Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Velo-Nostalgia in Fargo

Before you start reading, you can choose to download this edition of LostGears as a ready-to-print Adobe Acrobat document by clicking here or the Scribd gadget in the right-hand column. It will also allow you to read the thing offline. The link will take you to the LostGears "Scribd" site, a document hosting system.

I rode my first real bike in Fargo after moving there from New York in 1978. The first one was a nice Trek 910 touring rig that I purchased on layaway with tips from bartending. All black and sparkly. Took it on many excursions including one to New York in 1980. It survived a year in the Big Apple, and then got stolen from the basement of the Trader & Trapper Bar where I was working after moving back to ND. After that was stolen in the summer of 1981 I started to hang out in the Nomad Bike Shop. The Nomad was every biker's dream shop. Small and serious. The Scholz family ran the place... and I do mean family. Mom, dad, and the kids (three boys and two gals as I recall.) I'd already been an avid bike rider, but the Scholz's pushed me further in that direction. They introduced me to the competition and community aspects of bicycling.

Hanz Scholz sold me my first serious racing frame, a gorgeous "pre-owned" 1973 Eisentraut, that he'd taken in on trade and repainted himself. I still mourn over selling that thing, (though the guy I sold it to - Dave Madson - still has it.) Nomad was also home to North Dakota's only official bike racing team. I was a hanger on to that group and managed to learn a lot over the years tucking into their slipstream. Hanz went on to found BikeFriday after leaving Fargo to join his brother Alan in Portland. Alan you may know as the founder and proprietor of Burley Design - yes, that Burley. Before the famous trailers Alan sewed all sorts of bike gadgetry, originally calling the company Burley Bags. I've lost track of them over the years and not sure if they'd even remember me, but it's great to see them working together so successfully now.

I'm telling you all this because I made a pilgrimage of sorts to Fargo last week. I returned for a 30th anniversary school reunion. I drove the distance from Michigan to Fargo and used the opportunity to take my Fausto Coppi fixed gear with me. (The Coppi has S&S couplings for traveling.) I fully intended to revisit some of the old stomping grounds around Fargo where Hanz and his other brother Ian had taught me the hard lessons of the peleton and of the lonely time trial. I'll never forget Mrs. Scholz, (we all called her mom,) standing there at the finish line on a farm road in north Moorhead calling out splits to us as we passed. Best tip I ever got was using the contents of my water bottle to stop the dogs from Anderson's farmhouse dead in their tracks. The TT course went right by their place and since we were all lined up two minutes apart they'd just lay in wait for us, one after the other. I wish I had video of that now.

Another notable memory of Fargo was John Lindgren. John was a hero of sorts to me. He was a professor of economics at NDSU, and he also held the Sekai Dealership for the region. Adding to this interesting combination Mr. Lindgren was also Fargo's mayor. He could regularly be seen riding to work, rain or shine, from north Fargo on his Sekai touring bike dressed out in fenders, with his briefcase on the back. I loved that sight.

John Lindgren laid the groundwork for a community that embraces bicycling. It's funny because it's not necessarily in outward ways like Portland, OR or Davis, CA. The cues that bicycles are welcome and appreciated are subtle but many. Last weekend I put on more than a hundred miles in and around Fargo and its sister city across the river Moorhead, Minnesota. I was happy to find more trails, bike lanes, and bike racks than were there when I left years ago. I believe Professor Lindgren is responsible for starting this notion and instilling it into the thread of bureacracy and politics in Fargo. It's important to note too that this kind of payoff can take decades to create. Thanks John!

Today there's a new bike shop in town, Island Park Cycles. They moved from Island Park some time ago and are now located right in the heart of downtown on Broadway between 4th Street North and the railroad tracks. In fact the store is in the old Burlington Northern Railroad depot. They seem to be the organizers of the current bike scene there. (Thanks to "d" from Arizona for contributing that via the comment section. See him here.) Find Island Park Cycles here.

One of the very interesting applications of bike-friendly design is the way they choose to allow for bikes in the downtown area. Rather than create those scrawny little bike lanes that hug the right side of the road like in Traverse City, or the bike lanes that sit in the middle of the traffic lanes, like in Minneapolis, Fargo has chosen to simply make the entire width of the street equal purview of cars AND bicycles. The bike lane marking on the roadway is dead center of each vehicular lane, and there are signs that read, "Bicycles may use full lane." WOW! Now that's advocacy!

