Rocks around the clock

Special to The Times

Three blown tires. Two burned-out lights. No sleep for 20 hours. It’s 3 a.m. at the 24 Hours of Moab mountain-bike race, and a frantic Mike Bahel is on foot, desperately pushing his bike through the freezing Utah canyonlands. The second dead lamp has punched out his lights and left him staggering in the dark on a boulder-infested trail that eats groggy riders. Cyclists whiz by, their clouds of dust and blinding beams throwing him off-balance and nearly tumbling him backward into a 30-foot drop-off just inches away.

Bahel, a 37-year-old gym owner from East Hampton, N.Y., had planned on being done with his 15-mile lap by now. Instead, his water’s nearly gone, his elbow’s throbbing from a crash, and he’s got half the course to go — seven-plus miles of straggling up and down a thousand feet of elevation change, of pupils straining to expand beyond their light-gathering capability, of the terror of falling into a shadowy abyss.

Meanwhile, first-time solo rider Alexander Dulpp, of Auburn Hills, Mich., faces his own nightmare: the Dead Zone — the infamous slow-motion hours between 2 a.m. and dawn that 24-hour soloists dread. Whacked by missing Zs and 105 miles of nonstop riding — triple that of rotating team riders like Bahel — the bleary-eyed 29-year-old German engineer is losing speed and spirit. He can barely stand the thought of one more PowerBar. He stays upright by imagining he is sinking his teeth into a bean-and-cheese burrito, its tantalizing aroma still with him after it wafted over from pit row. He hopes he’ll revive with the sun’s energizing morning rays; all the soloists talk about it. But, at wit’s and body’s end, he knows that might as well be years, not hours, away. “It’s not biking anymore — it’s just trying not to fall,” Dulpp says weakly.

For one weekend last month, Dulpp, Bahel and 1,751 other mountain bikers, plus families and friends, converged on Behind the Rocks, a desolate hunk of mile-high grazing land and red sandstone towers outside Moab, Utah, for the eighth annual 24 Hours of Moab. It’s a premier stop on a circuit that may be the hottest trend in cycling: round-the-clock relay racing, which features teams of sleep-deprived riders in an ultramarathon that runs from noon Saturday to noon Sunday.

First staged a decade ago, these so-called “Woodstocks on Wheels” now annually draw more than 25,000 men and women to 24-hour events in the U.S. and Canada. California is a 24-hour hotbed with half a dozen events, including several in Riverside County in the spring and fall and others in Monterey, Tahoe and Kirkwood.

Straddling the Colorado River as it cuts through the red-rock canyonlands of east-central Utah, Moab is a mountain-bike mecca, known the world over for its Slickrock Trail and endless network of bike routes with challenging climbs and stunning vistas. There are five busy bike shops in a city of only 10,000. Parking lots all over town are filled with vans and pickups bristling with handlebars; posted signs at hotels warn: “Absolutely no bikes allowed in rooms.”

That wasn’t an issue at the tent city housing hundreds of bikers at Behind the Rocks. It was a record crowd for the event — no surprise to Laird Knight, the West Virginia promoter who invented the 24-hour mountain bike concept in 1992. Modeled after the 24 Hours of LeMans auto race, Knight’s initial 24 Hours of Canaan in the Appalachian Mountains drew 36 coed teams of five, and was an immediate hit.

“Everyone loved it, because it got back to the core value of what mountain biking’s all about,” said Knight, “camaraderie, not tooth-and-nail competition. You and a bunch of friends doing something hard together, helping each other, and having a good time talking about it later. It’s got to be bona-fide adventure — which by definition is not easy. It’s no big deal when it’s easy. Which is why this course [Moab] isn’t.”

He won’t get any argument from those who rode the route, which included 1,360 feet of bone-shaking climbs and descents amid Utah’s blood-orange boulders and soaring crimson arches — if you dared to look up from the trail and had daylight on your side. The course was booby-trapped with dozens of momentum-sapping sand pits and rocky stair-steps. Even the savviest riders dismounted at “Nose Dive,” a dry waterfall at Mile 5, and blew tires on “Baby Head Alley,” an otherwise easy downhill studded with hundreds of land mine-like rocks. There were so many riders patching tubes on this stretch that it looked like an epoxy convention.

But it didn’t throw off America’s — and Downey’s — most famous mountain biker: two-time Olympian David “Tinker” Juarez. The dreadlocked three-time national champion has extended his cycling career by shifting his attention entirely to 24-hour solo races, a small but fast-growing part of the round-the-clock scene.

Although riding 200 or more miles in a day, as Tinker does at these events, may seem crazy to the noncyclist, it’s often seen as the next logical step by thousands of endurance cyclists, triathletes and runners. Easy on joints and connective tissue, cycling is well-suited to extreme distances and the discipline of older, experienced athletes like Juarez, 41. The result is that the solo category, though a tiny percentage of overall 24-hour racing, is on the rise. There were 165 soloists at last August’s 24 Hours of Adrenaline World Championship race in Whistler, Canada, compared with 30 three years ago.

Juarez saw his two-hour race days numbered and went solo. Since then, he’s raced a dozen round-the-clock events, winning nine. At Moab, he calmly rode 16 laps and 240 miles without so much as a scratch, 30 miles more than any of the other 61 male soloists and nine women. (In 24-hour races, the winners are the solo rider and team that go the farthest in 24 hours.)

That’s not to say Juarez finds riding 24 straight hours a breeze. A third of soloists in any race drop out, and Juarez himself has bailed out of two World Championships. The problem isn’t conditioning. He trains up to six hours a day.

