Chris Cooley suffered well. In mountain bike-speak, suffering well means when Cooley’s legs ached at 5:30 a.m. and he felt as though he had nothing left to give, he ignored the pain. It’s a warped trait possessed by a few endurance athletes.
“To do this sport you have to go as hard as you can, and you don’t slow down,” said the 23-year-old from Chandler. He smiled slightly and added, “Sometimes it feels good.”
Cooley and his fellow 4 Greengos (Kevin Trowbridge, Keith Atkins and Bryan Kollus) counted on this high tolerance for pain to help them get through 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, a 24-hour mountain biking race held in the desert north of Tucson. They finished in the top six at last weekend’s event.
“We’re not trying to win,” he said, “but we are trying to do well.”
Now in its seventh year, 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo is the pinnacle of Arizona’s mountain biking scene. The premier competition attracts riders from all over the world. Riders competed from noon to noon in several categories, including solo, duo and mixed-gender teams. The team with the most laps completed in the best time in each category wins.
“It should be a good time,” said Mike Melley, a triathlete from Chandler who competed in the solo category.
He paused for a second. “Ask me again at 3 a.m.”
A CITY IN THE DESERT
Twenty miles north of Tucson, a city rose from the desert floor.
Dubbed 24 Hour Town (population 3,000) by organizers, its residents lived in RVs rented for the weekend, campers and tents scattered across the desert floor. They lived along streets named for race sponsors — Redhook ALEvenue, Granite Construction Road. Epic Rides Boulevard was the main drag, and DiNotte Lighting Street was an exclusive neighborhood reserved for solo riders.
Riders and their support teams (husbands, wives, relatives and friends) arrived early to nab a piece of prime real estate. The closer to the start and finish line, the better. No one wanted to haul a bike up a mountain after finishing a lap in the wee hours of the morning.
There were showers and portable toilets (that ran out of toilet paper halfway through the race), a Mexican restaurant, a bakery, a coffee shop and an assortment of bike vendors selling spare parts and lights.
“All of the food and caffeine to fuel you through the next 24 hours is right here,” said Todd Sadow, president of Epic Rides and founder of 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo.
Sadow also organized the first race. Back then 176 riders competed, and 24 Hours was one of a handful of endurance races geared toward mountain bikers. Today there are 65 races across the country, and with 1,300 riders competing, 24 Hours is certainly one of the largest.
“It’s a non-invasive environment,” he said. “Bike racing tends to be intimidating. If you’re solo, it’s up to you to ride for 24 hours. You’re racing against yourself, so it’s unobtrusive in that regard.”
The 15.2-mile course wasn’t extremely technical (except for the cholla cactuses lining the road; one bad turn and you’d be in the medics tent getting burrs out of your skin). A series of seven hills was affectionately dubbed “the Bitches” by riders who, succumbing to fatigue and darkness, have wiped out on them. The course was designed for speed. Riders had to pay special attention at night when they had only the lights from their helmets or bikes.
RUNNING OF THE HELMETS
Cooley may have a penchant for suffering well, but controlling his nerves was another matter.
“Dude, my body is freaking out.” Cooley jumped up and down to squelch his nervous energy. “I have to pee again.”
He jumped back into the camper and disappeared for a few minutes.
“Oh, to be young and stupid again,” said teammate Atkins of Chandler. At 33, Atkins is another one of the 4 Greengos who suffers well.
The team hung out out at their camper before the start of the race. Cooley was slated to ride the first lap, followed by Kollus, Trowbridge and Atkins.
“He’s the youngest, so he gets abused,” said Atkins, the team’s designated bike mechanic.
Atkins works for the team’s sponsor, Landis Cyclery in Tempe. He’s well-known in the biking community, so it’s not uncommon for other riders to stop by and ask for his help with a last-minute repair, and Atkins said they’re welcome to do so.
“He’ll tell you that now, but at 3 a.m. it’s a different story,” said Melley, who stopped by the 4 Greengos’ camp for a visit. “Then he’ll give you a wrench and tell you which way to turn it.”
Cooley emerged from the trailer and finished getting ready. He wore the green Landis uniform, mismatched socks (Cooley can never find his stuff) and an iPod tucked away containing a hodgepodge of hard-driving music.
Cooley sniffled as though coming down with a cold.
When asked how he planned to blow his nose out on the course, he smiled.
“Snot rockets,” he said, tilting his head to the left. Just another obstacle for the riders behind him to dodge.
The race began with a LeMond start. All the riders gathered about one-quarter mile from the starting line. At noon, they made a run for their bikes.
“Last year we made (Cooley) train for the run,” said Atkins. “We’ve been abusing him for a while.”
Hundreds of bikes stood or hung in wooden racks along the starting line. Atkins stood on a rock behind Cooley’s bike to make it easier for the team’s youngest member to find his bike. In a matter of seconds Cooley came running with a wave of bicycle helmets behind him. He grabbed his bike, and the first lap of the 24-hour race began.
RIDE YOUR RIDE
Kollus was lying on the ground, stretching his back. The physical education teacher from Phoenix was the second rider in the 4 Greengos’ lineup.
“I ride a lot during the week, so I don’t do much of any specific training for 24 Hours,” said Kollus, who at 41 is the oldest Greengo and the team’s fittest member. He rode a single-gear bike, something only the fittest cyclists do. Riding a single speed comes with a trade-off — higher speeds, but it wears the legs down faster.
None of these guys looked as if they had an ounce of fat on their bodies. Cycling has made them lean, and their legs looked as hard as clubs.
Kollus had no idea when Cooley would finish the first lap (being the youngest and fastest rider, anything was possible with Cooley), so he headed to the exchange tent early.
Atkins hopped on his bike and followed for a few feet. “Ride your ride, dude,” he said before riding off. “No stress.”
