Endurance bike race lights up when sun goes down
Lost hours of Moab
October 19, 2008
Moab, Utah — The road that leads to the camping area at the 24 Hours of Moab mountain bike race winds through the Utah desert before opening up to a wide, dusty and flat expanse. It is bordered on two sides by steep slopes and on the third by a low ridge that extends to the horizon.
A small line of cars made its way down that road early in the evening of Oct. 11, bumping over the rocky surface and stirring up large clouds of the area’s choking red dust. The sun had set, and the only lingering sign of the first day of the massive endurance bike race appeared as a faint baby-blue halo on far-off mountains.
The racers came from over the ridge. LED lights marked each one, bright, blue and clear even from miles away. They blinked into sight one by one and then slowly descended through two giant switchbacks and toward the soft light of hundreds of campfires, the main camp of the 24 Hours of Moab.
Somewhere out there, attached to one of those lights, Kris Cannon toiled away, pedaling across the course through the cold night and toward her greatest achievement.
The sun shone bright when the 24 Hours of Moab started at noon that day – Oct. 11 – and when it finished, at noon the next day.
But at Moab, it’s all about the night.
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The night wraps wholly around the Moab race, and it weeds out all but the most dedicated of riders and teams.
The preparation for the night begins days in advance and becomes the focus early on the morning before the race. Each camp gathers and stacks its firewood, some teams combining in a hope their efforts could keep a fire going all night and offer a priceless blast of warmth for a rider fresh off the course.
Batteries were charged and back-up light systems were checked. Cannon’s crew – the invaluable Nate Bird and Kelly Boniface – first outfitted her with lights in the early evening, unsure whether she’d make it back around before the sun slipped away.
As night came, some of the day’s commotion fizzled. The public address announcer, blasting through massive speakers since an hour before
the starting gun, finally stopped at 9 p.m. A few of the vendors packed near the starting line and timekeeping tent locked up, as well, and many who were racing as part of a team disappeared to their sleeping bags to catch a few hours of rest before their time came.
For every light that was put out, a campfire lit up.
Cannon entered the night in bad shape. She flew around the course with her first lap, logging her best time of the race at 1 hour, 32 minutes, and was in second place. She lost a spot after the second, however, and was clinging to third at dusk.
Every lap seemed to bring a new Cannon. After one, she was happy and eager. After three she was exhausted, and after five, at nearly 9 p.m., she was out of it.
“Where is second place?” she asked. “How far back is fourth and fifth? Five minutes? An hour? I need to know how far back they are.”
The dual personalities persisted as midnight approached.
“Candy is the key!” Cannon shouted after her seventh lap, beaming and eager while inhaling a Twizzler.
The news wasn’t as good elsewhere. Cannon’s crew teamed up with that of Dereck Fish, a friend of Cannon’s and a bike shop mechanic from Fruita. Fish was competing in the solo division for the second consecutive year, and as he approached the camp after his sixth lap, he hinted it might be his last.
Back at camp
The course took competitors along a bumpy road, past a camping section of RVs and ever-buzzing generators and into a giant white tent. There, teams traded out riders while solo competitors, such as Cannon, notched another lap with the swipe of a card.
The course then led riders through a camping area reserved for solo competitors, support crews waiting at each tent for their guy or gal.
Bird and Boniface wasted little time whenever Cannon skidded to a stop. She spread her arms as Boniface ripped a dry Camelbak off her and slid on a new one. Carefully prepared food – put together earlier in the week and warmed as she approached – was laid out for her to pick from. Sometimes it was a sandwich, other times a folded piece of Brooklyn’s pizza or maybe a burrito.
What she didn’t eat was slipped in her pack or in the jersey pocket on her back.
Bird, meanwhile, gave her dusty bike a quick check-up, oiled the chain and moments later, her cheeks exploding with food, gave her a giant push, back onto the trail and into the race.
It was immediately back to work, heating the next round of food, replenishing the water and charging the batteries for Ipods and lighting systems.
“It was like coming into a NASCAR pit. I got off the bike, and they were on fire,” Cannon said days later.
Fish brought a support crew of his own, but the two combined that camps, and when their riders were out, they passed the time gathered by a roaring fire, sipping beers, arguing about music and swapping stories.
“He’s almost there, and he wants to quit,” one of Fish’s team called before his lowest moment. “Quick – everyone make it look like this isn’t fun.”
Neither Fish nor Cannon stopped, and in fact, both began to heat up as the air became increasingly frigid, and as any stray from the fire became shiver-inducing.
Cannon logged faster times for her seventh and eighth lap than she did her sixth, and her grip on third place tightened. No longer concerned about where fourth or fifth stood, her questions now focused on the second-place rider, Cat Morrison.
Then, Morrison fell by the wayside, withdrawing from the race after a fall and a 3-hour ninth lap.
Fish, meanwhile, never talked about quitting again. Instead, his stops – which had begun to stretch to four or five minutes – became bang-bang, 60-second affairs. He spent 2:15 on his sixth lap, but he only topped the two-hour mark one more time in his next seven.
When the sun finally returned, the race was nearly over. Cannon rode just a lap and a half in the morning light. Boniface and Bird, who had each ridden the course with her once during the coldest hours, made their way past the timing tent, 100 yards out on the course, and waited. Cannon, now pedaling with her mouth half-hung open and an unmistakable look of exhaustion, rounded the final corner and with wide eyes and a questioning look asked where she stood.
“You’re done,” Bird said.
She pumped her fist, hopped from her bike, and 30 minutes from noon, finished her Moab race in second place, better than she’d ever dreamed of doing.
Third place, Kerry White, would have needed to set the women’s lap record on her 10th lap to make it back before noon and earn the right to start her 11th, which would have tied Cannon.
When noon struck and White still was working on her 10th circuit, Cannon, Bird and Boniface simultaneously cracked beers and began to celebrate.
They’d survived the night. They’d survived the race.
“I thought I might be done after this race,” Cannon said afterward, “but, if anything, it got me more excited for next year.”