“The hardest part of riding 24 is realizing that you can actually keep going when your body says otherwise — and that you can take 20 minutes or an hour off and still be in the game,” Juarez says. “I just learned it in August at the Worlds in Whistler, when I didn’t drop out after feeling so bad that every instinct in my body was screaming ‘No!’ ”

In fact, Juarez told his Whistler pit crew in no uncertain terms that he was quitting, and for good reason: He was scared. He had fallen on his right hip in exactly the same spot that he’d suffered a hairline fracture two months earlier. He didn’t want to risk injury. But his mother, Rose Juarez, the pit-crew chief, wasn’t buying it.

“Quit letting everyone here down and get back on your bike,” she told him. She decided to come on strong after watching her son drop out of the previous two Worlds when the going got tough.

After his mother’s pep talk, Juarez came roaring back and nearly snatched the title. “You need someone to push you in the solo game,” he says. “In that sense, it’s a team sport almost as much as the relay event.”

By 6:30 a.m., his rookie neighbor in the pits, Alexander Dulpp, had begun to realize that. The German had come to Moab in great shape, having done the legendary Leadville 100 race weeks before in under nine hours, an impressive feat. But he’d come here alone — and he knew it had hurt him. He had no one to pat him on the back, to fix him a hot chocolate, to beg Juarez’s crew for some of that incredible-smelling burrito. No one to yell at him to keep going.

Dulpp’s ninth lap took 2 1/2 hours, almost double his daylight times. With his reaction time blitzed by fatigue, he walked any remotely tricky section. He thought about sleeping whenever he ran across a “hot spot” — the random pockets of warmer air behind big rocks that fascinated the riders. But he pushed on, driven by the challenge of completing his two-year immigrant game plan: Come to America, get a good job, conquer three 24-hour team races and a solo 100-miler, and then do this. The big one.

As dawn crept over the mountains, normally a time of jubilation for riders emerging from the Dead Zone, Dulpp was a zombie. “It’s too dangerous. I have to sleep now,” he said as he finished his ninth lap and 135th mile. “I hoped the sun would bring me back, but I can’t function.”

Instead of going back to his pit stop in the solo area, Dulpp walked into the tent city, grabbed a blanket and went to sleep in an RV. He woke up at 8:15, then put his head back under the covers.

Back in the relay trenches, Mike Bahel, the lightless, flat-tired Long Islander looking for a miracle, had found one. At the moment of his greatest despair, he was rescued by two unknown riders who handed him new tubes, and by heroic rider No. 132, who stopped to shine his lights on Bahel’s fumbling repair job.

Not waiting for a “thank-you,” 132 escorted him home like a high-speed, halogen-beamed seeing-eye dog, schussing through the baby heads unscathed and into the start-finish zone.

“God, I love this!” Bahel screamed, when he stopped and handed his departing teammate the baton, his three blown inner tubes proudly worn across his chest like a Pancho Villa ammunition belt. “The camaraderie. The stories. The we’re-all-in-this-together attitude. It’s why I’ve been coming here for the last eight years,” he said, before heading back to his teammates’ campfire.

Camaraderie is a big part of the “Woodstock” flavor of 24-hour relay racing, the lure of a tribal community bonded in road rash. Most of the time at a 24-hour race, “you’re not riding,” says mountain-bike-race maven Knight. “You’re camping, without access to e-mail and your computer, so you’re forced to do what people never have time for anymore: Play cards, talk, hang out. It’s a perfect way to combine cycling and family time.”

Some families even compete together. The Agoura-based Dead Cal Locals, named after one of the toughest trails in the Conejo Valley, included 42-year-old Todd Turley; his 16-year-old son, Brian; and 19-year-old niece, Diane, both in their first mountain bike races. “It was fun to have this big adventure in common with my son,” said Turley, who has competed at Moab seven times.

Wacky team monikers such as Turley’s often reflect cycling’s particular anatomical interface: Numb and Number, the Menstrual Cycles, Screaming Scrotums and Blazing Saddle Sores.

For Duncan Buchanan of San Clemente, a 33-year-old combat engineer in the Marine Corps, the race was an opportunity to stretch his social boundaries. “I was having a great conversation with a long-haired, dreadlocked Rastaman talking about bikes and life,” he said, “when it hit me — here’s a right-wing jarhead and a left-wing pothead, two guys who would have absolutely nothing in common in real life, getting along like brothers. All because we love mountain biking.”

Of course, nothing’s perfect. “The camping is for the birds,” said Rich Visscher, a 33-year-old information technology specialist from Denver, “especially when your neighbors are blaring Metallica and Soundgarden at 1 o’clock in the morning.” But the strong common interest of participants may account for the numerous rescue stories, the absence of theft and fistfights, and the general can-we-all-get-along ethos, said San Francisco sports psychologist Jim Taylor.

“Team endurance events have a ‘look out for our own’ tribal quality that is missing in shorter, individual events,” says Taylor, who worked with U.S. cyclists at the 2000 Olympics. “Add the fatigue and magnified endorphin high that comes with the stress of riding at night, and you have an amazingly powerful social experience.”

Dulpp will be more social — next time. With no one to yell at him to get out of his comfy RV bed, he never did. “I was mentally weak,” he says now, the disgust obvious in his voice. “I knew I would be mad at myself if I didn’t go back out. I was furious! I hated myself for being so lazy. I would have finished 10 places higher up.”

But like Juarez, Dulpp knows he’s riding a learning curve. “After a couple days, I didn’t hate myself anymore. I realized a couple things: One, that you can’t get too comfortable. And two, that the 24-hour solo race is a team event, just like the team race.”

Dulpp plans to redeem himself at the 24 Hours of Boyne, a local event in Michigan. “And this time,” he insists, “I will have a support crew along to kick my …. “