In 1817 German Baron Karl von Drais invented his Laufmaschine, or running machine. Made of wood and weighing 48 pounds, it had no pedals or drive-train, rather you straddled it and walked. Thought to be some sort of replacement for a horse- and dubbed a hobby- horse or dandy horse, it fell out of popularity due to cities banning their use due to numerous accidents.
Today, there are as many different bikes today as there are riders, as well as ways to ride ‘em. Everyone has a favorite bike, and the terrain and way in which you choose to ride is up to you. On dirt or pavement. To work, after work, or for work. Fast or long-distance- or both. Mostly though, it is always for fun.
As John F. Kennedy said-“Nothing compares with the simple pleasure of a bike ride.” It’s all in the way that you use it. –Ed.
But what’s big about the races isn’t the crowds. There aren’t any. It isn’t the purse, as there aren’t any prizes either. And it’s not the field; Wilkinson often races with a dozen or so other riders.
What’s big is the accomplishment itself. Last year, Wilkinson finished fourth in the Great Divide Race, a self-supported contest on Adventure Cycling’s Great Divide route. He covered 2,500 miles, from Canada to Mexico, and at the end he wasn’t so concerned about when the other riders finished.
“I was hoping to go faster,” Wilkinson said. “But in the end I was more psyched to just finish the race than I’ve ever been to finish in any placing before.”
Endurance racing has, in many ways, been the strongest segment of mountain bike racing. 24-Hour races often fill up, and they attract huge crowds. Thousands of people camp out in the desert every year for the 24 Hours of Moab, where Wilkinson took fourth in the solo category in 2004.
Wilkinson cut his teeth on those events, but in recent years he’s been gravitating toward less organized events. “It’s a progression. All the lap races, like the 24-hours, the 12-hours, the 100-milers, the big draw of those is the challenge. Then the problem is, if you keep doing them over and over again, the challenge factor kind of goes away.”
Starting from the Canadian border and pointing his bike for Mexico, with all the gear he’ll need strapped to his bike, Wilkinson sees new possibilities. “It’s fun to challenge yourself and do something that you’re not sure that you can do.”
At the lap races, it’s not so personal an experience. “If you don’t have a pit crew of five or six people, you can’t be really be that competitive,” Wilkinson said. “It’s unfortunate. It’s this solo, endurance thing, and yet it’s like a NASCAR race. You’ve got to have six people doing every little thing for you.”
So he seeks out events like the Great Divide Race, the Grand Loop, the Colorado Trail Race, or the Arizona Trail Race. The format is simple and pure. “You start, and your time is when you finish,” Wilkinson said. “Whatever it takes to get there is what you do. They’re usually self-supported with the idea that you’re allowed to take advantage of services along the way.”
Even something so simple can become complicated on public land, particularly Bureau of Land Management property. “A couple years ago some friends of mine got ticketed for holding the, quote, Kokopelli Trail Race, which did, in fact, get pretty big,” Wilkinson said, referring to the 70 people who showed up to ride 140 miles non-stop, mostly on dirt roads, with no support. “The BLM came and ticketed the guy who organized it. The level of organization was picking a date and time for us to start.”
The BLM’s response is understandable in the one-size-fits-all world of federal regulation. People gathered for a competition, and BLM officials put that in the only context they know. “It’s just not really understood. What people who work with races are used to seeing is these races are pretty popular,” Wilkinson said. “People get in lotteries to ride Leadville 100, and pay $250 to ride races like that. And a thousand people want to show up. People riding Arizona Trail on their own, and camping out, there’s like 20 people who want to do it.”
The Forest Service’s regulations are more amenable to semi-events like this, which is why some of these unorganized, non-sanctioned events are more well-known than others. Events on Forest Service property can develop through social networking, even media coverage, while rides on BLM land tend to be more under the radar.
Even though the self-supported endurance events are low-key, they attract big talent. Even though he didn’t race the 24 Hours of Moab last year, Wilkinson still had opportunities to test himself against that race’s winner. “Josh Tostado rides with us in some of those unsupported ones, too, so we all know how strong he really is. He’s amazing.”