In addition to this there is permissive language used in other control signage. What I mean by permissive is that subtle difference between using the word "no" and using more positive suggestive language.

On the sidewalks downtown, rather than the common "No bikes on sidewalks," the paint says: "Walk bikes on sidewalk."

Finally the bike racks are not positioned on the sidewalk, but on the road surface in what would be a vehicular parking spot. Again it's subtle but demonstrates the importance of bikes and that at least here they are equals to cars. These are subtle lessons in psychology that other communities might learn from.

I rode most of two days in and outside the city and found the roads and trails to be well planned and maintained. This includes a trip to the airport which had a bike trail going the full distance from town to the terminal. I cut across the NDSU campus heading north and just had to cross one street to get to the trail. The trail ended at a place where traffic had calmed considerably (Old Highway 81) and where it felt very safe to enter the roadway.

Riding on this road was a nostalgic joy. Hanz and the boys used this route to start most training rides. It heads north to Harwood, ND, a farm community with a large grain elevator visable from north Fargo some nine miles away. The land is so flat here, nothing can hide. I then took a turn east heading to north Moorhead and around in a big forty mile loop.

There's something about that wide open land that fascinates me. Especially while riding a bike. The view is relentless, and if there's a wind... watch out! The Nomad crew used to joke about doing hill training. That came when there was a strong headwind directly forward, typically from the North. At one point someone in the front of the pack would turn his head and yell "hills!" That was the cue for all of us to drop into our fattest gear and go into the wind standing up as far as we could. It was always a grueling experience that started and ended with laughter and cajoling. On windy days that grain elevator sat in the distance it seemed forever. While riding north of Fargo last week I snapped a series of pictures for a panoramic view so you could get a sense of it. Click the thumbnail at the top of the section.

On the way back from the big ride, I came down through north Moorhead and downtown. As if to accentuate the full experience of living here I got caught by a Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad (BNSF) train. This is a part of life here. There are several rail tracks crisscrossing the Fargo/Moorhead community. All things stop for them. I used to have an apartment right off the tracks in downtown Fargo. The trains would rumble by all day and all night. I learned to sleep through the quaking and horn-blowing. Now, some 30 years later, the sound is comforting to me.

So that's my little journey to Fargo.



Island Park Cycles

Fargo-Moorhead Tourism

Fixed Gear Gallery

All photos by Bill Palladino © Copyright 2008 Bill Palladino and All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Dennis Bean-Larson at the National 24 Hour Challenge

Before you start reading, you can choose to download this edition of LostGears as a ready-to-print Adobe Acrobat document by clicking here or the Scribd gadget in the right-hand column. It will also allow you to read the thing offline. The link will take you to the LostGears "Scribd" site, a document hosting system.

It's Saturday June 14, 2008. Dennis wakes me at 5:30 am and says, “Get up, see you at Denny’s in fifteen.” I grumble and head for the shower. Dennis is out the door wheeling his Pinarello Paris in front of him down the hotel hallway. That Italian beast is worth about three times what I paid for my car but gets a lot better gas mileage. A few minutes later I’m packed up and taking Emma, my yellow lab, for her stroll around the hotel property.

We’re here to support Dennis in his twelfth attempt at the National 24 Hour Challenge. As its name suggests it’s a 24 hour event where you ride as far as possible from 8AM Saturday to 8AM Sunday. Thus far his longest jaunt here was 326.5 miles. That was last year. Dennis is 63 years old. Gol darn stud-duck if you ask me.

The National 24 Hour Challenge started in 1983 as the brainchild of Diane Obermeyer, a former national title holder in 24 hour events. The first event boasted 18 riders, mostly from the small cycling club that Obermeyer belonged to, the Rapid Wheelmen. Since then the 24 Hour has become the largest event of its kind in the U.S., featuring hundreds of riders from scores of states and even a handful of foreign lands.

I pull up to Denny’s, a place I haven’t been inside of since my college days in the 70’s. Dennis has already plowed through breakfast and is catching up on the latest Barack Obama news on his Blackberry. He’s pretty intent at this point, so I don’t say much.

