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You would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles.

—Flann O’Brien

All of a sudden, the Lawyer goes down hard, flipping over the handlebars and slamming headfirst onto the rocky trail. His bike flies up at a crazy angle and comes to rest against the embankment, still attached to his cleated shoes. For a few seconds, the Lawyer doesn’t move. It looks like the end of our training ride, and perhaps of our fledgling and ill-conceived mountain bike team.

I kind of hope so. With two weeks to go before the Twenty-Four Hours of Canaan mountain-bike team relay race, we’re very far from ready. Canaan is a legendary event, held every June in the mountains of West Virginia. Riding in teams of four or five, racers take turns circling a 12-mile loop that includes 1,800 vertical feet of climbing and many, many horizontal feet of mud. It starts at noon on Saturday. Come noon Sunday, 24 excruciating hours later, the team with the most laps wins.

“I did that race last year,” the clerk at Metropolis Bicycles had said. “I was traumatized for about three months.” On further questioning, he admitted that he’s going back this year.

Some people train all year for Canaan, the mountain-biker’s answer to Le Mans. We started a couple of weeks ago, when my friend and riding buddy Gaston Endova (not his real name) press-ganged me into the “team” that he’d talked his employer, a major news organization, into sponsoring. News Conglomerate Inc. (not their real name either) would cover entry fees, jerseys, and a slopeside rental house with a hot tub and beer.

We had a name—the Muckrakers—but no teammates. So I called the Lawyer, who’s a road biker and thus a completely different species of cyclist; roadies and dirt pigs rarely mix. “I need something to validate my existence,” he mused. Superfund litigation apparently wasn’t cutting it, so he agreed, as long as we took him out on the dirt first, to practice. I bet he’s sorry right about now.

Slowly, the Lawyer rolls over and disengages from his pedals. Movement: a positive sign. He sits up and examines his forearms, which are bruised and slightly scraped, but not broken. He tries to stand up, then sits down quickly. I look away, obeying standard trail etiquette: It’s not polite to watch your teammate retch. Meanwhile, blood is trickling into my shoe from my own knee, which I’ve gashed in an earlier encounter with a rock. After a while, the Lawyer stands up and straddles his mount. “I’m OK,” he says.

His baptism is complete. I think we’re ready for Canaan.

Saturday, June 1, 11:59 a.m.

“One minute!” bellows the man with the microphone. “One minute!”

The leadoff racers crowd the line at the base area of the Timberline ski resort. They’re to start on foot, sprinting a couple of hundred yards up a ski run and trotting back down through the woods to get their bikes, which are parked in long wooden racks. We made the Lawyer go first, because he can run and climb hills and also because nobody else felt like it.

As of last week, the Muckrakers still numbered only three: Gaston, the Lawyer, and me. From the promoter’s list of riders seeking teams, we chose the Ringer, a 20-year-old Haverford student who raced mountain bikes throughout his teens. He’d done Canaan the four previous years, and I suspect he was looking for weak teammates; the slower we rode, the longer he could rest between laps. He was in for a nasty surprise.

Finding the requisite female rider (each five-person team is required to have a woman) was a bit trickier. Girlfriends and wives were out of the question. I secretly rejoiced at the prospect that we’d never find one, but then someone gave me the number of the Happy Amazon, a searingly blond and very athletic ex–Dole staffer from Colorado. She’d done some trail riding and she had legs like a Kentucky Derby winner.

Did she want to ride in a mountain-bike race? “Yeah! COOL! Awesome!” she replied. “I’m so psyched!”

I took that to mean yes.

Although the entry form warns, “This event is not recommended for entry-level racers. We’re not kidding,” that’s what we are. Not counting the Ringer, our team has logged a total of two-and-a-half bike races. Gaston had finished two beginner races, and I’d completed one lap of a two-lap race around a Pennsylvania ski mountain on a scorching August day. I was stung by bees, elbowed by competitors, and cold-cocked by a tree, all on the first lap, so when the trail led right past the base lodge and its ice-cold drinking fountains, I bailed, vowing never to race again.