The self-supported (or unsupported, depending on perspective) racers are often opting out of mainstream racing, and they sometimes have to feign ignorance when they run into a ranger, but they’re hardly mountain bike renegades. “The people are more like backcountry skiers or backpacking through-hikers,” Wilkinson said. “Everybody takes picture of their rides on these races, and they’re all pictures of flowers.”
Says Smitty, “I got into triathlons because my health wasn’t great. Now that I am into it, I’m into it all the way. It’s a lifestyle, and you have to give up other things at some point.”
No matter how invested she gets she’ll probably never see a national overall title, because she doesn’t have the typical triathlete frame. She’s over six feet tall and, having been a competitive swimmer, has upper body strength to burn.
“I race athena division which is women over 160 pounds.” She’s often out of the water early and passes other divisions, but having swimmer’s shoulders is not an advantage on a bike so she tries to level the field through technology. She rides a Cervelo P2C with flashpoint FP80 wheels. “I paid about $3000 for the bike and upgraded the wheelset for even more free speed.” She said. “I have maybe $4000 into it, which is reasonable for a mid- level triathlete.”
Triathlon specific bikes focus more on aerodynamics than weight because triathlons do not typically allow drafting. There is no pack to collectively battle the wind. Peloton riders take turns leading and spend the bulk of their time drafting off of each other. Being in the middle of the pack is estimated to be as much as 60% easier than leading.
Since every triathlete is the leader of a one person pack, aerodynamics are critical. Aero bars replace typical road bike bars and place riders in the optimal aerodynamic position with the hand splitting the wind in front of head and torso. “My bike really fits me. I’m so comfortable on this bike, which is important when you’re thinking about riding 100 miles and then running a marathon.”
Her bike came setup with Ultegra components, which she hasn’t seriously considered upgrading yet. She believes that they work well and that “saving grams doesn’t matter to someone my size.”
It must be working, in 2008 Smitty won the athena division at the Half Iroman Florida. “I’ve been climbing the ladder” she said not referring to placement but to distance. “I started at sprints, then I told myself I wanted to do an Olympic, then a half Ironman, now I want to try a full Ironman.”
Not only do you need to ramp up endurance to complete the longer races, you also need a little more speed to finish in a reasonable amount of time. Smitty has upped her average ride speed from about 15 miles per hour to above 20 in the last few years. “The place you can make up the most time is on a bike.”
At a local triathlon she typically sets a goal to be in the top 5 or 10 women overall. She also finishes first or second in Athena.
But she remains zen about racing against others. “I’m not going to be able to keep up with someone 5 feet tall and 100 pounds in the mountain.” She concludes “I’m out there to do better than myself.”
Travis Kumm, Cross Country
In The Lord of the Rings, Gollum calls his one ring his ‘precious’. He obsesses over it, loves it and can’t wait to get it back. Travis Kumm can relate. His Gary Fisher Sugar 2+ is his precious.
His wife draws a slightly different parallel, calling it ‘the second wife’. But Travis disagrees because he goes looking for, even lusting after, other bikes regularly, and his precious doesn’t mind. Plus he keeps upgrading precious, which is expensive, but not as expensive as upgrading a wife.
Travis heads out to local trails 4-5 times a week and averages 10 miles each time. He is the consummate all- mountain biker. When asked about his favorite type of trails, he goes on for a while “I like singletrack, of course. I prefer traverses, ridge lines, alpine, and desert, slickrock and technical terrain.”
In addition to trail miles he commutes on his bike every day, he also hooks up a trailer to haul his daughter to daycare almost daily. “The miles really add up, but I don’t know how many I ride per year- probably in the thousands.”
At least twice a year he consults utahmountainbiking.com for a new ‘classic trail’ and heads out for a vacation. Travis said, “Usually I bike vacation in Utah, because nowhere else has so much biking to offer, variety and quality.”