Then come the instructions: “Set up the gear at the tent,” (cooler, food, box of water bottles, and a chair for me.) “One and half scoops of this, one scoop of that, and a big squeeze of either the chocolate or orange gooey stuff. You decide.” (Dennis used Hammer products exclusively during this event…testing them out.) “When I stop, make sure I’ve got fresh bottles, check my pockets for food. Give me a banana or something once in a while. Maybe a wet paper towel for my face, and a splash of water. I doubt I’ll need ‘em but take the extra wheels just in case…. And keep your phone on.” I’m suddenly taken aback with responsibility!

The start/finish line is at the Thornapple-Kellogg High School in Barry County, Michigan. I arrived too late to drive the car up to the tent….too many cars in there already. So we have to park in the sports complex parking area a few hundred yards across the fields. This, as it turns out, is a bad mistake. It forces me to lug all the crap from the car to the tent by hand. Emma, on the other hand thinks it’s a gas. She gets to frolic alongside and greet all the brightly dressed people. “Hey dad, let’s go back for another load! Woof, drool.”

The start is a festive conflagration of carbon, aluminum, steel, spandex and the smell of sun-screen and chamois butter. It’s all contrasted by the fluttering of tartan kilts on the traditional entourage of bagpipers. The din from their pipes fills the morning air with a drone of impending battle. This mood is accentuated by the staccato clip-clop of cleated shoes on pavement – soldiers in queue. A P.A. announcer barks demands of the riders and support personnel, and a nervous energy enlivens the air. “Five minutes to the start!”

Dennis suggests this year he probably didn’t train as smart as he could’ve leading up to today. “I figure that one needs between 2,000 and 3,000 miles for the year prior to the event. I probably had 2,000, but they were so scattered and I was inconsistent. I know better, but other things in my life just got in the way. The time to plan was back in October/November 2007. I didn't do that. One needs to sit down and make a training calendar.”

The riders and their support teams are as varied as the patterns on their jerseys. Some venture to do this alone with no-one to support them. They simply pull up to a tent that they’ve preset and take care of themselves. Others have full-on armies of specialized volunteers each with a given task, taking shifts through the long hours. Then there’s the biggest group and they resemble us: one person sitting on a folding chair in front of a tent with a cooler. It’s a tailgate party for the weirdest football team you’ve ever seen! The infield at the start/finish is a rainbow of tents and chairs and celebratory flags. If you’ve ever seen a movie version of King Henry V, imagine the battle seen at the end and just squint your eyes. You’ll get the idea.

Most riders who’ve done this a while have a fairly standard encampment: One big walk-in tent – inside it a cot, some chairs, and supplies organized for easy discovery. Outside the big tent, some kind of tarp or “EZ-UP” to provide shade. Out here, some lounge chairs, the cooler, a small table for mixing, and maybe even a camp stove to heat soup.

The serious folks and their buffed out Special Forces teams have lights, stop watches, laptops, and veritable mobile bike shops ready for the worst enemy interdiction. Our little insurgency has the bike equivalent of a pup-tent with a distracted watchman out front throwing treats to his scrawny little camp dog. That being said, what we lack in glitz and muscle-flexing we make up with our zeal. Dennis is my hero after all and Emma and I are here to show him some props. You go boy!

As the start’s appointed hour gets closer Dennis makes some final adjustments to his “weapon” while I blunder around the cooler looking for something good to eat. Dennis takes off his plain red jersey and pins his race number to the back. The race organizers have foregone all the digital electronic timing devices and gone back to a simple, less glitchy system. Here, they simply punch a set of numbers already printed on the race-number and call out the rider’s number to another volunteer with a clipboard. When riders complete a given section, race officials tear that set of numbers off. It’s a good and practical solution.

The first loop of the race is 126.7 miles, making a big circle around the small towns and farm fields of Barry County. The terrain is flat to mildly hilly, and this morning there’s an unquenched Sun keeping the riders warmed up as they begin the circuit. There are three checkpoints along this route where riders get their mileage verified and support personnel are allowed to meet up with them. My job is to jump in the car and get to each checkpoint just ahead of Dennis. This is a job, as I’ll discover, at the edge of my skill-set.