Noon

The man with the mike is Laird Knight, and his whole year revolves around this moment. It was he who envisioned a bike-racing format like the Twenty-Four Hours of Le Mans auto race. At the first running of Canaan back in 1992, 16 teams showed up (one of which included our Ringer). The next year, 92 competed. Right now, 382 racers representing 382 teams are lined up at the start—all of whom, I’m sure, are better prepared than the Muckrakers.

“On your mark,” says Knight.

“Get set—”

The whole left side of the line takes off running, followed by the boom of the starter’s cannon. In the lead is a tall, skinny blond guy with spiky hair who runs in hilariously jerky strides and who looks an awful lot like one of the bad guys from Schindler’s List. We dub him the Bike Nazi.

As of about 2:30 this morning, it didn’t look as if we’d be racing at all, because the Lawyer and the Amazon hadn’t arrived. They’d gotten lost, I figured, or they’d driven off a mountain road and been captured by hillbillies and sold into slavery. Just as I was falling asleep to this happy thought, they pulled in.

As the racers turn and dash back down through the woods in a huffing, elbowing horde, the Lawyer is about halfway back, looking haggard.

12:09 p.m.

The race starts with a “prologue loop,” a climb up a ski slope followed by a mad descent through the trees back to the base area, just to get everyone nice and tired before they hit the real course, which loops up and over the ski mountain proper.

The leaders have mounted their bikes and charged up the prologue hill. The crowd migrates over to the woods to watch them come back down. A large group forms at the base of a steep drop-off that leads to a slippery, rock-filled mud puddle. They’re thirsty for blood.

On the spectators’ program, Knight has helpfully designated this an official “WOW! Spot,” as in: “Wow, that guy just separated his shoulder!” There are other, unmarked WOW! Spots, I’ll soon learn: Wherever I see someone just standing by the trail and waiting for something, I say to myself, Wow! I’d better hit the brakes.

The leaders seem to float through the trees, flying effortlessly over the rocky terrain. As the pack thickens, with dozens of riders competing for a few feet of single-track trail, things get ugly. Pretty soon a rider goes down in a tangle of limbs and metal, and about four riders immediately plow over him. He gets up and keeps riding. More riders fall, always on the tricky backside of the drop-off. Metal frames crunch against the schist. Out-of-control racers skid toward the spectators, who scurry away. A guy in a yellow jersey lands right in the filthy water, and the onlookers cheer.

This is what happens when human beings no longer need to chase down and kill their dinner. Our excess adrenaline needs an outlet; our bodies require a substantial dose of pain to equalize our plush and comfortable lives. Canaan is less a bike race than a barbaric carnival of a sick and twisted subculture. It makes the Sturgis, S.D., motorcycle rally seem like the annual meeting of the American Bar Association. Those lardass Harley riders couldn’t last 10 minutes on our trails.

This ain’t the towpath on a Sunday afternoon. It has nothing to do with the “mountain biking” that’s marketed as pure yuppie fun in brochures depicting apple-cheeked blondes pedaling gaily through meadows. But neither is this the sport featured in Mountain Dew commercials and MTV “extreme” sports specials, all screaming downhills and crowd-pleasing tricks. “Mountain biking,” the champeen racer Ned Overend told Newsweek recently, “is about pain.”

Canaan is about going back for more: Endure that hourlong thigh burn to get up the mountain, rinse, and repeat. One team is racing on single-speed bikes, calling themselves “The World’s Toughest Milkmen.” Another team has donned wigs and kayaking helmets and bathrobes emblazoned “Team Hugh Jass.” They ride single-speed, fixed-gear messenger bikes that don’t even coast. And then there’s John Stamstad of Cincinnati, who’s racing as a team of one.

