Oracle, AZ – As our wheels rolled down the straight path of Arizona Highway 79, the desolation was overly apparent. There is no perceptible life in this part of the Sonoran Desert. To the left and the right of the black tarmac, all one could see to the horizon was a forest of Chain Fruit Chollas with shrubby branches dangling their pear shaped fruits; thousands of low-laying Brittle Bushes covering up the gritty rock beneath; and the occasional majestic Saguaro cactus, each with its own amusing and distinctive ‘arm’ formation. Intermittently, a surprised chipmunk would dare to dash across the road. I think they sensed that their barren territory was about be invaded and were escaping to a more remote area.
As the Santa Catalina Mountains came into view in front of us, some 50 miles ahead, we also got the first glimpse of human life. In the distance, near Oracle in the East, an assortment of white rectangular shapes could be seen clustered at the base of a small range of granite grey boulders. My brother explained that spot was where we were headed. Old Pueblo and 24Hour Town. The white specs were the RV’s of some of the 5,000 people that were descending on the area for the weekend for the annual #24HOP, Epic Ride’s 24 hour mountain bike race through the trails of Willow Springs Ranch. Suddenly, I began to wonder just what the hell I had gotten myself into when I agreed to be my brother’s support crew for the weekend.
Once off Highway 79, we wound our way through 10 miles of rough, windy dirt road to get to 24 Hour Town and the single track trails that the riders would be traversing, all which were located in the picturesque settings of Willow Springs Ranch and Arizona State Trust Lands. The map my brother had given me of the pop-up site showed makeshift roads with names on them. I was expecting an orderly system of campsites with marked sections on where you could stake a spot, like you’d find in a KOA. What appeared was a haphazard maze of tents, RVs, and converted buses – homes for riders and supporters for the next two days – crammed into any conceivable square foot of space that could be found, all encroaching in on the designated ‘roads’. Luckily my brother’s team had already laid claim to a small patch of land, and we squeezed our jeep and two man tent into the available open space that was left.
After we got our camp set up, I decided to explore the ‘town’. The event newspaper presented to us on the way in said that the only Epic Rule for the weekend was to ‘Be Nice’. It further proclaimed ‘Have fun. Do whatever makes you happy, just don’t harsh the mellow. Oh and remember 24 Hour Town is self-regulating; there are no quiet hours, no time-out corners and no jail cells. It’s up to y’all to keep the peace’. To this end, I was expecting to see some outlandish sights and experience some craziness during my 48 hours in middle of the desert.
There certainly were some intriguing sights to behold, even for a world-traveller like me. Seems everyone who came brought a little something to make their campsite a home-away-from-home. There were 20 foot flag poles with US and Germany flags attached to RVs. Blow up pink flamingos dangling from tents. Garden knomes next to campervans. One guy had brought four solar panels and a small wind farm as a generator. Another family had a 10 foot by 15 foot projection screen on the outside of their motor home watching tv. Numerous groups had brought chimeneas to host roaring fires throughout the night. Mulling about were an assortment of dogs, kids of all ages (yes, even two month old babies), and adults in sequined outfits. Seemed that the phrase ‘anything goes’ was taken to heart here. I even met one little girl with a pet rabbit!
Down at the Expo there were vendors selling everything a rider and his supporters could need. Beer. Brauts. Coffee. Extra bike gear. My brother and I headed down to the Sierra Nevada Beer Garden for a Friday night sundowner. Just as we finished our last drop, a slightly overweight middle-aged man in cut-off shorts, broad-rimmed cowboy hat and bare chest wheeled past on his bike near tomorrow’s official start-line drunkedly shouting, ‘I am racing! I am racing!’ before disappearing around the corner into the sunset. ‘Tomorrow was going to be an interesting event’, I thought.
By 6.30am I was up, desperate to visit the purple porto potties. Most everyone else was still asleep, so I climbed up the hill behind the makeshift town to watch the sun raise. For a moment, there was an exquisite peacefulness hovering over Old Pueblo. The air was warm and still, even at this hour. The snow dusting the top of Mount Lemon, looked out of place on this mid-February weekend where the temperatures would soon reach 85F. Shadows still hovered over the quiet revellers. All was calm. Then several drones took to the skies, their shrilling buzz stirring awake the crazy riders below. Gradually, life began to emerge and from here a 36 hour mayhem began.
As a spectator, #24HOP was starting to feel more like a weird desert hippie festival, but the real reason for the gathering was for the mountain-bike racing. At noon, solo and group riders would set out for 24 consecutive hours of racing around single tracks through the desert, completing the 16 mile loop as many times as they could before noon on Sunday. This included racing in the dark, through the night. My brother was part of a four-man, single speed team. He was doing the first, and probably the last lap, with the aim of completing six laps himself, to help his team tie their previous years’ total of 21 laps in 24 hours.