Another missive comes from the stage area: “Two minutes to the start.” Now the riders begin to gather in bunches at the start/finish line. I ride with Dennis a lot and I’m suspecting he’ll latch on to a group behind the leaders. He won’t stay at the front, but back in the pack enough to gain some drafting benefit. The best riders will go full-on during this first leg. There’s some advantage to putting as many miles behind you as possible early on. Dennis checks his pockets, sticks a banana in his shirt pocket, and makes one last inspection of the Pinarello. For those of you who know Dennis he has a disclaimer for why a lowly entrepreneur like himself owns the same bike you might find under Alejandro Valverde in the Tour. “Lest y'all think I'm just totally loaded or a trust-fund kid, I've got to tell you about it. It's an '07 Pinarello Paris, Force group, Easton ec-90 clincher wheelset plus an Easton sew-up Tempest II Carbon wheelset. I got it last fall from a US domestic pro team when they cleared out last year's bikes. It had been raced, and there's a few nicks and scratches on the frame. I paid $3,500 incl extra shifters, crankset, cassette, 2 chains, 2 BB, bar tape, etc. A pile of stuff. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.” We’ll also find out later all that bling is good for attracting young riders of the female persuasion.

“One minute to start.” Now he moves about six rows back and settles in for the start. He’s a pretty intense person at this point, choosing not to engage many people, even me, in conversation. He seems much more intent on some mental preparation. When I asked him about his overall strategy for the race his response seems to mirror this. “It was generally to 'ride within myself',” he says.

At ten seconds to the start, the announcer counts off the seconds, and the whole crowd of onlookers joins in. At “GO!” the pipers begin to play some Scottish or Irish ditty - I can’t tell the difference - and the hoards of riders click into their pedals heading out the driveway. Dennis passes me by with nary a glance. Only 23 hours 59 minutes and 30 seconds to go.

You should know that Dennis comes to this type of race honestly. He’s a seasoned athlete. He’s not quick to admit it, but he took second place for his age group in the state road race back in 2002. This is not a lark for him. He understands bicycle racing, knows his body, and seems to understand its limits. This year marks his twelfth run at the 24 Hour Challenge. I was interested in how he got started… “Back then the 24 HRC was the big annual ride of the Brickheads, (The Brickheads are a group of…shall we say… “well-seasoned” riders from Traverse City. Brick Wheels is a local bike shop.) I hadn't started riding with them on Sunday yet, but I heard about the 24 and entered. Rode with them till 60 miles when I got dropped. I still had the most miles of the group with 193 that year. Just kinda kept coming back.” That is a terrific summing up of Dennis’s personal perspective. I’ve ridden with him for three years now. He’s about 14 years older than me and still manages to keep “coming back” enough to kick my butt and leave me in the dust most days.

With the riders off and pedaling, my only job now is to pack up a few things in the car, (remember the first parking mistake,) and head to checkpoint one some 37 miles out. I pack up my 1990 Saab convertible with Dennis’s supplies, some dog toys for Emma, my fixie, and a spare set of wheels for D’s bike. Before heading off I wait for the riders to make their first pass of the school, this about nine miles into the ride. Emma and I stand by the side of the road and cheer as Dennis zooms by about 50 riders back, but still in the lead group. He looks great. Later he’ll tell me the fact of him being there, at this point in the face, is purely accidental and not part of his strategy.

By the time I get to checkpoint one, a school at some rural intersection, it’s already mayhem. The parking lot is loaded and all the best spots close to the pass-through are taken. I find a good spot in the shade and prep a couple of large bottles with Dennis’s performance concoction. Emma makes lots of friends and then happily curls up on the lawn while I wait for my hero to show up. He’s dropped off the lead group and at first I think that I’ve missed him somehow. Then he shows up with a small group of riders about ten minutes back. He’s pretty nonchalant as he pulls in, exchanging the bottles, looking for a wrench to fix a squeaky bottom-bracket and moving on with only a word or two.

Time to checkpoint #1 - 1 hour 51 minutes. (2007 split was 1:47)

The second checkpoint is more picturesque. It’s a small church with lots of trees and shade. By this point most of the support personnel have developed convivial relationships and are sitting in chairs relaxing together.

