Team Lung Butter


I’m not an athlete. But when I strap a number plate to the front of my mountain bike, I sure feel like one. The difference is athletes enter races to win. I enter races for the promise of free beer at the finish line. But despite my indifference (and physical limitations) to making the podium, that damn competitive spirit still possesses me at the starting gate. What is supposed to be a fun time of costumes and alcohol consumption, always turns into a suffer-fest. Because while I may not have a chance at first place, I’ll be damned if the guy pedaling down my neck is going to beat me.

Endurance races are my favorite. For one thing, you don’t have to be fast, you just need to last. The other reason is these races are a more social affair: they take longer and require an overnight stay or two. But mostly I register because you can sign up a whole team. Who the hell wants to ride alone for 24-hours when you and five of your buddies can instead take turns spinning laps? This way the endurance challenge becomes about not how many miles one can ride in a day, but how many beers one can drink.

I’ve “competed” in several mountain bike races, most notably 18 Hours of Fruita in Colorado, and Utah’s own 25 Hours in Frog Hollow. What I love most about these events is they are irreverent, amusing, and never taken too seriously. Mountain biking is supposed to be fun, and these races provide. During my years on the endurance trail I’ve seen Taiko drummers, gorillas handing out whiskey and bacon under a full moon, riders with boom-box bike trailers blasting death metal, dirt jumps over camp fires, and a plethora of costumed hooligans. The best mountain bike race is a miniature Burning Man. Mardi Gras in the desert.

But while I adore the events where race organizers are just as drunk as the racers, that doesn’t mean I avoid the ones where everyone is super serious (and sober). I’m talking about races like the Leadville 100 qualifiers.

Also known as “The Race Across the Sky,” the Leadville 100 is one of mountain biking’s most prestigious and difficult events to get into. There are several qualifying races around the country that try and mimic the Leadville course. Read: they avoid technical singletrack in preference of wide, gravel jeep roads. The races are as boring as they sound. Competitors at these shindigs ride carbon cross-country bikes. Lycra is not just the norm, but the rule. At tent city, everyone is in bed by nine. On race day, athletes elbow featherweight bikes into position for a Le Mans start. Feeling totally out of place, I inch my own front tire onto the line as I hum an old Sesame Street song. One of these things is not like the others.

At one such race, the Barn Burner in Flagstaff, Arizona, I wear a cotton shirt and shorts instead of a sponsored kit. My bike doesn’t have an ounce of carbon fiber. In fact, it probably weighs twice as much as everyone else’s rigs. Instead of shaving weight, I add to it. I notice that not a single other rider here has a dropper post. I can’t imagine an endurance race without one. It’s obvious I’m not here to seriously compete, and my friends are of a like mind. We call ourselves “Team Lung Butter.” I’m not sure where it came from but it’s a delicious image of what we dredge up from our bodies around mile 25.

I love these races because even though I’m not competing, I’m still competing. Within minutes of the starting gun, the real athletes are already miles ahead. My focus is on the guy in front of me. At the first downhill section I let the brakes go and blow past him with all of my bike’s 160mm of travel glory. I gotta’ get my wins where I can, and I feel elated when I look back and watch him pick his dainty bike around the rocks. I think to myself, “Leadville, here I come!” Of course the rider immediately passes me on the next ascent as I hump my bike’s enormous girth to the top, expelling lung butter along the way.

These small victories are a team effort. Looking at the race results throughout the day, we usually notice that we’re in last place, but not by much. The game is suddenly on as we pedal just a little faster to try and eke out one more lap than the other guys. If that fails, discovering where those bastards are camping so we can deflate their tires is an effective last resort. Let’s just say Team Lung Butter has never come in last place.

When I come to a race with a 40-pound bike, it may seem like I don’t care. And I don’t. But I do at the same time. I treat all mountain bike races this way, both the hedonist-fests and the stone-cold qualifiers. Like I said, I’m here to have fun. Winning is not only secondary, but impossible. So I aim to get loose and lose. Because even at the serious events, if I’m about to vomit at the finish line, I don’t need a damn participation medal. I want someone to hand me a flask of Fireball. And at the Barn Burner, boy howdy, a Lung Butter teammate does just that.

Then again, I’ll take the participation medal if it’s made from aluminum and has “New Belgium” printed on it.

Despite my beer muscle profile and lackadaisical approach to mountain bike racing, I still have goals. I still take pride in my second-to-last-place results. Just like the career racer, I collect and hang my number plates in the garage. But this race season I want more. I want to excel in my own way. So I better start training. Because maybe this year I’ll be the first guy in a gorilla suit who qualifies for Leadville.



Leave a Reply