Knight wasn’t going to let him, at first. “John, you don’t get it,” Knight says he told him. “This is supposed to be a team event.” So Stamstad registered as a team of four consisting of John R. Stamstad, J. Robert Stamstad, John Robert Stamstad, and J.R. Stamstad. He paid four $108 entry fees.

Down in the EMT shack, the medics are waiting.

1:22 p.m.

Beavis and Butt-head would feel right at home here if they weren’t so lazy. (There is, in fact, a team named after Butt-head’s “Cornholio” character.) There are more goatees at Canaan than at Lollapalooza. A house by the trail has been blasting amped-up tunes all morning; the second round of riders is setting off to “Straight Outta Compton.”

Canaan is a classic baton relay. When Rider A completes his or her lap, he or she rides into the exchange tent at the bottom and hands the baton to an official, who clocks the log-out time (our bike numbers are bar-coded, so when we’re finished we get scanned out like groceries). The official hands the baton to Rider B, who sprints 30 yards to his or her bike, which is waiting in a wooden rack. Then Rider B pedals out of the holding pen and onto the course.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. When Rider A finishes, Rider B had better be there waiting, and not quaffing brews at a WOW! Spot, or his team will lose ground. So Rider B has to know roughly when to expect Rider A. The Muckrakers have devised a simple system: The rider who has just finished must be sure the on-deck rider is awake and prepared. Then we can go hit the WOW! Spots, or the massage tables, or the first-aid center.

Gaston’s on deck; his bike waits in the rack, the bike that makes me sick with envy every time I see it. In the three years we’ve been riding together, Gaston has constantly upped the ante. First he got a nice red Cannondale, when I rode my crummy college Schwinn. Then, at about the time I bought my own Cannondale (blue), he added a front shock absorber, a pricey gizmo that smoothes out the rocks and roots on the trail. I teased him about it for six months, then bought one myself. Next came the clipless pedals, which affix the feet to the pedals the way ski bindings do. I ridiculed him mercilessly and then followed suit.

About 18 months ago, he unveiled the crown jewel of his magnificent obsession. When I pulled up at his door one morning, he emerged with a gleaming silver GT Zaskar, two grand worth of exotic alloys and grease, and a slightly sheepish expression. It was like seeing an old bong-buddy with a syringe dangling from his arm. An innocent pastime had grown into a costly addiction. In retrospect, I should have seen this Canaan thing coming on.

The amount of money one can spend on a bike is almost infinite: There are special hubs, pedals, spokes, and chain-rings to be bought, all at a pretty price. For $54.99, Colorado Cyclist sells a set of titanium wheel skewers that will shave maybe half an ounce off the weight of a bike. Every year, the technology advances further, so that buying a bike is like buying a computer: By the time you’ve unpacked it and loaded the software, it’s obsolete.

I hear a “ping-ping-ping” sound coming from the hub of a woman racer’s bike (a member, it so happens, of the all-female Dirt Bitches team). “That’s a White hub,” says Gaston, who knows these things. White Industries will sell you one for about $200. I wonder if it’s too late to install one on my sorely battered Cannondale. I wonder if anyone would notice if I attached a small electric motor to my rear wheel.

I’ve seen bikes today worth more than the cars that carry them. I’ve seen bikes that probably represent their owners’ major asset. (“Friends don’t let friends ride junk,” A T-shirt vows.) But except for the occasional White hub owner, this isn’t a techno-weenie crowd. These are the acolytes, the purists, the bike-shop mechanics who devote their lives (and their $8.25-an-hour paychecks) to the discipline of cog and chain against Newton’s infallible laws.

Underneath all the high-tech frippery, the bicycle remains the simplest and most elegant of machines, and it depends, in the end, on the lowest of low technology: muscle. An expensive ride alone won’t get you through Canaan. You need muscle, and heart, and above all, obsession. The last may be genetic: My father had it badly enough to ride his Sears three-speed from Alexandria to his downtown office most days back in the early ’70s. Before the Mount Vernon bike trail was built, he rode on the grass. It was one area of his life where he could feel totally self-propelled.