The first riders in are all business at this point. They stop just long enough for the officials to check off their numbers, grab a water bottle and off they go. Some of them wait for their small groups of cohorts. This seems to be a key tactic of the high-mile riders. They always ride with a group, even if only two or three bikes.

Dennis comes in with a small group quite a ways back this time. But he’s looking good and feeling pretty confident. He just grabs a banana, some liquid refills and moves on. The leg preceding this checkpoint is just past the first set of hills and begins to take its toll on riders as evidenced by how far they’ve spread out.

Time to Checkpoint #2 - 4 hours 16 minutes. (2007 split was 4:26)

The third checkpoint at about mile 100, is in town but it’s 2 pm now and the Sun is at its highest. It is hot. The checkpoint itself is in some parking lot with no shade. Those of us poor souls who’ve chosen not to ride have a different sort of torture to deal with…. waiting in the heat. Emma decides the minivan with the two big ice coolers looks more inviting than my Saab and quickly pours herself under the shade of the rear hatch. She gets rewarded by the owners with chips of ice.

Dennis is still having some problem with his bike and heads for the support tent. Each checkpoint features a volunteer mechanic sitting a booth sponsored by a local bike shop. Between checkpoints there’s not much help out on the course, but once you’re at the checkpoint the mechanics can provide just about anything but the strangest velo-esoterica.

When he gets to me, this time he takes off his helmet and has me douse him and his “do-rag” with water. I push a bottle of water in his face hoping he’ll drink it plain, without all the goop, but he refuses. I also force an energy bar into his back pocket. It’s squeezed in there with half a PB&J sandwich, “made with bad white bread. Good bread can’t hold up to the squashing." That’s a free training tip from a master folks! Interesting to note here that Dennis hit the 100 mile mark right at 6 hours both this year and in 2007. Not bad. In terms of his performance for the 100 mile opening ride, Dennis says, "Most people ride that big loop conservatively, not wanting to burn up too much. I think perhaps having a Powertap and knowing more about one's self, I'd bet I could have ridden the 1st 100 maybe 10% harder, which might be a key to getting 350."

Time to Checkpoint #3 - 6 hours Zero minutes (2007 split was 06:00 )

Checkpoint #4 is back to the start/finish and ends at 127.6 miles into the ride. Keeping in mind Dennis’s goal for this year of 350 miles, this puts him about 2/5ths of the way. Here I get to set up at the tent and relax a bit. Dennis managed to pitch the tent exactly at the start line, first tent in file. So my job now is just to sit here in plain sight of the long entry road onto the school property and wait for him. From my vantage point there’s probably a mile of the course visible as it curls in from the farm fields in the distance. One by one and two by two the riders come in. They enter on one side of the circular driveway in front of the high school, do a complete loop passing the start/finish, then exit at the same place they entered the property. Enough riders are coming through now that it all resembles some large, slow-moving, machine. Gears turning and grinding, with people like me with nothing much to do but run around providing the grease once in a while.

When the first loop is done riders start a sub-section covering some of the same ground. It’s 23.7 miles long. This segment will stay open until just before dark when the bottom checkpoint is closed and the last loop engaged. This last section is 7.5 miles in length and is fairly flat. It’s referred to as the “night route,” and provides better security for riders but gets fairly monotonous. So most riders work hard to get in as many of the second loops as possible before nightfall.

Dennis comes in all alone again. And he’s looking a little perturbed. “Give me a towel and some damned water,” he barks. Yikes! I think. What happened? I figure somebody cut him off at a turn, or some car came too close, one of the usual complaints. “That last bottle of energy drink didn’t have the lid tightened down and when I went to take a drink the whole thing dumped on me.” There goes my career as a domestique! A minute later he’s more jovial and laughing as I try to make amends by cleaning the Pinarello a bit. It’s a gooey mess too. Carbon and sugar don’t seem to mix all that well. Other than the quick sponge bath, he doesn’t stop, just stands over the bike and quickly moves on.