Just before noon on Saturday, the crowds gathered near the entrance to the Expo anxiously waiting for the LeMans style start. Then the gun sounded and before long hundreds of individuals in lycra and crazy shoes came running around the corner. It looked more like running of the bulls instead of a bike race. All were doing their best to run the 400 meters to their bikes. Not all were in lycra though. There were also a smattering of individuals in fancy-dress. A guy with a wolf mask. Men in tutus. Darth Vader. Gorillas. The usual stuff.
It wasn’t just the outfits that were surreal though, the team names were pretty out-there as well. Names like Bacon Powered. 24 Hours of Southern Discomfort. Dirt Whispering Rainbow Unicorns 2.0. And Maple Syrup Spaceship Fantasy Grade B. This organized event just kept revealing itself as stranger and weirder with every turn.
Eventually my brother came into view and was quickly off. I headed back to camp to await his arrival and see what he would need once he got back. I didn’t have to wait long. With an impressive 1hour 2minute lap, he was back before long. I helped him refuel with a homemade banana chia muffin and fluids, and after he rested, he changed into a new cycle kit and waited in the shade a few hours before his turn came around again. At the appointed hour, I followed him to the exchange tent to watch him set out again. This was our pattern for the next 24 hours.
Whilst my brother sweated it out on the track, I partook in some of the spectator festivities throughout the day and night, including hanging out in the Sierra Nevada beer gardens; exploring the vendors; and tasting porter and roasting Smores at 9.30pm. I couldn’t party too much though, as I was on duty. Around 11pm, my brother rolled in after his third lap. After a change into civilian clothes and a replenishment of fluids, he requested a bacon, egg bagel and a coffee to refuel before the next lap. Camp stove primed, I obliged. As it neared midnight, I looked at my bedraggled brother and said, ‘Cheer up! You’re half way through! Three laps down, only three to go!’ He stared at me glaringly not able to speak.
As he waited for lap four, I took a cat-nap. Ever dutiful though, I was up at 2am ready for his return and his demands. He looked super rough, even by the glow of a kerosene lap, when he arrived. Claiming of a neck ache he requested only Ibuprofen this time. After some silence, he wearily spoke, ‘Do you think my teammate Brandon would want to take the final lap. I think I can only do one more.’ Poor guy. I hated to tell him the truth at that stage so lied, “Yeah, I’m sure he’d be cool with that.’ knowing full well Brandon was in a worse shape than my brother so it wasn’t going to happen. I took another cat nap and woke up again just as my brother returned from his fifth lap. The dawn lap seemed to have energized him some and with the return of daylight and the end in sight, he geared up for his last lap.
Around the team campfire that morning, I heard glimpses of what is was like on the trail. Many of the guys complained of increased number of slow riders. Kendra told had she had yelled furiously at one rider to get the heck over, and after several failed attempts, eventually saw the sign on the rider’s shirt that said ‘Please be patient. I’m deaf’. Lauren, on the girls team, explained how she was tempted to stop at the whiskey tree on the next lap, which was literally a tree midway around the loop where several guys sat offering shots of whiskey. There were the inevitable tales of downed riders plucking cholla needles out of their skin. Sounded horrendous out there on the track to me, but all the riders that came back that I spoke too were jubulious and enthusiastic about what a great lap they had just road. I guess that was why they were riding and not me!
At around 11.20am on Sunday, I saw my brother off for his sixth lap, the last one for the team. I watched some of the riders careen down the rock drop ledge towards the end of the route for awhile, before going back to camp to collect a cold beer to hand to my brother when he came through the finish line. Sure enough, at 12.33, a sweaty rider in orange and blue lycra smashed through the finish helping to win his team – 8 Rubbers- the 4 Man Single Speed title for the second year in a row with 21 laps.
All that was left to do now was pack up camp and take to the podium for the awards presentation. Already, tents had been torn down and RVs had vanished. Slowly, spots of barren desert began to reappear again. We joined the last stream of vehicles heading out of 24 Hour town. I glanced back one last time at the pop-up village, and all the pinpoints of white had now disappeared. Just as quickly as it had emerged it had returned back to dust and desolation. As I turned back, amongst the barren beige dirt road was a pile of black. My brother yelled out, ‘Stop!’ I slammed on the brakes and he jumped out of the jeep. He returned with a big smile on his face and a new mountain bike tire in his hand, one of the pieces of swag that had been handed out to the various winners. It was the last sign left of anything ever happening in this remote land over the previous 48 hours.
As we headed back to Phoenix, I couldn’t help but think that the whole crazy spectacle had merely been a spectacular mirage in the middle of the desert; that it hadn’t really happened at all. It was almost too far-fetched to have been reality.