4:38 p.m.

My girlfriend is at the top of the mountain. I’m at the bottom, midway through my first lap, and I’ve heard ugly rumors about what’s going on up there. Something about topless sunbathing, against which I’d harbor no objections if the mountaintop didn’t also happen to be the midpoint of the course. The thought of her baring all, or even some, as Lycra-wrapped goons with thighs like polished walnut trees chug past—it’s too much. I don’t think she’s that kind of girl, but you never really know.

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Gaston passed the baton half an hour ago, and I’m screaming through an abandoned orchard on a narrow, single-track trail. The track loops, dips, and drops away; I fly over mudholes, and trees blur past as though I were a running deer. I’m about to hit the Climb, a brutally long and grinding thousand-foot ascent to the top of the mountain, which I can see: It seems impossibly far away. At the moment, the Muckrakers are hanging on to a solid 78th place among the 100 five-person teams. That won’t do. It’s time for a Gu.

I reach back and fumble in my jersey pocket for a plastic tube, about twice as big as a McDonald’s ketchup pak. According to its label, Gu is “Fast Food for Athletes,” an orange-flavored carbohydrate gel laced with potassium, ginseng, and vitamin E. It’s closer to speed than food. I bite off the end, nearly choking on the tab, and squeeze the viscous contents down my throat. It is, as they say at Hooters, more than a mouthful.

My body shudders, trying to reject the foreign substance, but a couple of swigs of water send it swimming down the old gullet. I think I understand now why women don’t like to swallow.

A few minutes later, the Gu hits like a shot of pure monkey adrenaline. The pain vanishes from my legs. My eyeballs bulge against the lenses of my specs. I don’t just want to pass the guy ahead of me, I want to run him over, even when he turns out to be a she.

Fifteen riders eat my dust. The trail swings out onto the top half of a ski run, steepening into a wall of rocks and dirt. Spectators who’ve ridden the chairlift up look at us as if we’re lazy or something: Why can’t you guys ride a little faster? Riders shift all the way down into their smallest “granny” gears, then dismount and walk their bikes. They haven’t had Gu, and their girlfriends aren’t mountaintop exhibitionists. I stand and stomp the pedals, but when I reach the top, she’s gone.

7:15 p.m.

Back at our mountainside house, I’m drifting off to sleep when Gaston knocks on my door. Something’s wrong. “Can you help me with the Amazon?” he asks.

She’s sitting on the front porch, covered in mud to the chest and sobbing. Her right knee is bulging in places where knees don’t normally bulge. It seems she fell into a deep ditch and smashed her knee on a hidden rock.

“I had it reconstructed last year,” she sobs, as we carry her to the nearest bathtub. “I’m so far out of my league it’s not even funny.”

She did this 10 minutes into the course—and then kept riding for almost another two hours, finishing just four minutes slower than the Lawyer (a scary thought, given that she’s working to elect Bob Dole). The Amazon is one tough Republican. But she’s out. The Muckrakers are down to four.

11:39 p.m.

The race doesn’t stop at nightfall, and because the Amazon is out and Gaston is sleeping, I’m scheduled to get back on the bike somewhere in the neighborhood of right now. Whenever the Lawyer gets back. I’ve rigged 10-watt halogen lights to my handlebars and helmet, each drawing on five very heavy D cells. I look like a West Virginia coal miner.

In the earlier races at Canaan, riders used homemade lighting systems, which were prone to short-outs and battery fizzle. Now we use diving lights, adapted specially for night biking. The biggest systems throw 30 or 40 watts onto the trail, setting the woods ablaze, but some less-endowed riders have simply taped flashlights to their helmets. What they can’t see won’t hurt them, I guess.

