlooked central-Montana grasslands.

By the end of the night I’d completed two more laps and stolen four hours of sleep. After a pancake breakfast at 6 a.m. and one more lap, I’d call it quits, a few miles short of the “century mark” but confident that I’d given Rapelje 2007 a solid effort. Did it really matter, I wondered, to fall a lap short of a goal? When you’re riding for the common man, and it’s your first endurance race, even one pedal stroke could be considered a victory.

 

 

 

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