When Kollus rides on his own for fun, he never has back problems. The tension in his back has more to do with nerves than anything else. “I’ve got mental issues,” said Kollus. “I don’t want to let the guys down.”
Kollus waited for Cooley to arrive at the exchange tent. This is where all the riders meet, report their times to officials and exchange a small wooden baton. The waiting area was packed with riders standing shoulder to shoulder, anxiously looking around to see if their teammates had arrived.
At 1:04 p.m., Cooley raced into the tent, handed Kollus the baton and ran out. He was coughing, his voice was hoarse and his lungs sounded as if they were clogged with dust from the course.
“I’m gonna have buff abs by the end,” he said, collapsing into another fit of coughing. “I didn’t have any power in my legs.”
By 4 p.m. Cooley’s voice would be gone.
“They really put their effort into it,” said Paul Trowbridge, who came with his wife, Brenda, to see their son race. “They have more nervous energy than you think. They hide it well, but their biggest fear is the bike breaking down.”
Between laps the 4 Greengos checked their bikes and made the necessary adjustments.
“Around 4 p.m. people are starting to set into the reality of what they’ve gotten into,” said Kevin Trowbridge, 30, the Greengos’ team captain.
About 50 yards from the 4 Greengos’ camp a crowd has gathered at the Drop Rock, a series of smooth rocks leading to the finish line. There’s a slight dip before the Drop Rock and several riders lost control and crashed. There is a slight NASCAR mentality among the mountain biking fans.
“It’s always fun to see a crash as long as you don’t know them,” said Kollus’ wife, Maureen, who was visiting camp for a few hours.
Most four-person teams had completed their first rotation. Cooley then began suiting up for his next lap.
“Are you going to make it through the run?” Trowbridge asked.
“I have to.” He mouthed the words in a hoarse whisper.
Shortly before the sun went down, the 4 Greengos retreated into the camper. The temperature had dropped, and a chill had penetrated the camper’s walls.
Cooley had recovered slightly, and his voice had returned. He had enough energy to make a pot of Campbell’s beef stroganoff (the evening meal) and recount his running discourse with God during his last lap.
“I’m sick, and I’m like, ‘Jesus, this is whack,’ ” he said. “Lord, I don’t want to let these guys down.”
The last rays of twilight crept into the camper. Atkins and Trowbridge relaxed on the couch, eating dinner.
“I think I liked you better when you were sick,” said Atkins.
Trowbridge decided the team would back off a bit. The course was so dry, everyone was riding faster than they should have been. “That’s the danger of a relay race,” he said. “You think you want to hammer it and go as fast as you can, but you might have five or six more times to go.”
“If you go all-out on your first lap, you’re pretty much toast for the rest of the race,” said Cooley.
The team was afraid of bonking. In mountain bike-speak, bonking means cramping up. If your leg muscles are in spasm, you’re not going to be able to ride.
“You hurt so bad it’s like, OK, I need to slow down,” said Cooley. “Once you start cramping you rarely get out of it.”
The guys made themselves eat after each lap. Endurance racing requires fuel, and the 4 Greengos had their own diet of champions. Atkins had his Ding Dongs and Ensure. Cooley chomped on cold pizza from the cooler, while Trowbridge dined on pasta salad. Real food was preferable, but sometimes they consumed liquid energy.
“After about 15 hours of taking it, you become pretty sick of it,” said Trowbridge. “You start craving something salty.”
The lights from Tucson glowed over the Catalina Mountains. After midnight the temperature dropped to 36 degrees. Campers either snuggled around the fire with a beer to keep warm or were secluded inside their tents or RVs.
The bakery was selling out of hot tomato basil soup served in a cold bread bowl. One rider grabbed a bottle of Tabasco sauce and practically emptied it into his soup. Anything to stay warm.
Cooley’s cold lashed back during his last lap, which was an uncharacteristic 1 hour, 20 minutes. He was in no shape to continue, but he didn’t want to let his teammates down. Kollus persuaded him to crash for a few hours in a tent next to the camper. Kollus, feeling strong, took his next lap.
“If (Cooley) feels better when he wakes up, he may want to take a few laps,” said Trowbridge. “He’ll feel bad if he doesn’t.”
He sat at the kitchen table trying to pour a liquid energy drink into a small plastic bottle. The only light source was a single kerosene lamp surrounded by a Clif bar wrapper and an empty can of Red Bull. His hand shook slightly, and his eyelids drooped.
It was definitely a struggle between the hours of 3 and 7 a.m. Fatigue and hallucination set in. A rider stopped at the Greengos’ camp and asked if there was a place to get food.
“A lot of people get into a 24-hour race and don’t know what they’re getting into,” said Trowbridge.
Trowbridge is a business analyst by day and a mountain biker by night. He’s been riding for 10 years and racing for three. The thought of riding this race solo is something he’s never contemplated.
“I just don’t have the natural ability,” he said. “Some of these guys are going to ride 250 miles today.”
From behind the curtain separating the bed from the living area, Kollus, who had returned from his last lap and should have been sleeping, called out: “Some people are just better at suffering. Chris (Cooley) and Keith (Atkins) suffer well.”
AFTER THE RACE
The 4 Greengos ended their third appearance at 24 Hours in Old Pueblo with a sixth-place finish, only 45 seconds away from the top five.
“We talked about it, and there were tons of places where we could have picked up 45 seconds,” said Trowbridge, back at work a few days after the race. “We’re not going to worry about 45 seconds. There were so many things going on during the whole day that every team had to deal with. We’re pretty happy with what we did. We rode well. We were out there trying to have fun.”
Next year the city will rise again in the desert north of Tucson, and the 4 Greengos will be there to suffer well and have a great day on a bike.