Waiting in the exchange tent, I watch the lights winking through the trees, winding down the difficult descent from the top of the mountain. When they hit the open slope on the downhill, most riders just let go of the brakes. In the dark, it seems that much faster.

At the bottom of the hill, on the way into the exchange tent, the course crosses the prologue loop. To avert collisions, and also to give the ESPN cameras an exciting shot, the promoters have erected a makeshift bridge. If you hit the bridge fast enough you can get air. The spectators, many of whom are walking around holding beers, like this.

Suddenly, there’s a commotion. A rider crests the bridge, then swerves viciously to the left, tumbling off the side in a smear of halogen light. The crowd gasps. “Medic!” someone shouts. People are running to the stricken rider, and traffic backs up on the ramp. It’s hard to tell what’s going on, but it must be bad: Several people are bending over the victim, and the EMTs come trotting with a stretcher.

But then the lights are borne aloft, bobbing down into the finish chute. A huge bearded guy in a blue jersey staggers into the tent, holding the broken remnants of his bike in triumph. The front wheel and fork have completely separated from the frame. With his Unabomber hair and bloodshot eyes, he’s more yeti than human. He hands over his baton and logs out. The crowd goes crazy.

1:02 a.m.

Once again, the Slime Pit gets me. Halfway up the Climb, the trail levels out briefly and I work up a head of speed—which hurls me straight into the deepest, widest, greediest mud hole I’ve ever seen. Thirty yards wide and a couple of feet deep in places, there’s no way around the Slime Pit, but I haven’t figured this out yet.

This time, I cut way right, into an area of tall grass that turns out to conceal a kind of primeval peat bog. My front wheel sinks into the muck, which won’t give it back. My feet disappear, then my ankles and calves. The cold mud seeps into my shoes.

All of a sudden, I’m alone, no other riders about. My lights wave crazily over the surrounding woods, picking out the glowing eyes of a baffled deer. Shadowy figures dart from tree to tree, hopped up on moonshine and armed with crossbows. I’ve sure got a purty mouth, I hear some phantom say. It’s time to get the hell out of here. Extricating one leg only drives the other one deeper, but these giant steps eventually deliver me to solid ground. So much mud cakes my bike and shoes that I qualify as a federally protected wetland.

Up until now, the night ride has been weirdly peaceful. The moon shines silvery down on the trail, and a cool breeze has banished the stifling heat of the afternoon. At the bottom of the Climb, I slipped into the procession of tiny lights creeping their way up the mountain. Riders talked softly to each other, murmuring words of encouragement. It’s a relief, almost, not to be able to see the top.

Not long after the Slime Pit, just before the last climb, I notice a rider way up ahead. There’s something strange about him. He’s pumping awkwardly on the pedals, and he’s wearing some sort of robe. As I draw nearer, my spotlight picks out the words “Team Hugh Jass, Harrisonburg Virginia,” and I start to giggle at how apt the name is. Hauling a fixed-gear bike up this hill is like riding my bike in the toughest gear. I find his performance inspiring, in a way: At least I’m not that stupid.

1:19 a.m.

This is where the hell really starts: the top. After climbing for most of 10 miles, the trail plunges to the base in a little over a mile, dropping sickeningly through the trees. Horrifying rocky drop-offs deliver you unto slippery tangles of mud and roots. Lose your line, or lose control, and you go flipping end-over-end through the underbrush. I’ve seen it happen. All conversation ceases, replaced by the screech of melting brake pads and the moans of the wounded.

It’s the descent that separates the hackers from the pros. The Bike Nazi flies past, hopping from rock to rock. The rest of us have to get off and walk, gingerly, down the slope.

I’m worried about Gaston. He hasn’t had much to eat or drink today because of a nervous stomach. It’s as though the reality of what we were about to do finally caught up with him, and his system shut down. Therefore I don’t expect to find him waiting for me, and when I hit the bridge at the bottom and swerve into the exchange tent, Gaston is nowhere to be seen. If he doesn’t show up, we’re done.