“Mountain biking is my favorite outdoor sport, and the price is right. After that initial investment it’s really cheap.” Travis has to concede that it also helps to get paid to ride.
Travis convinced the parks and recreation department, where he works, to start a mountain bike program for adults, which he quickly took charge of. On Thursdays, participants can get a quick lesson in terminology, maintenance, tries, techniques or etiquette and take a 2 hour ride with a group.
His boss was initially reluctant to start a new program during a recession. “He came around, and gave me the chance to make it work.”
“It’s been going really well. In the future I hope it expands, and I need to get more feedback from the first wave of participants” Kumm said.
The first week some participants were surprised at how hard even beginner trails are, but they still came back for another week. Travis recalled, “One guy, David, was on and old school GT with no suspension, old brakes and 18 gears. He made it, grumbling about the work. I didn’t think he was coming back. He showed up the next week having spent 6 days straight on a Schwinn airdyne getting ready.”
When asked about his future plans in mountain biking he doesn’t seem to consider racing, or changing much about his riding at all. “I want to be more involved in the community, maintaining trails, building trails and working on getting people involved.”
He probably has many years ahead. He has never had a major injury. “I’ve gone over the handlebars, and my bike has taken big spills, But I never get hurt” When I pressed him about his worst wreck he laughed a little and trailed off in thought “There was the tree hugging incident…”
Wendy Palmer, Downhiller
Wendy Palmer, nee Reynolds, came to Moab with a large Trek hardtail a couple of sizes too big for her at just over five-foot-three. And on one of her first rides with a group of locals, she cleaned every move on the newly-christened Sovereign Trail. People were impressed enough with the small woman on a large bike, but no one knew she’d only been riding for months.
“I didn’t even know what mountain biking was. A friend was like, ‘I’m going mountain biking, you should go,’” Palmer said of her introductory ride in Olympia, Washington. “Then I fell in love with it, and I moved to immediately to Moab.”
Moab’s technical riding soon highlighted her innate talents. “I just accelerated in the downhill sector,” she said. “I can ride uphill, and I can ride uphill okay, but I would never be able to race cross-country.”
“I started racing my first year riding,” she said. “Six months after I started riding was my first downhill race here in Moab, which was the last downhill race that Moab’s had. I got second in beginner because I thought I was a shoo-in, so I held back.”
She stopped holding back soon after. “The next race I bumped up to sport, and won the rest of the season in sport. The next year I raced expert, and won the rest of the season in expert. The next season after that I went pro.”
The pro class has proven much tougher, but Palmer has had numerous podium finishes regionally and nationally, as well as a win at Angel Fire in her pro years. She has also been competitive enough for an invitation to a World-Cup event in Canada, which left an impression.
“Hands down, Bromont, Quebec, Canada, was easily the hardest course I’ve even seen. Because it’s a World-Cup course, all the World-Cup racers are there,” she said. “It’s extraordinarily intimidating when you’re seeing people like Steve Peat, Nathan Rennie, Sam Hill, all crashing in front of you.”
This is from someone who’s not too spooked by crashes. She’s the subject of the locally-infamous “scorpion-tail” video, footage of a crash where she augers in head first. As her upper body slides in the dirt, her feet try to pass her head in the air, arcing like a scorpion ready to strike.
“That crash was my sport class era,” she remembers. “I don’t know why I was so competitive in sport class. I had crashed higher up on the course, and my stem bolts had broken, so my bars were falling down. I was like ‘I’ve got to win!’ and I kept racing.”
That determination has seen her through worse wrecks and greater glory, and it’s left a deeper impression than the fleeting rush of any crash.
“I’m sure it’s influenced me, but in a good way,” she said. “To do a sport like downhill, you have to be completely confident in what you’re doing, or you’re not going to be able to accomplish it. You’re not going to go into a big drop and say, ‘I might be able to do this—maybe I can.’ You have to know you’re going to do it.”
“That confidence is what most everything is about.”