Time to Checkpoint #4 (End of the big loop) - 8 hours 10 minutes (2007 Split 07:48)

As Dennis leaves, it’s ten after four in the afternoon. He’s out on his first of the 23.7 mile loops. Again, my job is just to sit here and make sure he’s supplied well as he comes around. Looks like it’ll be about an hour and half before I see him again. It’s here, while Dennis is still out on the course, that I get in trouble…or more precisely Emma does.

We’ve been sitting in the only shade I can find by a brick wall next to school under some smallish trees. It’s hot and Emma’s just been lying on her blanket with her toy, “Lambie.” Let’s just say she’s way out on the cute scale about now. Suddenly over the P.A. come this strident voice saying, “We have to enforce the rules of the 24 Hour Challenge and those of you with pets on the premises must take them off the property immediately. It’s right there in the registration packet. You are jeopardizing our ability to use this school property. You know who you are.” Crap! There are about ten of us with dogs here. For the most part they’re all pretty quiet, and I imagine all just as cute as Emma. But now they’re fugitives.

I’m stuck though. I can’t take her anywhere, we don’t have a hotel, and there’s nothing close by. The Sun is still too high in the sky to put her in the car. The tent is too hot. So I make a command decision to keep it on the down-low and ignore the request for now. My neighbors in the next tent are sympathetic. They actually offer to take another person’s dog to their in-law’s house. Emma does me proud and just sort of disappears into the landscaping for the next few hours. She’s tired anyway. I’ll wait for the Sun to set and then put her in the Saab.
I’m sympathetic to the race organizers too and don’t want to make trouble for them, I’ve seen how hard they work to put this thing on. My bad - guess I should’ve read the fine print!

Dennis returns from the first 23.7 mile loop in just over two hours.

Total time through this leg, - 10 hours 15 minutes. (2007 Split 09:34) he’s starting to run a bit behind. It’s now 6:15 PM.

He surprises me again when he comes back through and just rides right by, never even looking my way. What’s the strategy here I wonder. “The three loops are pretty different. Obviously the big day loop is just a, well, a big ride. The goal is to finish up in decent shape...somewhat. And it depends on the temperatures. Finishing up the 126 miles around 3:30 in the afternoon it's always hot. I always head right out onto the evening loop of 23 miles and get two of them done, regardless of how I feel. It's always great when night comes and it cools off a bit.”

As an endurance athlete myself, I’m interested in how Dennis passes the time out on the road. Some people listen to tunes on their iPod, and I know he does this too. But even that noise can’t stop your brain from working. In perfect form Dennis’ response is no surprise, “Typically it's some mechanical or design problem that will usually occupy my brain. Like how to design a different propane burner for my kiln, or perhaps how to re-organize the front page,(of the fixed gear gallery website.”) And what about conversation? A 24 hour event is grueling and people tend to conserve energy both physically and mentally, so talking is sometimes difficult. Dennis has a solution and he’s sitting on it. “It's always nice when a young woman starts up a conversation with 'ya right? Well, TWO women did during the 24hr, though unfortunately not about my terrific physique, but instead about my Pinarello!! ~ ‘Oh, My God !!, that's my absolute dream bike you've got.’ ~ I'll take a smile anyway I can get it.”

The loop he’s on now, the 23.7 miler, closes at 9PM. So as he heads off, I know he’s only got time to make one more here. You have to be through the bottom checkpoint by 8 PM or you don’t get credit for those miles. Forty minutes into this section, my cell phone rings and it’s Dennis. “Broke a spoke about ten miles in. Bring the other wheels and meet me at the bottom checkpoint. Move fast! I’ll creep in there as best I can.”

I grab the carbon Tempest wheelset along with Emma and hop in the car as fast as I can. Technically I’m only allowed to provide support to Dennis at the checkpoint. So Dennis has to make his way limping along with his wheel rubbing the front brake for seven or so miles. This is all for the safety of both riders and support personnel. It wouldn’t be good for support vehicles to be stopping along the side of the road anytime a rider needed something. Too many opportunities for disaster on roads open to all vehicular traffic. I keep this in mind as I make my way the 15 miles to the other side of the course. I carefully pass fifty or so riders along the way. When I get there Dennis is standing in the shade talking to some folks. “The front (18 spoke) was so taco'd it rubbed the pads even with the QR open. I rode about 3 miles at 7mph to the checkpoint while Bill drove out here. I was crawling so slowly with that wonky wheel, that everyone passing me was, like – ‘hey, are you ok?’”