Then somebody’s tapping my shoulder: Gaston. I fumble for the baton, hand it to the registrar, who hands it to Gaston. Emitting a low, stoic groan, he totters off into the darkness. I scan my bike out, lean it against a picnic table, and walk back to the tent to cheer Gaston on his prologue loop.

The Muckrakers are looking iffy right now. Iffier, that is. We’re allowed to scratch one rider—the Amazon—but if Gaston doesn’t finish this lap, we’re out. On the plus side, we’ll all get some sleep then. The minus: We may never recover from the humiliation. Therefore: We are not not finishing. Luckily, there’s a big bag of Gu back at the house.

At the bottom of the prologue, the course makes a sharp left turn and dodges into the woods. The curve is getting slippery, which gives it a nice WOW! factor. More than one racer slides into the snow fence, but it takes more than that to impress folks at this hour. In the darkness, I barely recognize Gaston as he sweeps past. He makes the turn and disappears into the thicket.

The mood in the tent is much less festive than it was two hours ago. This is the grimmest shift, from now until sunrise, about four long hours away. The waiting riders shiver in the cold air, staring into the night like extras in a bad zombie movie. The Dirt Bitches could undress in here and none of these mud-splattered wretches would even notice.

Thirsty, I trudge over to the lodge in search of water. The upstairs bar reeks of stale booze and cigarette smoke. Parents and girlfriends stare fish-eyed at the TV, which plays highlights of that night’s Stanley Cup game. Except for the drunk cop at the bar, who’s loudly hitting on the waitress, nobody says anything.

3:45 a.m.

Back at the house, I’m trying unsuccessfully to sleep. Whenever I close my eyes I see trees hurtling toward me in the darkness, deep and muddy ruts grabbing my tires, slimy bogs sucking me under. I might as well be Stamstad, circling and circling the course all night.

I crawl out of bed to make a burrito and hose down my bike for the next lap. The house is quiet and dark.

Gaston’s been gone two hours, the average length of a Muckraker lap, but he didn’t look well when he left. I just hope he hasn’t wandered off the trail. He made me promise to marry his wife should anything happen to him.

9:35 a.m.

The Climb, again. I’m moving between two slower riders when I feel a shoulder in the vicinity of my armpit. It’s John Stamstad, the solo rider, with shaggy blond hair and a heavy stubble over his acne-scarred face. He’s a veteran of these endurance events; he rides the Leadville 100, a supermarathon race in Colorado, and he’s won the Iditabike, a race across Alaska on a dogsled trail.

He doesn’t say anything: not “excuse me,” or “passing,” or anything else. He just jams his way between me and another rider and cranks on up the hill. No wonder he’s riding alone. I try to stay on his wheel for a while, but give up. After 22 hours, he’s still pushing it. At this moment, I’ll later learn, Team Stamstad has just overtaken the Muckrakers for good.

The sun shines brightly on the trail, which is practically paved with Gu wrappers. The mood is bleak. More riders than ever are simply walking their bikes or standing shellshocked by the trail, too wasted even to fix a flat. Unlike during the earlier laps, nobody really feels like talking anymore. I’m sick of pedaling, sick of the mud, sick of my chafing hemorrhoidal itch.

The Muckrakers are down to three: the Lawyer, the Ringer, and me, which is why I’m amped to the gills on a double dose of Gu. A third Gu waits in my jersey pocket, but I’m not sure my stomach can take any more. Because of its aftereffects, I’m no longer welcome in bed with my girlfriend back at the house. But we’re doing pretty well, holding to 65th place with 10 laps—we’ll surely meet my personal goal of not finishing last.

Why are we doing this? Everyone I’ve told about this race assumes it’s for charity: spina bifida, or boarder babies, or AIDS.

