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Test to destruction: The Keith Bontrager diary 2007

Keith Bontrager is best known as the bike and component design guru behind his eponymous road and mountain bike components, but behind the scenes, the man universally known as KB is an enthusiastic and well-respected endurance mountain bike racer.

KB has taken part in a over 50 24-hour races in the last few years, and in his diary takes us inside the mental, physical, and technical challenges of long-distance mountain bike racing while juggling the demands of an active interest in the successful international business he began all those years ago.

Index to all entries

September 22, 2007

The Adrenalin 24 Hour World Championships

First I have to say that this wasn't an event I had planned on competing in earlier this year. I had contemplated it because it was just down the road, but it would be a week after a long stage race in Germany. That could be very good (I had one of my best 24 hour races the week after the TransAlp one year) or it could be a disaster (no elaboration required, right?).

My entry was all Matt Carr's fault. He's a friend from Bristol, England. I met him one evening a few years ago at MudDock, a cool shop in town with a restaurant upstairs. I was there to give a talk and ended up enjoying some very good food and wine. I recommend it if you are in town.

Then I met him again a year later at the first Twentyfour12 event. He races solo on a single speed, which is only slightly on the unusual side these days. But he does it with a certain style, constantly dishing out artful (somewhat) comedy and heckling other riders throughout the event. In spite of the extra energy he spends that way he is typically at or close to the front of the race. He finished 3rd overall in the solo category at the Twentyfour12 this year on a 69er, the new Trek single speed, which, given the quality of the field and the amount of climbing, was a damn good result.

He contacted me to organize his pit at the worlds, which was fair since it was just down the road (the event was taking place at Laguna Seca). I'd never done that before, though it was not going to be too difficult to do. I made some calls and dug around in the pile o' stuff I have for 24 hour racing. Megan and Anna were in, so was my friend Ray's son (also called Ray), along with ace wrench Tom Sullivan from Amsterdam Bicycles. Everything was set. He was also, possibly without knowing it, giving me the chance to cook for him and the others who would be involved. Tomatoes are in season, as are wild berries, and I have some fennel pollen I just collected to try. That's the sort of thing I am always up for.

After thinking about it a little, the idea of sitting around the pit at a 24 hour bike race didn't have much appeal. If I could organize everything well enough, I could ride too. I had been riding long races all year and was going reasonably well, all things considered. They had age groups and my results would be good enough to get me in. So I signed up to ride.

Then, a few days before the event I got a message that Matt had been stopped at the airport. UK immigration wouldn't let him get on the plane. Knowing him a little I could imagine a few reasons why that might be, but the actual reason was much less interesting - some sort of digital doodad he needed but didn't have in his passport. Without that the ever vigilant US immigration folks would have turned him around, so the UK officials spared him the trip, but not the grief. He wasn't going to be able to race.

I am not sure, but I think he wanted to win the Worlds in the single speed category. I have no idea whether he would have, or whether the serious effort would have stifled the humor a little. Probably not.

The good part of all that is that, despite rumors to the contrary, I can now say with confidence that our Department of Homeland Security is on top of things - no wise-cracking, subversive Brit bike racers will be allowed into the US of A, with a bicycle without derailleurs, mismatched wheels, and a dodgy passport (one that still works everywhere else in the world). It's good to know isn't it?

Anyway, after setting up the pit for him, I guess I was going to be looked after well.

They say you can't guess the ending to a good story (not that you would ever suspect that a good story would come from me of course - long stories are my specialty). If that's true then the rest of this is not a good story. It was too hot for me - again.

The weather report from the organizer looked hopeful at first (I look closely at these now):

In Monterey warm, clear days and cool nights characterize the autumn months. In September the average maximum temperature is 72.3'F and the average minimum is 59.2.

72.3'F. Nice coastal weather. A lot like Santa Cruz, and heat is rarely an issue for me here in Santa Cruz.

That report was for Monterey though. Monterey is right on the ocean. Laguna Seca (dry lake) is not. I went up to pre-ride on the day before the race and at noon it was 20 degrees hotter up in the hills at the race site. Shite.

If you read my dairy from last year you'd know why. The two stage races I rode in hot weather last year were ugly. I'd only raced in one hot race this year and it worked out, but barely. And it was only a 50 miler. I was concerned. But I was signed up so I figured I would try it and see if I could get it right (or at least better) this time. One advantage I would have in this case was that I would be coming around to a pit after each lap, so I could get whatever I needed in the way of food and drink. The first stop I made on the way home was to stock up on Gatorade…

I'd initially planned to ride a very sensible race even before I knew about the hot weather. That meant a very comfortable pace; steady power, not pushing hard on the climbs, the sorts of things you would imagine doing for 24 hours on a bike. My experience with going out too hard and blowing up was burned in hard - it is not a good way to do one of these. It's not much fun either way; there is no fun way to ride that far. It's tough to be disciplined in that regard too. Someone comes by you and, well, you want to race with them. But I have managed this approach before with some success so I knew I could do it.

The length of the course (close to 14 miles) and vert (2500 feet per lap) added to the difficulty in the heat. 10 mph is a rough average speed for me in long off road endurance events. The Laguna Seca terrain is not technical so I can go a bit quicker there in a normal race. But with the climbs and heat, 10 mph was as fast as I would be going, so the laps would be well over an hour. A lap that long meant carrying a lot of fluid which added weight on the climbs.

My practice lap on Friday took 1:30, riding at a very comfortable pace. The course was sandy in areas, but otherwise easy enough. Measuring the effects of the heat was more important than learning the course though. I drank 2 quarts of Gatorade (one during, one after) and still lost a pound or so. At that rate it was going to be difficult to stay hydrated. 2 quarts per lap is a lot of fluids. For the race it seemed likely that I would have to slow down a little from the pre-ride pace. The sweat rate test was flawed in one vital respect though - I drank the replacement fluids over a longer period of time than I was riding. That was a crucial mistake.

It would cool down by 8 or so, so I would have to figure out how to get through the heat to that point in decent shape. Then once it cooled down things would get easier. I also planned to bring an accurate scale along so I could monitor my weight. This would let me see how the plan was working and make adjustments.

Stay tuned for Keith's next diary tomorrow to find out how it all turned out.