We quickly exchange both front and rear wheels and Dennis beats me out of the checkpoint. He shows up at the start/finish an hour or so later at 8:15 pm.

Total time through the second 23.7 mile loop 12 hours 15 minutes. (2007 Split 11:35)

Amazingly, even with the technical problem, he manages to do this leg in the same time as the last one, 2 hours flat. I imagine there’s some adrenaline reaction, but then there’s Dennis’s explanation: “….yes, those carbon wheels are 1300gm and surely make you feel like you're faster anyway.”

At this point the racers shift to the night course, a 7.5 mile route designed to keep the riders closer to home in the dark. Here’s where it gets pretty monotonous for everyone involved. I keep myself occupied talking to neighbors and watching the other racers come through. It’s evident now that the time in the saddle and mileage is beginning to take its toll. Many riders come through, getting off their bikes, and take a short break or even a nap.

The race organizers also provide a professional chiropractor who gives free adjustments on a couple of tables inside the school. A lot of riders just get off their bikes and take a stroll. Some stop at their tents for a massage while grabbing some real food. There are no two sets of strategies alike in this war of survival and attrition.

At one point late in the evening the P.A. guy makes a grim announcement. “The national weather service has issued a severe thunderstorm warning for this area, including golf ball sized hail. We’re going to keep our eyes open, and if the storm does hit us, we’ll have to stop the race at that point. For the moment, proceed as if it’s business as usual.”

Towards midnight or so the wind begins to blow wildly. There are tents blowing across the field. Riders are ducking into tents, people running into the school. It’s a Wizard of Oz moment, no doubt. Dennis comes by and I tell him the news. “No shit, like I didn’t know that already!” Another point for the domestique. “Find my rain suit and get it ready, O.K.?” He decides to keep riding. I tell him I’ll be in the car for a while, but will check back.

The night loop is taking him about thirty to forty minutes to transit each time. I think this is pretty good, especially considering the wind conditions. Some of the high-mileage riders are running in small packs and are getting split-times called out to them as they zig-zag through the start/finish area still tucked into pace lines. “That was 22 minutes…go, go, go.” It’s like some high-school track coach yelling at these fast-moving wraiths on wheels. These are hard cores, and they will ride over 500 miles today.

The next time I see Dennis he’s visibly slowed down and stops for a quick break, scouring the cooler for something edible. He doesn’t say much, just sits in the chair and eats a few things, then mounts the bike and disappears around the turn, red taillight flashing.

This point in the night is fascinating. It’s pitch dark out here, but all the bikes have serious lighting gear on board. Some carry these huge expensive battery packs in the water bottle cage, others have several cheap flashlights taped to the handlebars. One person has a vest that lights him up like some freak at the Burning Man festival. But the vest does its job. You cannot miss him as he rides by. Dennis stopped at one point and installed his BLT Hi-Power FireWire 4.0 lighting system with a handlebar mounted battery.

Looking down the length of the entry road its an eerie sight as a straggly line of dim headlights approaches around the curve, and right next to them, heading off in the opposite direction, scattered flashing red lights, blink, blink, blink, on their way back out.

The rain finally comes about 1AM, but not too heavy. It cools things off and freshens the air. Seven hours to go.

I miss Dennis on one of his transits. I was probably getting a slice of pizza, or looking at the race photos from past years in the school, or some other tough job like that. Let’s count this as the last straw against my domestique career.

I catch up to him an hour or so later at the tent. He comes in looking resigned, but not necessarily disappointed. Dennis decides to park the bike for a while and get some shut-eye. I’m not sure if he means he’ll continue later or not. He ducks into the little tent and I head back to the car where Emma and I curl up together for a few hours.

At seven AM, I get up with a start, grateful for a few hours rest, and run to the tent. The Pinarello is still leaning against the fence, and the tent is zipped up. I can hear him milling around in there. He’s packing up. “At around midnight I did some arithmetic and calculated my best total would be 309 or 314. Since I've done over 300 miles six times, and it wasn't going to be a personal best, I punched out.” We both sit now talking and watch the rest of the riders still on the course come streaming through. The pace-line boys are still at it. “Go, go, go, you can do one more lap, go!” Others are riding no-hands through the checkpoint. Everyone gets huge applause from the sleepy-eyed spectators. The P.A. guy is still announcing rider’s name, hometown, and total event mileage as they come by. You can taste everyone’s excitement to finish this thing. And I do mean everyone.