Nuh-uh. But neither is this pure self-indulgence. Gaston’s mother-in-law came up with a unique theory, to say the least: she thinks it’s a way for men to experience the supreme agony of childbirth—you know, 24 hours of pushing and pushing. That doesn’t explain why 150 women signed up. On the other hand, Gaston watched his wife endure Twenty-Four Hours of Baby last fall, so maybe there’s something to it.

My own stepmother believes it’s a kind of penance, a way to atone for the sins of a past life, but I disagree—it’s to atone for the sins of this life. As the line of riders pulls up the ski slope, I can imagine us as medieval monks, robes dragging in the dirt as we ascend toward heaven via the pursuit of pain, worshiping the holy trinity of pedal, cog, and chain. In broad daylight, I am having vivid hallucinations. I need to get to a safe, comfortable place.

I bite open the third Gu and suck it down.

10:53 a.m.

A guy in a puke-green jersey walks into the medics’ cabin. It’s hard to tell exactly what’s wrong with him, but the problem is probably located somewhere beneath the electrical tape that’s wrapped securely around his left knee. A medic peels it off to reveal a neat three-inch gash, right below the kneecap. The guy kind of grins.

A line is forming at the door. There’s a guy in a 9:30 T-shirt whose left eye is swollen shut and purple. “I did this on the first lap,” he says. “I’m just getting it checked.” Behind him, a third rider cradles a seriously out-of-joint thumb. The medics have been doing a lot of these pop-ins today, but some riders didn’t even wait to get down. The Ringer stopped once on the trail to yank somebody’s index finger back into place.

There are two beds in the shack, and Gaston occupies one, fluid dripping into his arm from an elevated bag. He’s suffering from dehydration, the avuncular country doctor says. That last lap probably wasn’t such a great idea; he risked his health for—well, for no really good reason.

He’s also starting to go into shock from the ice-cold solution that’s seeping into his body. “My arm’s completely numb,” he complains. The medic dawdles. “Why don’t you switch it for a warm one,” I say. “I think I’ll switch that for a warm one,” he finally says.

They just sent another guy out the door covered with gauze bandages from his eyebrows to his chin. Tall and skinny, he leaned on his girlfriend’s arm for support as he peered dully at the world. Whatever happened to him, I’m glad I wasn’t around to see it.

Noon

The Ringer’s still on course, riding the Muckrakers’ 12th lap. If he makes it back in the next five minutes, we can send another rider out for a 13th, which will greatly boost our standing, but since that extra rider is likely to be me, I pray for the mud gods to slow him down.

It works. The officials close off the exchange tent just as a swarm of riders comes down the chute. The race is over, and here comes the winner, for the $15,000 first prize. He takes off his helmet, and it’s the Bike Nazi, followed by the second-place rider less than a minute later, a tiny margin for a 24-hour race. They shake hands. The third-place finisher, who represents the team that won the race the last three years running, doesn’t shake.

I spot the Ringer waiting in line to check his bike out. If the Happy Amazon hadn’t finished her lap, or if Gaston hadn’t dragged himself out the door in his dehydrated and undernourished state, we’d….we’d…we’d probably all be feeling a lot better, to be honest. I could use a nap. Or another Gu.

Post-race, riders are walking their bikes to and fro, exhausted and aimless. Just the sight of man and machine makes me nauseous, as though I’d sniffed a glass of whiskey on a mean hangover morning. But the upshot is the same; I always recover sufficiently to drink again, and I will likewise be back at Canaan.

Stamstad rolls into the tent to the loudest cheers, having ridden one more lap than all five Muckrakers combined without sleeping at all or eating anything but Gu. “Someone gave me a Snickers bar, which was cool,” he says. Someone should throw water on him to see if he’s really human. The ESPN cameras horn in. “Why did you do it?” the reporter asks.

“Because no one had ever done it before.”

“How do you feel?”

“Well,” he says, “my knee’s kinda sore…”CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Link Nicoll.