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Test to destruction: The Keith Bontrager diary 2006

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

24 Hours of Landahl report, October 10, 2006

Chasing setup at Landahl 24-Hour

It's been a while since my meltdown in Canada. I've spent the time constructively and fairly focused - training for the last races of the year. Some friends of mine dragged me out for some long rides on my cross bike, which was a good thing. I told them if I win money in England it's my shout when I got back. I guess I owe them.

24 Hours of Landahl
This was the event's first year and the field was small - but I think it will catch on quickly. The fairly technical course is about 11 miles long, with short climbs and is mainly single-track in the trees - hard not to like that!

Doug Long lives in the area. He and I had raced against each other in West Virginia a few times, so it was a change to be on the same team. Doug's fast. He recruited Lyle Riedy, another fast local and John George, a friend of mine and team mate at Moab for many years. John, who is also fast, grew up in the area and it turns out Doug and he both wrestled on high school teams about the same time, knew the same guys etc. Small world.

Since the masters field was thin, I decided to ride my cross bike a little. The course was rocky and technical as is the course in Yorkshire, so it was a good fit. I'd decided to go with the 'classic' setup at Three Peaks this year, with my tubeless prototypes as a back up. The classic setup is a couple of 35mm touring tires inflated to 100 PSI. The logic of this setup was made clear by Rob Jebb last year - either you're riding along on a decent surface or you're off the bike going straight up. In his version the reduced traction is not a big deal and it is worth the pinch protection, I guess.

Keith discovers that testing
Photo ©: Keith Bontrager
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My first 100 PSI ride in Santa Cruz ended up in a crash within a mile of the trails. In the weeks that followed I developed a little respect for what this setup was good for and what it was not so good for. The tyres rolled fast on hard packed surfaces, which was fine, and you could hit things pretty hard without pinching, which was very fine. That was the list of advantages - I won't go into the other side of the story.

In my rummaging around the local shops (a ritual at this time of the year - generally in a frantic search for large, thick tubes with removable cores,) I spotted some tires I wanted to try out. WTB makes a tire called an InterWolf that looked like it could be the tire of choice. It has the thick sidewalls and tread rubber you need to survive up there and a little more knob than the touring tires the Northern lads prefer. It's listed at 38c, which would make it too large for the Three Peaks rules, but it measured under 35 mm, so the weirdness of tire sizing saved the day and I put them on my bike for Landahl.

I arrived on the morning of the event and headed straight out for a training lap. I came back with blisters on my hands from the pounding. I haven't had blisters on my hands since I was 16 and starting to race motocross but moleskin and padded road gloves sorted that out, to some extent. The tires and wheels worked fine.

Doug went out for the first lap, followed by Lyle and John. We were in third overall when my turn came. I got around in a decent time and felt good, but there were two mishaps. The first one involved hooking a brake lever on a tree at speed. I'd put some 'chicken levers' on the bike to help ride technical stuff. Those, along with some prototype 50cm wide dropped bars (there are advantages of having my name on the parts sometimes), meant that the levers were spaced fairly wide, pretty close to narrow flat bars. I was feeling pretty good about that setup as it enabled me to ride technical sections comfortably.

But, there was a hitch. There were sections of the course that were like a slalom through the trees. I like these - you keep the bike on a tight line around each tree, staying as close as you can, and launch off to the next, like a skier. The problem that came up was with the way I gauge where I am with respect to the tree. I use my forearms and hands as my curb feeler, using these to stay on the line and close to the trees. With the cross set up that doesn't work. The brake lever is sticking out further and if you hook that thing around a small tree trunk, you change direction very quickly. It was a big crash, but ended up not too bad because I didn't hit anything too hard on the landing. Lesson learned.

The next problem turned up while dropping off of a small rock ledge. The high pressure skinny tires are pretty good in a straight line, and they offer more traction than you would expect. But if you get them going sideways things will go wrong, quickly. I got the wheel loose coming off the lip and landed on my head (and knee). Ouch.

I rode the rest of the race on my mountain bike - if for no other reason than I knew I'd still be alive at race's end by doing so. My next lap was a mess - I tried a pair of very light prototype wheels that had worked fine in Santa Cruz, but lost air on every impact here in Rockville. I rode the lap without stopping, but the last half I had to be very careful not to slam the rim on a rock.

I switched wheels on the next lap. I didn't check the rear derailleur adjustment, so, naturally, I jammed the chain between the spokes and cassette on a climb and had to spend a lot of time fishing it back out. Things were not going smoothly.

Then the race was suspended for a few hours because there was an epic storm on the way. Cool, I like lightening. It never showered, but we got to sleep a little. It did start raining pretty hard about the time the race was restarted, so I got to switch to my mud tires for my last lap. That went well. 1.85 tires at 25 PSI makes slippery rocks rideable, and that was my best lap.

We ended up second overall in the race, which was the best overall result for a master's team as far as I can tell (we've been third before, and top five a few times). Doug, Lyle and John deserve the credit for this - they were the ones hauling ass.

In the end I felt good. I had some good top end, recovered well between laps and the cross bike was working.

More from Yorkshire,