One lesson for me here, and I’m not whining, is that it’s a difficult job for the crew too. I’m not as young as I once was and staying up for more than 24 hours is tough on me. I can see that if you wanted to truly do well in this, you’d need at least a couple people in your support team. They can’t do you much good when they’re sleeping in their car or wandering around the encampment out of boredom. If I were to crew this thing again, I’d want to emulate some things I saw other crews do.
-Have a big walk-in tent with decent lighting so you can find stuff.
-Have a shade-covering up front where rider and crew can sit.
-Bring more provisions for real food.
-Have a table that makes mixing and serving food more comfortable.
-Create a caloric intake schedule. (This comes from years running 26.2 mile marathons.)
-Create a predictable set of splits for every leg of the race and adjust if necessary.
-Work more closely with the rider during training prior to the event.

The National 24 Hour Challenge is a great community event. Both effective and colorful. The organizers should be proud of putting on such a well conceived and executed bike race. Take a peek at their website if you're interested in riding in 2009. This year there were no fixed gear entries, but there have been in the past. There were also a smattering of single-speeds, tandems, and recumbents as well.

Dennis finished the 2008 24 Hour Challenge with 239 Miles.

It was far short of his personal best and his goal for the year. “Ok and what about that elusive 350 miles? Well, I need to be 10 pounds lighter and I'd need to have ridden 5,000 miles from January through June….say 5th. Stay tuned to this channel and we'll see if I'm able to do those 2 little things, eh?”

As we pack up the tent and the cooler I ask Dennis if he had some inkling as to his potential performance prior to the start. “I think the first realization came a couple months ago when I knew I wouldn't have my old adversary, Dave Orr, to humiliate this year. Maybe the Tour of Colorado was just too good to miss. (Dave Orr is a friend of ours from Traverse City. He and Dennis have a long-standing and hilarious relationship that seems to revolve around their competitive riding spirits.) “Seriously, I've just been doing too many other things this year. I simply didn't have the miles in my legs to contend. 335 miles would have taken 1st in my age group too.”

When we talk about training Dennis references a book by Joe Friel, The Cyclist’s Training Bible. It’s based on his theories of Period Training. “Not enough space or time here to tell you about how I would set it up, suffice to say that it generally uses one rest week per month, and starts with a base phase and works different skill sets right through one or more target events. Next year?” Check out Joe Friel's Blog Here.

So seriously, what about next year? “Yes, I presume I'll do it again, though I'll "try" to map the season out properly in October and set myself a weekly/monthly training schedule and "try" to keep with it. Remember the "Rule of Two and A Half ?" - serious training, even at my level, is at least "a half." Last year I rode my rollers for at least an hour every single day in January, and I was pushing 3,000 miles for the year by mid-June - even though I had pretty much trained within the "Base 1 & 2" profiles.

Why would I do it again? I always think about George Watson when I think about the 24Hr. George died in 1996 of a heart attack while riding his MTB on the trails up at Shanty Creek. He loved the 24Hr. He loved heading down there with all the guys (used to be 10-12 from up here) George loved the camaraderie and always thought 350 miles was an attainable goal for me even though he never did much past 200 himself. George would have loved this fixed gear thing. I used to take FGG#1 (Dennis’s first fixed gear bike and #1 on the website,) up to his house in the early spring and he and Ross and I would ride up to Ellsworth and back and those guys would totally trash me. They'd be on $5k Kestrels, I was on my $5 Fuji and I loved every minute of it.”

After regaling me with this story of how a great friendship encouraged him to seek higher levels of performance within himself, Dennis looks me right in the eyes and says, “Next year… the 24 Hour Challenge… think you can hack it Palladino?”



National 24 Hour Challenge

Brick Wheels

BLT Lights (NORCO)

Fixed Gear Gallery

All photos by Bill Palladino © Copyright 2008 Bill Palladino and All rights reserved.